Thursday, July 26, 2012

College Football History 102: Effects of Conference Realignment

This is the second in a series on college football history. Read the first one here.

Conference realignment has been one of the major stories in college football since December 2009, when the Big Ten publicly announced that it was considering expansion. I found the Frank the Tank blog relatively soon after and enjoyed keeping up with things through his perspective, which emphasized the College Presidents’ point of view rather than sports fans. The story seemed to pull in fans and many prominent writers have been overwhelmed by their readers’ interest in the issue.

I think that conference realignment is an interesting topic not just because of the regional groupings of schools, the money at stake or the effect on classic rivalries, but because it is a chance for fantasy sports to move up a level. No longer are fans just picking players, their favorite team’s conference is now picking (or defending) top teams to make or break future power conferences.

Not only do I want to look at who won or lost the most recent realignment, I want to look at the significantly less important question of who won or lost previous realignments!

Southeastern Conference

The SEC started out strong and only got stronger. While some of the performances very early on were enhanced by teams that subsequently left – mostly Georgia Tech but also some Tulane – the conference as a whole stayed strong and recently added several teams with historical strength. Texas A&M brings one championship, albeit one from the 1930s, and Arkansas and Missouri had a strong period in the 60s and the three of them would have added significant value throughout the 60s to 2000.

As I argued a few weeks ago in my CF 101 post, the SEC’s prodigious performance of the past few years was impressive but not historic. Given the collection of teams they have assembled they hit their theoretical peak in the early 60s when they would have collectively pulled in 35% of the value in the AP Poll. If Texas A&M can use their entrance into the league to return to their levels of the mid-90s – they drew 3% of the AP Poll value on their own, an average of roughly 13th in the poll, in that decade – and Missouri can continue their recent run, the SEC could get back to their previous heights.

Verdict: The SEC didn’t lose, but they didn’t exactly win. As Frank has argued repeatedly, this is a move to open up Texas to the recruiting and (especially) viewing footprint of the SEC with Missouri as a nice consolation prize to fill out the conference. In that respect it is an unequivocal win. On the field it remains to be seen whether A&M and Mizzou can measure up to an average SEC team.

Big Ten

The Big Ten (or B1G, as it is now marketed) is, as much as it pains me to admit it since I’m from Ohio, that guy in your fantasy draft who picks washed up players because he remembers their names. Their new additions would have greatly increased their value back in the 70s, 80s and 90s, but it’s not clear that they will from now on.

While Penn State has been a fairly strong team since they joined the conference, the Nittany Lions dropped from 5% at their peak in the 80s en route to two national championships to 2% in the 2000s. Given the sanctions handed down by the NCAA, it looks like Penn State will have problems cracking the top 25 at all. Nebraska looks unlikely to reach the pinnacle of the sport the way they did in the 90s (6.5% - 5th in the poll) based on their performance since (1.5% 2000s, 1% 2010s – Both roughly 21st-22nd), but the Huskers are likely to at least give something to the conference on the field.

Verdict: Like the SEC, the Big Ten didn’t exactly lose. They didn’t open up any major markets (hello Omaha!) but they brought in a team that commands attention every Saturday and creates high profile matchups with Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin (hello TV inventory!).

Big 12

So, this graph is kind of a mess. That is the reason that Dan Beebe got fired and the reason that Texas has a network of their own. Most of the recent poaching of teams, other than what the ACC is doing, has come at the expense of the Big 12.

First (or second), the Pac-12 swooped in and grabbed Colorado (and Utah from the MWC) after being rebuffed in their attempt at a larger raid involving Texas and Oklahoma. Following that (or preceding that), the Big Ten winked at Nebraska and made them the 12th member of that conference.  After a period of relative calm, Texas A&M decided they didn’t like the way Texas was doing business and sought out a berth in the SEC, later bringing Missouri along with them.

When the dust settled, 6 national titles from the conference’s predecessors had walked out and been replaced with West Virginia and TCU. The conference’s share of the AP poll stayed relatively static at the level of the old Big 8. Rather than Oklahoma and Nebraska propping up the league it is Oklahoma and Texas, otherwise the dynamic is very similar. This is a league that will likely punch above its weight due to the two top 10 all-time powers in those two schools – in the 2000s they were numbers 2 and 3 overall – but is not likely to challenge the top-to-bottom powerhouse of the SEC.

 Verdict: I’m inclined to say the Big 12 is a winner simply because they still exist. There was a significant period in which it appeared Texas would take their ball and go… somewhere. The rest of the conference would have been in serious trouble. West Virginia and TCU may not be Nebraska, Colorado, A&M and Missouri, but they’ve actually been stronger than any of those four since 2000.

Pac-12 (or -10, or -8)

The Pac-12 rose from the ashes of the earlier Pacific Coast Conference, felled by scandal in the late 1950s. Most of the teams immediately re-formed into what became the Pac-8 with Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State trickling in a few years behind the core five of Washington, USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal.

The track record of expansion from that base shows some of the same tendencies as the Big Ten. After Arizona State put in a strong showing in the 1970s, they joined with Arizona to make it the Pac-10 in 1978. As the graph shows, the conference’s contemporary performance stayed steady through the 80s. New additions Colorado and Utah also put up strong numbers that would have boosted the conference in the 90s and 2000s, respectively, but have dropped off in the last couple years.

Looking at the titles won by the conference, it is clear that the Pac-12 rises and falls with USC. Until one of the other teams in the conference catches fire the Pac-12 will have trouble cracking their ceiling of 15% poll share and getting up to the 25-30% range with the SEC or even the 20% range of the Big Ten and Big 12.

Verdict: The Pac-12 increased their ceiling with Utah and Colorado, two good programs in fast-growing states, but they didn’t exactly bring on powerhouse brand names. This is a push on the field that has ancillary benefits: staging a championship game, staking out adjacent ground on the only side they can (expanding west would be tricky).

Atlantic Coast Conference


The ACC is looking for a return to glory from their two biggest acquisitions. Florida State came through in the 1990s and single-handedly carried the conference with an astonishing 9% average of the AP Poll points, akin to averaging 3rd through the whole decade. Unfortunately for the conference Miami has fallen on hard times since they were brought in to challenge FSU. The Hurricanes averaged 5% of the AP Poll in the 1990s and 2000s after pulling 7% in the 1980s. So far in the 2010s, however, the ‘Canes have not been ranked.

The ACC as a whole is clearly underperforming relative to the collective strength of its component parts. If this group had been together in the 80s and 90s, they would have been competing with the SEC and Big Ten (all three reconstructed with the current lineups) for top conference. As it is, their current lineup has polled at 4% of the AP Poll in 2010-11, leaving them behind the random bunch of teams headed to the Big East over the next couple years.

Verdict: Win win win. If you believe that the teams they brought on can reach anything near their recent highs they will make the ACC a full peer of the other big four conferences. If Miami and FSU can peak in the same period they will be every bit as dominant as the Big 12 with Texas and Oklahoma in the recent past, but they will have a better supporting cast.

Big East

What better lead-in than that to talk about the island of misfit teams – the Big East. This is a league that will soon include Boise State and San Diego State – two teams that were previously members of the Big West. The conference was thrown together in the early 1990s out of the best remaining independents following Penn State’s move to the Big Ten and Florida State’s move to the ACC and used as a stepping stone to the ACC for most of the original membership.

The current lineup (dotted line) bears almost no resemblance to the contemporary lineup (solid line). Of the teams currently committed to the Big East, only Rutgers and Temple were in the league at its inception with Temple taking an eight year hiatus due to general not-good-at-football-ness and UConn joining late for football. Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida are the only others to join before the current, blowout, round of expansion that will bring Boise State, Houston, Memphis, Navy, San Diego State, Southern Methodist, Temple and the University of Central Florida. Fully six of the “new” Big East teams were formerly members of Conference USA – two of them were brought to that conference to replace two who left for the Big East in 2005! Basically this league is a mess held together with Elmer’s Glue and yarn.

For a perspective on how far that glue and yarn has to stretch, the area formed by the rectangle linking San Diego State, Boise State, UConn and South Florida is 2.1 million square miles. The area of the 48 contiguous United States is 3.1 million square miles. The Big East covers more than 2/3 of the area of those 48 states – just think of the television revenue if they can get everyone to tune in!

Verdict: They still exist, so that’s something, right? Sorry Big East, you gave all your best teams to the ACC and plucked the current hot teams to fill the gap. The conference may survive, but there’s no Miami as an independent right now to jump in and dominate college football.


Independents used to be a big thing. At their absolute peak in the late 80s, independents won four straight titles with three different teams. As more of a loose affiliation than any real conference, however, they were bound to be hit hard by conference expansion.

In the early-90s wave of conference realignment several top teams bolted with Penn State joining the Big Ten, Florida State joining the ACC and almost all the other teams of note joining the Big East. The scraps from this realignment found their way to Conference USA and eventually, ironically, moved on up to form the core of the Big East after that conference was raided by the ACC.

By the time the latest realignment came around there weren’t really any independents worthy of poaching. In an odd twist, the “conference” actually picked up a decent team when BYU decided not to trade up to the Big 12 but to go from the Mountain West to independence and capitalize on their national brand.

I would be remiss to move on without discussing that most classic of independents: Notre Dame. Consider them discussed.

Verdict: Understanding that they’re not really a conference, the independents gained big by picking up BYU. The Cougars may not be a national championship contender anytime soon, but they are likely to be a perennial top-25 team.


(No titles)

“Other” includes a number of conferences such as the WAC, MWC, Southern, Conference USA, Ivy League, Border, Mountain States and even more. The peak in the 40s came largely from World War II training facilities that fielded college-level teams during the war. The peak in the last several years is driven by TCU, Utah and Boise State. This is unlikely to continue.

Verdict: In conference realignment, as in many areas of life, bad things tend to roll downhill. Those teams that demonstrated enough performance in the recent past have been gobbled up by major conferences (TCU, Utah, Boise State, Houston, UCF) or gone independent (BYU). Of all the “other” teams that finished in the top 25 during the 2000s, none polled higher than 0.4% - an average of 24th for the decade.

Update to Curriculum

After going with an area graph of conference performance over time in the last post that was, charitably, difficult to follow, I decided to put together some better representations of conference performance. Here are two charts that show conference performance by decade based on either current or contemporary membership.

The story is the same here as in the earlier post and above in this one; it just looks better now.

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