Conference realignment has changed the face of college athletics immensely in the last decade. The affects can be felt from the major “BCS” conferences down through the lowest levels of college sports. While the attention focus on the big schools, the greater impacts are felt at the lower levels where the face of entire conferences have changed forever. Here is a quick assessment of our winners and losers in the conference realignment carousel:
Big Ten: Other than trying to figure out why no one at these prestigious universities can count, the Big Ten definitely has helped themselves the most through realignment. The conference boasts the strongest academic profile from top to bottom with some excellent research universities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern. Nebraska helped extend the “footprint” into the Plains states and provide another solid national football program. The addition of Maryland and Rutgers was a great strategic move as it extends the Big Ten footprint into the coveted big markets of the East Coast including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Both are AAU research universities – which means something to the academic and professional stature of the universities. Maryland also brings Under Armour to the conference as the sports brand’s CEO takes good care of his alma mater. Rutgers is loaded with potential too – rich recruiting grounds for almost all sports, two major media markets, and – when they are winning – major publicity. The Big Ten bolstered its brand, maintained its integrity and exclusivity. It is still the place to be amongst conferences.
Pac 12: The Pac-12 was another model conference with its “Noah’s Ark” approach to conference building: every school has a natural rival: USC-UCLA, Cal-Stanford, Arizona-Arizona State, Oregon-Oregon State, and Washington-Washington State. The conference is also a great academic one. The addition of Utah and Colorado got them up to the magic number of 12 for conference championships in football. While the conference championship is a bonus, neither Utah or Colorado provides a very impressive profile that you can say increases their brand value. Adding the Salt Lake and Denver markets are nice, but it will be interesting to see how the schools integrate into the Pac-12 culture. While neither is a liability and Utah has had some success in football and basketball over the last 20 years, the Pac-12 improved itself, but probably not as much as the Big Ten. Unfortunately, the conference does not have a ton of schools to pick from, but amongst the available schools, I think they got the best ones for them – major state schools in upper tier markets – all be it no longer “Pacific.”
ACC: The ACC has always been one of my favorite conferences. But while the ACC was one of the catalysts for realignment, I think the ACC actually is worse off that the other major conferences. While it definitely grew and added some decent schools, I think it also weakened its brand and lost its identity. The pace of change, scattered geography and incongruent profiles have cost the conference that clean image that it enjoyed. Once a conference of excellent state universities with a tremendous brand in not only basketball, but also most other Olympic sports. While football was not seen as the same caliber as the SEC, Big Ten or Pac-12, it was no slouch either with Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Miami and the national championships that they brought. However, the land grab has turned the homogenous ACC into a conference that lost its identity. Tobacco Road is just not that important to the conference any more. The new additions don’t bring too much strength in football and while there is basketball cache in Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame, it will change the nature of ACC basketball. The ACC watered down its brand and will have to hope that the new additions become wildly successful; otherwise, it is only downhill.
SEC: The SEC has enjoyed the distinction of being the top football conference in the last decade. So expansion for them was not as much about football strength as much as its footprint, markets and help for its anemic academic profile. Missouri and Texas A&M were great moved for them from a footprint and market perspective. Missouri would have been Big Ten bound otherwise, but instead brings another big school with the St. Louis and KC markets. Getting Texas A&M was a coupe too – gaining a foothold in Texas and simultaneously pissing off “big brother” Texas. A&M’s success made it look like a brilliant move in 2012. The SEC has the smallest offering of sports of the major conferences, so some of Missouri and A&M’s programs will need to seek out new homes. All in all, it was a good move.
Big East: Well, everyone’s whipping boy may have actually worked out for the best. The weak union that existed in the Big East is no more. The basketball schools retained the brand and were able to return to their basketball roots. They have some work to do to restore some of the intensity, but the Big East will be back in play very soon. With Georgetown and Marquette in the national top 10-15, a core of major market, private schools and some successful additions that complement the conference and bring more credibility. The Big East will rise again and it will be much better than the conference of the last few years.
A Conference to be Named Later: This is a shame. The “leftovers conference” is a time bomb that will eventually self-destruct. There is little synergy, no cohesion, no loyalty and a lack of purpose. There are some good schools left, but the new conference will do nothing to build the brand. It is arguable that the new conference has fallen below the Mountain West in reputation. The best option would be to form alliances with Conference USA and the MWC to work together to battle the BCS conferences by promoting their collective “champion.” They get to play the underdog role, in a sense. But none of the remaining former Big East schools is likely to compete on a national level any time soon. So, there is not much to look forward to here.
Big 12: What seemed like a doomsday scenario not too long ago turned out alright for the Big 12. While they lost Colorado to the Pac-12, Nebraska to the Big Ten, and Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, they managed to keep Oklahoma and Texas as their “anchor tenants.” Adding in West Virginia helped give them another powerful football and basketball program. The addition of TCU also added some more clout – particularly in North Texas. However, the Big 12 still has some work to do. They lost the required 12 schools to hold a conference football championship. The pickings are getting much slimmer, but there are still some decent targets out there.
MWC: The MWC actually came out looking pretty good. Keeping Boise State, San Diego State, Fresno State gives them a solid football base. It also places the MWC at the top Group of 5 conference. A conference that was left for dead leapfrogged over the Big East – for now.