Conference Realignment: EXPANSIONAPALOOZA 2011 And The Balance Of Power

MORGANTOWN, WV - SEPTEMBER 24: A general view of Mountaineer Field is seen during first half play between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Louisiana State University Tigers during the game on September 24, 2011 at Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

TCU to the Big 12? Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC? Everybody to the Mountain USA? What has the recent realignment drama done to the actual balance of power on the college football field?

When we talk about conference realignment, we often get sidetracked talking about money, markets, television sets and, on rare occasion, academics. If Rutgers is ever a draw to the Big Ten, it's because of "the New York market," not anything Greg Schiano has (or hasn't) accomplished. Missouri is a draw for the SEC as much (or more) because of Kansas City and St. Louis than their general Top 25 level of play on the field. West Virginia would be strong in many ways for the SEC, but that West Virginia market?

Yawn. As we continue to follow the latest on what unnamed sources are saying and catty university presidents are doing behind closed board room doors, let's take a look at the impact recent goings-on will have on the football field itself. Novel concept, eh?

Below, we're going to use an estimated five-year F/+ ratings average to measure the strength of given schools and conferences. It is a measure of teams' performance from the beginning of 2007 to the midway point of 2011. I posted the full list at Football Study Hall so you can play along at home. To get our bearings, let's take a look at the balance of power as it pertains to 2011 and the current conference alignment.

Conference Teams Est. 5YR F/+
SEC 12 +10.8%
Big Ten 12 +6.0%
ACC 12 +5.9%
Big 12 10 +5.7%
Big East 8 +5.4%
Pac-12 12 +5.0%
Independents 4 +0.3%
Mountain West 8 -3.5%
Conference USA 12 -7.2%
WAC 8 -10.1%
MAC 13 -10.3%
Sun Belt 9 -12.1%

As one would expect, the SEC leads the way. Using a mean results in both the Big 12's and Pac-12's averages suffering because of their bottom half and the Big East's averages getting propped up by the fact that they have no bottom half -- just a big, mushy middle. Really, SEC aside, the power throughout the rest of BCS country is pretty well-distributed.

Within the conferences themselves, however, there is still an interesting distribution of haves and have-nots.

Conference (Division) Teams Est. 5YR F/+
SEC (West) 6 +13.1%
SEC (East) 6 +8.6%
Big Ten (Leaders) 6 +7.7%
ACC (Coastal) 6 +6.3%
ACC (Atlantic) 6 +5.6%
Pac-12 (South) 6 +5.3%
Pac-12 (North) 6 +4.7%
Big Ten (Legends) 6 +4.3%
Conference USA (East) 6 -6.7%
Conference USA (West) 6 -7.6%
MAC (West) 7 -9.2%
MAC (East) 6 -11.5%

Right now, the SEC West is just ridiculous, but the East is still stronger, top to bottom, than any other conference or division. Meanwhile, the Big Ten Leaders division (the one with Ohio State and Wisconsin) is rather rugged itself, with three teams in the five-year Top 13.

So that's where we currently stand. Now let's take a look at what is about to happen.

What Has Happened, And What's Probably About To Happen?

So far, we know the following things are going to happen at different points in the near future:

1. Texas A&M is moving to the SEC.

2. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are moving to the ACC.

3. TCU is moving to the Big 12.

4. The Conference USA and Mountain West are joining forces to form a coast-to-coast, football-only conference. For the purposes below, we are going to call it the Mountain USA conference.

We also think we know a couple more things are about to happen:

5. Missouri is close to applying for SEC membership.

6. The Big East is evidently close to inviting Boise State, Air Force, SMU, Houston, Navy and Central Florida.

The last two items are obviously not guaranteed, but they are far enough up the rumor food chain that we are going to treat them as reality for the time being.

So now what has happened to college football's balance of power? For the purposes below, we are going to 1) assume that Missouri does indeed end up in the SEC East as rumored, 2) call the CUSA-MWC merger the "Mountain USA" and 3) assume that the Big East will be broken into a West Division (Boise State, Cincinnati, Houston, Air Force, Louisville, SMU) and an East Division (West Virginia, South Florida, UConn, Rutgers, UCF and Navy). Because what's more fun than the thought of a Big East West?

Conference Teams Est. 5YR F/+
SEC 14 +10.4%
Big 12 9 +6.6%
Big Ten 12 +6.0%
ACC 14 +5.3%
Pac-12 12 +5.0%
Big East 12 +4.9%
Independents 3 +0.3%
Mountain USA 17 -9.4%
MAC 13 -10.3%
Sun Belt 9 -12.1%
WAC 5 -14.6%

Virtually anybody the SEC could add is going to hurt their overall numbers, but the addition of Missouri (+11.2% F/+ rating over the last five years, 23rd overall) offsets the addition of Texas A&M (+4.3%, 44th) to a degree. (Remember: A&M had been quite mediocre for a while before the second half of last season.) Of the normal list of SEC expansion candidates, only the addition of West Virginia (or, technically, Clemson) could prop up the SEC's averages better than the addition of Missouri.

So losing A&M and Missouri and replacing them with a Top 10 program in TCU boosts the Big 12's overall numbers, and the addition of the Syracuse anchor bumps the ACC down a bit.

Not surprisingly, the Big East's numbers fall simply because Boise State (fourth) cannot offset the poor (for BCS programs) numbers of SMU (75th), Air Force (61st) and Navy (59th). Still, we've still got something of a cluster after the SEC.

And with the worst Conference USA (No. 117 Memphis, No. 114 Tulane) and Mountain West (No. 113 UNLV, No. 111 New Mexico) programs dragging the "Mountain USA" down, their numbers are pretty awful. The four best programs in the new Mountain West: No. 54 Southern Miss, No. 56 Tulsa, No. 62 Nevada and No. 71 Hawaii. Even with Boise State, Houston and company, this is not a BCS conference.

What Might Happen Next?

If Missouri heads to the SEC, then we know the Big 12 is not done. That conference's actions highlight what might happen next with conference realignment. The below steps are complete "What if" guesses. They are not predictions, but they are scenarios that have been reported, rumored and speculated.

1. The Big 12 adds BYU, Louisville and West Virginia. There is a good chance that the conference stops at 10 teams. (At last glance, that was, after all, what Texas wanted.) And rumors continue to oscillate regarding whether BYU is viable, or whether the conference looks at either UL or WVU with Bid No. 10. For these purposes, we'll just say they all go and recreate the Big 12 North (No. 12 West Virginia, No. 39 BYU, No. 64 Louisville, No. 69 Kansas State, No. 74 Kansas and No. 95 Iowa State) while the Big 12 South (No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 8 TCU, No. 14 Texas, No. 15 Oklahoma State, No. 38 Texas Tech, No. 68 Baylor) becomes the toughest division in college football.

2. The ACC adds Connecticut and a freaked-out Notre Dame. This is, of course, even less likely than the Big 12 going to 12 teams again, but here's where I break out the words "thought exercise" again. This move would, among other things, allow the ACC to move to actual, geographically sensible, and competitively even, divisions: the North (Boston College, Connecticut, Maryland, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech) and the South (Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest).

3. To fill in the gaps, the Big East sucks it up and grabs Memphis, East Carolina and (for the purposes of eliminating independence altogether) Army. They have now replaced No. 12 West Virginia with No. 108 Army and No. 117 Memphis. Meanwhile, the Mountain USA adds Utah State simply to get to an even 16 teams.

Conference Teams Est. 5YR F/+
SEC 14 +10.4%
Big 12 12 +6.7%
Big Ten 12 +6.0%
ACC 16 +5.5%
Pac-12 12 +5.0%
Big East 12 +0.5%
Mountain USA 16 -9.5%
MAC 13 -10.3%
Sun Belt 9 -12.1%
WAC 4 -15.4%

One can see why the Big East has been hoping against hope that Missouri will stay put in the Big 12. With the moves they are expected to make this week, they are actually a semi-viable football conference. If Missouri leaves and the Big 12 adds BYU, then the Big East lives on. But if the Big 12 manages to poach West Virginia, then the Big East's averages plummet. These moves basically result in the Big East becoming the Mountain West and the Mountain West becoming Conference USA.

Conference (Division) Teams Est. 5YR F/+
Big 12 (South) 6 +12.9%
SEC (West) 7 +11.8%
SEC (East) 7 +8.9%
Big Ten (Leaders) 6 +7.7%
ACC (South) 8 +5.8%
Pac-12 (South) 6 +5.3%
ACC (North) 8 +5.1%
Pac-12 (North) 6 +4.7%
Big Ten (Legends) 6 +4.3%
Big East (West) 6 +1.7%
Big 12 (North) 6 +0.6%
Big East (East) 6 -0.6%
Mountain USA (West) 8 -8.9%
MAC (West) 7 -9.2%
Mountain USA (East) 8 -10.0%
MAC (East) 6 -11.5%
Sun Belt 9 -12.1%
WAC 4 -15.4%

The Big 12 is now a combination of, basically, the SEC West and the Big East West, which is fun and not altogether unfamiliar. Meanwhile, Missouri going to the SEC East bumps up that division a bit, the ACC is evenly split.

In terms of five-year averages, the major remaining players here are easy to spot: No. 4 Boise State, No. 12 West Virginia and until it's official, No. 23 Missouri. Virtually all of the other potential moves would either be of the water-treading or sacrificing-quality-for-stability varieties. In the end, it is indeed all about money and markets, but those of us who enjoy watching high-quality matchups also have plenty of reason to be interested in the current goings-on, even if they result in conference "rivalries" like Missouri-Georgia, Boise State-South Florida and, of course, Marshall-New Mexico.

The Morning Tailgate runs weekdays. Catch up on the archives.

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