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The Beginner's Guide To Conference Realignment: Board Games Explain Everything

Need a refresher on the latest round of college conference realignment as we enter the 2012 football offseason? You're in luck!

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There was a time when conferences were born simply out of geography and necessity. Travel was relatively difficult, and you needed teams to play. So Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma formed a conference, as did most of the teams on the West Coast. In 1938, here is how major college football conferences took shape:

Major Conferences

  • Big 6: Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma
  • Pacific Coast Conference: California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State
  • Southeastern Conference: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Sewanee, Tennessee, Tulane, Vanderbilt
  • Southern Conference: The Citadel, Clemson, Davidson, Duke, Furman, Maryland, North Carolina, N.C. State, Richmond, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, VMI, Wake Forest, Washington & Lee, William & Mary
  • Southwest Conference: Arkansas, Baylor, Rice, SMU TCU, Texas, Texas A&M
  • Western Conference: Chicago, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin
  • (Major independent programs included Army, Boston College, Carnegie Mellon, Fordham, Georgetown, Holy Cross, Miami, Michigan State, Navy, NYU, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt, St. Mary's, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Syracuse, Temple, Villanova, Virginia and West Virginia.)

Mid-Major Conferences

  • Border Conference: Arizona, Arizona State, New Mexico, New Mexico State, Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, UTEP
  • Missouri Valley: Creighton, Drake, Oklahoma State, Saint Louis, Tulsa, Washburn, Washington (MO)
  • Mountain States: BYU, Colorado, Colorado State, Denver, Utah, Utah State, Wyoming

Previously in the College Football Beginner's Guide series

Power and money certainly had a part to play, of course, even 70 years ago. Sewanee and Chicago were not long for the world of major conference football, nor were quality independents like Fordham and St. Mary's. And half of the Southern Conference was already playing something far from a big-time version of the sport. The Southwest Conference would eventually pull in Texas Tech, and the Big 6 would become the Big 8 after adding Colorado and Oklahoma State. The Pac-8 would eventually become the Pac-10 by adding the Arizona schools not named Northern Arizona (sorry, Lumberjacks). But general geographic ties held; and they held long enough that, for fans over a certain age, a fraying of geography in their conference ties is still rather unfathomable. (Of course, it doesn't take a stodgy old person to find his or her mind blown by San Diego State getting ready to move to a conference called the "Big East.")

Now? Major college athletics (i.e. major college football) has shifted from a geography course to your patented game of Risk (or some other board game), where everything boils down to power, resources and ambition. While history and geography still matter in some areas (Oklahoma is, after all, still a conference mate of the Kansas schools instead of the Washington schools), television contracts and network footprints now matter just as much.

The last 25 months have seen an incredible number of moves, rumored moves, and incredible developments outside of simple conference rosters. College football was already big business; now it's really big business. It isn't hard to see this as a bad thing (needless to say, the arguments for further compensating college athletes has seen the volume go up), but as a fan, it can certainly be enjoyable as well.

Back in August, I expressed skepticism about the perceived "end game" of four 16-team conferences that people have been discussing for a long time, and I will remain skeptical as long as the Big East maintains at least a few major(ish) programs. But whatever the end game, the goal right now is consolidation of power, in one way or another.

Let's take a 20,000-foot view of FBS conferences and, for assistance, what game each is currently playing.


Added: Missouri (2013), Texas A&M (2013).

Lost: Nobody.

Fun Rumors: Might eventually move to 16 teams, but the options are limited as long as the "gentleman's agreement" not to pull in teams from states already in the footprint supposedly exists. Then again, Oklahoma president David Boren could get his feelings hurt again any moment now.

The SEC stayed quiet throughout much of the initial realignment drama, and why not? They have the money, the crystal footballs, the recruiting base, etc. Aside from the filtering out of Sewanee, Tulane and Georgia Tech, they had made one move in the last 70 years (adding Arkansas and South Carolina two decades ago), and it changed college football. No need to change it again when you already have so much control.

Then again, they decided, they could use a few more television sets, too. So they tapped into two states bordering them: Texas (A&M) and Missouri. It was a nice, tidy move -- their academic reputation has now improved a hair, and their athletic reputation certainly won't get hurt, even if it didn't make things infinitely stronger. Now, they are dealing with some interesting scheduling issues; they must decide between keeping their eight-game conference schedule and maintaining their four-game non-conference slates (and either risking the continuity of permanent inter-division rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee or accepting that some teams will play their "conference mates" twice every 12 years) or making their schedules even rougher by adding a ninth conference game. Still, those are micro details. On a macro level, they still control half the Risk board.

Board Game Equivalent: Risk. Controls all of Asia and Europe. May decide to take over Africa at some point, just because.


Added: Colorado (2011), Utah (2011).

Lost: Nobody.

Fun Rumors: Almost pulled Oklahoma and Oklahoma State into the mix but decided against also pulling in Texas (and Texas Tech). About 90 percent of realignment's fun rumors have come from the west.

While the public became aware of potential realignment chaos when the Big Ten suggested it would be looking to expand in December 2009, the game really began in March 2009, when the Pac-10 hired Larry Scott as its commissioner. Scott had been aggressive and impressive in his nearly three years in charge. In spring 2010, he pursued, and almost landed, six Big 12 teams. In the summer, he did reel in Colorado and Utah and moved the conference to 12 teams. This past fall, he almost raided the Big 12 again, but when it became clear that Texas was going to ride out its Longhorn Network for the foreseeable future, the conference passed on adding just Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

It appears that, without Texas involved, the Pac-12 might be holding steady at 12 teams for a while, but that has not stopped the conference from figuring out other ways to expand. Over the summer, they announced the creation of a Pac-12 Network, complete with regional channels and agreements with both Fox and ESPN. In December, they announced both an inter-conference coalition with the Big Ten and the intention to get a foothold in China. China! Whereas geography has at least somewhat limited the conference's roster expansion options, it continues to be the most creative in terms of brand expansion. Meanwhile, the influx of Pac-12 Network money seems to have made its member institutions more aggressive with its football hires (Washington State landed Mike Leach, Arizona landed Rich Rodriguez). Now if they could just figure out how not to keep falling behind the Mountain West in basketball...

Board Game Equivalent: Go. Slowly moving to surround everybody else's stones while others are just moving rocks around. (This game's Chinese roots likely appeal to commissioner Scott.)

Big Ten

Added: Nebraska (2011).

Lost: Nobody.

Fun Rumors: Not many. It was initially assumed that the conference would move to 14 or 16 teams for purposes of expanding the Big Ten Network's footprint, but it appears that might not be in the cards unless a heavyweight like Notre Dame or Texas is involved, at least not in the near future.

As with batting in baseball, being a good conference commissioner requires you to be able to take pitches. You have to be able to both lay off decent pitches ("We could add Rutgers and Missouri and add tons of subscribers to the footprint!") and be ready to swing when a perfectly hittable pitch comes your way ("Tom Osborne is calling and saying that he has to commit Nebraska to the Big 12 unless you guys want him right now."). For a conference that is both innovative (Big Ten Network) and stuck in the Roman Empire (Big Ten offenses), commish Jim Delany has shown he's a master.

He could be accused of being a little too patient sometimes, but when he makes a move, it is a solid one. Under his watch, the Big Ten has not only kick-started the "conferences starting their own network" game, but he also stole a historically strong, Midwestern program to add to his historically strong, Midwestern conference. Landing the 2011 version of Nebraska may not have been a home run, but it was a solid, RBI double.

Moving into the future, the Big Ten seems content with 12 teams, especially considering how they are joining forces with their new (and old) partners out west to assure big-time, TV-friendly matchups, in big-time, TV-friendly locales, in just about every sport. The Big Ten-Pac-12 partnership was a sign that neither conference is going to expand its roster just for expansion's sake. (This, of course, gives further proof to the "four 16-team conferences are not likely to happen" theory.) College football's talent base seems to have shifted to the south, but the Big Ten has still positioned itself quite well.

Board Game Equivalent: Gladiator. The rules are simple, and it's really not that exciting, but if it was good enough for the Roman Empire, it's good enough for the Roman Empire of college football conferences. And you probably want to play it with them, too, even if you think it's boring.


Added: Pittsburgh (2014), Syracuse (2014).

Lost: Nobody.

Fun Rumors: None. At some point, they'll probably add two more Big East teams just because they can.

The ACC's current status is a nice reminder that history, culture and geography still have a place in college sports. In terms of on-field quality, it has been easy to lump the ACC and Big East together for a while now. Neither have produced many national title contenders recently. But the ACC has a level of history and cultural ties that the Big East does not, as we are reminded every decade or so when the conference picks off some Big East heavyweights. A decade ago, it was Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College changing sides. This past fall, it was Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

If the SEC's "gentleman's agreement" is truly a thing, then the ACC, with its new, relatively lucrative television contract, is much more safe and well-positioned in this new environment than we may have initially believed. Even if its general expansion approach is to randomly pound the Big East, it's working. If the SEC were to ever go after a Clemson or a Florida State, the conference would still survive, even if the next ESPN contract were not quite as impressive.


Big 12

Added: TCU (2012), West Virginia (anytime in the next three years).

Lost: Colorado (2011), Nebraska (2011), Missouri (2012), Texas A&M (2012).

Fun Rumors: Everyone assumes the conference will expand to 12 teams at some point, either going after BYU (on whom they have passed multiple times now) or Air Force to the west, or Cincinnati and Louisville to the east. (Technically, SMU or Houston could play a role, too.)

On the field in 2011, the Big 12 was a conference full of glorious plot twists and excitement. It was very, very well represented in the season's Top 100 Games list. Off the field ... the Big 12 was a conference full of glorious plot twists and excitement. The creation of Texas' Longhorn Network over the past year furthered a "Texas versus everyone else" rift that had existed and grown since the inception of the Big 12 more than 15 years ago. Texas has money, power and no problem using either when the opportunity presents itself. In a stable environment, where no other conferences are looking to expand, that is perfectly fine. But if others have a place to go, they are much more likely to leave when they live in a conference that is perceived to favor certain schools over others.

When push came to shove, Nebraska decided that life in the Big Ten might be more pleasurable than life in the overly dramatic Big 12. And Colorado fled to the Pac-12. And this year, when it was suggested that the Longhorn Network might try to broadcast the games of Texas recruits, Texas A&M called up the SEC to forge a new bond. Then Missouri did the same. Meanwhile, Oklahoma was all but ready to leave for the Pac-12. On two separate instances in the past two years, it looked as if the Big 12 was not long for this world.

We learned a key lesson in October and November, however: no matter how untenable some in your conference may find life to be, there is hope for you as long as life in some other conference is worse. Despite losing a full third of its original roster, the Big 12 was easily able to pick off both TCU, which had agreed to join the Big East in 2012, and a geographically implausible (and desperate to leave) West Virginia program, which had been a member of the Big East since the conference's inception. Meanwhile, Louisville fans actively expressed disappointment in the fact that they weren't selected to join a conference others were dying to flee. There is a clear hierarchy in college sports, and evidently life will continue for the Big 12 as long as a) Texas doesn't decide to go independent and b) the Big East is still alive for the picking.

Board Game Equivalent: Slap Bet. When everybody else spins the wheel, they get to slap the Big 12. When the Big 12 spins the wheel, they get to slap the Big East. And so forth.

Big East

Added: TCU (2012), Boise State (2013 -- football only), Central Florida (2013), Houston (2013), San Diego State (2013 -- football only), SMU (2013).

Lost: TCU (2012), Pittsburgh (2014), Syracuse (2014), West Virginia (undetermined).

Fun Rumors: Air Force and Navy were also rumored additions at one point before saying no (for now), and lord knows East Carolina would jump if given the opportunity.

The Big East certainly doesn't lack ambition. They just seem to lack either tactical ability or follow-through. When the Big 12 was once again on death's door, and the ACC had just signed a lucrative new set of television contracts, it actually looked like the Big East was well-positioned. There was optimism regarding their upcoming contract, and they were reasonably confident that they may soon be adding Big 12 teams like Kansas and Kansas State once that conference officially fell apart. They stalled on agreeing to a new contract, presumably to see who else may be coming aboard.

But the Big 12 didn't fall apart. And then the ACC took Pitt and Syracuse. And the Big 12 itself took TCU and West Virginia. Like the Big Ten, the Big East was waiting for the right pitch to hit. And it struck out looking. So the conference did the only thing it could: bring in mass quantities of football programs that might be really good at some point (or in Boise State's case, has been good for a while). It now has football outposts in Orlando, Dallas, Houston and San Diego, and it has a program, in Boise State, that would have won the Big East for much of the last half-decade. There is debate as to whether this is still a BCS conference, but since automatic qualification to BCS bowls may not be long for this world, that is not much of a concern. The Big East may now be east of only China, but it still exists. And it is still a better conference than any below it.

Board Game Equivalent: Uno. Draw Four is a good card, right?

Mountain West and Conference USA

Added: Mountain West -- Boise State (2011), Fresno State (2012), Hawaii (2012), Nevada (2012).

Lost: Mountain West -- BYU (2011), Utah (2011), TCU (2012), Boise State (2013), San Diego State (2013). Conference USA -- Central Florida (2013), Houston (2013), SMU (2013).

Fun Rumors: MERGER!

The poor Mountain West, like the Big East, thought it was on to something. It picked the WAC clean a year ago, reeling in not only Boise State but (eventually) three of its other top programs as well. Suddenly it was looking at a roster that included two legitimate Top 10 programs (Boise State and TCU), a team that had won two BCS bowls in the last decade (Utah) and BYU. But Utah and TCU left, and BYU went independent. And Boise State, once again at the head of a weak overall conference, fled for the Big East (with San Diego State) when given the opportunity. So when the Big East picked off some Conference USA programs as well, the two mid-majors began to discuss a merger.

At first glance, a merger between these two conferences -- one that would bring Hawaii and East Carolina into the same tent -- seems a bit ridiculous. But a) you will do what you have to do for both survival and a decent television contract, and b) with divisional play, this might not be as ridiculous as we think.

  • Potential "Mountain USA" West: Air Force, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, UNLV, UTEP, Wyoming
  • Potential "Mountain USA" East: East Carolina, Marshall, Memphis, Rice, Southern Miss, Tulane, Tulsa, UAB

Granted, current combined membership of 17 teams is an awkward number (Utah State would probably be up for a move if given the opportunity), but considering Hawaii and East Carolina (or Fresno State and Marshall) would not be playing each other very often, this is not as much of a geographical nightmare as one would think. The divisions could basically exist as separate entities, meeting only to play a conference title game.

Board Game Equivalent: Not a board game, but you remember in P.E. in elementary school, when about 100 kids held onto the parachute and had to work together to get it to do something, and the result was still entirely mediocre and less than fulfilling? And some kids brought absolutely nothing to the table? And someone was bound to get stepped on or hurt? Yeah, that.


Added: Massachusetts (2012).

Lost: None.

Do you enjoy sensible geography and relative parity? Then the MAC is the place for you! Granted, the addition of Temple was a bit geographically odd, as is the upcoming addition of UMass. But in today's college landscape, this isn't bad. Nobody's looking to seize control of a MAC program, and there is relative stasis.

Board Game Equivalent: Parcheesi. Sitting in a Safe Space and perfectly content to hang out there for eternity.

Sun Belt

Added: South Alabama (2012).

Lost: None.

As with the MAC, nobody is really looking to steal any Sun Belt properties, so they are free to go about their lives in relative peace, fielding a sensible, if lacking in major quality, roster. (Unless, of course, Arkansas State indeed becomes the South's Boise State, as Gus Malzahn has stated approximately 19,386 times in the last month.) They are expanding to include South Alabama this coming fall (USA will be a "provisional" member in 2012 and a full-time member in 2013), and there are certainly others they could attempt to promote from FCS.

Board Game Equivalent: Candy Land. Stuck on Gooey Gumdrops.


Added: Texas State (2012), UT-San Antonio (2012). (Also added Boise State, Denver, Seattle and UT-Arlington as non-football schools.)

Lost: Boise State (2011), Fresno State (2012), Hawaii (2012), Nevada (2012).

Free Louisiana Tech!

Board Game Equivalent: Monopoly. Just landed on St. Charles Place, which happens to house the Mountain West's only hotel. On the next turn, rolls a six, landed on Community Chest, and draws "Doctor's Fees -- Pay $50."