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The landscape of college football changed on July 1.
By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
With conference realignment becoming official on July 1, the landscape of college football has changed. Athlon takes a look at the winners, losers and the incomplete grades from the historic college football expansion.
Baylor – The Bears are now on a more even playing field with the likes of Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State. In the past, Baylor had to play the powers from the old Big 12 South every season, while the teams from the North rarely had to face Oklahoma and Texas in the same season. Now, every team in the league will play all the other teams every season. The Big 12’s new television contract also means more money is headed to Waco.
Big 12 – The Big 12 makes this list in a couple of different ways, but a lot of credit is due to commissioner Dan Beebe. Larry Scott had visions of turning the Pac-10 into the Pac-16, and Texas and Oklahoma were at the top his list. Beebe lost Nebraska and Colorado, but didn’t see his conference crumble. No doubt the Big 12 took a hit, but avoiding extinction and staying among the top three conferences in college football are enough to earn a spot among the winners.
Big East – When the Big Ten announced it would expand, a couple of Big East teams were rumored to be targets. However, the Big East managed to make it through unscathed, and added emerging power TCU from the Mountain West. Was this just the first step? The Big East already has 17 schools in basketball, so it’s likely any future invites need to be football-only members. UCF, Houston and East Carolina are targets from Conference USA, along with Villanova (FCS), Army and Navy. Getting TCU was a good move, but there’s a lot of wait and see for the Big East’s next move. Keeping the conference intact was a victory, but the league still needs to upgrade the quality of its product.
Big Ten – Ohio State’s issues have drained some of the enthusiasm about the new 12-team Big Ten, but adding Nebraska was a great long-term move for the conference. The Cornhuskers are one of college football’s marquee programs and give the Big Ten another annual contender for a spot among the top 15-20 teams in preseason polls. Although playing a title game makes the road to a national title a little more difficult, if Nebraska continues rise under Bo Pelini, the Big Ten should be ranked No. 2 behind the SEC in overall conference strength. The initial desired targets of expansion may have been Texas and/or Notre Dame, but landing Nebraska was a home run for commissioner Jim Delany.
Colorado – The Buffaloes were never a terrible fit in the Big 12, but they always seemed to resemble more of a Pac-10 school. Academics and culture have been noted as two areas in which Colorado is a better fit for the Pac-12. Colorado also has a large alumni base on the West Coast and does most of its recruiting in California. Playing in the Pac-12’s South Division means a trip every year to Los Angeles to play either UCLA or USC, which certainly can’t hurt Colorado’s desire to tap into this state even more in recruiting. With some financial issues, a first-year coach and a rebuilding roster, it may be a couple of seasons before anyone gets an idea of how much this move helps the Buffaloes.
Nebraska – There were mixed signals on how much of a factor Texas was in Nebraska leaving the Big 12, but the move to the Big Ten was a no-brainer. The Big Ten brings stability and an equal revenue-sharing model – something the Big 12 did not use. The Big Ten Network has been a huge success and will bring an increase in revenue and television exposure. Losing opportunities to play Oklahoma or Missouri every year certainly hurts for rivalry purposes, but Nebraska should have no trouble developing new ones in the Big Ten (Iowa?). The move to the Big Ten also impacts some aspects off the field, including an increase for Nebraska’s academic profile. The Cornhuskers still have to play in a conference title game every year, and the road to an undefeated season is just as difficult. However, the Cornhuskers are one of the college football’s most recognizable brands, and their entry into the Big Ten was a huge victory for both sides.
Notre Dame – The Big East and Big Ten will always be interested, but the Irish managed to stay exactly where they wanted. With its television deal with NBC and flexibility with scheduling, Notre Dame no desire to join a conference anytime soon.
Pac-12 – The addition of Utah and Colorado was solid, but not spectacular. The conference also made a good decision to host the first conference title game at a campus stadium, instead of a neutral site. Much of the Pac-12’s recent revival is a credit to the work of commissioner Larry Scott, who has dramatically raised the profile of the conference in a short time. Scott had visions of creating a 16-team conference, but Texas, Oklahoma and others declined his invitation. The Pac-12 has a new television deal and with Scott at the helm, the league is not afraid to push the envelope or try something different to make a splash. A rumored potential partnership with Google or Apple for a television network would be different and an intriguing concept. USC’s probation and the concerns hanging over Oregon have clouded the immediate value of this conference. However, with Scott in control and two solid additions in Utah and Colorado, the long-term outlook for the Pac-12 is very bright.
TCU – Even though it’s a stretch geographically, the Big East made a good decision to add TCU. The Horned Frogs will struggle to compete in basketball but could be one of the favorites for the Big East football title in 2012. Instead of competing for a spot as an at-large, the Horned Frogs know if they win the Big East, they are going to play in a BCS bowl. Easier access to the BCS, a remodeled stadium, plus the increased success on the field under Gary Patterson, should make TCU even more attractive to Texas recruits. TCU is a better fit for the Big 12, but since that conference appears to have no desire to expand, the Horned Frogs made a smart decision to head east. The Big East is also searching for a new television contract, which should help TCU’s exposure and bottom line even more.
Texas – The Longhorns were the target of the Big Ten and Pac-12, but decided to stick with the Big 12. Although Texas would be a winner no matter where it ended up, the Longhorns now have their own television station (Longhorn Network) and even more funds from the Big 12’s revenue-sharing plan. Texas had a chance to dramatically shift the landscape of college football with a move to the potential Pac-16, but the decision to return kept the Big 12 intact and resulted in more money flowing to Austin. Knowing how valuable Texas is to the future of the Big 12, commissioner Dan Beebe had to figure out a way to keep the Longhorns happy. Mission accomplished.
Texas A&M – With Nebraska off to the Big Ten, the Aggies should be able to move up the pecking order in the Big 12. Everything is in place for Texas A&M to challenge for a finish among the top three teams in the Big 12 this season, and if they continue to build off that success, the Aggies should become an annual contender under Mike Sherman. Also, Texas A&M is guaranteed $20 million in total revenue distribution from the Big 12 beginning in 2012. With a little more money in the pocket, it looks like the Aggies’ brief fling with the SEC paid off.
Utah – The Utes were the original BCS buster and now move into a conference with an automatic bid. Considering USC’s probation and question marks surrounding the other teams in the Pac-12 South, the Utes have an opportunity to turn some heads in their first year in the conference. Utah can also say goodbye to the MTN and hello to ESPN and FOX – a huge upgrade in exposure. Utah’s move to the Pac-12 isn’t only a benefit to the athletics, but will also bring more money into the athletic department with the conference’s new television contract.
Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State – These three teams are certainly happy to remain in the Big 12, but with Nebraska and Colorado gone, the conference schedules will get tougher with nine games. Instead of missing out on playing three South division schools every year, the old Big 12 North teams will now play every team every season. Also, there is one less non-conference game to schedule a guaranteed victory. Climbing the ladder to a finish in the upper tier and making a bowl game will be more difficult for these three teams in the remodeled Big 12.
Memphis – The Big East wants to expand and Memphis wants in. However, there appears to be no interest from the Big East on adding the Tigers. With questionable support, a stadium in need of a facelift and not much success on the field, Memphis is not an attractive football candidate for the conference. Basketball is without a doubt the Tigers’ best asset, but the football product has to improve on and off the field to gain traction for a Big East bid.
Mountain West Conference – Getting Boise State, Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State is solid, but losing TCU (in 2012), BYU and Utah were big blows to a conference that was knocking on the door for a potential automatic bid into the BCS. Even with the losses of TCU, BYU and Utah, the Mountain West could still earn an automatic spot. However, had those three teams stayed, the conference would be in much better shape to make some noise on the national level every season.
Villanova – The Wildcats appeared to be on the verge of an invitation to move to the FBS ranks in football, but that never materialized. Villanova is still on the radar for Big East expansion, but question marks about the stadium have damaged their ability to join. The Wildcats remain a viable candidate for the Big East, especially since they are already a member in basketball. However, when all signs pointed to Villanova ready to make the jump, the invitation was never received.
WAC – With Boise State gone and Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada departing at the end of this season, the WAC is on life support. Louisiana Tech, Idaho, Utah State, San Jose State and New Mexico State are left to pickup the pieces, while Texas State and UT-San Antonio will join as provisional members next season. However, 2011 will be the first year UTSA has fielded a football team. Even with the additions of Texas State and UTSA, the WAC still needs to add more teams. Montana, Montana State, Lamar, Cal Poly, Sacramento State and Sam Houston State have all been rumored as potential candidates, but none is ready to make the jump. Even with those seven teams in the fold for 2012, the WAC has been downgraded behind the Sun Belt as the worst league in college football. If the Mountain West decides to add two more teams (Utah State and San Jose State?) to get to 12, the WAC will be in serious trouble.
BYU – The decision by BYU to go independent will be heavily scrutinized. BYU certainly has a national audience and has lined up some marquee opponents for the coming years. The Cougars also scored a solid television deal with ESPN and are allowed to broadcast some of its games on BYUtv – something it could not do as a member of the Mountain West. However, there’s no guarantee the bowl destinations will be any better as an independent, and the Mountain West could soon become an automatic qualifier into the BCS. Although it’s not out of the question BYU could earn a BCS at-large bid as an independent, playing in a conference with an automatic bid is a better situation. Money played a significant role in BYU’s decision to become an independent, but this is one expansion decision that will be revisited with much interest in a couple of years.
Boise State – Moving to the Mountain West should be an upgrade, but the subtraction of TCU (in 2012), Utah and BYU hurts the overall strength of the conference. The Broncos thought they were joining a league poised to threaten the top five in overall conference strength. Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada will add some pop, but will not make up for the loss of TCU, BYU and Utah. The Broncos should continue to dominate, but conference games won’t be on ESPN anymore, and they joined a league that is watered down from the one they expected.