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5 Biggest Conference Changes in College Football History

Conference realignment, expansion and extinction are nothing to college football

Conference realignment, expansion and extinction are nothing to college football

If Oklahoma and Texas join the SEC, expect more conference realignments to take place with the end result being four 16-team superconferences. While these two schools going to the SEC seems surreal, college football’s history is full of conference changes and realignments. Here are the five most significant.

5. The Big Ten is formed (1896)

On Feb. 8, 1896, Purdue University, the University of Chicago, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, Northwestern University, and the University of Michigan met to form what ultimately became the Big Ten, which predates the NCAA, and is the oldest conference in college football. While it has had member schools come and go, including Michigan, the Big Ten set the blueprint that other emerging conferences would follow.

4. The independents join conferences (early 1990s)

Going into the 1990s, four of college football’s best programs, Florida State, Miami, Notre Dame, and Penn State, were independents and thus pursued by conferences. The basketball-focused Big East expanded to football in 1991 and added The U., and fellow independents Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia. The ACC brought in Florida State in 1992 and the Big Ten added an 11th team with Penn State in 1993. Meanwhile, Notre Dame signed a contract with NBC for exclusive broadcasting all its home games, solidifying its status as an independent.

3. Conference musical chairs (2010-14)

If the realignment of the 1990s and early 2000s put college football on the path towards today, the 2010s gave it a nitro boost. Over a five-year period, 12 schools either switched or joined Power 5 conferences. In 2010, Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-10 – who also added Utah to become the Pac-12 – and Nebraska bolted for the Big Ten. Fellow programs Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC in 2011 and the Big 12 responded by luring West Virginia from the Big East and TCU from the Mountain West. Speaking of the Big East, the conference lost four more programs during this period. Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Louisville went to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten. Maryland also left the ACC for the Big Ten. This type of conference musical chairs in college football would have seemed blasphemous just 20 years ago, but is now business as usual.

2. The Big 12 is formed (1994)

If you’re a European or a "Ted Lasso" fan, you are aware that soccer clubs can be promoted or relegated to higher- and lower-tier leagues based on their performance. We saw this happen on a de-facto level in college football with the formation of the Big 12. After SMU was handed the death penalty from the NCAA and Arkansas left for the SEC, the Southwest Conference was on life support and both Texas and Texas A&M were looking to leave. Texas lawmakers helped negotiate for the two schools to join the Big Eight, along with Baylor and Texas Tech, and form the new conference. Rice, SMU, and TCU had no choice but to join the lower-tier WAC and Houston went to Conference USA.

1. The SEC expands (1990)

The SEC adding Arkansas and independent South Carolina 30 years ago is what put college football on the road it’s on today. The creation of two divisions with an added conference championship was revolutionary when first implemented. Now, virtually every conference, big or small, utilizes this setup.

— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports' Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.