Realignment has dominated the college football headlines for a couple of years, resulting in a vastly different landscape across the nation.
The changes resulted in the death of one football conference (WAC), with the ACC, Big Ten and SEC inching closer to the much-discussed 16-team superconferences in the near future.
Some teams – notably Texas A&M and Louisville – finished conference realignment as a clear winner. While some other teams (UConn and Cincinnati) were on the other side of the coin.
Realignment in college football isn’t over. But with the recent changes, the landscape should remain relatively stable, at least for the next couple of seasons.
With things seemingly quiet, Athlon takes a look at the top 15 winners from college football’s most recent round of conference musical chairs.
College Football's Top 15 Winners From Conference Realignment
1. Texas A&M
The move to the SEC was supposed to be difficult. After all, Texas A&M had a new coaching staff, quarterback and a conference to learn. However, the Aggies made an immediate splash, winning double-digit games for the first time since 1998 and produced a Heisman winner in Johnny Manziel. While realignment isn’t just about what happened last year, Texas A&M can win big in the SEC. The program has excellent resources and can use its SEC leverage to recruit against its in-state brethren. The Aggies will have their share of ups and downs in the SEC in the future, but with coach Kevin Sumlin on the sidelines, the program is well-positioned to succeed in the upcoming seasons.
There wasn’t much that went wrong for Louisville’s football program last season. The Cardinals shared the Big East title, won the Sugar Bowl over Florida, managed to keep coach Charlie Strong in Louisville despite multiple overtures from the SEC, and were invited to join the ACC in 2014. The Cardinals have one of the best all-around athletic programs in the nation and will immediately be a factor in the ACC. And with 14 returning starters from last year’s 11-2 team, Louisville will have a chance to push for the national title in its final season in the Big East/American Athletic Conference.
The Scarlet Knights are one of the biggest winners in conference realignment. Sure, competing in the Big Ten will be a step up in competition, but Rutgers has made a significant step up on the conference hierarchy ladder. The Scarlet Knights have jumped from the sixth- or seventh-best conference in college football to arguably one of the top three. Moving to the Big Ten also will increase exposure and the ability to recruit for Rutgers, especially with the added games on the Big Ten Network.
The competition in the Big 12 is much tougher than what TCU faced in the Mountain West. But the Horned Frogs are positioned to remain a factor in the top half of the Big 12 on a regular basis, especially with a renovated stadium and the built-in advantage of having one of the nation’s best recruiting bases in their own backyard. Also, TCU has one of the nation’s top coaches in Gary Patterson, and it held its own in the Big 12 last year after losing starting quarterback Casey Pachall in early October. With Texas A&M, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado leaving the Big 12, the Horned Frogs have a chance to quickly emerge as an annual contender.
The SEC didn’t expand just to expand. Instead, the conference landed two programs in new attractive television markets, which should help the SEC when it comes time to launch its conference network in 2014. Although realignment isn’t about success in one season, the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri will pay dividends. The Aggies bring a chunk of the Texas market – something the SEC wanted to tap into – and a program capable of consistently ranking among the top 10-15 teams in the nation. The Tigers will find life a little tougher in the SEC than the Big 12, but the program will benefit from the extra money. And once Missouri has a chance to find its footing in the SEC, the Tigers should be a consistent bowl team. In the SEC’s case, the rich are getting a little richer.
Related: College Football Conference Realignment: Tracking the Changes
6. Big 12
At one point during college football’s realignment craze, there was some thought the Big 12 would go extinct. Instead, the conference has rebounded and appears healthy for the next 10-15 years, largely thanks to the grant of rights for each team’s television deal. Losing Nebraska and Texas A&M was a tough blow to the Big 12, but the additions of West Virginia and TCU helped to soften the blow. New commissioner Bob Bowlsby seems to be doing a good job of keeping the peace within the conference, and barring any unforeseen issues arising, the Big 12 should be secure for the immediate future. The only question? 10 or 12? Will the Big 12 have to expand once again? If the conference has to add, which programs get the call to be No. 11 and No. 12?
7. Notre Dame
Much like their Independent brethren (BYU), the Fighting Irish are a winner in the latest round of expansion. There was some thought Notre Dame would be forced to join a conference, but the Fighting Irish were able to remain Independent and upgraded with a partnership with the ACC. Notre Dame also struck an agreement with the Orange Bowl, and access to other postseason games should be better in the partnership with the ACC. Who knows, in 50 years, maybe the Fighting Irish will have to join a conference. However, it’s pretty clear – for now – that Notre Dame’s place as an Independent is secure for the foreseeable future.
The ACC is losing Maryland to the Big Ten, but the additions of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville are enough to keep this conference in the winner category. The conference also was able to stave off any additional departures – at least for the foreseeable future – as the teams have signed a grant of rights deal, which makes it very difficult for any program to leave. The ACC is gaining one of the top college programs in the nation in Louisville, and two members to bolster its presence on the Eastern side of the United States. Pittsburgh is on the right track under second-year coach Paul Chryst, and Syracuse made strides under former coach Doug Marrone. The ACC needs both programs to continue making progress to bolster the conference’s overall depth. And of course, the ACC landed a significant partnership with Notre Dame, which will help improve each team’s non-conference schedule, along with making the conference more attractive for bowl partners.
9. Boise State
Obviously, the Broncos would like to jump into the Pac-12 or Big 12, but staying in the Mountain West – instead of joining the American Athletic Conference – is the right move. One of the driving forces behind Boise State’s decision to stay in the Mountain West was a new television contract, which will allow the program more exposure than the conference’s current television deal and bonus money with broadcast games on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, NBC, CBS or FOX. The Broncos also remain in the conference that’s the best fit for the program in terms of geography, especially since California and Texas are two key areas for recruiting. With Louisville and Rutgers departing after 2013, the American Athletic Conference isn’t much of an increase in terms of competition anymore.
There was some skepticism when BYU decided to go Independent. And while the Cougars are just three years into this experiment, the results have been positive so far. BYU has secured a solid television deal with ESPN and has won 25 games over the last three years. The Cougars will play a good schedule in 2013, which features matchups against Virginia, Texas, Boise State, Wisconsin and Notre Dame and has future games scheduled with Texas, Michigan, Nebraska, USC and West Virginia. Securing solid bowl opportunities for the next 15-20 years and contending for a spot in the playoffs are the next challenges ahead, but BYU is well-positioned to succeed in college football’s new landscape.
11. Utah State/San Jose State
The Aggies and Spartans were handed a lifeline out of the sinking WAC, landing in the Mountain West, the best league outside of the six BCS conferences. Both programs have been on the rise in recent years, especially since both teams finished in the top 25 of the final BCS standings last season. As long as the new coaches (Matt Wells, Utah State and Ron Caragher, San Jose State) work out as well as Gary Andersen and Mike MacIntyre did, Utah State and San Jose State will continue to be a factor in the MWC.
12. New American Athletic Conference Teams
Sure, the American Athletic Conference isn’t as strong with Louisville, Rutgers, West Virginia and Syracuse departing. However, for teams like Memphis, SMU, Temple, UCF, East Carolina, Tulsa, Tulane and Houston, it’s an opportunity to emerge as an annual contender in a new league. East Carolina has excellent fan support, Tulane and Houston are building new stadiums, while Temple, UCF and SMU are located in fertile recruiting areas and should be an annual factor in the new conference. And Tulsa has won 10 games in four out of the last six years. For teams like Connecticut, Cincinnati and South Florida, the new American Athletic Conference may be a disappointment. But for teams like East Carolina, Tulsa and the rest of the newcomers, it’s a chance to upgrade their own brands as it relates to the college football landscape.
No program in college football has experienced quite the ascension that UTSA has over the last few years. The Roadrunners played 2011 as an I-AA Independent and jumped to the WAC for '12. UTSA was impressive in its first season on the FBS level, winning eight games – with victories over New Mexico State, Idaho, and Texas State. The Roadrunners are on the move once again, as Larry Coker’s team is joining Conference USA. UTSA will need time to build depth and get acquainted to its new league members, but the Roadrunners have a rich recruiting area, along with a good fan base to help ease the transition to life as a full-time FBS member.
14. Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs were a geographic misfit in the WAC but should be a perfect fit in a revamped Conference USA. With the change in conferences, Louisiana Tech is in a much better league in terms of developing geographic rivals, which includes North Texas, Rice, UTEP, UTSA and Southern Miss. The Bulldogs should find life in Conference USA a little easier when it comes to recruiting; and with no established mid-majors like Boise State, Utah State or Fresno State to worry about in their new league, Louisiana Tech has a chance to become one of the premier programs in C-USA.
15. Mid-American Conference
What realignment? That’s what the MAC is saying after avoiding any major departures of their own members. The conference could stand to add a 14th team to balance the divisions, but avoiding a massive exodus was a huge boost for weeknight MACtion.
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