Who Won Realignment? Ranking the New Major Conference Teams
Rutgers, Maryland and Louisville joined new conferences today, bringing to an end, for now at least, the wave of conference realignment that began with Nebraska's departure for the Big Ten. During this time we saw Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Missouri, Texas A&M, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville, TCU, West Virginia, Rutgers and Maryland all change major conferences. We saw the Big East die as a football conference, the Big 12 suffer a near-death experience, the ACC acknowledge that academics really didn't matter that much when it comes to conference survival, the Pac 12 reach for the stars in an effort to become the Pac 16, and the SEC and Big Ten solidify their positions as the two most valuable conferences in the country.
From a conference perspective the SEC emerged from this wave of expansion as the clear winner, adding two schools that increased its population berth by 50% and embarking upon a new paradigm, with the SEC Network debuting soon. The Big Ten was the second most productive school, finally reaching the east coast and sending word to the ACC that those schools were targets for future additions. The Pac 12 did okay, but geographic constraints after Texas nixed the move to the Pac 16 means there's nowhere else for that conference to grow. The ACC and the Big 12 survived, but I still believe the ACC will be poached by both the Big Ten and the SEC in the years ahead, leaving the ACC in a defensive posture.
In the meantime, now that the earthquake has subsided, which teams ended up the biggest realignment winners?
Rutgers is like the unemployed waitress who cashed a winning lottery ticket. The last survivor of a sinking ship, Rutgers stepped off the boat just as it went underwater and found itself on one of the finest yachts in America. When you assess winners and losers, you don't necessarily analyze whose ceiling is the highest you compare how far up from the floor someone rose.
If Rutgers doesn't join the Big Ten then the school is left behind in the American Athletic Conference. That conference's yearly payout to members is less than $5 million a year. In the Big Ten Rutgers will eventually be receiving nearly $40 million a year. We're talking about a move that netted the school hundreds of millions in additional revenue than it would have received in the AAC.
Here's an easy way of putting it, many of the schools on this list ended up with better situations, but none of them had the stakes of Rutgers. Rutgers is the biggest realignment winner, but the school it beat out for the final bid in the Big Ten, UConn, is the biggest realignment loser.
Those names could have very easily been reversed.
Remember when Louisville and West Virginia were battling for that final spot in the Big 12? It got so intense that there was a near Senate fight over conference realignment. Well, West Virginia won that battle and joined the Big 12, which seemed like it doomed Louisville to be the best program left behind in the AAC. But then Maryland bolted and the ACC was desperate to get back to 14 members. So desperate, in fact, that it didn't even care about academics anymore.
Which means that if Louisville had gotten that final bid in the Big 12 then West Virginia would have been the ACC's pick. Instead, Louisville got left behind and ended up in the ACC, which is a perfect fit for the program.
If Utah doesn't join the Pac 12, it's left behind in the Mountain West. This is another hundred million dollar addition. The reason why Utah ranks below Rutgers though is because there weren't really many other options for the Pac 12. BYU is a bad fit culturally and the rest of the west coast schools aren't academically strong enough. Utah was an easy decision for the Pac 12.
Indeed, if the Pac 12 can't poach schools from the Big 12, it's hard to figure out how the conference ever grows beyond its current membership without abandoning academic considerations.
The Horned Frogs have been on a meteoric football rise under Gary Patterson. Left for dead when the Southwest Conference imploded and they were left out of the Big 12, TCU joined the WAC in 1995 then moved on to Conference USA, the Mountain West, and agreed to join the Big East. All of this happened in less than twenty years. Then the Big 12, struggling to stay alive, lost four teams and had to expand.
TCU was the beneficiary, making the leap to a big five conference.
5. Texas A&M
Texas A&M's move to the SEC gave the Aggies the highest ceiling of any major team that switched conferences, but what would have happened if the Aggies hadn't moved? The Big 12 would have probably stayed at 10 teams after Colorado and Nebraska left, never adding TCU or West Virginia. Sure, A&M made a brilliant strategic decision to leave the Big 12 that has paid off handsomely, but compared to Rutgers, Utah, or TCU, the floor wasn't that low for A&M.
Still, when the SEC comes knocking, you answer the damn door.
Missouri is similar to A&M in this respect, if the Tigers don't leave the Big 12 then they're part of a ten team Big 12 conference. The difference in television income will be tens of millions a year once the SEC Network gets rolling, but, again, the difference between the ceiling and the floor isn't as substantial as for the teams ranked higher here.
Missouri was, however, the big winner in the country once the SEC added A&M and had to go to 14 members.
How much money did it take for Maryland to turn its back on the ACC? If projections are correct about twenty million a year. We're headed for a new television world order where the SEC and the Big Ten dwarf every other conference in TV money. It's not going to be close. That's why I believe the ACC will eventually lose four more members to the Big Ten and the SEC. The SEC will take teams in Virginia and North Carolina and the Big Ten might take the other two in those states. Or the Big Ten might end up with Georgia Tech. Either way the money differential between the SEC and the Big Ten and the rest of college sports is eventually going to lead to more instability. It might take a decade or more, but Maryland's departure to the Big Ten is a harbinger of things to come not an isolated incident.
Does Colorado look west or east to define itself? That was really what this decision was about, cementing Colorado, the westernmost Big 12 state, as a member of the west coast.
You'd think Colorado would have more success grabbing players from southern California since Boulder is basically utopia. You'd think that, but you'd mostly be wrong. Regardless, the Buffaloes made a smart decision to leave the Big 12 for the Pac 12. The money's better and the geographic fit is better as well.
Now, will they ever win?
Yes, the Cornhuskers are going to make much more money in the Big Ten than they would have in the Big 12, but how does the Big Ten make sense here? I just don't see it. Where are Nebraska's players going to come from? The Big Ten schools in the midwest are already fighting over the same, limited talent. Nebraska used to be able to go down to Texas and snag some players in the Big 12. But with those games curtailed, how do the Cornhuskers recruit?
Sure, a great recruiting head coach can help combat this difficulty, but those coaches aren't very common. And are they even willing to come to Lincoln to coach?
I hate to say it, but sometimes money isn't everything. I think Nebraska's finding that out.
10. West Virginia
Ah, the poor Mountaineers. Yes, they avoided the fate of UConn and Cincinnati -- being left behind in the AAC -- but if they'd actually lost the battle with Louisville over joining the Big 12 they'd now be in the ACC, which most of their fans would prefer. As is they're the geographic orphan of the Big 12, a long way from their closest rival, hanging on to a conference anchored by four Texas schools.
What happens, shudder, when the Texas Longhorns eventually decide one of two things: 1. that they'd rather be independent or 2. that they're joining the Big Ten?
Pittsburgh desperately wanted to be in the Big Ten. Instead the Panthers ended up in the ACC because they were terrified that the Big East would implode. The real irony here is that if Pitt and Syracuse had stayed committed to the Big East, the conference probably survives. Instead they leapt to the ACC and created an odd geographical culture.
The ACC is basically a southern conference now with three strange northern additions -- Boston College, Pitt, and Syracuse.
Hopefully money will cure all issues, but I have my doubts.
Honest question, if Syracuse doesn't leave for the ACC aren't they added to the Big Ten instead of Rutgers? The brand is much better, you still get New York state, and it's a better geographic fit for the Big Ten.
Wouldn't every Syracuse fan prefer to be in the Big Ten too?
Instead you jumped to the ACC from the Big East, from one unstable conference to another unstable conference.
The teams in the SEC, Big Ten, and Pac 12 can rest assured that whatever comes in the future, their conference is secure. The teams in the ACC and the Big 12? You're ground zero for the next conference realignment earthquakes.