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New teams in new conferences
Conference realignment has dominated the college football news cycle over the last couple seasons, with widespread relocation changing the landscape of the game as teams from across the country negotiated agreements to join their league of choice.
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Last year already saw some of those plans come to fruition, with Nebraska jumping to the Big Ten and Colorado and Utah joining the Pac-12. But the 2012 season will mark the real start of realignment in earnest, with five more high-profile teams easing their way into new BCS digs.
The two biggest moves this offseason came from Missouri and Texas A&M, who left the Big 12 for the SEC. There, the duo will join a conference that has won six straight BCS championship games — spread among four different schools — and houses the two preemptive favorites to take home the league’s seventh straight national title, LSU and Alabama.
Talk about jumping into a new opportunity headfirst.
"What's my assessment?” said first-year A&M coach Kevin Sumlin of his team’s new competition at the conference’s media day. "It's a pretty damn hard league. How is that? That's my assessment."
But that appraisal also comes with a caveat. The Big 12 is a pretty damn hard league, too, and teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas aren’t exactly cupcakes. The Tigers and Aggies will be in for a challenge as they assimilate to the SEC, but they most certainly won’t be in for a surprise. If anything, the SEC should be prepared for them.
"I think the best teams in that conference can certainly play with anybody in the country, so, you know, they will add to us," said LSU coach Les Miles of the league’s newest members, when asked at media day. "They have great experiences in the conference they come from, and they'll be able to compete in this conference. I think there will be a learning curve … but I think it's something that both schools will do very comfortably."
Texas A&M, after all, is a solid program and makes a bowl game more often than not, and while they’ve struggled to gain the status or play with the consistency of the premier teams in the conference, they’ve always proven pesky for the league’s supreme — just ask Baylor, whom the Aggies routed 55-28 last year, or Oklahoma, whom they upset 33-19 in College Station the year before.
Missouri, on the other hand, has been a force in the Big 12 North for the better part of the last decade. The Tigers have played in seven straight bowl games and won their division in 2007 and 2008, entering the 2007 conference championship game against Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in the country.
And their 12th-year coach, Gary Pinkel, is one of the 10 winningest active coaches in the bowl subdivision, though he knows that counts for little when put up against the talent — both calling and making the plays — in the SEC.
"Bottom line, you got to go out and prove yourself," Pinkel told reporters in Hoover, Ala. "I'm fine with it; I have no problem with it. (I’m) not going to make any predictions — never have, never will. You have to go out and compete and earn respect and win.”
Meanwhile, the conference A&M and Mizzou left behind won’t be barren without them, either.
Their spots in the Big 12 have already been filled by West Virginia, who left the Big East to join the fray, and TCU, which comes from the Mountain West — well, technically the Big East, though they never played a game there — to round the league out at 10 teams.
"I think it's fair to say our league, when you add West Virginia and TCU — two teams coming off bowl wins, two ranked football teams — you put them with the rest of what we've been doing here in the Big 12, that our league is every bit as strong as it's ever been, if not stronger," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told reporters at Big 12 Media Days in Dallas.
Before they headed west, the Mountaineers were widely considered to be the best team in the fledgling Big East — a conference desperate to hold on to it’s BCS automatic qualifier status — and finished six of the last seven years ranked in the AP Top 25, including three of those seasons in the Top 10.
West Virginia has won three different BCS bowls in the last decade, including a 70-33 win over Clemson in last year’s Orange Bowl, the team’s first under new head coach Dana Holgorsen. And Holgorsen isn’t exactly unfamiliar with his new surroundings in the Big 12. He previously served as the offensive coordinator at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State before taking his new job in Morgantown.
"What's awesome about the Big 12 as opposed to where we were last year is just the national exposure, and it's going to be West Coast to East Coast," Holgorsen said in Dallas. "And (our players) are going to be put in some venues to be able to shine if they can handle that. And that's our job as coaches, to put them in those positions and make sure that they're prepared and then get them on that stage and see what they can do from there."
As for TCU, little needs to be said about the credentials of the Horned Frogs, who have gone 36-3 in the last three seasons — including an undefeated season in 2010 — winning three conference championships, and appearing in two BCS bowls in that span.
Since head coach Gary Patterson took over the program full-time in 2001, TCU is 109-29, and in the last six seasons, he is 6-3 against opponents from his new conference, including a memorable 2005 win over Stoops and Oklahoma.
Now that his team is in a BCS conference, Patterson’s Horned Frogs will have a chance to prove that they’re as good as they’ve claimed to be all along — and they won’t put a limit on what they can accomplish now that they’re ingrained in the BCS.
"Do we want to win the conference championship? Yes, we do,” Patterson said at media days. “Every time, every head coach is going to sit up here should be able to say the same thing, and that's what your goal is. Do we want to play some day for a national championship? Yes, we do. Will it happen? We're going to find out."
In addition to the major moves in the Big 12 and SEC, the Big East has pulled Temple from the MAC to fill the spot vacated by West Virginia, giving the Owls as good a shot as anyone in the wide-open conference to make a BCS bowl.
In other, non-BCS moves, Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii left the WAC for the Mountain West, the WAC added two FCS schools in Texas State and UT-San Antonio (though they’ll be leaving next year), the MAC brought UMass into the fold to replace Temple, and South Alabama joined the Sun Belt conference in its first year at the FBS level.
But this year's migration — vast as it may seem — is just the beginning of what will be a tumultuous era of seismic conference shifting.
Next season, the woebegone Big East loses two more longtime members in Syracuse and Pitt to the ACC, but will replace them with six newcomers from across the country: San Diego State and powerhouse Boise State from the Mountain West, along with Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF from Conference USA. Starting in the 2015 season, Navy will leave the independent ranks to join the Big East in football, as well.
C-USA will restock the cupboard next season by adding FIU, Louisiana Tech, North Texas and UT-San Antonio (with Charlotte and Old Dominion to come in 2015), the Mountain West will add San Jose State and Utah State, and Georgia State will join the Sun Belt, along with Texas State.
So forget what you know about the state of your favorite conference, because before you know it, it’ll be changing once again.
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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