Karma bites conference-switching teams

BY Peter Schrager • October 3, 2011

Very rarely do I find myself humming folk songs from the 1970s while watching college football on Saturdays.

Yet, there I was this past weekend, watching one blowout, monumental collapse and colossal failure after another, doing a horrendous karaoke hack job of Stephen Stills, just belting out the lyrics, “Love the one you’re with … Love the one you’re with …” over and over again.

With conference realignment serving as the sport’s dominant headline and longtime conference mainstays getting courted by sexier, prettier, bigger conferences they don’t currently call their own, several teams that have already made the “grass is greener” move to leave the ones they’re with got embarrassed this weekend.

A mere coincidence?

Nah, it’s instant karma. And apparently, it’s gonna get you.

When Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten in June of 2010, the first big domino in an eventual massive college football shakeup fell. After a farewell Big 12 season in which the 'Huskers played below expectations and finished the season with three losses in their final four games, Bo Pelini’s boys were immediately pegged as the Big Ten favorites in the summer of 2011. With Terrelle Pryor and Jim Tressel no longer in Columbus, J.J. Watt no longer anchoring the defensive line in Madison, and doubts about new quarterbacks and defenses across the Midwest, the 'Huskers were the vogue pick to represent the Big Ten in the 2012 Rose Bowl.

On Saturday night, though, in their very first Big Ten conference game, the once proud Nebraska Black Shirts defense got thoroughly outmanned by the Wisconsin offense on national television. Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 255 yards and two scores; running back Montee Ball muscled out 155 yards on the ground and scored four touchdowns. The 48-17 victory was no run of the mill win; it was a statement victory from a defending conference champion over the new kids on the block. You’re going to come into our building and take one from us? Not. So. Fast.

"I'm embarrassed by how we played defensively," said Nebraska coach Pelini after the blowout. "I apologize to the fans of Nebraska because that was a joke, plain and simple."

Nebraska wasn’t the only school that fled for greener pastures and got theirs on Saturday. Colorado, a longtime Big 8/Big 12 conference power, left for the Pac-12 with great fanfare last summer. On Saturday, it lost a terrible game to perennial Pac-12 doormats Washington State in Boulder. The Buffaloes led the Cougars 27-17 with just 5:11 left in the game, only to see their first conference victory slip from their hands in dramatic fashion. Despite a patchwork defense that featured two offensive players playing cornerback for the bulk of the fourth quarter, the Buffs managed to keep the Washington State offense contained for the game’s first 57 minutes. Then, after a 19-yard Cougars touchdown score that cut the Colorado lead to three, Washington State coach Paul Wulff went against conventional wisdom and opted to forego attempting an onside kick. Naturally, the Cougars D stuffed the Buffs on three plays, forced a punt, and won in the final seconds.

The Cougars had won just one road game in the past four years. They’re now 1-0 in their new conference member’s building. The headline in the Colorado student paper, The Daily Camera, on Sunday morning read: “CU Buffs Might Have Reached Rock Bottom.” Well, that sure didn’t take long.

How about Texas A&M? On Tuesday, SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin were downright giddy during the press conference announcing the Aggies’ move to the SEC. On Saturday, A&M squandered its second two-score lead in two weeks, giving up an 18-point halftime edge in a heartbreaking 42-38 loss to Arkansas. After the Arkansas defense, which had given up five touchdowns in the first half, stopped the Aggies on their final drive, the crowd of Razorbacks let loose with a series of “S-E-C! S-E-C!” chants.

Thank you sir, may I have another? If Saturday’s outcome was some sort of window into life in their new conference, it might not all be smiles and flashing lights for the Aggies in the future.

The list goes on. Utah, a perennial BCS contender when it was in the Mountain West Conference, is downright irrelevant in the Pac-12 thus far in 2011. Now 0-2 in conference play after forgetting to show up in their conference home opener Saturday vs. Washington, the Utes face No. 22 Arizona State next Saturday, then travel to Pittsburgh and California in back-to-back weeks. They’ll most likely be 2-5 after that stretch. In their old conference, Utah was always in the national conversation, playing in big nationally televised games on random weeknights in November, and finding their way into BCS bowls. Now? Good luck with that.

In truth, these conference switcheroos don’t always work out as they’re dreamed up. When Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left the Big East for the ACC in the early 2000s, the former’s football was supposed to melt and sink into the Atlantic Ocean. The truth? The two conferences have been on the same playing field.

Since 2004, the ACC has gone 2-6 in BCS bowl games. Virginia Tech and Miami, after appearing in two BCS National Championship Games in the five years prior, haven’t come close to sniffing the national title bout since the move. Boston College still has yet to play in a BCS Bowl game.

As Syracuse and Pitt fans exchange high fives over their imminent move to the ACC and a host of non-automatic qualifier teams vie to fill vacant spots in the now stripped down Big 12, I turn to this past weekend’s scoreboard and the “Singers and Songwriters” cassette tape collecting dust in your car’s glove compartment.

Though the academics, the finances and the “Olympic sports” may make more sense in bigger, more glamorous conferences — the football product isn’t always better off. When you leave the girl you came to the dance with for the one with the shorter dress, things don’t always work out. Sometimes, like Utah, you get left behind; and other times, as was the case with Nebraska in Madison on Saturday night, you get smacked right upside the head.

Perhaps all these schools should stop flirting with these big conference suitors and just listen to the advice of Stephen Stills. Maybe they should just love the ones they’re with.

As for the conferences that get spurned and left behind for bigger and shinier leagues? They shouldn’t be shedding tears. They should be humming Cat Stevens:

“But if you want to leave, take good care;
Hope you find a lot of nice things to wear;
But then a lot of nice things turn bad
Out there…”

Thank you, Time Life Music.

‘Til next Saturday …

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