Tide of changes abound: Conference shifts, national playoff mark 0ff-season
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By Kendall Webb/College Football America Publisher
The biggest moment, of course, was the crowning of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision national champion, and on January 7, 2013, the current Bowl Championship Series format gave us the kind of match-up that college football fans dream about – the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide vs. the No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Entering the game, the two schools were also No. 1 and No. 2 in the poll service era with 10 and 8 national titles (the schools claim other titles awarded retroactively), which included one shared title from 1973. That year the United Press International crowned Alabama its national champion while Notre Dame was the choice of the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America and the National Football Foundation.
Underscoring the flaws that have always existed in a poll system, Notre Dame then edged Alabama 24-23 in a classic Sugar Bowl pairing at the conclusion of that season. But because the polls were issued prior to the bowl games, both teams still claim a share of the title to this day.
Fast forward to 2013, and not surprisingly, it was top-ranked Alabama completing a back-to-back run as national champions after dismantling the Fighting Irish, 42-14, at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium. The win put the wraps on a 12-1 season and the title was Alabama’s third in a four-year span.
But there were other big moments beyond Alabama’s sustained dominance. The season also brought us the amazing story of “Johnny Football” – Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. In fact, the defining moment of Manziel’s Heisman campaign came on November 10 when he led the Aggies into Tuscaloosa and gave the Crimson Tide that sole blemish in a stunning 29-24 upset. Manziel’s Heisman campaign had quickly been gathering steam up to that point, and by the time the final seconds ticked off the clock that afternoon, the award was his to lose.
The 2012 season also gave us the first chapter of a story of redemption in State College, Pennsylvania. Following the crippling penalties levied by the NCAA in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State chose to play on, but soon faced the realities of those sanctions. Fifteen players chose to transfer immediately after the penalties were announced in 2012, creating depth issues for a program already facing a loss of dozens of scholarships. It didn’t look any better after the first two games in which the Nittany Lions were beaten at home, 24-14, by Mid-American Conference opponent Ohio and lost on the road, 17-16, to a Virginia team that eventually finished 4-8.
But then something amazing happened. With no championships at stake and only their pride on the line, the Nittany Lions suddenly found something else worth playing for.
After the 0-2 start, the Nittany Lions went on a five-game winning streak including a 39-28 win over a Top 25 Northwestern team, and the streak didn’t end until the Lions faced another team on probation. On October 27, the Ohio State Buckeyes defeated Penn State 35-23 in State College en route to their own inspiring 12-0 season.
The Nittany Lions were far from finished and closed out by winning three of their final four games to finish 8-4. It might as well have been 12-0, however, and in recognition of one of college football’s all-time great coaching performances, Bill O’Brien was named the Big Ten Coach of the Year and also collected the Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant Award for national coach of the year.
Still there were other on-the-field achievements that captured our attention – like Louisiana Tech freshman running back Kenneth Dixon setting the single-season freshman record for total touchdowns (28) and rushing touchdowns (27). Or Wisconsin senior running back Montee Ball establishing new records for most career total touchdowns (83) and rushing touchdowns (77) – marks that won’t be easily reached by the likes of Dixon or anybody else.
One of the biggest moments of 2012, however, came in the summer prior to the start of the season. On June 26, 2012, the history of college football was changed forever with the announcement that the Bowl Championship Series would finally come to an end and be replaced by a four-team college football playoff to be known as, well – the College Football Playoff. Yes, starting in the 2014-15 season, major college football will finally join the rest of the college football world and settle its champion with a playoff that will no doubt be one of the most popular sporting events in the country.
But even as the powers that be finally gave in and gave college football fans the playoff they have craved, what college football lost may ultimately prove to be more enduring than what it gained. After all, the 2012 season also took away some of the game’s most important rivalries in a trend that has occurred frequently over the past two decades as realignment has redefined the sport. Previous conference shuffling had already robbed the game of rivalries like Oklahoma vs. Nebraska and Arkansas vs. Texas. But the latest round of realignment claimed the second and third most-played rivalries in the history of the game. It may not resonate on a national level, but the ‘Border War’ between Missouri and Kansas was second in terms of all-time meetings, and it was put to rest after 120 games dating back to 1891. In perhaps the greatest loss of all, the ‘Lone Star Showdown’ between Texas and Texas A&M is now a part of history after 118 meetings dating back to 1894. Other important rivalries such as the ‘Backyard Brawl’ between Pittsburgh and West Virginia have hit the pause button, at the very least, while college football’s membership reshuffles its alliances.
New Conference Alignments
And that reshuffling continued throughout much of the 2012 season on into the spring of 2013.
In the Atlantic Coast Conference, Pittsburgh and Syracuse were set to join the ACC in 2014, but on July 16 of last summer, Syracuse negotiated a settlement with the Big East to leave that conference on July 1, 2013, allowing the Orange to move immediately to the ACC. Two days later, Pittsburgh made an identical arrangement. And the fun was only beginning for the ACC.
On September 12, Notre Dame announced its intention to leave the Big East and join the ACC although the Fighting Irish will remain independent in football. But, as part of the school’s decision to join the league, the ACC was able to convince the Irish to play five games per year against ACC schools, a game changer for a league desperate to stay relevant in football alongside the likes of the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12. The agreement set off a ripple effect including Notre Dame’s decision to opt out of three future games against rival Michigan from 2015-17.
Then on November 19, ACC charter member Maryland announced it would leave in 2014 to join the Big Ten, destroying more long-term rivalries in the process. That led to the ACC extending an invitation to Big East member Louisville the following week, which the Cardinals quickly accepted. When the dust settled, the ACC was left with 14 members for football with Notre Dame’s special arrangement giving them a sort of ‘part-time’ 15th member in terms of scheduling (although Notre Dame games against ACC schools won’t count in the standings).
On April 22, 2013, the constant shuffling finally appeared to cease with the announcement that those 15 schools collectively had signed a grant of media rights that will run through the 2026-27 academic year – a timeframe that coincides with the league’s current television deal with ESPN. While it won’t necessarily end expansion in the ACC during that timeframe (although we suspect the league will be unlikely to invite more members at this point), it does diminish the likelihood that ACC schools will be targeted. Any school that chooses to leave before the 2026-27 academic year would essentially be of limited value to another conference since any revenue generated by the school’s media rights during home games would belong to the ACC and not the school (or the new conference since the school can’t negotiate with those rights).
Of course, any move by one conference means another conference is impacted in some way, and in the case of the Big East, it was obvious – two former Big East schools (Pittsburgh and Syracuse) left for the ACC this fall, and another (Louisville) will leave in 2014. And that was just the beginning of the Big East’s problems.
The league had long had a dichotomous relationship between its member schools, and as of the 2012-13 academic year, the membership was split between seven private Catholic schools that did not compete in football at the FBS level (or in the case of Notre Dame, was independent) and eight large secular universities with football programs that did. The loss of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville was bad enough, but on November 20, the league also learned it would lose Rutgers – and the New York/New Jersey media market that goes with it – when the Scarlet Knights announced they would join the Big Ten in 2014.
The Big East, while on shaky long-term ground, appeared to be set for the immediate future thanks to some aggressive moves prior to those announcements. Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF all were set to come onboard from Conference USA in the fall of 2013, and Boise State and San Diego State were set to join after leaving the Mountain West. On November 27, two more Conference USA programs – Tulane and East Carolina – announced they had accepted the league’s invitation to join. With Navy committed to join the league in 2015, the Big East would still be alive with at least 13 football members by the time the Midshipmen arrived.
But Boise State’s decision to join was driven in part by both money and the desire to join a BCS league with an automatic bid. The loss of so many top Big East programs, however, led to the Big East losing that automatic bid and its status as one of the “Big Six” conferences starting in 2014. Not too surprisingly, on December 31 of last year, Boise State delivered the news that it had decided to remain in the more geographically correct Mountain West Conference. Just days later, San Diego State retracted its decision to join the Big East as well.
In the meantime, the divide between the non-football playing Catholic 7 and the league’s football powers only widened, primarily over the non-football members’ belief that they could negotiate a better media rights deal on their own. By the end of the football regular season, it was clear that the two groups would split, a decision that was confirmed on December 15.
With the Big East divorce official, negotiations began between the two successor conferences, and it was eventually determined that the Catholic 7 would keep the Big East name, but the conference formed by the football members would be considered the true successor to the old Big East (is that confusing enough?). The football members will also retain the current automatic BCS bid for 2013 that will go to the conference champion, but then the league will lose that automatic bid in the new structure that starts with the College Football Playoff in 2014.
The loss of Boise State and San Diego State dropped the league back to 11 members, one short of the NCAA’s requirement to stage a conference championship game. So the league went shopping again, and once more it paid a visit to the Conference USA store. On April 1, the league announced that Tulsa would join in 2014, getting it back to 11 members for one year before Navy comes onboard in 2015. Almost simultaneously, the league also announced it had settled on a new name; on April 3, the old football members of the Big East officially became the American Athletic Conference.
Repeatedly raided during realignment, Conference USA began employing its own aggressive strategy by grabbing a combination of teams from the Western Athletic Conference and the Sun Belt, which had previously been mostly immune to realignment challenges. Having lost East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa and UCF to current or future commitments to the new American Athletic Conference, the 12-team C-USA began by offering membership to Sun Belt members North Texas and FIU, thanks in no small part to their proximity to major media markets (Dallas and Miami). The league also added Louisiana Tech and UTSA from the WAC, which played its final year as a FBS football conference last season.
Then in response to the Big East/American’s continuing chess moves, C-USA reached into the Sun Belt again in late November, grabbing Middle Tennessee and Florida Atlantic, FIU’s rival in the Sun Belt. When the Big East/American then added Tulsa in the spring, C-USA extended a final invitation to Middle’s big rival, Western Kentucky, yet another Sun Belt program. With Old Dominion moving up from FCS by 2014 and Charlotte doing the same in 2015, C-USA will eventually settle in at 14 teams, more than enough to remain split into two divisions and continue the league’s tradition of sponsoring a championship game.
Finally, C-USA’s moves dictated that the Sun Belt would have to aggressively pursue new members or face the possibility of dying as a football league. And that’s exactly what the league did.
Luckily for the Sun Belt, Georgia State was already in the process of moving up from FCS and was set to join the league in 2013. The death of the WAC as a football league also left several teams without a conference home. Texas State was still in a transition year during its only season in the WAC, but eager to keep a Texas presence partly for recruiting reasons, the league also secured a commitment from the Bobcats to join in 2013. But the constant pressure from above by C-USA still meant the league was left with just a bare minimum of eight teams – and that’s before you count Western Kentucky’s exodus next season.
So under the leadership of former WAC commissioner Karl Benson (who understands as well as anybody what can happen if a league can’t stabilize its membership), the Sun Belt unveiled a twofold strategy to save the league by actively pursuing two classic FCS programs that had long expressed an interest in joining the big boys while picking up the remaining pieces from Benson’s old WAC membership. Near the end of March, he got the confirmation he wanted – Southern Conference members Appalachian State and Georgia Southern had accepted the league’s invitation to join and will begin the process of moving their programs up from FCS this fall. Meanwhile, he also received word from WAC refugees Idaho and New Mexico State that they would rejoin the Sun Belt for their second stint as football-only schools.
Over in the Mountain West, the league was encouraged by the news that Boise State and San Diego State had rescinded their decisions to join the Big East/American. With San Jose State and Utah State already slated to join this fall, it meant the league could proceed with plans to split into two divisions – appropriately, the Mountain and the West – and stage a championship game for the first time in its history. San Jose State and Utah State, which join the Mountain West this year, were the final two members of the disintegrated WAC that will continue on as a Division I conference without football, a sport it had sponsored since the league’s inception in 1962.
The SEC was the last conference to see any changes to its membership last fall when giant-slayer Texas A&M and Missouri both came onboard. The rest of the FBS conferences saw their membership stabilize, including power conferences like the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac 12 along with the Mid-American Conference, a non-automatic qualifier conference in the BCS.
Speaking of the MAC, it was a big season for the league despite its little brother status in the conference pecking order as Northern Illinois became the league’s first BCS buster. The Huskies finished high enough in the final BCS rankings to earn an at-large BCS bid to the Sugar Bowl, and despite the 31-10 pummeling at the hands of Florida State, it was an accomplishment to be celebrated in a season when the league championship game between one-loss Northern Illinois and undefeated Kent State was essentially a playoff game to join the BCS party. A Northern Illinois win in that game sealed the deal for the Huskies setting up the meeting with Florida State, and the league will try to build on the momentum this fall.
The biggest news for the conferences unaffected by realignment was in the Big Ten where the league announced that Maryland and Rutgers will join the league in 2014. That announcement also became the best news for sportswriters when the league confirmed it would also dump its silly “Leaders” and “Legends” divisions in favor of more traditional division names – “East” and “West.”
Meanwhile, the Big 12 joined the ACC, Big Ten and Pac 12 in agreeing to a grant of rights meaning that any schools that choose to jump ship from one of those leagues agrees that any media revenues generated from their home games would stay with the conference effectively ending most poaching attempts within these conferences. The SEC is the only one of the ‘Big 5’ to not have a grant of rights in place now. But as the league at the top of the food chain, it’s highly unlikely that any team would look to leave anyway.