The specter of conference realignment looms over college football at all times, ready to disrupt the status quo. Which moves could come next?
The Starks are always right eventually. Winter is coming, and so is more conference expansion. It may be a few more years, but before long the major conferences of college football will either reshuffle or expand. Change can be scary, but it’s also an opportunity for improvement and excitement.
With that in mind, why not take it upon ourselves to brainstorm a few fun ideas for conference expansion and realignment? In this thought experiment, I’m not going to take into account any financial, political, or moral considerations. All of those considerations warrant merit when the real decisions are made but here we’re only going to discuss what would actually make sense geographically – sorry, UConn, but you cannot play in the Pac-12 – and, most importantly, what would be most fun and exciting for the sport.
These are four ideas for growth and divisional realignment that could make each conference more competitive, bring some balance to each conferences’ divisions, and make college football all the more fun for the fans.
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Get All The Major Conferences To 14 Teams
Currently three of the major college football conferences have 14 teams (the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten), but two (the Pac-12 and Big 12) fall short of that mark. So to optimize expansion and put as many competitive teams together in the Power Five as possible, let’s get everybody to 14 members!
The Big 12 has the most work to do to get there. Four teams need to move from the Group of Five to the Big 12 to get to 14 and because of that, it’s important to be cognizant of how strong those programs are to keep the level of competition up and not just load the conference with mediocre programs.
The three best programs available for promotion are Boise State, BYU, and Houston, so, again, to ensure the level of competition isn’t negatively impacted by this expansion, the Big 12 should get two of these teams, leaving one to later join the Pac-12 (we’ll get there in a moment). Houston is the clear first choice due to its geographic proximity to the rest of the conference and having narrowly been added to the conference just a few months ago, and because Boise State and BYU have similarly competitive programs, BYU will head to the Big 12 because Provo, Utah is farther east than Boise, Idaho.
Two more openings remain and both will go to other teams that made the Big 12’s list of finalists back in September: Cincinnati and SMU. The Bearcats were perennially at the top of the standings in the old Big East and have been strong contenders since the beginning of the American. They also aren’t a geographic burden.
SMU, on the other hand, is a program that until recently was a complete mess. The Mustangs were one of college football’s premier programs until receiving the “Death Penalty” in 1987 and being forced to completely rebuild from there. It has taken nearly three decades, but SMU is a program on the rise. The Mustangs finished 3-5 in the American last season and narrowly missed out on a bowl game. Their location in Texas and the intrigue of adding one of the sports’ more storied programs rising from the ashes of the Death Penalty adds a level of intrigue that no other team can bring to the conference.
After adding Houston, BYU, Cincinnati, and SMU, the Big 12 could then opt to set up divisions that look like this:
|Division A||Division B|
These divisions are reasonably balanced in terms of competition and also preserve most major rivalries by placing rivals within the same division. The few exceptions (e.g. Kansas and Kansas State) can be fixed by making them annual interdivisional opponents. There is no perfect divisional split, but this particular grouping should work nicely.
As for the Pac-12, only two teams need to join to reach 14 and one of those spots is easily filled by a team mentioned earlier: Boise State. The Broncos are one of the best programs currently residing in the Group of Five and are geographically situated near the west coast. It’s a perfect fit.
But who should follow them? There aren’t many options because so many of the teams in the Group of Five are located east of the Mississippi, and of those that aren’t, many are simply not strong enough to hope to compete against the likes of UCLA, USC, Washington, Oregon, etc. However, one available team does jump out.
San Diego State has consistently been one of the best teams in the Mountain West for years now, has produced several prominent NFL players headlined by Marshall Faulk, and has shown the ability to recruit top college football talent as evidenced by running back Donnel Pumphrey, now of the Philadelphia Eagles, who last season set the FBS’s all-time rushing record. Would the Aztecs set the Pac-12 on fire immediately? No, but they would be competitive and seemingly have the ability to better their recruiting base.
Both of these additions would also nicely fit right into the already existing divisional structure, adding Boise State to the North and San Diego State to the South.
And with that, the Power Five now has an even 14 teams in each of its conferences, giving college football a nice, round conference structure at the top, and even giving some of the smaller DI-AA teams a chance to replace those teams that exited the Group of Five and move up to DI-A.
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports
Move FSU To The ACC Coastal Division
The ACC is currently suffering from the slight problem of divisional dominance. The winner of the ACC Championship has been a member of the Atlantic Division each of the past six seasons. Clemson and Florida State have comfortably been the best two teams in the conference for quite some time now and both happen to reside in the Atlantic Division. Let’s amend that.
By swapping Pittsburgh and Florida State, the new divisions would look like this:
|N.C. State||North Carolina|
|Wake Forest||Georgia Tech|
This swap works well for several reasons. First, now each division has one of the two dominant programs creating legitimate balance for the ACC title at the divisional level. Second, it makes each division similarly competitive throughout the season instead of having one division that is extremely top-heavy and one division that is loaded with above-average-but-not-great teams. Third, it doesn’t upset any of the important conference rivalries.
Florida State now joins its main rival, Miami, in the Coastal. That allows the Seminoles to change their annual inter-divisional opponent from the Hurricanes to Clemson and still play both teams every year. Pittsburgh’s only traditional rival in the ACC is Syracuse, which moved from the Big East with Pittsburgh in 2013. Same as Florida State, this swap allows Pitt to join the division of its main rival and sustain the rivalry.
The only seemingly downside to this is that Florida State and Louisville will no longer be able to play each other annually, which is unfortunate, but considering the two programs aren’t natural rivals it’s not the end of the world.
It’s a simple fix that could solve a couple different problems for the ACC, make the season more exciting, and not create any new problems for the conference. Seems like a win-win to me.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Send At Least One Team From The State Of Alabama To The SEC East
The SEC is similarly in the midst of an imbalance in divisional power. A member of the West Division has won every SEC Championship since 2009. Alabama has won five times, Auburn twice, and LSU once. In fact, since the new millennium, a member of the SEC East has won the title just five times in 17 tries.
Not only that, but the two divisions have been in stark contrast in terms of talent. While the SEC West has been a gauntlet for years now where most every team reaches a bowl game and the division constantly beats itself up, the East has been much weaker. Missouri, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky have consistently been three of the weakest programs in the conference and although Vanderbilt and Kentucky are improving, they still aren’t remarkably strong. Additionally, the East’s best teams – Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, haven’t been as dominant as they once were.
It’s time to make a change, and the best way to do that is to move either Alabama, Auburn, or both to the SEC East and send either Missouri or Missouri and Vanderbilt to the West.
By moving just one of Auburn or Alabama to the East and Missouri to the West, the divisions become more competitive without too drastically culling power from the West and making the new East just as strong as the current West only with different teams involved. An issue with pursuing this method, though, is that certain rivalries would have to be eliminated.
With Auburn and Alabama in separate divisions, the two are forced to use their annual crossover matchup against each other because there’s no way for the Iron Bowl to not be played annually. Depending on which team moves to the East, that could put Alabama-Tennessee, Alabama-LSU, Alabama-Mississippi State, and Auburn-Georgia in jeopardy of no longer being played each year.
The divisions would look like this if only one of Alabama or Auburn shifted:
|Ole Miss||South Carolina|
By moving both Alabama and Auburn to the East and Missouri and Vanderbilt to the West, most of that is avoided (Alabama-Mississippi State would still be lost) but it may make the East too strong in a similar state as the current West. The divisions would stack up like this if that were to happen:
There is the option in this scenario of moving one of Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee with Missouri over to the West instead of Vanderbilt to help keep each division similarly competitive, but that would involve messing up multiple rivalries much in the same way as the first option.
Neither of these options are perfect, but I lean toward the first one, moving Auburn to the East. It rectifies the divisional imbalance in the SEC and most of Alabama’s big rivalries are with teams in the West whereas Auburn has several rivalries in the East. In this scenario, only Alabama-Tennessee would be lost, which is unfortunate, but if that is the only loss for more competitive divisions in the nation’s foremost conference, so be it.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Bring Back Legends and Leaders! (But Don’t Call It That)
Remember Legends and Leaders? For those who don’t, that was what the Big Ten named its two divisions when it switched to a divisional format in 2011. For three years, these silly names adorned the tops of the divisions of one of college football’s proudest conferences. Then, when Maryland and Rutgers joined the conference in 2014, the Big Ten shook up its divisions based on geography and renamed them East and West.
Since then, the East division has become loaded with the conference’s best teams. Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State are three of the best programs in the country, and although Michigan State had a poor 2016, it has been one of the country’s better programs during the past decade. Meanwhile in the West, only Wisconsin has been consistently strong.
The talent gap between the East and West has become too wide, and there is an easy way to rectify that. The Big Ten should simply return to the divisional structure of the Legends and Leaders period, adding in Maryland and Rutgers to each division. That structure would look like this:
|Division A||Division B|
By returning to this format, three of the top teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Penn State) will go to one division, and two will go to the other (yes, I’m counting Michigan State here despite their dreadful 2016 because the Spartans finished 11-3 or better five of the six seasons before that). The division with two top teams gets a better assortment of mid-tier teams and Rutgers. The division with three gets Maryland and the rest of the mid-to-low tier teams.
This creates a much better balance of power between divisions and worked well enough as a format in the past, providing a blueprint of how to schedule in the future. Michigan and Ohio State can maintain their annual rivalry as crossover opponents, as can Wisconsin and Minnesota. Better competition is always better for the fans, and the teams. This works much better than the current structure.
The divisions are no longer geographically correct so East and West will need to be changed. Call them whatever you like, just don’t call it Legends and Leaders again.
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