November 29, 2020

Returning to Conference Alignment Sanity

The case for college athletic conferences to make geographic sense again.

Ten years ago, the University of Colorado and the University of Nebraska left the Big 12 Conference, creating a domino effect across the college athletics landscape, before the realignment fervor largely settled in 2014. Since that move, the Big Ten, ACC, and SEC have become 14-member institutions, while the Pac 12 is now at 12 members, and the Big 12 only with ten members. The Big East has ceased to exist as a football conference.

Subsequently, leagues have seen great windfalls from cable revenue. These coveted cable deals led most moves for these schools and leagues, creating large footprints for these cable-viewing audiences.

Today, the Big Ten Conference stretches from Nebraska to New Jersey, and the SEC from Texas to South Carolina. These large geographic footprints make sense TV-wise, but create Saturday football match-ups that leave much to be desired, not to mention rigorous mid-week travel for sports not on the gridiron.

Since the last round of conference realignment, the demand for cable subscriptions has plummeted as new streaming services have begun to dominate the college sports landscape. No longer are conferences looking simply for subscriptions, but actually looking for viewers and ratings for specific match-ups and dates on a calendar. Suddenly, a Nebraska vs Rutgers matchup isn’t so coveted.

The time to return conferences to some geographic and cultural sensibility is now.

The following scenario returns college football to six power conferences with 12 members each. Conferences larger than 12 members often struggle to create cohesion across divisions, while leagues smaller than 12 cannot create a legitimate conference championship game. The leagues were developed with the following factors in mind:

Geography

Proximity to other member schools, historical rivalries, potential for new rivalries and common metropolitan areas where fans live.

School Type & Culture

Whether a school is public or private, but also if a school is more of a statewide-oriented or city-oriented school.

Balance of competition

While some geographic areas are simply too talent-rich to be completely balanced, some moves were made to ensure that leagues had enough perennial programs to warrant “Power Six” status.

The New Alignment

Travis Halm | The Tailgate Society

Pac 12

This new alignment of the Pac 12 Conference includes the additions of Boise State, BYU, San Diego State, and UNLV.

BYU is argued by many to be capable of a jump already to a Power Five level, and fits well in this current alignment. San Diego State is located in a major metropolitan area, which lost the Chargers and could use a team to watch in the fall. UNLV has phenomenal facilities for major sports and existing rivalries with BYU and San Diego State.

North Division

Boise State

BYU

Oregon

Oregon State

Washington

Washington State

South Division

California

San Diego State

Stanford

UCLA

UNLV

USC

The Pac 12 in this configuration would not need any protected rivalry games.

This alignment includes and restores the following rivalries:

BYU vs UNLV

Boise State vs BYU

UNLV vs San Diego State

Potential for new geographic rivalries:

Washington State vs Boise State

San Diego State vs USC & UCLA

Everybody vs UNLV (Vegas trip!)

Football championship game location: Santa Clara, CA (Levi’s Stadium)

Conference basketball tournament location: Las Vegas

Big 12

This league could have been named the Southwest Conference as well, given the history behind the name and the geography of members. Colorado has not found success in its current Pac 12 home, while Arizona and Arizona State are often rumored to be looking for greener pastures due to cultural and political fit, along with lackluster national exposure.

The Big 12 currently has a relatively small geographic footprint, so adding these mountain timezone schools to the league enhances that footprint without being ridiculous or creating travel nightmares.

West Division

Colorado

Kansas

Kansas State

Oklahoma

Oklahoma State

Utah

East Division

Arizona

Arizona State

Baylor

TCU

Texas

Texas Tech

Protected cross-division games:

Texas vs Oklahoma (Red River Shootout)

Potential for new geographic rivalries:

Colorado vs Arizona & Arizona State

Utah vs Arizona & Arizona State

Football championship game location: Dallas or Phoenix

Basketball tournament location: Kansas City

Big Ten

This Big Ten alignment consists of Midwestern “state schools,” while geographically sharing a footprint with the Big East, featuring more city-oriented, private, and East Coast schools.

Former Big Eight and Big 12 schools Missouri and Iowa State (coupled with Nebraska) have historic rivalries, along with geographic locations conducive to easy travel, meaningful games, and metropolitan areas where fans exist together with other Big Ten schools.

By adding these schools, the league maintains a Midwestern footprint while boasting insanely loyal fanbases. You’ll notice that Rutgers and Maryland are nowhere to be found.

West Division

Iowa

Iowa State

Minnesota

Missouri

Nebraska

Wisconsin

East Division

Illinois

Indiana

Michigan

Michigan State

Ohio State

Purdue

Protected cross-division games:

Minnesota vs Michigan (The Little Brown Jug)

Missouri vs Illinois (The Arch Rivalry)

This alignment also includes and restores the following rivalries:

Iowa State vs Iowa (The CyHawk Game)

Nebraska vs Missouri

Iowa State vs Missouri (The Battle for the Telephone Trophy)

Potential for new geographic rivalries:

Iowa vs Missouri

Iowa State vs Minnesota

Football championship game location: Indianapolis

Basketball conference tournament location: Chicago, Milwaukee or Indianapolis

Big East

This newly reincarnated Big East was formed with two powerhouses in college football in mind: Notre Dame and Penn State. While the Big Ten goes more Midwestern and “state school” oriented, the Big East goes more private school and East Coast-oriented. Moving Penn State, albeit a state school, to the Big East, provides two mainstays to give competitive balance with other leagues.

Moving Northwestern from the Big Ten to the Big East moves them into a league which carries more similar sports, along with other private schools which have similar alumni and fanbases.

Overall, this new Big East Conference creates a cultural and geographic match that suits all members.

West Division

Cincinnati

Louisville

Northwestern

Notre Dame

Pittsburgh

West Virginia

East Division

Boston College

Maryland

Penn State

Rutgers

Syracuse

UConn

Protected cross-division games:

Pittsburgh vs Penn State

West Virginia vs Maryland

Notre Dame vs Boston College

This alignment also includes and restores the following rivalries:

Pittsburgh vs West Virginia

Penn State vs Pittsburgh

Louisville vs Cincinnati

Syracuse vs UConn

Potential for new geographic rivalries:

Northwestern vs Notre Dame

Boston College vs UConn

Notre Dame vs Louisville

Penn State vs Maryland & Syracuse

Football championship game location: New York City (Meadowlands, New Jersey)

Conference basketball tournament location: New York City

ACC

This scenario adds the University of Central Florida to the ACC, while losing northern conference members back to the Big East Conference. Many historical rivalries remain as the league is largely unchanged.

North Division

Duke

NC State

North Carolina

Virginia

Virginia Tech

Wake Forest

South Division

Central Florida

Clemson

Florida State

Georgia Tech

Miami

South Carolina

Potential for new geographic rivalries:

Central Florida vs Florida State & Miami

Football championship game location: Charlotte

Conference basketball tournament location: Greensboro

SEC

Two key thoughts came to mind while creating this SEC: Texas A&M and the Eastern Division.

Texas A&M has seen a massive uptick in donations, revenue and recruiting power, making them a solid success story in the last round of realignment. The Aggies have found their identity outside of the shadow left by the Unviersity of Texas, and most Aggies are probably okay staying in the SEC while Texas is in the Big 12.

Aligning in divisions has been a challenge since Texas A&M and Missouri joined the league in 2012. Although this scenario leaves Missouri and South Carolina out of the SEC, the alignment of divisions still remains a challenge. Alabama and Auburn perennially compete for the SEC Championship but also play each other during the final game of the season every year. Is the Iron Bowl worth having SEC Powerhouses of Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Florida in the same division? An alternative division arrangement is located below.

West Division

Arkansas

LSU

Mississippi State

Ole Miss

Texas A&M

Vanderbilt

East Division

Alabama

Auburn

Georgia

Florida

Kentucky

Tennessee

Protected cross-division games (original proposed alignment):

Alabama vs LSU

Tennessee vs Vanderbilt

Alternative Scenario (with protected cross-division games)

Below is an alternative division alignment with competitive balance in mind. This scenario splits Ole Miss and Mississippi State, who do not historically have championship-caliber programs in the same years often.

Travis Halm | The Tailgate Society

Alabama vs LSU

Auburn vs Georgia

Ole Miss vs Mississippi State

Tennessee vs Florida

Football championship game location: Atlanta

Conference basketball tournament location: Nashville

While this reconfiguration of conferences doesn’t fix all issues with conferences or bring back every rivalry we currently miss from the past, this six-conference, 12-team configuration fixes many issues we see in college athletics today. As the cable era fades, aligning football for fans and rivalries again will be of utmost importance.

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Travis Halm 36 Articles
Staff Writer

Travis Halm is an Iowa State Alum living in Omaha, Nebraska. A native of Haverhill, Iowa, Travis has lived throughout the Midwest and in Texas, providing him insight on the Big 12, the SEC, and a wide variety of other sports topics. Travis follows the Cyclones closely, in addition to the Cardinals, Packers, Texas A&M and rarely turns down a ticket to a good sporting event.

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