Grading the Winners & Losers of the 2021 Conference Realignment Saga

Nearly a year ago, the news that Oklahoma and Texas were leaving the Big XII for the SEC broke out and shook the college football world. The impending dominoes that fell as a result were pivotal to how the sport’s landscape was going to change.

College athletics, especially college football, are about to change forever as these new conferences form. Here’s how we got here:

Big XII —> SEC
Texas & Oklahoma

The Longhorns and Sooners made a big splash last summer when news leaked of their impending plans to ditch many of their longstanding conference foes. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey can be given much of the credit, as the invites for Oklahoma and Texas were kept mostly under wraps for the duration of the talks.

American —> Big XII
Cincinnati, Houston, & UCF

The initial response of news media across the country was centered around how the Big XII was going to be broken up. Who was the Big Ten going to poach? What about the Pac-12 and ACC? By most accounts, the disbanding of the Big XII was a done deal. Credit Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby for maintaining the ship and grabbing some high profile teams.

Cincinnati, who made the College Football Playoff (CFP) months after announcing their impending move, was a huge PR win for the Big XII, who failed to qualify a team for the second straight year. Houston, who has been long overdue for a Power Five invite, has also shared success in major sports such as football and basketball. UCF, one of the more polarizing teams in college football, has arguably had the most success (along with Cincinnati) from a Group of Five standpoint over the past five seasons.

FBS Independence —> Big XII
BYU

Stints in the old WAC and Mountain West conferences have been successful for the Cougars, who now bring their independent success, fanbase, and location back to conference affiliation.

Conference USA —> American
UAB, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, Rice, & UTSA

The American was formed out of the ruins of the Big East during the conference realignment period of the early-2010s. The conference has been ahead of the pack in the Group of Five, mainly thanks to the locations of their affiliates. Large metropolitan areas have been the focus for new additions, and the six new members from Conference USA will keep up with just that.

Conference USA —> Sun Belt
Marshall, Old Dominion, & Southern Miss

Conference USA struggled the most after the American poached six members to recoup their losses. The Sun Belt made their move as well, taking three other members who will fit nicely into the expanding Sun Belt.

Colonial Athletic Conference (FCS) —> Sun Belt
James Madison

The addition of FCS powerhouse James Madison, who won an FCS title in 2016, a women’s lacrosse title in 2018, and advanced to the College Softball World Series last season was a huge victory for the Sun Belt. The James Madison FCS to FBS jump brought the conference to 14 teams.

FBS Independence —> Conference USA
Liberty & New Mexico State

Conference USA was nearly out of options after the loss of nine conference members. So, Commissioner Judy MacLeod looked toward independent FBS members. Liberty has had some success in recent years while New Mexico State has been one of the worst teams in the FBS.

ASUN & WAC (FCS)—> Conference USA
Jacksonville State (ASUN) & Sam Houston State (WAC)

The move to add two prominent FCS schools in Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State, who won an FCS title in 2020, was the best that Conference USA could do as the realignment dust began to settle.

Conference Realignment Grades:

SEC: A+

Whenever conference realignment is discussed, usually one domino has to fall first – that happened to be the Oklahoma and Texas departures to the SEC. The move solidified the SEC as the powerhouse of FBS football and will probably bolster the conference over the Big Ten in terms of gross revenue once the Longhorns and Sooners venture east.

The Oklahoma and Texas news was a shock to most, which could propel future blockbuster moves in the future.

Sun Belt: A

Throughout all the chaos occurring everywhere else in their region, the Sun Belt managed to lose zero football affiliates while also adding in three Conference USA members and one of the more successful, and FBS-eligible, FCS programs in James Madison.

On top of all that, all four new members will begin Sun Belt Conference football this upcoming fall. The Sun Belt will become a 14-team league and one of the premier Group of Five conferences.

Big Ten: A-

Nothing lost, nothing gained. For the conference that rakes in the most money annually, the Big Ten may not even be looking to expand. The 2011 addition of Nebraska brought in the nation’s most loyal fanbase, and additions of Rutgers and Maryland in 2014 brought in the New York and Washington, D.C. markets. As far as Midwest expansion goes, there may not be many opportunities left.

An interesting look for the Big Ten could be to reach into the ACC or Big XII, which would be hard to deny for any university that may be getting the opportunity. One thing is for certain, and that is that the Big Ten is secure in its current members.

Big XII B-

The Big XII lost its two most prominent universities and fanbases. But what the Big XII lost in college football staples, it gained in college football up-and-comers. Cincinnati’s CFP bid was a massive victory for the Big XII in 2021, as was Houston’s Birmingham Bowl win over Auburn and UCF’s Gasparillo Bowl win over Florida. The addition of BYU is also looking to be a success, as the Cougars went 5-0 against the Pac-12 this past season.

The Big XII’s four additions will bring the conference to an even twelve teams, but with Oklahoma and Texas’ departure on a slight hold, the 2023 and 2024 seasons could include 14 teams competing in the conference. The Big XII should be weary of possible Big Ten expansion west, with Kansas being a rumored target.

ACC: B-

The ACC also lost and gained nothing through this conference realignment period. An Eastern Standard Time war between the Big Ten and SEC could become problematic down the road, but the Big Ten has luckily remained quiet.

A media rights deal that has ACC teams locked in until 2035 probably kept them out of this round of realignment, and the odds of snatching up Notre Dame once and for all are looking slim for the time being.

American: C+

The American lost three of their staple programs in Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF. Memphis looks to be the most likely future exit if the ACC or Big XII look to grow. Luckily for the American, they remain the most lucrative of the Group of Five suitors and were able to poach six Conference USA teams.

The conference’s landscape is vast, so a push for future expansion could be an option. However, the Sun Belt’s university retention and expansion to 14 teams – many of which are in the same region as some of the AAC teams – could become problematic.

MAC: C

The MAC has been the least talked about conference in terms of expanding and disbanding. The conference shares an almost entirely different landscape than the shared regions where the American, Conference USA, and Sun Belt operate. Outside of Cincinnati in Ohio (who is moving to the Big XII anyway), the MAC schools share no common state with teams from another Group of Five conference.

With most schools sharing similar budgets and structures, along with Commissioner Joe Steinbrecher reiterating that the conference is not looking to expand, the MAC seems to be in a secure position despite missing out, or at the very least delaying, any word of expansion.

Mountain West: C

The Mountain West, surprisingly, was left untouched despite the Big XII and American needing a boost of membership. Air Force and Colorado State could still be on the board for either one of those conferences, but the most likely departure could be from Boise State.

If the Pac-12 looks to expand locally, San Diego State and other Mountain West teams could be future targets. In the future, a North Dakota State / South Dakota State jump from the FCS could become a possibility, but geography continues to be a roadblock. Geography is also a roadblock for the current Mountain West members, who are separated much more than their eastern Group of Five counterparts.

Pac-12: C-

Like the ACC and Big Ten, the Pac-12 also lost and gained no members. The window is still open for speculated teams like Boise State or other Mountain West affiliates, but unfortunately conference realignment couldn’t have came at a worse time for the Pac-12. The conference’s media rights deals with ESPN and Fox are set to expire in 2024, which could be the final year of Oklahoma and Texas Big XII football, which could prompt the Big XII to make another move.

With Boise State announcing their Athletics Master Village, their move to a Power Five conference looks imminent. Memphis is also being eyed as a future Power Five member, most likely joining their American Conference partners in a future move to the Big XII.

Conference USA: D-

Nobody came out of the current realignment period more dismantled than Conference USA. With nine teams leaving for the American or the Sun Belt, the additions of two FBS independents (Liberty and New Mexico State) and two FCS teams (Jacksonville State and Sam Houston State) will unlikely make up the financial ground.

It’s important to note that Conference USA-loyalists Middle Tennessee, FIU, and Western Kentucky all left the Sun Belt in 2013 and 2014 to join Conference USA.

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