Conference Realignment Moving Day 2014

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The date July 1st may not seem significant to the casual college football fan, however it marks a pivotal moment for a number of institutions as they officially transition or “join” a new conference. For legal reasons the majority of these new schools/conferences are prohibited from claiming membership with each other until this date. So when July 1st finally arrives, schools all over the country will be marking the date with celebrations and will begin selling conference affiliated memorabilia in their campus bookstores for the first time.

This year is particularly special because it is the last large-scale movement of FBS schools for the foreseeable future. Here are the FBS schools that will be changing conferences today.

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American Athletic Conference:

East Carolina: The Pirates come from one of the most oversaturated college football states in the nation. Starting in 2015 the state of North Carolina (population 9.8 million) will have seven FBS schools. While this may frighten other Group of Five (G5) schools, ECU has a strong local following and usually draws over 40k fans per game. That is an impressive turnout for G5 standards.

Tulane: It may seem hard to imagine now, but this was Tulane football back in the day.

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Tulane was a charter member of the SEC, and did what has since gone down as one of the dumbest moves in conference realignment, left the conference in 1966 to become an independent. Tulane will play its inaugural AAC season in a brand new stadium located on their main campus.

Tulsa: It is hard being the little guy, and no one knows that better than the University of Tulsa. With a total enrollment of 4,352 Tulsa has somehow managed to remain in the same division as the “Big Boys” since the early days of football.  Despite being the smallest university if all of FBS, the University of Tulsa has been very respectable in football lately. The Golden Hurricane has received eight bowl bids in the last eleven years.

Conclusion: The good news for the conference is that Navy joins as a football only member next year. The even better news is that the dust has settled among the Power-Five (P5). Due to this newfound stability it looks as if the AAC won’t have to worry about future raids for the next couple of years.

The conference can’t cry over the recent departures. While some of the AAC’s losses were tough to handle, others were a blessing in disguise. Gone is the prospect of having Temple, Boise State, and San Diego State in the same division.

The toxic internal rift caused by basketball-only and football-only members fighting over what realignment move to make next has disappeared.  No longer do these former C-USA schools have to deal with Providence, the old shot-caller of the Big East who wielded as much political power in the old Big East as Texas did in the Big 12.

We all knew that the fragile relationship between Southern football schools and Catholic basketball schools from the Northeast could only hold things together for so long before shattering. Now that the basketball/football split has come and gone, the conference is better off. With the internal resentment gone and no competing cultures, these schools can move forward together in the same direction and finally build an identity for the conference.

Despite the new name, the AAC is technically the legal successor to the Big East. The AAC retained the governing body, conference bylaws, and conference commissioner of its old conference. The AAC also retained the conference headquarters, which is located near Providence College.

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Atlantic Coast Conference:

Louisville: The Cardinals were destined to be an AAC school until Maryland gave them a once-in-a-generation opportunity. While the Cards found themselves in an incredibly lucky position of competing for a P5 opening after the Big 12 had signed a grant of rights preventing it from being raided, they didn’t exactly back into the ACC undeservingly. Louisville’s rise was the result of three decades worth of phenomenal coaching hires, incredible foresight by their administrators, and an abundance of luck that ultimately led them into the ACC.

Hiring Rick Pitino, Charlie Strong, and Bobby Petrino (twice) allowed Louisville to field competitive and nationally relevant teams in basketball and football. The construction of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium for football, and the KFC Yum! Center in basketball were signals of the absolute brilliance of the Louisville administration.

These two facilities were built with an emphasis on luxury seating and were built to be gorgeous. Louisville understood the changing attitudes in stadium/arena construction almost a decade in advance of most P5 schools.

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Due to this foresight, Louisville had the most profitable basketball arena in the nation and a football stadium that could also bring in an abundance of cash. Despite having a Big East TV contract payout that was significantly smaller compared to what the P5 schools were making, Louisville still managed to crack the top 25 in athletic revenue in their final years of the Big East/AAC.

Louisville was smart in the way they invested their resources and their past decision making is finally paying off. As a P5 member Louisville will now reap the benefits of their newfound status and will see growth in academics and athletics for many years to come.

With all of that being said, Louisville still owes a bunch of thank you cards to the following:

1. Maryland and the Big Ten for giving the Cardinals an opening in the ACC
2. Connecticut for burning so many bridges with the ACC during the 2003 conference realignment.
3. The Big 12 for taking West Virginia instead.
4. Boston College, Duke, Clemson, Florida State, & Syracuse for being staunchly against Connecticut’s inclusion into the ACC.

Conclusion: There is no replacement for a school like Maryland. Despite replacing the Terrapins with a hotter athletic program, there is no replacing what Maryland provided in academics and market footprint. Despite losing such a quality school, the ACC was incredibly lucky that they had Louisville to turn to.  Louisville was one of the few schools that the entire conference could rally around as a new member. Their duel success in football and basketball while also being a former Big East school with Southern roots managed to quell all of the competing factions (North, South, basketball, and football) within the ACC. If not for Louisville the ACC would of found itself in an extremely unstable situation.

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Big Ten:

Maryland: The move may be a hard pill to swallow for longtime Terrapin fans. However this move was the net result of several decades of demographical/cultural change affecting the state of Maryland. At the same time the University of Maryland as an academic institution was slowly evolving into a school whose academic style (large school, research heavy, post-grad emphasis, international branding) had become perfectly aligned with the Big Ten academic style while having less in common with the ACC academic style.

Maryland was an academic outlier and was facing critical athletic budget shortfalls surrounding their athletic program. It was ultimately a hard decision for the school to make. It takes a lot of convincing before a school can walk away from a major conference that it chartered at a time when it was relatively stable. Maryland ultimately had to make that decision and it came on the heels of what had become an unavoidable reality facing the UMD administration. Maryland simply no longer fit in with the ACC culturally or academically. The financial situation clearly helped push the move along, but at the end of the day this was the net result of several decades of change.

Rutgers: No school got a luckier draw than the Scarlet Knights. They essentially drew a royal flush and found a bid into their dream conference. Their only athletic accomplishment to speak of is playing the first collegiate football game ever. Other than that? A 1949 fencing national championship, a 1982 AIAW women’s basketball national championship, and a few cheerleading national championships. That’s it, that is about all I can point to justify this move athletically. So how they heck did this happen????

Terrific academics, particularly in area’s that Big Ten schools are renowned for?
An improving football program that missed postseason play just once since 2005?
The only FBS school in the 11th most populous state in the country with close proximity to New York City?

Okay I get it now…

Conclusion: All joking aside, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany quietly hit a grand slam with this move. Rutgers and Maryland fit in perfectly with the Big Ten academically. Both are located near decent recruiting grounds (which the Big Ten is in desperate need of). The two schools also have proximity to major cities (Baltimore, New York, & Washington).

Putting all that aside, what really makes this move so impressive is that Nebraska, Rutgers, and Maryland quietly are some of the most valuable TV additions the Big Ten can get. My favorite realignment blogger Frank The Tank wrote an article which stated that the four most valuable TV targets for the Big Ten were Texas, Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland. Oh and he published it two months before the Big Ten publicly invited Nebraska.

The “slow ten” jokes and comments about Maryland and Rutgers being horrible picks is making Delany cry all the way to the bank. Delany might have walked away with the best expansion moves yet in realignment. The beauty in all of this for the Big Ten is their current TV contract expires in 2016 (such convenient timing). We will soon see just how valuable these additions were.

If the Big Ten walks away with another blockbuster TV contract, Delany will have proven that he was playing chess while his P5 counterparts were playing Duck Duck Goose.

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The Monarchs are currently making an FCS to FBS transition. Western Kentucky meanwhile is just glad to be out of the Sun Belt. Next year Charlotte will become a full member.

It is amazing to see how badly this conference was gutted during realignment. A league that once had some impressive basketball and a number of football programs that have since gone on to do some amazing things has to restart from scratch. Conference realignment centered around football moves, but the ensuing chain reaction of moves ultimately hit conferences like C-USA the hardest.

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Sun Belt:

Idaho & New Mexico State: This pair of geographical outliers was lucky that the conference was willing to throw them a lifeline. They two will be joining the conference as football only members. Idaho and New Mexico State were previously independents and their move is a sign of how times have changed.

Three decades ago the independents were the strongest group of schools in college football. After 2015 there will be just four independents remaining (Army, BYU, Notre Dame, & UMASS).

Appalachian State & Georgia Southern: The pair of FCS rivals will be making the jump to FBS together. Appalachian State (ASU) is known nationally for its string of FCS National Championships and ruining Michigan’s 2007 season. Georgia Southern is not as nationally renowned as ASU, but they enter the conference with an opportunity to build a rivalry with in state conference member Georgia State.

Conclusion: Considering the limited options available to the Sun Belt Conference (SBC), the conference had to make do with the best that it could. They’re trying to work things out with 11 members for now, however it seems to go without saying that they will have to expand to 12 in the near future. The Sun Belt has tried to lure FCS James Madison to the league, but the Dukes so far have been uninterested. Unlike James Madison, Liberty University (LU) has a strong desire to make the jump to FBS, however it has been speculated that the SBC will only add LU only as a measure of last resort

Liberty has a strong amount of fan support and resources as compared to other potential FCS candidates. However the controversy surrounding the school that needs not to be mentioned will make a SBC bid for Liberty difficult.

That leaves Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky as the most likely FCS targets for the SBC. However recent developments with Massachusetts being slated to leave the Mid American Conference after the 2015 season will make them a possibility for the SBC. Like New Mexico State and Idaho, the Minutemen will be a struggling FBS independent looking for a football only lifeline to the SBC.

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