We've finally reached a point where conference realignment rumors don't own the college football offseason -- for now, at least -- but the national landscape is still in a state of transition, with three and a half major moves still to come as Louisville joins the ACC, and Rutgers and Maryland join the Big Ten officially on July 1 (and Notre Dame's football team begins its partial marriage to the ACC this season).
Maryland and Rutgers face particularly steep challenges, and we've already seen transitions covering the entire spectrum, from great (Texas A&M) to decent (Nebraska) to mediocre (Pitt) to disastrous (West Virginia), with a lot to learn about them all in coming years. Regardless, everyone in the five power conferences can feel secure knowing they have strong access to the College Football Playoff bowl rotation, as well as impending decision-making autonomy within the NCAA.
With so many moving parts, here's a guide to who's on the move and what college football looks like in 2014 -- keeping in mind that this analysis deals only with football impact.
How It Will Go
1. Notre Dame partially to the ACC. Notre Dame generally gets what it wants, and even when the dominoes began falling toward the demise of the Big East -- the Fighting Irish's non-football partner -- and the importance of association with one of the big five leagues, the Irish maintained a sliver of their cherished football independence by compromising with the ACC. The entire college football world would be better off had Notre Dame and the Big Ten finally put their differences aside, but instead now we get five games against ACC opponents (eventually; it's four this year) while the Irish are free to continue their independent scheduling for seven games. Notre Dame won't be a factor in the ACC standings, but its association with the ACC gives it a connection with the league's bowl lineup, strengthening its postseason opportunities in the playoff era after being stuck without a guaranteed tie-in last season. The result was the best of both worlds from the Notre Dame perspective: Maintain a place in the power structure, while also maintaining its own power with its NBC TV deal and flexible national scheduling. The loss of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry will be an undesirable byproduct, but adding rotating games against Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson is a decent consolation.
2. Louisville to the ACC. Louisville enters the ACC's Atlantic division at an interesting time of change. It secured its place in the upper tier of the sport's power structure, completing a successful run as the athletic department thrives and reaches new heights. But now the football team must do two important things: Replace Teddy Bridgewater, and smoothly transition from the successful Charlie Strong to the second act of Bobby Petrino. And it must do so in what's now the stronger ACC division, at least at the top, with Florida State and Clemson winning the last three conference titles. There's no reason to believe Louisville will have a difficult transition, though. The athletic department has been on the upswing for years, and the last time Petrino was in Louisville the Cardinals finished 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. Given that emergence, Louisville to the ACC seems to be one of the best fits out of all this reshuffling.
3. Maryland to the Big Ten. Good luck with recruiting, Maryland. The D.C. area is relatively fertile ground, but the Terrapins face a monumental task in trying to keep the best players home. They now share the Big Ten East division with Ohio State -- the best program in the north with national pull, Urban Meyer as head coach and now the region's best recruiter, new defensive line coach Larry Johnson -- and Penn State, who lost Johnson but hired head coach James Franklin, a recruiting force who was previously Maryland's coach-in-waiting (plus, former Maryland head coach Ralph Friedgen was hired as Rutgers' offensive coordinator). The good news is that the Terps' current roster is in its best shape of the Randy Edsall era, which began with a rash of transfers and over the last two years has been plagued by an injury epidemic. They can't compete for a division title this year, but fueled by the returns of receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, there's hope to pull off a surprise or two. If not, Edsall -- who has improved from 2-10 to 4-8 to 7-6 in three years -- could be on shaky ground.
4. Rutgers to the Big Ten. Rutgers has been a walking disaster ever since the Big Ten rescued it from a diminished American Athletic Conference future. The school invested heavily in big-time football, and now at least it could pay off financially in the Big Ten, which has the piles of TV money to make old problems go away. Everything else, though, has been problematic, from the Mike Rice scandal that cost athletic director Tim Pernetti his job, to the endless string of screw-ups by new AD Julie Hermann. On the field, Kyle Flood is likely coaching for his job. After a 9-4 debut, he fell to 6-7 in the American last year, with blowout losses to Houston, UCF and Cincinnati; a loss to lowly UConn; and a near-loss to Temple. Amid that disappointment, Rutgers' offense never found any sort of rhythm. Now in the same division as Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and Penn State, the road gets a whole lot tougher.
How It's Going
1. Texas A&M in the SEC. Missouri has a division title to its credit, but Texas A&M is in position for sustained long-term success. Always a sleeping giant, Texas A&M has benefitted from a perfect confluence of events: the move to the SEC, the hiring of Kevin Sumlin and the discovery that Johnny Manziel was an unexpected football genius. But that was only Part I. The Aggies move past the Manziel era with a Heisman Trophy, a greatly increased national profile and a decent 20-6 record in their rearview mirror over the last two years. Only now will we start to see where the program is actually heading, as Sumlin's recruiting hauls begin making a greater impact. It's a tough road in the SEC West, where Texas A&M may be projected to finish fourth or worse heading into 2014, but with an expanded stadium and Sumlin's recruiting prowess, it's a good time to be an Aggie.
2. Missouri in the SEC. Injuries helped make the Tigers' 5-7 SEC debut in 2012 a bit misleading, and last year saw Gary Pinkel move from a perceived hot seat to a surprise SEC East championship. Yes, Missouri took advantage of an SEC East weakened by injuries elsewhere -- Georgia, Florida -- and the continued struggles of Tennessee, but still, the Tigers were worthy division championships with an explosive offense and a handful of star defensive players. Many important pieces are gone, including defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, quarterback James Franklin, tailback Henry Josey, receiver L'Damian Washington and recently jettisoned receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, but that doesn't mean the Tigers will revert back to 2012 levels. Pinkel still has a solid core in place, and while the long-term upside isn't as high as Texas A&M, Missouri can continue to be competitive in the SEC East.
3. Nebraska in the Big Ten. Aside from its opponents and greater access to television money, little has really changed for Nebraska since joining the Big Ten. Bo Pelini lost four games in each of his three seasons in the Big 12, and he's done the same in the Big Ten, putting the Cornhuskers in a weird state of decent repetitiveness. But Nebraska remains a good fit for the Big Ten culturally, and it now stands as the clear power, historically, in the new Big Ten West. Nebraska got out of the unhappy marriage with the Texas-dominated Big 12 and into a more equitable relationship with the richer Big Ten, and while everyone misses the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, the Big 12 had already killed it off as an annual event. A move to the Big Ten made perfect sense both then and now.
4. Pittsburgh in the ACC. Nobody has done anonymous mediocrity quite like Pitt since the turn of the century. Even when the Panthers made their one BCS appearance, in 2004, they finished 8-4 and became the first team to lose to a non-AQ team in a BCS bowl when they were demolished by Utah. The last four years, they've finished 27-25, with three BBVA Compass Bowls followed by the Little Caesars Bowl. The revolving door of coaches has settled on Paul Chryst for now, though, and despite the loss of all-everything defensive tackle Aaron Donald, he has some talent to work with in a wide-open ACC Coastal in which everyone but Virginia could conceivably win the division. With a pair of potential star sophomores on offense in wideout Tyler Boyd and running back James Conner, there is some hope that the Panthers emerge from this rut in the next year or two.
5. Syracuse in the ACC. The Orange are currently in a similar situation to Pitt, only they face a steeper road to a division title in the Atlantic with Florida State, Clemson and Louisville. The good news is that Doug Marrone rescued them from the perilous Greg Robinson era, and Scott Shafer at least kept the ship steady in his first year in the jump to the ACC, going 7-6 with a Texas Bowl win. Of course, Syracuse lost to Clemson, Florida State and Georgia Tech by a total score of 164-17, so clearly the Orange are not ready to compete for a division title yet.
6. TCU in the Big 12. No, it has not been particularly easy or successful. Despite its second-class status as a roving member of mid-major leagues (WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, briefly the Big East without playing a game) since the demise of the Southwest Conference 20 years ago, TCU did seem adequately equipped to fit right in with the Big 12, but it hasn't exactly happened that way. After going 47-5 in their last four seasons in the Mountain West, including a Rose Bowl win, the Horned Frogs debuted in the league with a 7-6 record, then plummeted to 4-8 last year -- their worst season since 1997. Still, TCU fits into the Big 12 as the best football school in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and it's hard not to have faith in Gary Patterson's ability to turn things around and get TCU going in the right direction again. As expected the defense has proven itself to be worthy of the challenge, ranking 13th in the nation last year in yards per play allowed. Now it's a matter of getting the offense up to Big 12 level.
7. Utah in the Pac-12. Utah's in a similar situation to TCU, only it's less of a cultural fit in its new conference than the Horned Frogs. The Utes won their way into a Pac-12 invite with Kyle Whittingham continuing the success of Urban Meyer, going 33-6 in the team's last three years in the Mountain West, including an undefeated season capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama in 2008. But the Utes hit a wall upon graduating to the Pac-12, first posting a stellar 8-5 debut but then finishing 5-7 each of the last two seasons. Whittingham isn't necessarily on the hot seat, but for the first time there is some pressure on him. Also like TCU, it's mostly a matter of finding a way to bring the offensive skill position talent up.
8. Colorado in the Pac-12. Colorado resides in a somewhat awkward geographic position that feels removed from both the Big 12 and the Pac-12; for a while it felt like the only big-time program surrounded by all the Mountain West and WAC teams. Of course, in the last several seasons, the Buffaloes probably would have finished near the bottom of the Mountain West, so it probably doesn't matter which conference they're in: The product just needs to get better, and it doesn't matter that they traded games against the Kansas schools in the Big 12 North for games against the Arizona schools in the Pac-12 South. The good news is that Mike MacIntyre successfully built San Jose State from nothing, improving from 1-12 in his debut to 10-2 when he left, and he already improved Colorado by three wins from 1-11 to 4-9 -- still bad, but no longer among the worst handful of teams in the country.
9. West Virginia in the Big 12. It all seemed like a reasonable idea back in the fall of 2011. The Mountaineers were on their way to their 10th straight bowl appearance, a Big East title and a 70-point effort against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, with a rising star coach in Dana Holgorsen. They even looked fantastic halfway into their Big 12 debut season in 2012 … and then everything collapsed. Since opening the 2012 season 5-0, capped by the WAC-style thriller against Baylor, West Virginia has gone 6-14. It even lost to Kansas and Iowa State last year within the conference, on top of a 37-0 embarrassment against Maryland. Holgorsen is still a bright offensive mind, but his time as a head coach may be nearing its end. That doesn't mean the long-term West Virginia/Big 12 marriage can't work, but in hindsight, we're left to wonder if the conference would have been better off inviting Louisville.
The 2014 Landscape
East: Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
West: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Texas A&M
The league's seven-year national title streak was snapped, but everything else is stable. The SEC is still the best conference in America, and it's keeping its eight-game conference schedule -- only requiring one game against power conference teams per season, which isn't much of a change. Texas A&M and Missouri have both proven to be valuable assets already, expanding the league's reach into Texas, giving it a Heisman Trophy winner and producing back-to-back Cotton Bowl winners. The perception of the league's strength of schedule can often be out of whack -- see Alabama last year -- but whether you measure conferences by depth or strength at the top, the SEC is still king. And with the nearing launch of the SEC Network, it's only going to occupy an even more powerful place in the landscape.
North: California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Washington, Washington State
South: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, USC, UCLA, Utah
The SEC is the sport's most powerful conference, but the Pac-12 might be the most interesting. The league has spent the past several years acquiring an intriguing roster of coaches, from the Air Raid of Mike Leach and Sonny Dykes to the spread running of Rich Rodriguez and Mark Helfrich to the power football of David Shaw to the wizardy of Chris Petersen, among others. Neither Colorado nor Utah did much for the league's chances of winning a national title and the idea of a Pac-16 superconference led by Texas didn't pan out, but everyone else seems to be getting better, creating depth to go along with the blend of coaching characters and diversity of schemes.
3. Big 12
Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia
The Big 12 survived that period of uncertainty in which rumors ran rampant about its potential demise, and while its losses are hardly minor -- Nebraska, Missouri, Texas A&M and a conference championship game ... and, well, Colorado -- it maintains a fairly steady place in the national hierarchy. With a 10-team lineup that includes Kansas and Iowa State, it has little chance of matching the SEC's depth, but in any given season the teams at the top could be just as good, especially if Charlie Strong turns Texas around.
4. Big Ten
East: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State, Rutgers
West: Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin
The Big Ten successfully added television sets, so there's that. After adding the prestige that comes with Nebraska in a football move, the conference balanced it out with a TV move, expanding its reach further into the D.C./Baltimore and New York/New Jersey markets by adding Maryland and Rutgers for this season. Even if nobody cares about Rutgers in the New York area, there are still plenty of Big Ten Network subscriber fees to be had in New Jersey. The on-field product has had its problems over the last decade, but that doesn't mean the product isn't still incredibly popular and lucrative.
Atlantic: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, N.C. State, Syracuse, Wake Forest
Coastal: Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech
The ACC made a couple middling football (but great basketball) moves by adding Syracuse and Pitt, then got a football upgrade when Louisville replaced Maryland. Throw in Notre Dame's weird half association to create a few more high-profile games every year, and the ACC occupies satisfactory territory, even if it's at the bottom of the five power conferences. And, hey, epth is a secondary issue when the league can ride Florida State to a national championship.
Cincinnati, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Temple, Tulane, Tulsa, UCF, USF
Yes, that's nine former Conference USA members, including newest additions East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa. Navy will join in 2015 to bump the league to 12 teams and open the door for a championship game. The good news is that UCF, Cincinnati, Houston and East Carolina are all pretty solid programs right now, so the league has teams capable of beating power conferences opponents; it just doesn't have any power as a whole anymore.
7. Mountain West
Mountain: Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State, Wyoming
West: Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, San Diego State, San Jose State, UNLV
TCU, Utah and BYU are gone, but the Mountain West solidifed its standing by absorbing the best parts of the WAC and keeping Boise State. The departure of Chris Petersen tosses Boise into a period of uncertainty, but otherwise the Mountain West continues to be similiar to what it's always been: not particularly deep, but capable of producing a couple top 25 contenders every year. Keep an eye on Utah State as quarterback Chuckie Keeton returns from an ACL tear.
East: Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Kent State, Massachusetts, Miami (OH), Ohio
West: Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo, Western Michigan
There have been some changes, with the brief stay by Temple and the impending departure of UMass after the 2015 season. But they were fake MAC schools anyway. The heart of the league is in the Rust Belt, and that core has remained unchanged through realignment. No, none of the bigger conferences want them, but that's OK. The league's entertaining and comofortable as is.
9. Conference USA
East: Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, Old Dominion, UAB, Western Kentucky
West: Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Rice, Southern Miss, UTEP, UTSA
Mash five Sun Belt teams with some FBS newcomers and a few holdovers and you get the modern Conference USA, which has lost any identity it may have previously had. The number of people in America who can name the members of each division is probably about six, and the baffling and abrupt demise of Southern Miss football doesn't help its stature. Old Dominion has made the transition from the FCS level, and UNC Charlotte will follow in the next couple years.
10. Sun Belt
Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, South Alabama, Texas State, Troy
The Sun Belt can be considered a winner simply because it avoided the WAC's fate and is still breathing, even if it ended up taking on the WAC's two worst programs, Idaho and New Mexico State. There's at least some intrigue here: Louisiana-Lafayette may be a legit top-25 contender in 2014, and Appalachian State begins life as an FBS team with a trip to Ann Arbor in August
Army, BYU, Navy, Notre Dame
The numbers are getting even smaller. Notre Dame's only partially independent now, and Navy will pack its bags for the American Athletic Conference next year. That leaves Army, which opted for the scheduling flexibility that comes with independence and left Conference USA 10 years ago, and BYU, which faces potential scheduling frustration thanks to the nine-game conference schedules already present in the Big 12 and Pac-12, coming to the Big Ten and potentially coming to the ACC.
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