The whirlwind of recent conference realignment that began with the Big Ten poaching Nebraska from the Big 12 appears to be stabilizing. Next week, Louisville's entrance to the ACC and Maryland and Rutgers' moves to the Big Ten become official, putting a cap on this era of shifting among the five major leagues.
While many schools involved have only played one or two seasons in their new leagues, and others are yet to compete against their new rivals, based on what we know about these programs and how they fit in and impact their new leagues, we can generally identify the early winners and losers of realignment.
Here is our ranking of the 13 moves of recent power conference realignment, from the conference perspective.
13. TCU - Big 12; Joined in 2012
TCU has to be thrilled about its inclusion in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs announced their departure from the Mountain West in 2010, and were set to join the Big East until that conference was sent into a tailspin due to the announced departures of Syracuse and Pitt in September 2011. TCU switched its move to the Big 12 a few weeks later.
The Horned Frogs' move to the Big 12 made sense on paper; they are a Texas school going to a Texas-centric conference, and they had been extremely successful in football at the time that they made the switch. In 2011, Horned Frogs football was coming off three straight seasons of 11+ wins and two BCS games in a row, including a 13-0 2010 season that ended in a 21-19 Rose Bowl win over No. 4 Wisconsin.
In the Big 12, however, TCU has been a disappointment. In 2012, the team went 7-6 and 4-5 in conference, its worst season since 2004. TCU is also a non-factor in basketball, going without a tournament berth since 1998, and putting together a 2-34 record through two seasons in Big 12 play. TCU was brought in to bolster the league athletically, as the Horned Frogs don't do much to add to the Big 12's conference footprint. The league already has the state's flagship school in Texas, as well as Texas Tech and Baylor. Gary Patterson may turn Horned Frog football around, but the program will need to return to its early-2010's form to really make the desired impact on the league.
12. Rutgers - Big Ten; Joining in 2014
Rutgers has very little athletic history to speak of. The Scarlet Knights football program, while the oldest in the nation, has only been competitive for about eight years now, and failed to win one Big East or AAC title despite how weak that league was towards the end of Rutgers' tenure within it. The basketball program was a consistent doormat despite being in talent-rich New Jersey and in a top flight conference like the Big East. However, Rutgers is a short 40-mile drive from midtown Manhattan, and New York City, despite being anything but a college sports town, is still the apple of many a conference eye.
From Rutgers' perspective, the Big Ten move is a godsend. The AAC is untenable for any school with any major aspirations, and the Rutgers athletic department desperately needs to get out of a bad financial situation. According to a 2011 USA Today report, from 2006-2011, Rutgers spent over $115 million to balance its athletic budget. The nearly $47 million in subsidies on Rutgers' ledger in 2013 was tops in the nation among all athletic departments. The Big Ten is an extremely profitable league, and while it will take a while for Rutgers to break even, the move was a no-brainer for New Jersey's flagship school.
The question remains how competitive Rutgers can be in any sport. While TV households and the spreading of the Big Ten Network to New Jersey and New York is nice, the ultimate goal in adding a school should be to make a conference better. Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin's programs may lick their lips at the chance to sell some nearby games to New Jersey athletes, but how much will the fans enjoy Rutgers popping up on the annual schedule instead of a more interesting, competitive opponent from the other Big Ten division? If Rutgers competes at a Big Ten level, this is a good move, but if it just pads the bottom of the conference standings, Big Ten fans won't be happy.
11. Utah - Pac-12; Joined in 2011
Utah boasts nice history in both football and basketball, which made it an attractive addition for the Pac-12, along with Colorado, in 2011. The undefeated 2004 Utes, under Urban Meyer, became the first BCS Busters, blowing out Pitt in the Fiesta Bowl, and the 2008-09 Utes went 13-0, and defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 31-17. Utes basketball has four Final Fours to their name, most recently making the NCAA Tournament's final weekend in 1998 under Rick Majerus. From 1994-2005, the Utes made the NCAA Tournament every season except for one.
Unfortunately, like TCU in the Big 12, the Utes have struggled since joining the Pac-12. Utes football went a respectable 8-5 in its first season in the new league, but has put together back-to-back 5-7 seasons since, and basketball went 21-43 in its first two Pac-12 seasons before bouncing back a bit for a 21-12 (9-9) season and NIT berth in 2013-14. Where TCU is just another Texas school in a Texas conference, Utah adds a new state to the Pac-12, with a very solid fan base and a presence in the nation's No. 33 television market in Salt Lake City. Even despite last year's mediocre football season, attendance was right around, if not above, listed capacity for every game at Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah might not be the most exciting addition of this wave of conference expansion, but the Pac-12 doesn't likely have buyer's remorse, at least not yet. Utah needs to start competing in both major sports.
10. West Virginia - Big 12; Joined in 2012
For the first half of the 2012 football season, the addition of West Virginia looked like a masterstroke by the Big 12. Since then, it's been little more than a debacle. West Virginia opened that season 5-0 with wins over Baylor and Texas, and reached No. 5 in the country. Geno Smith, for a short time, was considered a Heisman favorite. The following week, Texas Tech dismantled the Mountaineers, and WVU's season spiraled out of control. The Mountaineers finished the season 2-5, and limped into the Pinstripe Bowl, where they lost to former conference rival Syracuse 38-14. Dana Holgorsen's program bottomed out in 2013, going 4-8, and 2-7 in Big 12 play.
The Mountaineers became competitors in the mighty Big East basketball conference under John Beilein, and kept the momentum going under Bob Huggins, but they've really struggled since joining the Big 12. In their first year, the Mountaineers went 13-19 and 6-12 in conference, their first sub-.500 season since 2002-03. Last season, WVU improved to 17-16, and won nine Big 12 games, but it was still a significant drop-off from where they were in the Big East.
West Virginia has a very strong, loyal fanbase, and good athletic history, but they are on a total island in the Big 12. Morgantown is around 1,400 miles from Austin and 1,135 from Norman. The shortest trip for WVU is an 860-mile trek to Ames for games against Iowa State. West Virginia isn't a huge television draw either. The state's biggest TV market, Charleston-Huntington, ranks 65th in the U.S.
9. Maryland - Big Ten; Joining in 2014
The addition of Maryland is very much in line with what the Big Ten was looking for in adding Rutgers. UMD has pull in the lucrative Washington D.C. (9th) and Baltimore (26th) markets. Of course, unlike Rutgers, Maryland has a strong history of success in both football and basketball, as well as a number of non-revenue sports, although it has struggled as of late.
Maryland football won nine games and finished a season ranked as recently as 2010, although it fired long-time coach and alum Ralph Friedgen after that season. Interestingly, Friedgen is now the offensive coordinator at Rutgers. Terrapins basketball won the 2002 NCAA Tournament, and has been a power at times, although it has struggled to replicate that success in recent years. The Terps won the ACC regular season in 2010, but haven't won two games in the NCAA Tournament since 2003. The Big Ten has emerged as a stronger basketball league than a football league, overall, but with their history and presence in two strong nearby basketball cities, the Terps should have a chance to compete on the court.
Like Rutgers, Maryland is relying on the move to the Big Ten to help it dig out of its financial woes as an athletic department, which recently had to cut eight varsity sports. UMD is expected to run a deficit until 2017-18, even after joining the new league. Unlike Rutgers, which left behind the AAC, a conference that did not look much like the Big East of years past, Maryland leaves a conference that it helped create, and decades-old rivalries against schools like Duke and Virginia.
While both recent Big Ten moves seem to be TV conscious more than anything else, Maryland has competed on the national level in football, basketball, and other sports in a way that Rutgers rarely has, which makes this move less curious from a Big Ten perspective.
8. Pittsburgh - ACC; Joined in 2013
The 2011 announcement that Syracuse and Pitt were joining the ACC, effectively killing off the Big East as we knew it, seems like it happened way more than three years ago, but at the time it came out of nowhere. In the Internet age where everything gets leaked ahead of time, the ACC grabbed two of the Big East's most valuable programs with barely a whisper about a move coming before the official announcement came.
Pitt, for better or worse, is an extremely consistent performer in both football and basketball. The Panthers have made six straight bowls, and 11 bowls since the year 2000. They're rarely a great team, and under Dave Wannstedt from 2005-2010, underachieved a bit compared to where the Panthers recruiting was ranked, but they are almost always decent. They also have more history than many realize. The Panthers have nine claimed national titles, and a Heisman winner, although many of those were before the modern era. Pitt football also brings Pennsylvania, and more specifically, the fertile Western Pennsylvania recruiting grounds, into the fold for the ACC. Pittsburgh itself is also the 23rd biggest media market in the United States.
In basketball, the Panthers were one of the strongest Big East programs in recent seasons, and have made the NCAA Tournament in all but one season since 2001-02. They've also spent at least one week ranked in each of those seasons, hitting the No. 1 rank in 2008-09. The Panthers have been plagued by a lack of success in the NCAA Tournament, however. They've only made it past the Sweet 16 three times, and their lone Final Four came in 1941.
Pitt isn't the sexiest addition that any conference has made, but the school is located in a big city and in a football-obsessed state, and they will rarely be uncompetitive in football and basketball, even if they aren't competing for national championships on a regular basis.
7. Colorado - Pac-12; Joined in 2011
Colorado would be much higher on this list if its football program could return to where it was in the 1990s. The Buffaloes took home a national championship in 1991, and won at least 10 games in 1989, 1990, 1994, 1995, 1996, and 2001. They've been an extreme disappointment recently, however, and have not had a winning season since 2005. Even worse, the Buffaloes only have four wins, and three Pac-12 wins, since switching leagues.
While football has bottomed out, CU basketball seems to be on the rise. Under Tad Boyle, the Buffs are 92-49, won the 2011-12 Pac-12 tournament, and have three straight NCAA Tournament berths under their belt. They may have competed for the top of the league in 2013-14 if not for an unfortunate injury to Spencer Dinwiddie in early January. The top of the Pac-12 is pretty wide open more often than not, and Colorado looks primed to be a factor in the league every season.
CU is the flagship school of the 22nd most populous state in the U.S., and gives the Pac-12 a presence in Denver, the 18th ranked media market in the country. Buffaloes football has been disappointing, but it has a good pedigree and there is reason to believe that it can bounce back to at least respectability. If that happens, the Buffaloes' inclusion in realignment looks even better.
6. Notre Dame - ACC (Partial Member); Joined in 2013
Notre Dame is probably the biggest name program that has switched leagues, but without a full commitment in football, we can't put it much higher than sixth from the ACC's perspective. The Irish do add a bit on the gridiron; five games a season against ACC schools is far more than the Big East ever got out of its affiliation with Notre Dame, and the ACC agreement seems to have far more teeth than the Big East's. Even though Notre Dame is not a consistent title contender, any time the Irish head to Clemson or host Florida State, it is going to be a big deal.
Notre Dame basketball is not nearly on the level of the football program, but it still has a strong following and gets some solid media attention. The Irish had a rough season in 2013-14 after the dismissal of Jerian Grant, one of the program's most talented scorers, midway through the year. Heading into last season, the Irish had made four straight NCAA tournaments and six in seven seasons. With the return of Grant to the line-up in 2014-15, they should be a bigger factor in ACC play.
While the ACC agreement is probably a better deal for Notre Dame than it is the conference, it was still an important move for the league. If there comes a time that ND decides that it cannot remain independent in football, the ACC now becomes the odds-on favorite to land the program, where most would have probably assumed that the Big Ten would be that league before this move. It may never happen, but allowing Notre Dame to participate in other sports, and still receiving five football games a year, is a worthy investment by John Swofford and the ACC leaders.
5. Syracuse - ACC; Joined in 2013
When Syracuse joined the ACC, fans got extremely excited for the possibilities for some incredible basketball. The first season with the Orange in the fold did not disappoint, especially if you work for ESPN. Syracuse and Duke played in two of the best games in the entire sport last season, and millions tuned in to watch the budding rivalry. The matchup accounted for two of the three highest rated games on ESPN last season. While Syracuse's season did not quite end as planned, with a round of 32 loss to Dayton, Jim Boeheim clubs are always contenders, and Syracuse should find itself at the top of the ACC standings for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, the league keeps giving us fans the SU-Duke matchups that we want.
Syracuse football did not disappoint in its first year as an ACC member either. The Orange have slowly but steadily been digging out of a deep hole left by the disastrous Greg Robinson era, but the program has seen gradual improvement through the Doug Marrone years and into what is now the Scott Shafer era. Despite a very ill-timed coaching change, and plenty of roster turnover from 2012, Syracuse under Shafer was able to win six games and go to the Texas Bowl, where the team defeated Minnesota. The Orange finished third in the Atlantic Division, behind only Florida State and Clemson. This year, the team returns most of its coaching staff, its starting quarterback in Terrel Hunt, and one of the most experienced rosters in the league. The Orange may not have the talent that Florida State or Clemson does, but another third place finish in the Atlantic and seven or eight wins should be attainable.
Syracuse is four hours north of New York City, but as anyone who has attended an SU basketball game at Madison Square Garden can attest, the school certainly has a presence there, as much as any college team can in a pro-town like New York. Syracuse doesn't make NYC an "ACC city", but combined with Notre Dame, Duke, UNC, Pitt, and other schools that are well represented there, as well as the fact that the ACC Tournament will be played at the Barclays Center in the future, the Orange help the ACC's cause. If there were any doubts about the effect that adding Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame would have on the ACC as a whole, check this graph from Virginia Tech blog Gobbler Country. League members took in $11.9 million in 2010, and $16.9 million in 2012. This season, ACC members received shares of $20.8 million, which came in above the projection in Gobbler Country's chart.
4. Missouri - SEC; Joined in 2012
In a strange turn, the SEC was actually Missouri's consolation prize. The school seemed to want to join the Big Ten, but 'settled' for the best football conference in the nation when it couldn't land there. SEC fans seemed worried that Mizzou would dilute the football product. In 2012, it looked like they may be right; the Tigers went 5-7 and only won two SEC games. Last season, Mizzou came out of nowhere to win the SEC East and the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State for a 12-2 record. While the Tigers aren't expected to repeat that this year, just proving that they could compete in the SEC that early in their tenure was important for the program's perception.
Before last season's NIT berth, Missouri had made five straight NCAA Tournaments under Mike Anderson and Frank Haith, a stretch that included two 30-win seasons and an Elite Eight. New coach Kim Anderson seems to have injected some life into the program, and after Florida and Kentucky, the SEC is an extremely manageable league, especially compared to the Big 12 which had a number of power programs. If Anderson works out, Missouri should be able to compete very early under Anderson.
Missouri is right between St. Louis and Kansas City, giving itself two strong, fairly local markets to deliver to the league. If they keep winning in football, and get back on track in basketball, the Tigers are a bit of an unexpected home run.
3. Nebraska - Big Ten; Joined in 2011
Nebraska's move from the Big 12 to Big Ten really broke open this wave of conference realignment in June 2010. By 2011, the Cornhuskers joined the league, and set off the chain of events that led to the rest of these moves.
Nebraska brought a big-time national football program, which has helped bolster what will be the Big Ten West starting this season. Nebraska has famously lost exactly four games every season for six straight seasons, but it does have a Legends division win under its belt. Nebraska isn't a huge state, but it was a powerhouse in the 1990s and has an amazing fan base, which is just as if not more valuable, and brings television sets in all the same. It also fits the rest of the Big Ten's profile very well as a big midwestern land-grant school, especially when compared to Maryland and Rutgers, who should experience a bit of culture shock.
The Huskers' athletic department has also shown that it wants to be competitive in other sports, especially basketball. The program moved to the brand new Pinnacle Bank Arena last summer, and wound up making its first NCAA Tournament since 1998 after going 11-7 in a very difficult Big Ten. The school also invested $19 million in a state-of-the-art basketball facility, helping coach Tim Miles make a long-dormant program competitive early in his tenure.
Nebraska, more than just about any other program on this list, seems like a totally natural fit, and is making big moves to ensure that it translates to wins on the field and the court.
2. Louisville - ACC; Joining in 2014
The ACC lost Maryland, an athletic department that hemorrhaged money, and replaced it with a school that was 18th in revenue last year despite receiving relatively-paltry AAC payouts in Louisville. The Cardinals basketball program has been the most valuable in the nation for three straight seasons, raking in almost $40 million this season, more than many power conference football programs. They add an elite program to a conference already full of them, and Rick Pitino's up-tempo style of play should energize the slow ACC from 2013-14.
Louisville has also proven that it can compete on the football field. While Charlie Strong has moved on to Texas, Bobby Petrino has a track record of success at Louisville, and while his hiring was controversial for many reasons, his ability to win high level college football is not one of them. Whether or not he can replicate the success of his last Louisville tenure or his run at Arkansas is a legitimate question, but it's not crazy to think that he will have Louisville playing very good football right away.
Louisville is a bit outside of the ACC's normal geographical landscape, and the league had to bend for the school's academics, though it continues to improve in those rankings. From a strict athletic standpoint, bringing in Louisville was like selecting the best player available, regardless of position, in a draft. The Cardinals might not fit every criteria, but if a team takes the best players available every year, they'll have a strong, well-rounded team before long. The ACC is certainly better in both major sports, and from a leadership prospective with athletic director Tom Jurich in the fold, after taking the Cardinals.
1. Texas A&M - SEC; Joined in 2012
Texas A&M seemed like a no-brainer selection for the SEC at the time that it was chosen, but few expected the Aggies to become one of the most powerful programs in the league right away. A lot of that success had to do with having a Heisman-level quarterback for the first two years, which makes a conference transition a bit easier, and there is reason to expect that the Aggies will come back to the pack a bit this season without Johnny Manziel. However, A&M fans should trust in Kevin Sumlin to keep the program from falling too far.
Texas A&M has sparked an instant rivalry with Alabama after two amazing games in their first two seasons in the SEC, which as fans, we hope stays competitive. The SEC now has a major presence in Texas, one of the premiere football factory states in the nation, which is a major win for all parties.
Aggies basketball isn't much to speak of at the moment, but it isn't too far removed from six straight NCAA Tournament berths from 2006-2011 in a tougher Big 12. The Aggies have won 18 games in each of their first two seasons in the SEC, so they're not quite in the basement of a very manageable conference. A few more wins and a big upset or two, and they could make some noise on the bubble.
A&M has a lot to prove in the post-Johnny Football era, but he and Sumlin have turned the program into one of the 'coolest' in the nation, and the benefits will likely show in recruiting, both for the program and the SEC as a whole, for years to come. There was little doubt that Texas A&M's move to the SEC would be one of the best of the last era of conference realignment, but it was hard to imagine that things could go this well, this soon after the move from the Big 12.