Sports aren’t static. There are ebbs and flows, rule changes, and in the case of college football, realignment. We like to think things have Always Been Done This One Way, but that’s the farthest thing from the truth. When you look back at the sport 50 years ago, the changes are obvious. But if you look back just over a decade to 2003, the sport has undergone a seismic shift since then.
Since this is the offseason and thought exercises like this are fun, let’s take a look at how college football would have looked if the teams from 2015 were still aligned like they were in 2003. We’ll be using S&P+ from 2015 to determine the standings, and for the sake of simplicity, let’s not get into how realignment would have affected schedules and records.
Not a lot different going on here, with Maryland decidedly in the middle of the pack. Louisville is the highest-rated team that joined the ACC after this, slotting between Florida State and UNC in S&P+.
The Big 12 has changed a great deal over the past decade-plus. The biggest change — and continuing source of uncertainty — is the lack of a title game. In that respect, things look very different here. The game might not have been particularly close this year, but it would’ve been fun to see old Big Eight rivals Nebraska and Oklahoma square off in the Big 12 championship game. Another big difference: Texas all the way at the bottom of the Big 12 South standings.
One thing that wouldn’t have changed: The Big 12 North is still bad.
Yeah, adding Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska to this mix didn’t change much.
So this is where things start to get interesting. This conference was frequently the butt of jokes at the end of its life, but this is a pretty respectable roster of schools.
Here we go. Conference USA has suffered due to conference realignment, more so than probably any other conference still in existence as a football entity (Sorry, Big East and WAC). The ACC raided the Big East in 2005, and as a result, the Big East came for Conference USA. Louisville, Cincinnati and USF left for the Big East in 2005, TCU jumped to the Mountain West and Army went independent all in the same year. The conference filled in from below, but the decline had already begun.
By the time dust settled on realignment in 2014, the only original member of Conference USA from 1996 was Southern Miss. Think about that. Over the course of just a decade, conference membership changed so much that only one school is still around. There would be two, but UAB will rejoin the conference in 2017 after the short-lived decision to shutter the program was reversed.
In an era of college football conferences inking massive TV contracts, Conference USA became the outlier. The numbers aren’t finalized, but member schools will reportedly make $500,000 less under their new deal, the only conference to see its payout go down. Considering the conference’s makeup is one original team, new FBS programs and the bottom tiers of the Sun Belt and WAC, it’s not difficult to see why demand for the product is so low.
The MAC was quiet during the most recent round of realignment, so it’s easy to forget that both Marshall and UCF had brief stints in the conference. Their disastrous 2015 season aside, UCF would have often been the best team in the conference for the past few years.
The histories of the WAC and the Mountain West are difficult to pull apart. The Mountain West formed in 1999 when teams broke away from the WAC after the conference had expanded following the breakup of the Southwest Conference. The tops of these conferences were very good, but the middle and bottoms have been poor for a long time.
When the WAC dissolved, it was the Mountain West that absorbed many of its teams, but if you look at the WAC table, you can see how this became another problem for Conference USA.
Utah was a hot starter for the Pac-12 in 2015, but its regression back to the pack means this exercise doesn’t really change much for the conference’s hierarchy.
Adding Missouri and Texas A&M to the mix doesn’t alter this at all.
The Sun Belt and Conference USA stand as a study in opposites in terms of how realignment affected them. The Sun Belt served as something of a feeder for Conference USA when programs were switching conferences, but rather than Conference USA benefiting at Sun Belt’s expense, something else happened. The Sun Belt got better.
The conference made a pair of extremely shrewd additions in former FCS heavyweights Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. The two programs made the jump to the FBS level and immediately started winning. Another newcomer, Georgia State, has had a much bumpier ride, but the Panthers made their first-ever bowl game in 2015.