College football's game of conference musical chairs has taken a few more turns, and while it seems the music has stopped at least for the time being, things can perk up seemingly out of nowhere with these things.
This round was focused on the Group of 5 schools but resulted from the reverberations of the Big 12's plucking the Cincinnati Bearcats, UCF Knights and Houston Cougars from the American Athletic Conference in September. (The Big 12 also added independent BYU.) And those moves were the Big 12's reaction to the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners jumping ship for the SEC.
In the latest edition of "How the Conferences Turn," the American added six schools from Conference USA -- Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio -- and the Group of 5 conferences all were forced to reassess their situations and decide where to go from here. C-USA responded by adding four schools -- Liberty, Jacksonville State, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State -- for the 2023 season.
So where do things stand and what is next for conference realignment? ESPN reporters answer key questions for each conference and what the next steps might be for each. The timing of the moves is subject to change, but we've included a snapshot of the future comings and goings as they stand.
Movers and shakers
Subtractions: Oklahoma, Texas
Additions: BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston
Future look: Baylor, BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, West Virginia
The Big 12 has, for now, found some stability after being the jilted conference that set off this round of realignment. After the conference already lost Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri from 2011 to 2012, Texas and Oklahoma finagled an SEC invite this year, stunning the college football world -- and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. The loss of the last two historical powers from the league's roster significantly weakened its appeal in upcoming media rights negotiations, after it was already rebuffed on extension talks while Texas and Oklahoma were still in the Big 12. Their upcoming departure set off a panic among the remaining schools, all of whom are tied to the conference until 2025.
On Sept. 10, the Big 12 announced that it was officially adding BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to become members no later than 2024-25. They appealed to the league as like-minded institutions that fit the size and scope of the current membership, and as an added bonus over many of the original schools since the time the league was founded, they actually wanted to be there. Cincinnati, obviously, is a gem of the Group of 5 teams right now, sitting at No. 2 in the AP poll, while UCF is a massive public school (with a current enrollment of 66,000) that has previously reached nearly the same heights as the Bearcats. BYU has a long track record of football success, with a national appeal and recruiting base. Houston, formerly a Southwest Conference rival of Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU, adds some regional spice back into the league while also featuring an athletic department that has been on the rise for years.
Bowlsby did not rule out another round of future expansion, noting in a recent interview with D Magazine that Boise State and Memphis expressed interest in joining. There is still the big looming question of closing out the league's first chapter, however: Just how long do Texas and Oklahoma plan on sticking around? And how messy will this departure get before it's all done? -- Dave Wilson
Additions: Oklahoma, Texas
Future look: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Oklahoma and Texas are headed to the SEC -- by at least the start of the 2025 season and maybe sooner -- and the SEC seems content becoming college football's first 16-team super conference for now.
Texas and OU both stated in a letter to the SEC that they intend to remain in the Big 12 through June 2025, when that conference's current media rights deals end. But that doesn't necessarily mean they won't find a way to leave before then. That could happen as early as 2022, or they could ride out their remaining four years in the Big 12 -- as painful and inhospitable as that might be. Odds are that Oklahoma and Texas will work out a financial deal with the remaining eight Big 12 teams, which so far don't seem willing to allow their two flagship schools to walk away without a fight.
In an interview with CBS last week, Bowlsby reiterated that the league plans to hold OU and Texas to its commitment. He also questioned both schools' decisions to leave, saying it would be more difficult for the Longhorns and Sooners to have as much success in the SEC.
"Their chances [to make the College Football Playoff] are better coming through the Big 12," Bowlsby said. "That's a silly part of it. It's not very much money [the difference in conference payouts between the Big 12 and SEC], and competitively, they've got a better path [in the Big 12]. It makes no sense."
The Sooners have won six consecutive Big 12 titles in football. The Longhorns haven't won a league title since 2009.
"Maybe it's a story that needs to be written," Bowlsby said. "If it's not about the money and it's not about competitiveness, what's it about? I haven't gotten any answers about that." -- Mark Schlabach
Future look: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Miami, NC State, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest
The Alliance with the Pac-12 and Big Ten has, thus far, done its job by calming the realignment waters for the ACC. The biggest near-term goal for commissioner Jim Phillips, who replaced John Swofford last spring, was simply to buy some time to get a better lay of the land nationally and continue to build trust with the league members. Stability is the buzzword, and between the Alliance and the league's onerous grant of rights, Phillips has it for the time being.
The question then becomes how the ACC can remain competitive with its regional rival in the SEC when that league might ultimately double the ACC's TV contract while enjoying the immense recruiting advantage of being seen as, essentially, a mini-NFL. Worse, if realignment turns into a land war between the SEC and Big Ten, it would be almost impossible for the ACC to avoid being caught in the middle. We're a long way away from that, but Phillips needs to consider the future for the ACC not just in a year or two but a decade or more down the line.
Before the most recent conference shake-ups, the ACC was already thinking about ways to get out of an increasingly bad TV deal that runs through 2036, with expansion the best option. Several league administrators said they thought Texas and Oklahoma could be a good play down the road, but the SEC struck first. Now the list of programs that could genuinely change the economic landscape for the league is probably down to one: Notre Dame.
Any hopes of wooing the Fighting Irish remain distant, at best. With playoff expansion on hold, there's no immediate on-field incentive for Notre Dame to jump, and the league's toxic TV deal means there's no financial reason either. That the ACC's fortunes in 2021 have fallen even further -- marquee teams Clemson, Miami and Florida State are all struggling -- and that the league has yet to broker a deal to get its TV network on Comcast only add to the reasons Notre Dame is in the catbird's seat in any possible talks.
So while the long-term goal might still be to expand, there remains the ever-present concern that the ACC could just as likely lose teams down the road, once the financial calculus begins to even out a bit. Phillips is the calming force for now. He has preached patience with league members, and until another major domino falls, that message appears to be resonating. -- David Hale
Future look: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers, Wisconsin
The formation of the Alliance between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 generated some laughter around college football, but the pact has a purpose. Namely, the three power conferences sought an alternative to expansion during a dynamic time in the sport. Rather than potentially poaching members from each other, the leagues have vowed to work together. Things certainly could change in the next few years, but the Big Ten is strong as currently constructed and lacks any obvious expansion additions outside of Notre Dame, which has shown no interest in joining a league in football.
The question some in and around the Big Ten keep asking is why the league entered the Alliance with two weaker, poorer conferences. The ACC and Pac-12 need creative strategies to avoid falling too far behind financially. The Big Ten, meanwhile, is a financial heavyweight that doesn't need much help generating television ratings or boosting revenue streams.
Still, the Big Ten doesn't need to expand, nor is the league in any real danger of losing members. Despite the chaos surrounding the college football landscape, commissioner Kevin Warren generally takes a measured, conservative approach toward major items. Although the Big Ten and Pac-12 are historically and philosophically aligned around the Rose Bowl and other things, there could be down-the-road value in the Big Ten pursuing schools such as USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington for potential additions. -- Adam Rittenberg
Future look: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Utah, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State
When the Big 12 was in flux, the Pac-12 might have been a potential landing spot for the teams Oklahoma and Texas left behind. It never seemed likely from a Pac-12 perspective, but there was some logic that the conference would benefit from getting into the Central time zone with teams such as Oklahoma State or Texas Tech. Now that the Big 12 is in a stronger position after its announced expansion plans, that's all off the table.
The remaining possibilities are probably limited to teams in the league's current geographic footprint, with Boise State, San Diego State and UNLV the most viable options. That said, it would be a major surprise if the Pac-12 pursued any of them as things stand today.
From a football standpoint, Boise State, with its decades of success, makes for an appealing option. San Diego State is in a major market, is getting a new stadium and has real growth potential in the wake of the Chargers' departure for Los Angeles. UNLV has never been good in football, but Las Vegas has become the Pac-12's adopted home and it's hard to ignore the pull of the sports gambling mecca. -- Kyle Bonagura
Group of 5
Subtractions: Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston
Additions: Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice, Texas-San Antonio
Future look: Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Memphis, Navy, North Texas, Rice, SMU, South Florida, Temple, Texas-San Antonio, Tulane, Tulsa
When Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati decided to leave the American Athletic Conference for the Big 12 in September, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco did not hit the panic button.
Instead he got to work to stabilize his conference, which has been the standard-bearer for Group of 5 leagues in the College Football Playoff era. While the three departing schools are the ones that helped set that standard with a combined four of the league's five New Year's Six appearances, confidence remains high that the league can continue forward and stay in the national spotlight.
Still, work will have to be done with the new additions. Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB and UTSA join the remaining AAC schools to form a 14-team conference. The additions, particularly in Texas, are meant to solidify the league's Western flank and also draw in larger media markets. FAU will pair well with USF, while Charlotte, UTSA and UAB have shown great flashes of potential behind their dynamic head coaches.
But with the top three football programs gone, this is a blow to the American in the short term. And it's no secret that the American went after several schools from the Mountain West -- including Boise State -- before taking on its new members from Conference USA.
In truth, programs in the Mountain West are more in line with the American in terms of overall strength than Conference USA. So adding these six may end up devaluing the American, at least for now.
But Aresco is convinced they will only serve to enhance the league.
"Our Power 6 campaign is going to be energized," he said. "It's not going away, and I want that to be really clear."
What remains unclear is what any future television deals will look like with the new configuration, and whether it will be close to the deal the AAC has now with ESPN, which runs through 2031-32 and pays out about $6 million per school. -- Andrea Adelson
Conference USA and Sun Belt
C-USA subtractions: Alabama-Birmingham, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, Marshall, North Texas, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, Texas-San Antonio.
C-USA additions: Jacksonville State, Liberty, New Mexico State, Sam Houston
C-USA future look: Florida International, Jacksonville State, Liberty, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, New Mexico State, Sam Houston, UTEP, Western Kentucky
Sun Belt subtractions: none
Sun Belt additions: James Madison, Southern Miss, Old Dominion, Marshall
Sun Belt future look: Appalachian State, Arkansas State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, James Madison, Louisiana, Louisiana-Monroe, Marshall, Old Dominion, South Alabama, Southern Miss, Texas State, Troy
For most of its existence, Conference USA's role has been to act as a way station for programs moving either up or down in the college football hierarchy. Its name is as noncommittal as possible when it comes to specific membership or region. Twenty percent of FBS programs have belonged to C-USA at one point or another, and of its original football members, only Alabama-Birmingham and Southern Miss remain in the conference. (Both recently arranged to leave.) C-USA loses programs to conferences greater in the hierarchy and plucks from conferences lower.
What we've found with the latest maneuvering is that there might not be anyone lower in the hierarchy anymore.
In the last round of major conference realignment, C-USA lost a number of members (East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Tulane, Tulsa and UCF) to the AAC, then turned around and raided the Sun Belt. But it aimed for schools close to major markets and long known for having football potential; in response, the Sun Belt brought in well-supported football programs -- Appalachian State, Coastal Carolina, Georgia Southern -- and quickly surpassed C-USA from a football perspective. Now the Sun Belt has added Southern Miss, Old Dominion and Marshall and has beaten out C-USA for the services of FCS power James Madison as well.
That left C-USA with only five geographically disparate programs -- Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, UTEP and Western Kentucky. (MTSU and WKU had been linked to a potential move to the MAC but will stay put.) The NCAA requires at least eight football schools for a conference to remain linked to College Football Playoff money distribution, so with no conference from which to pluck at the FBS level, C-USA added two football independents (NMSU and Liberty) and two FCS programs (Jacksonville State and defending FCS champion Sam Houston).
Those moves have the conference at nine members, with FBS independents UConn and UMass, plus FCS teams potentially looking to move up, still out there as possible further additions. Either way, the Sun Belt will win this round of realignment (as it did, in retrospect, the last time around) and C-USA will look almost completely different in a few years than it does now. -- Bill Connelly
Future look: Akron, Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Northern Illinois, Ohio, Toledo, Western Michigan
The MAC has been the quietest of the Group of 5 leagues during the latest realignment flurry as it hasn't had to ward off any suitors. The league's makeup is "solid," a source said, and, unlike some other leagues, MAC schools are fairly similar in location, structure and budget. The geographical overlap of the American, Conference USA and Sun Belt doesn't really affect the MAC, which shares only one common state with the AAC (Ohio) and none with Conference USA or the Sun Belt.
There were talks about adding Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky from Conference USA, but MTSU decided it wanted to stay put and MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in a statement that the league is not pursuing expansion at the present time. Even so, the MAC must remain diligent about moves from other leagues, especially those that can offer better financial options, and Steinbrecher said in the statement that it would "continue to monitor the membership landscape." -- Rittenberg
Future look: Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, San Diego State, San Jose State, UNLV, Utah State, Wyoming
One of the most puzzling developments of this latest round of realignment was the discussion Air Force and Colorado State had about joining the depleted American Athletic Conference. It's well known throughout the Mountain West that Air Force has not been pleased with the direction of the conference in recent years -- mostly about inconsequential issues in the grand scheme of things -- so when the Academy sought out an alternative option, it wasn't out of left field.
What never made any sense is that Colorado State also considered a move. Had the American not been raided, sure, maybe a move would have resulted in the Rams playing in a more high-profile conference and they would have benefitted from a bigger media rights deal. But after Cincinnati, Houston and UCF left, they would have been leaving for an inferior conference with more travel and no clear benefits. Just to be Air Force's travel partner? Common sense prevailed and neither school is leaving ... for now. -- Bonagura