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College Football Conference Realignment: Minor Improvements or a Major Overhaul

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We take a look at how six 12-team conferences could bring back traditional rivalries and make the sport even more interesting.

Boston College v Pittsburgh
Ready for BC vs. Pitt to be a conference game... but not in the ACC?
Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

In 2025, the Big 12’s grant of rights, which ensures the conference owns each member’s TV rights, expires. It’s possible we see another round of realignment then. The ACC’s agreement is longer, and other conferences; agreements vary, but for the sake of this article, I’ll highlight a couple of conference realignment wishes I have as if these would happen in the 2024-2027 time frame. I’ll paint a somewhat realistic scenario (minor realignment scenario) and a pie in the sky scenario (six 12 team conferences). Let’s start with the more realistic one:

Minor Realignment Scenario

Here are a couple of realignment moves that would be fun to see. They’re not all necessarily interconnected, though some may be.

Notre Dame and UCF to the ACC: The ACC is already reaping benefits from adding Notre Dame as a partial member with the big boon they provide to TV contracts, but adding them to the conference full-time would be even better. They play about five ACC teams per year, but 8 or 9 would provide an even bigger benefit. Making them a full member would make Clemson’s path to the ACC title and playoff tougher, but it would provide a third elite program in the a conference that badly needs one besides Clemson and FSU (sorry, Miami).

If they were to add a 16th to maintain even divisions (an absurd NCAA requirement for holding conference championship games), several teams come to mind: West Virginia, Maryland, UCF, USF, App State, and UCF. West Virginia and Maryland make the most sense (and it would be fun to put Pitt, Louisville, WVU, and Maryland in the same conference), but more realistic is one of the G5 teams. UCF is an outrageously big school with an enrollment of 66,000. If they were to join a major conference, they could build on recent accomplishments.

Cincinnati replaces Rutgers in the Big 10: This one is obvious. If five more years pass and Rutgers still isn’t competitive, it is time for a reckoning. If Greg Schiano can’t do it, then they just can’t cut it in the Big 10. Now, I think there’s a shot he can turn them into a consistent 7 or 8 win team, but if not, it may be best for both parties if they move back to the AAC. Cincinnati stands out as one of the strongest G5 teams and by far the strongest in the midwest. It’s a perfect marriage, even if Ohio State hates it.

BYU and Memphis to the Big 12:

The Big 12 only has 10 teams and may want to add more to further expand their footprint and ensure stability. BYU is a historic program that needs a home. They have an underrated following and bring a unique market to the Big 12. With Power 5 money, they could be competitive with the Oklahoma State and West Virginias of the World.

Memphis stretches the conference eastward. Only one state separates Memphis from Oklahoma. The Tigers connect West Virginia to the conference and are in a recruiting rich area. They’re strong in basketball too. Houston would be a target, but the Big 12 may shy away from adding another Texas school.

Major Realignment Scenario

Now for a likely less realistic, but much more fun pipe dream. I’ve been adamant about my support for the current four-team playoff system. Unfortunately, with all playoff systems, expansion is inevitable. More playoff games means more premium content. The NFL just expanded their playoff. MLB recently added a second wild card team and are discussing a third. The NCAA tournament, which we’re so sorely missing this month, is the biggest culprit. In 1968, the field consisted of just 23 teams. The next year the number grew to 25. In 1975, it grew to 32. In 1979, they added another four teams to include 40. In 1980, another 8 were added. 52 teams in 1983, 53 in 1984, and finally 64 in 1985. Play-in games were slowly added to reach the 68-team field we have today.

Sadly, the death of bowl season will be complete in a few years when the college football playoff expands again. With that eventuality, here’s a bold realignment plan that would allow six conference champions to claim six-playoff spots, working well with either a six or eight team playoff.

The Basics:

  • The best Group of Five teams are brought up to the same level as the Power Five Schools to form six conferences of 12 teams each. No current Power 5 teams were dropped.
  • Schools outside of these 72 will play in a separate division and be ineligible for the playoff and playoff rankings. All teams are limited to scheduling a maximum of two teams from lower divisions during the regular season.
  • Historic rivalries and geographic proximity were prioritized in the creation of these conferences.

Without further ado:

Proposed Conference Membership

ACC Big 12 Big 10 Pac-12 SEC Eastern Athletic Conference (EAC)
ACC Big 12 Big 10 Pac-12 SEC Eastern Athletic Conference (EAC)
Clemson Oklahoma Ohio St. Oregon Alabama Notre Dame
Florida St. Oklahoma St. Penn St. Oregon St. Auburn Navy
Virginia Tech TCU Wisconsin Washington Florida Boston College
Virginia Texas Michigan Washington St. Georgia Louisville
Miami Baylor Michigan St. Stanford Tennessee West Virginia
Georgia Tech Texas Tech Nebraska UCLA LSU Pittsburgh
Duke Texas A&M Indiana USC Vanderbilt Syracuse
UNC Kansas St. Iowa California Kentucky Rutgers
NCSU Kansas Minnesota Utah Mississippi St. Cincinnati
Wake Forest Colorado Purdue Arizona Ole Miss Temple
Maryland Iowa St. Illinois Arizona St. Arkansas UCF
U of SC BYU Northwestern Boise St. Missouri Memphis

ACC: This looks a lot like the current ACC, but it takes it back to its roots. Gone are Boston College, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Louisville. Boston College has been in the ACC for a while, but they’re still a modern addition and they’re mostly mediocre. Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Louisville are all new additions. Replacing them are Maryland and... South Carolina.

Maryland was a charter member of the ACC and the catalyst to the conference’s birth. They only left in 2014. They would never freely choose to leave the Big 10, with the superior cash flow that conference provides, but we’re putting that aside in this scenario (we’ll assume all conferences are sharing revenue in the same respect as divisions in the NFL).

South Carolina hasn’t been in the ACC since 1971, but they’re as good as fit in the conference as Pittsburgh or Syracuse. Clemson vs. U of SC becomes a conference rivalry just like Virginia vs. VT became when the Hokies joined the ACC. That opens up one of the non-conference slots on Clemson’s schedule for an additional interesting non-conference game. Imagine dropping Louisville from the schedule and replacing them with Georgia! This becomes possible when U of SC is a conference game.

Overall, this is addition by subtraction for the ACC. Three of the weaker teams are gone. Losing Louisville stings, but a more historically and geographically cohesive conference is a win.

Big 12: This revamped version of the Big 12 adds to the intrigue with the return of Texas A&M. The perils of past realignment was the ending of great rivalries. With this move, one of the sport’s best will return. Additionally, Colorado moves back to the Big 12. BYU joins the power conference ranks to bring the Big 12 to 12 teams. Leaving is the geographically awkward West Virginia Mountaineers. Every Big 12 charter member, save Nebraska, is reunited, and the conference manages to get more geographically coherent while expanding.

New Big 12 footprint
New Big 12 footprint

Big 10: This conference is simply the Big 10 before their strange move to add Rutgers and Maryland. The Big 10 is already one of the two strongest conferences and only gets stronger and more interesting by dropping two teams with no real ties to the rest of the conference.

Pac-12: With Colorado leaving to go back tot he Big 12, there is one open slot. Several teams outside the Power Five could make sense here: BYU, San Diego, Nevada, and Boise State. BYU, in my view, is a better cultural fit in the Big 12 and brings them a new market while still being geographically cohesive. San Diego doesn’t bring anything new to the Pac-12 and doesn’t have quite the historic track record of Boise State. Nevada could make sense, especially for basketball, but Boise State is the premier G5 team West of the Mississippi and is an easy choice here.

SEC: The SEC drops South Carolina and Texas A&M to get back to 12 teams. They’re the strongest conference and this move helps even up the divisions with a stronger team departing from the stronger division. Now South Carolina can prove just how good they would do with Clemson’s schedule. The Gamecocks would arguably have stronger rivalries in the ACC (Clemson, UNC, NCSU, Georgia Tech) than the SEC (Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Texas A&M).

Eastern Athletic Conference (EAC): Here’s where this gets really interesting. Five AAC schools, four ACC schools, West Virginia, Rutgers, and Notre Dame form the new Eastern Athletic Conference. It’s tempting to just call it the Big East, but it’s more than that. UCF is a G5 power, that if elevated to top conference status, could be very dangerous. Obviously, Notre Dame is the big name in the conference, but Louisville, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati form a strong geographic core with some built-in rivalries. Putting Navy and Notre Dame in the same conference preserves that historic rivalry. In 2019, this collection of teams would have been stronger than the newly aligned ACC or Pac-12. They’re not spread all over the country with teams from Houston to Temple either. UCF is the only outlier.

EAC footprint
EAC footprint

What do you think? Would you prefer these conferences? Would you prefer this 12-team version of the ACC? Let us know in the comments and poll below.

Poll

Which version of the ACC would you enjoy more?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    Proposed 12-team conference with UMD and U of SC replacing BC, Pitt, Cuse, and Louisville.
    (67 votes)
  • 29%
    Current 14-team membership
    (32 votes)
  • 7%
    No preference
    (8 votes)
107 votes total Vote Now