In 2010, the only college football conference with more than 12 teams was the MAC. The Mountain West was beginning to push its case for joining the ranks of "automatic qualifier" conferences in the BCS, with BYU, Utah and TCU showing strength. Games in the WAC were a fun Friday night diversion for college football fans who just loved to watch somebody -- anybody -- playing the game.
Four years later, all of that has changed. The SEC, Big Ten and ACC are now 14-team megaconferences, the B1G joining that group with the addition Rutgers and Maryland on Tuesday, the latest "moving day" in college football. Conference USA and the MAC each have 13 teams as well. The Mountain West has lost BYU, Utah and TCU, and its efforts to preserve itself wiped the WAC's football league off the map.
The Big East is also gone as a football conference, the name carted off by a breakaway collection of basketball members and most of its football teams picked off by other leagues. Only one of the members of the now-renamed American Athletic Conference played in the Big East's inaugural football season in 1991 -- Temple, a school that was kicked out of the Big East and spent time as independent and a member of the MAC before rejoining the conference. Three more of the American's 11 members played football there as of 2010.
There are two more moves left -- Navy will join the American for football and UMass will leave the MAC in 2015 -- and a few transitional years for some of the FCS teams moving up to mid-major leagues. (For all the moves, see this post.) But for all intents and purposes, the conference realignment that began in 2010 appears to have ended on Tuesday.
It was the most convulsive period of realignment in modern college football history. While membership in the sport's leagues is almost always in a state of flux, the process that began with Nebraska leaving the Big 12 for the Big Ten and the Pac-12 picking up Colorado and Utah eventually cascaded through every conference in college football.
For fans, the aftermath has been a mixed bag. The SEC and the Pac-12 now have television networks, joining the Big Ten. There have been some thrilling games created by the new alignments, particularly in the SEC, where Texas A&M almost cost Alabama a chance at the national championship in 2012 and Missouri and South Carolina played a barn-burner last year as both teams jockeyed for advantage in the SEC East.
But old rivalries have been torn apart. Nebraska-Oklahoma, which had already lost its annual status when the Big 12 was formed, won't be played again until 2021, more than a decade after the two programs last met. Texas-Texas A&M and Missouri-Kansas are gone for the foreseeable future. The Backyard Brawl between Pitt and West Virginia isn't expected to return for a while at least. And although all the conferences seem stable for now, you can't help but wonder whether leagues that include Nebraska and Rutgers or Missouri and Florida or Texas and West Virginia are all that cohesive.
That said, there are some real limits to how much teams will be able to move around, at least in the near term. The Big 12's "grant of rights" would make a program leaving that conference tantamount to financial self-immolation. The ACC now has a $50 million exit fee, though Maryland is fighting that in court. Conference networks are basically commercialized versions of the Big 12's grant of rights. The Power 5 alignment looks stable for now.
Which should come as a welcome sign for fans. I've never been as anti-realignment talk as some other bloggers -- the intrigue and conjecture and rumors are fascinating to me, and it had the not-insignificant side benefit of driving some the best traffic Team Speed Kills has seen. But after four years of constant turmoil, I'm a bit tired. I used to be able to name virtually every college football team and every conference they were in -- we can argue over whether that's a good thing or a sign that I needed professional help -- but I couldn't give you the alignments of the American and the Sun Belt and Conference USA right now without looking them up. I'll learn in time, I'm sure, but it's frustrating in the short term.
Most of you are probably tired as well. One of the great things about college football is the tradition and history, the rhythms of the season -- some of which are altered or gone now and might not return. Now is as good a time as any for everyone to stop and relax and just focus on the football.
And yet, it feels like Jim Delany is still tottering around on a wooden leg on the deck of his ship, searching for Moby Dame. You have to wonder if Larry Scott has truly given up his dream of a conference that stretches from Austin to Seattle. And there will always be contingents of Florida State and Clemson fans who think their schools are a much better fit in the SEC, and SEC fans who want to pick up either those two programs or a pair of ACC teams from Virginia or North Carolina.
So conference realignment is over. But how long will that last?