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Looking in depth at the Power 5 conferences

Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen via Imagn Content Services, LLC

I looked two days ago at my concept that the Big 12 is not serving Texas effectively . . . we can do better. And, yesterday, at the tier rankings of the 65 Power-5 schools. Today, I go in-depth on the Power 5 conferences, with some history included:

**SEC – Those with long memories might recall Tulane and Georgia Tech being in the SEC. The league went with 10 members for close to 30 years, adding South Carolina and Arkansas in the early ‘90s. This allowed the conference to begin a championship game, then unknown except in a few smaller conferences. This made the SEC unique. It also grew the league’s footprint, though Arkansas and South Carolina are not large states and the TV/national impact of those additions was minimal. However, it moved those states clearly into the SEC’s footprint and out of somebody else’s.

The strategy hit more heavily a decade ago when the league took in Texas A&M and Missouri. The former further opened the door to recruiting in talent-rich Texas. The latter brought in a mid-sized state a long way from the heart of old Dixie. Significantly, A&M and Mizzou were two of the Big 12's top six programs: The SEC’s gain, the Big 12’s loss. The 14-team SEC has four schools from my (arbitrary) Tier 1 and two that are, or should be, very close to Tier 1 – Texas A&M and Tennessee. With Auburn and Mizzou, the SEC has eight schools that are Tier 1 or 2, five that are Tier 3, and Vanderbilt.

No other conference can touch this strength of program/schedule. Only the B1G can match up geographically. The SEC has schools in 11 states.

**B1G (formerly, well, officially, Big Ten) – Michigan State’s addition in 1949 (replacing the University of Chicago) brought the conference to 10 members; Penn State, 41 years later, made it 11. The conference held the 12th spot open for three decades, waiting for Notre Dame to stop being selfish (SIDE NOTE: I want Texas to be selfish), to give up its personal TV network (NBC), etc. The B1G finally "got even" in numbers with the addition of Nebraska, then expanded to the East with Rutgers and Maryland.

While the conference has an extensive footprint – New Jersey to Maryland to Minnesota to Nebraska – the core of the league has always been power hitters Ohio State and Michigan and a host of sometimes quite good, sometimes rather mediocre members in five other states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Nebraska was a coup a decade ago. How’s that gone lately? The supposed "addition" of the D.C. and New York markets with Maryland and Rutgers was/is open to debate. Neither school made much of a football impact pre-B1G, neither has brought even competence, much less competition, to the league and the TV ratings in the Eastern markets have not been what the conference hoped for.

By tiers: three or four in Tier 1, two or three in Tier 2, three in Tier 3, four in Tier 4, and a private school (Northwestern). Not a bad alignment, but the big three, plus Wisconsin, are well above the rest. The Tier 4 programs – Purdue, Illinois, Rutgers, Maryland – are something of an anchor. Like the SEC, the B1G has schools in 11 states.

Keep in mind that SEC and Big Ten expansion was aimed precisely in the area of "footprint". Grow the conference to new regions/states. Add fans, and television viewers. To move football attention into "their" conference and out of somebody else’s. Expansion of the ACC and Big Ten is what caused the Big East to go under, and what severely reduced the clout of the Big 12.

**ACC – Sprawling, widely skewed on the academic versus athletics spectrum, and by geography, and just a brush or two with Tier 1 football programs.

This was a basketball-centric league until it took in two football powers. The Florida schools were – significantly are not now – Tier 1 types. Can Miami rebound? Doubtful. Florida State? Maybe. The ACC has five private or religious schools, and only Clemson, Virginia Tech, Florida State and maybe Louisville and Pittsburgh could be classed as powers, or potential powers, in football.

North Carolina is a possible sleeping giant, but the coach who has brought about the recent resurgence, Mack Brown, turns 70 in August. Coaches rule in college football. Look at Alabama before Nick Saban, Wisconsin before Barry Alvarez, Tennessee coached by a cast of hundreds since Phillip Fulmer was forced out.

The league footprint goes from upstate New York to south Florida – lots of states but mostly states where football isn’t the king it is in much of the South and in states like Ohio, Michigan, Nebraska and Oklahoma. Only Georgia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh and Boston College are located in large cities. Clemson is the lone Tier 1 school; there are three in Tier 2, five in Tier 3, and five on the private/religious list – none of those remotely USC- or Notre Dame-like. The weakest of the five Power-5 conferences by several measurements. There are ACC schools in nine states.

**PAC (formerly Pacific 8 or 10; actual title: Pacific 12) – The last five years have not been good for the lone major conference in the West. History, geography, tradition and professional sports competition make it likely this below-the-best will continue. Half the Pacific 12 schools are in cities, or close to cities, where pro sports rules -- LA, Seattle, Phoenix, Denver, the Bay Area.

This splits the potential ticket-buying and TV markets in a way the Ohio State’s and Alabama’s of the NCAA’s world do not.

The largest school in the nation’s largest state is not an athletic power; the Berkeley environment is near-certain to keep it that way. UCLA has never gotten a handle on consistent excellence in football. The Arizona schools have been a mess for years. In recent seasons, Oregon and Stanford have been the brightest lights.

One major plus: the conference consists of 10 public institutions and two of the best private schools, athletically, in Stanford and USC. Three schools in Tier 1, somewhere around three in Tier 2, the rest in Tier 3 or 4, depending on who’s coaching at Washington State and Oregon State. Most critically, a long way from the major media hubs of the East and Midwest. The PAC has schools in six states.

**Big 12 – Once there was the Big Eight. Then there was expansion, bringing in four schools from Texas and putting an end to the Southwest Conference many of us grew up with. The expanded Big 12 had a coherent, contiguous roster of members, it touched seven states, it had 11 public institutions. Then came the 2010-11 realignment which cost the Big 12 four of its six best programs, and led to forced-marriage invitations to TCU and West Virginia. Through 2009, the Big 12 broke down roughly this way:

Oklahoma-Texas-Nebraska

Texas A&M-Missouri-Colorado

Kansas State-Texas Tech-Oklahoma State

Iowa State-Baylor-Kansas

If you list these 1 through 12, you’ll note that Nos. 3 through 6 are former members. The Sooners and Longhorns are joined by what used to be 7 through 12. This is defined as carrying on. It is not defined as moving forward.

From a football standpoint, the Big 12 has one major plus over the other conferences -- all member schools meet on the field every year. The league mandates nine conference games; only the PAC does that among Power-5 conferences. The other conferences are too large for a round-robin format (and most of the others have only eight conference games). The Big 12 determines a "pure" champion. And then throws it away by forcing the top two into a rematch – threatening its regular season champion with a loss that likely would take that team out of the four-team playoff field.

While some coaches and school officials around the league praise this way of doing business, many wish it were otherwise. The current Big 12 has schools in five states.

This is where Texas, probably working with two to four other schools, can (should) take the lead in creating a different future. A better one.

TOMORROW: Trying to find, and recruit, new dance partners

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