How realignment is changing college football, in 20 maps
In 1896, a group of Midwestern college administrators met in Chicago to set the rules for what was then called the Western Conference, later to be known as the Big Ten. They agreed in writing, according to a Chicago Tribune account the next day, “to keep intercollegiate athletic competitions within their own bounds.” One of these boundaries was geographic: for purposes of travel and tradition, schools largely played up the regional rivals that populated their conferences.
It’s hard to imagine, then, how the founders of the nation’s oldest athletics conference would have reacted to recent realignment news that has rocked college sports to its core. Last year, the Southeastern Conference announced it would add Texas and Oklahoma to form a 16-team megaconference. Not to be outdone, the Big Ten announced this summer that it was also expanding to 16 teams by adding UCLA and USC.1 For the first time, a major college athletics league becomes bi-coastal.
UCLA, USC, Texas and Oklahoma rank second, third, fifth and tied for 16e in Division I history in the NCAA national team titles, respectively. Historically, schools like these form the bedrock of conferences, instead of breaking them. Only one of the four has significantly changed conference opponents over the past century.2 Now they all fit into two super-leagues, and the Big Ten may not be finished yet: Commissioner Kevin Warren says he could see expand to 20 teams. The evolution of the college sports map in recent decades has been startling, dismantling any notion of regionality that conferences once conferred.
As recently as the 2000s and early 2010s, college leagues still generally fit into small geographic pockets. Under the old Bowl Championship Series (BCS), for example, there were six major football conferences (the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big East and ACC), most of which were very close-knit – and none more so than the Big Ten. We calculated the distance from each school to the geographic center of all schools in its conference, and each Big Ten team was within 500 miles of the conference center in 2010. Nationwide, no Power Five school n was even 1,000 miles away from his lecture. center.
But the next four years brought a wave of lecture exchanges. From 2011 to 2014, 47 schools in the Football Bowl subdivision changed leagues, making it the busiest four-year period in history for realignment.3 The SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, and the Big Ten added Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland, venturing into a new state each time. These moves – and the corresponding dominoes that fell as a result – wiped out a football league (the Big East), creating a Power Five, and it was clear that the classic boundaries of college football were being pushed. However, you could still see decisions made under the auspices of geography if you squinted. (For example, the Big Ten’s new additions were at least in states adjacent to the old conference footprint.) The schools farthest from the Big Ten and the SEC were Rutgers and Texas A&M, which ran through distances of 593 and 560 miles. , from their new conference centers.
Even with their expanded borders from the 2010s, the Big Ten and SEC were still, entering 2021, the most compact of the Power Five leagues. But that changed last summer, when the SEC moved further west by agreeing to add Texas and Oklahoma. In doing so, the league not only increased its footprint, but also snatched schools ranked fourth and fifth in college football’s all-time win rankings. Although total earnings is not a perfect measure,4 the Big 12 is now devoid of classic powerhouses, with West Virginia being its second most successful school at No. 27. In more modern terms, Oklahoma was the only Big 12 school to reach the college football playoffs.
Texas and Oklahoma aren’t totally extravagant cultural or geographic fits in the SEC. They’ll be 576 and 489 miles from their new conference center, up from 425 and 84 miles from their Big 12 foes in 2010. They can also preserve the Red River rivalry, and Texas will resume their rivalry with Texas A&M. Although the new distances are an adjustment, 29 schools (across eight leagues) are farther from their conference centers than any team in the new SEC.
However, how other conferences have responded to the SEC’s additions has dramatically distorted the college sports map. To fill its vacancies, the Big 12 has added Brigham Young, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston, and is now expanding from Provo, Utah, to Orlando, Florida. BYU and UCF are 986 and 917 miles behind their conference foes. In response to thisthe American Athletic Conference plundered Conference USA, and Conference USA did what it could to stay intact – so the league now stretches from Miami to Las Cruces, New Mexico.
And the real nail in the coffin of the whole “regional conferences” idea will be the new Big Ten, the first truly national college league. While only Penn State and Minnesota were more than 300 miles from the center of the Big Ten in 2010, now 10 schools in the conference exceed that mark, after taking into account UCLA and USC.5 The distance between Los Angeles and the geographic center of the Big Ten is 1,621 miles.
The recent swelling in average distances between schools and their conference rivals is evident in the overall numbers. In 2010, the average distance of an FBS team to its conference center was 336 miles. In 2021, this average has increased to 365 miles. In four years, the average will be 412 miles.
It is also important to remember that all of these distances are measured as the crow flies, rather than road trips. This is especially important for sports other than football and basketball – and for smaller schools in general – both of which rely more on bus rides than charter flights. (Everyone has a different definition of “driving distance,” but by any definition, BYU seems to be the first school—besides Hawaii, for obvious reasons—to not be able to drive to visit an enemy of the conference.)6 In non-profit sports, the UCLA-USC fit of the Big Ten is deeply odd for many reasons: Both schools play sports the conference doesn’t offer, and they don’t play sports the Big Ten competes in. They could dominate their cold-weather counterparts in some sports, such as softball and baseball, and struggle in others, all while sticking to that grueling travel schedule via bus rides.
All of this means that the days of conferences as we once knew them—small, region-bound groups of similar colleges with shared histories—are pretty much over. And the era of the super-league seems to be taking its place. Of course, the idea of a 20-team national sports league is not unheard of. The four major North American men’s leagues, along with Major League Soccer and most major European soccer leagues, have at least as many clubs. No one thinks twice before the Indianapolis Colts play road games in Las Vegas and East Rutherford, New Jersey in the same season. That’s because the NFL is a financially driven organization that seeks to maximize its market. But that’s the point — more and more each year, college football is starting to look like the NFL. And if they weren’t already, the conference ideals crafted in Chicago in 1896 are a relic of the past.
CORRECTION (Sep 22, 2022 3:51 PM): An earlier version of the 2025 Big 12 map showed the University of Cincinnati to be in Kentucky. It’s in Ohio.