When realignment leaves a school behind: 10 teams and how

  • Bill Connelly, ESPN Staff WriterMay 7, 2024, 06:51 AM ET


      Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.

Over the first quarter of the 21st century, Washington State and Oregon State combined for five AP top-10 finishes and shares of two conference titles — modest totals, sure, but superior to those of Arizona, Arizona State, Cal and Colorado combined. Over the past six seasons, Wazzu’s average SP+ rating ranked fifth in the Pac-12, Oregon State’s seventh. They have been solid mid-tier, power-conference programs in recent times, and their highs have been higher than those of many of their peers.

None of this matters, of course. In last summer’s depressing conference realignment free-for-all, the Pac-12’s leaders failed to come up with a sufficient television deal, and, with furrowed brows and great displays of consternation, eight programs made moves they said they preferred not to make: Oregon and Washington followed USC and UCLA to the Big Ten with diminished media rights shares; Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah left for the Big 12; and Cal and Stanford left for a conference with “Atlantic” in its title (ACC).

Meanwhile, the programs in faraway Corvallis, Oregon, and Pullman, Washington, were left without a home. OSU and Wazzu have maintained the rights to the Pac-12 brand while forming short-term scheduling coalitions with the Mountain West (in football) and West Coast Conference (in other sports). But the Pac-12 as we knew it no longer exists, there is no longer a power conference based in the Pacific time zone, and Oregon State and Washington State have been, for all intents and purposes, left behind.

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Following all of these demoralizing developments, both programs began 2023 with a point to prove. Washington State beat two ranked teams (Wisconsin and Oregon State) and began October unbeaten and 13th in the AP poll. And despite the loss to the Cougars, Oregon State spent the entire regular season ranked and rose as high as 10th heading into the back half of November. But Wazzu lost seven of its final eight games to finish 5-7, and after an 8-2 start, Oregon State first suffered a narrow loss to unbeaten Washington, then lost to Oregon and Notre Dame by a combined 71-15.

Oregon State head coach Jonathan Smith left for the Big Ten’s Michigan State and took some assistants with him, and in addition lost three NFL draftees. The Beavers then proceeded to lose starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (Florida State), QB-of-the-future Aidan Chiles (Michigan State), star running back Damien Martinez (Miami), No. 1 receiver Silas Bolden (Texas), tight end Jack Velling (Michigan State), all-conference guard Tanner Miller (Michigan State), linebacker Easton Mascarenas-Arnold (USC), rush end Sione Lolohea (Florida State), safety Akili Arnold (USC) and corner Jermod McCoy (Tennessee) to schools in power-conference programs. Wazzu’s losses were less extensive following the team’s late collapse, but quarterback Cam Ward (Miami), receiver Josh Kelly (Texas Tech) and cornerback Javan Robinson (Arizona State) departed for power-conference programs.

What has happened to these programs is just impossibly cruel and demoralizing. But if there’s any reassurance whatsoever to be found, it’s that these schools are not alone. Other programs have been left behind before, and those that kept their acts together and figured out ways to continue fielding strong teams were eventually rewarded. (Others, not so much.) Here are the stories of 10 postwar programs that lost their relative power-conference status and what happened next.

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Raiding the Pacific Coast | SWC demise
Big East Frankenstein | What’s ahead for Pac-2

Culling of the Pacific Coast Conference

The Pacific Coast Conference — which became the AAWU, which became the Pac-8, which became the Pac-10, which became the Pac-12 — was a pretty dramatic place. At the end of the 1940s, it consisted of Cal, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State, but the loftier programs in that bunch rarely deigned to play the two lowliest members.

In its final 10 seasons in the league before officially getting the boot in 1950, Montana played 31 games against PCC foes: 10 against Idaho (four home, six away), five against Washington State (one home, four away), four against Washington (all away), three against Oregon State (one home, two away) and nine against the other five members (all away). Throughout the 1950s, Idaho basically played home-and-homes with Oregon, Oregon State and Wazzu and got occasional road games with Washington. Conferences were loose affiliations in those days, and none of the California schools wanted an affiliation with the Grizzlies or Vandals if it meant acknowledging them in any way.

In 1959, following mudslinging and accusations of slush-fund activities at a number of schools — Washington, UCLA, USC, Cal (though Cal’s was more “fake work program” than “slush fund,” if we’re picking nits) — the PCC fell apart. The most ambitious schools of the bunch (basically the ones accused of the rule-breaking, plus Stanford) began angling to create a national “Airplane Conference” with eastern independents such as Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse and the service academies. (In a way, in finally ditching Wazzu, Washington accomplished what it has been trying to accomplish since the 1950s.) The Airplane Conference concept eventually fell apart, and Oregon, Oregon State and Wazzu were eventually allowed back in to the party. Idaho very predictably was not.

The first two members of the Left Behind club didn’t see their lives change all that much because, though Idaho had some sprightly moments, neither played much like a power program anyway.

Last 10 years before demotion: 4.5 average wins, 18.7% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 2.3 average wins, 5.6% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

Montana joined the Skyline Conference — made up primarily of future Mountain West teams — for most of the 1950s and, finding it difficult to compete there, too, helped form the lower-division Big Sky Conference in 1963. Things have worked out pretty well for the Grizzlies there: They’ve won or shared 19 Big Sky titles, plus FCS national titles in 1995 and 2001.

Last 10 years before demotion: 3.3 average wins, 26.9% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 3.4 average wins, 20.3% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

Idaho held on to a bit more ambition than Montana, for better or worse. The Vandals were also founding Big Sky members and participated there in other sports, but after getting the PCC boot they remained at college football’s top level as an independent until 1974.

After some success at the FCS level, they joined ambitious Boise State in jumping back up to the FBS in the 1990s. Over 22 seasons, they bowled three times and bounced from the Big West to the Sun Belt to the WAC and back to the Sun Belt. But they weren’t good enough for the Mountain West and, without a natural home, officially dropped back down to the FCS in 2018. They’ve made the playoffs there the past two years.

Demise of the Southwest Conference

The dawn of the superconference brought quite a bit of expansion. The Big Ten added Penn State in 1993; the SEC attempted to add Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M before settling for just the Hogs and South Carolina in 1992; and the Pac-10 weighed expansion into intriguing TV markets such as Denver (Colorado, Colorado State, Air Force), Dallas (SMU, TCU) and Houston (Houston, Rice) before bailing on the idea.

Eventually, the Big 12 formed from the members of the Big Eight and half the scandal-plagued SWC. With the Pac-10 choosing against expansion, that left the other half of the SWC on the outside looking in. Over the SWC’s final five seasons, the abandoned half — Houston, Rice, SMU and TCU — had gone a combined 71-144-6 with one bowl appearance among those schools. NCAA sanctions had crushed Houston and SMU in particular, and they had all chosen a bad time to not have their respective acts together.

It was a long journey back, but with SMU joining the ACC in 2024, three of the SWC’s four left-behind programs are now back on power-conference rosters. (Yes, we’re still calling the ACC and Big 12 power conferences even if the Big Ten and SEC have formed a big two of sorts.)

Last 10 years before demotion: 4.8 average wins, 33.8% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 7.3 average wins, 48.9% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

After a combination of NCAA sanctions and general ineptitude had rendered TCU an afterthought of a football program — the Horned Frogs finished above .500 just twice in the 22 seasons from 1972 to 1993 — it was beginning to show signs of life under Pat Sullivan when the SWC fell apart. That quickly ceased, however: The Horned Frogs went 5-17 in their first two seasons in the expanded WAC, and Sullivan was replaced by Dennis Franchione.

Under first Franchione and then Gary Patterson, however, TCU turned itself around. It also had no qualms in jumping from opportunity to opportunity. In the WAC, Conference USA and Mountain West, the Frogs won double-digit games nine times from 2000 to 2011, peaking with a 36-3 run, three top-10 finishes and a Rose Bowl win from 2008 to 2010. That, plus their residence in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, made them obvious candidates for Big 12 membership when the conference looked to replenish recent realignment losses in 2012. They’ve enjoyed four more top-10 finishes over the past 10 years. This is the model left-behind program.

Last 10 years before demotion: 4.6 average wins, 46.5% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 4.4 average wins, 25.0% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

It took Houston a bit longer to get its act together. The Cougars were indeed waylaid by NCAA sanctions and had won just four games in the past three seasons when they became founding members of Conference USA in 1996. They averaged only four wins per season before hiring Art Briles in 2003. Briles and successor Kevin Sumlin raised the profile of the program with pure offensive firepower, and in 2011 Houston enjoyed its first ranked finish in 21 years.

The Cougars joined the remnants of the Big East in the freshly named American Athletic Conference in 2013, and under Tom Herman in 2015 they went 13-1 and beat Florida State in a New Year’s Six bowl. It has been an up-and-down ride since, as neither Major Applewhite nor Dana Holgorsen were able to generate any post-Herman consistency, but a combination of obvious upside and the Houston market got them into the Big 12 in 2023.

Last 10 years before demotion: 2.6 average wins, 17.3% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 3.8 average wins, 18.3% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

At least Houston didn’t get the death penalty. After nearly winning the national title in 1981 at the peak of the Pony Excess days, SMU slowly slipped under the steady drip of sanctions, then was forced to cease all football operations in 1987-88 when it refused to, uh, stop cheating.

As it turns out, the death penalty works. SMU returned to play in 1989 and enjoyed just one above-.500 season (a bowl-less 6-5 campaign under Mike Cavan in 1997) over the next 20 years as a member of first the WAC, then Conference USA. June Jones managed to create both an offensive identity and a steady bowl presence in the early 2010s, however, and after falling apart in their first seasons in the AAC, the Mustangs rebounded once more. They enjoyed their first 10-win season in 35 years under Sonny Dykes in 2019, and after Dykes left for rival TCU a couple of years later, Rhett Lashlee led SMU to its first ranked finish in 39 years last fall. This recent success, combined with the Dallas market and a willingness to gamble by foregoing all media rights revenue for a few years, earned them an ACC invitation.

Last 10 years before demotion: 3.7 average wins, 29.5% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 4.8 average wins, 26.8% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

Rice … is a hard job. It was a hard job in the SWC, and it has remained a hard job in Conference USA and, as of 2023, the AAC. The Owls probably miss playing their bigger in-state rivals on a more frequent basis, but they have basically the same program as they did before being left behind, only they average a bit higher win total with easier competition.

Semi-demise of the Big East

As a football entity, the Big East was both a product and victim of the conference realignment era. A basketball powerhouse in the 1980s, it attempted to secure a bright future by bringing in football brands such as Miami and Virginia Tech in the 1990s and found some success. But it was always a Frankenstein of basketball and football schools.

In the 2000s, the conference lost Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC and grabbed whatever it could to survive — DePaul and Marquette on the basketball side, Cincinnati, Louisville (which it would also lose to the ACC) and USF on the football side — and as it prepared to raid the mid-major ranks for more football programs in the early-2010s, the basketball schools decided enough was enough. They formed a new Big East, and the remaining football schools formed the AAC.

The Big East had a power-conference designation when the BCS existed, but when the College Football Playoff came about in 2014, it no longer recognized the AAC as a power. That meant four Big East holdovers — Cincinnati, UConn, USF and Temple — all entered the left-behind zone. (You could technically say the same for the AAC’s four 2013 additions: Houston, Memphis, SMU and UCF. But we’ll say they weren’t around long enough to get truly left behind at this time.)

Last 10 years before demotion: 8.0 average wins, 66.9% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 8.6 average wins, 61.2% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

Under Brian Kelly and Butch Jones, Cincinnati enjoyed five seasons of double-digit wins and four ranked finishes in the Big East’s final six seasons of football existence. This program deserved to be in a power conference but suddenly wasn’t. But like TCU, it went about proving itself after an initial setback. Luke Fickell led the Bearcats to 44 wins in four seasons from 2018 to 2021. They won back-to-back AAC titles in 2020-21, first reaching a New Year’s Six bowl, then reaching the CFP (where, as I will forever remind people, they fared better against Alabama than Michigan did against Georgia).

When the Big 12 began to look for new programs following Oklahoma’s and Texas’ announced departures, Cincinnati had to be the first program on the list. Granted, it face-planted upon arrival, replacing Wisconsin-bound Fickell with Scott Satterfield and promptly going 3-9. But this is still a program worthy of the power designation it was stripped of for nine years.

Last 10 years before demotion: 6.9 average wins, 61.1% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 3.0 average wins, 10.3% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

After a long football life in the Yankee Conference, UConn grew ambitious enough to attempt FBS life in the early 2000s. The Huskies had a readymade spot in a power conference waiting for them, and they met the moment for a little while, winning either eight or nine games in five of their first seven Big East seasons. But things fell off course when Randy Edsall left for Maryland in 2011, and they were in no way playing like a power-conference program when they lost their power designation.

They left the AAC to return to the Big East in non-football sports, and they’ve been independent since 2020. Life has been mostly hard. Since earning a share of the Big East title — and winning the tiebreakers to earn a Fiesta Bowl bid — in 2010, they’ve suffered 12 straight losing records. They were left behind, but they were already in the process of falling apart when that happened.

Last 10 years before demotion: 6.5 average wins, 62.2% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after demotion: 5.0 average wins, 34.4% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

USF made this “major college football” thing look pretty easy at first. As a startup program under their first coach, Jim Leavitt, the Bulls enjoyed winning seasons in their first four FBS seasons, then joined the Big East in 2005, bowled for six straight years and spent time in the AP top 10 in both 2007 and 2008. But they fell from eight wins to five to three under Leavitt’s replacement, Skip Holtz — like at UConn, things had already fallen apart when South Florida lost its power-conference designation — and their years in the AAC have been a roller coaster: a combined 6-18 in 2013-14, then 21-4 in 2016-17, then 4-29 in 2020-22.

The Bulls were too putrid to earn a look from the Big 12 in the early 2020s, even as it was pilfering conference rival UCF. They could be on their way to another high under Alex Golesh — he’s one of the sport’s more intriguing young coaches — and the Tampa-St. Petersburg market might be intriguing enough to make them candidates for future expansion of a Big 12 or ACC if they can both get and keep their act together. But for now, it seems like the AAC is about the right weight class.

If we don’t count Houston and SMU, Temple might be the only program to ever get left behind twice. The Owls were booted from the Big East in 2005 for general ineptitude — in 14 years of Big East membership, they averaged 2.1 wins and never won more than four games in a season. But after they got their act together in the refuge of the MAC, they were brought back to the Big East in 2012 … just in time for it to become the AAC in 2013.

Last 10 years before first demotion: 2.4 average wins, 22.8% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after first demotion: 4.8 average wins, 26.0% average SP+ percentile rating

Last 10 years before second demotion: 4.3 average wins, 23.6% average SP+ percentile rating

First 10 years after second demotion: 5.8 average wins, 39.1% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

This has always been a pretty hard job — the facilities are crammed into one corner of Temple’s metropolitan campus, and the Owls play off campus at the Philadelphia Eagles’ far-too-cavernous Lincoln Financial Field. When they make a strong hire, like Al Golden (2006-10) or Matt Rhule (2013-16), they can rise pretty high, whether they’re in a power conference or not. But the floor remains pretty low, as they’ve rediscovered of late.

The Pac-2

Every story is unique, and we can’t say we know a lot about what will happen to Oregon State and Washington State based on what happened to Montana in the 1950s or a post-death penalty SMU in the 1990s. But averages might still tell us something.

Average 10 years before second demotion: 4.7 wins, 37.2% SP+ percentile rating

Average 10 years after second demotion: 4.8 wins, 28.7% SP+ percentile rating

Basically, the left-behind programs tend to fall in quality a bit while maintaining familiar win totals (thanks to lesser strengths of schedule). Let’s see what that might mean for Washington State and Oregon State moving forward.

Last 10 years before demotion: 6.6 average wins, 62.1% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

Wazzu has been a higher-upside Temple in recent history, balancing both the capacity for painfully low lows (the Cougs went 5-32 from 2008 to 2010) and solid eight- to 10-win capabilities when things are going well. They have fallen off a hair since Mike Leach left in 2020, but with what amounts to a Mountain West schedule in 2024, they are projected to win around eight games on average based on initial 2024 SP+ projections.

Last 10 years before demotion: 4.6 average wins, 41.9% average SP+ percentile rating

Bill Connelly

Before beginning a surge under Jonathan Smith in 2021, Oregon State had endured a solid run of struggle, with seven straight losing seasons from 2014 to 2020. Winning 18 games in 2022-23 was great, and the recent success is propping up the Beavers’ SP+ projections despite the extreme personnel losses. They were 44th in the initial February projections, and they’ll probably be in the mid-50s, close to Wazzu, when the May updates are released. With the MWC schedule at hand, that should keep them in the realm of bowl eligibility.

When it comes to future power-conference membership, it’s hard to say anything particularly encouraging at the moment. But as the Beavers face a future in either the Mountain West or a remodeled Pac-12 that strongly resembles the MWC, they can at least take heart in the fact that we have no idea what the future holds in terms of conference alignment and that, even though it’s not really their fault they’re in this position to begin with, if they field successful football teams moving forward — more TCU, less UConn — they could improve their lot a few years down the line.

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