The year was 1967. At 9 years old, I discovered football. Oh, I knew about football before that, but I knew little about the sport, itself, and in one season I learned tons about the game on many levels. My older brother tried out for the Redondo Beach Pirates Pee Wee team. He didn't make the first cut, but the coaches allowed him to continue coming to practice. The other kids wore pads, while Deke ran with the team through non-contact drills and calisthenics. Then as attrition would have it, a football uniform became available. That changed everything - for him and for me. With pads and helmet, my brother turned into a monster defensive end, devouring quarterbacks and halfbacks at will. He rose up to first string defense as the coaches noticed his tenacity and ferociousness.
My family also listened to USC games on radio. One afternoon, while listening to the USC vs. Washington game, the announcer became very animated as he called out OJ Simpson's 86 yard touchdown run. The excitement of it got me hooked and college football was king in my life. 1967 was also the year Roman Gabriel led the Los Angeles Rams to an 11-1-2 season, burying Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts 34-10 in their final season game. The defensive front line, known as the fearsome foursome and led by Deacon Jones, manhandled the legendary quarterback and seemed destined for Super Bowl glory.
As a boy, I developed a lot of pre-conceived ideas about the sport. Teams pretty much played the same teams every year. Conferences remained the same. The only things that changed were outcomes and scores. Since Notre Dame was an annual rival of USC's like UCLA, I figured that school must be somewhere in the Los Angeles area. That notion got cleared up pretty fast. In the NFL, there was no NFC and AFC. There were 16 teams in the NFL, divided over four divisions, but some things didn't make sense. The LA Rams and San Francisco were in the same division as the Baltimore Colts and Atlanta Falcons. The Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints were in the Capital division with the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. The Century division had the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Cardinals with the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers. Geographically, the divisions were all over the map the Rams division had teams on both Coasts, while Dallas, St. Louis and New Orleans were much closer. The only division that made any sense was the Central division -- Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit and Minnesota. And of course, It left me wondering if this is how it always was and will always be.
As it turned out, changes came and change seems to be the only thing that's constant, for better or worse.
Fast forward now to the 2011 college football season. This season presents some new alignments to the FBS (Football Bowl Series) conferences, a subject that interests me as I believe it should for other prognosticators and fans of the sport. The first questions are what are the realignments and how do they impact the college football landscape. The last question is why.
To begin with, here are the alignments:
There are no changes in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Conference USA, Mid American, SEC or Sun Belt conferences, so we don't need to be concerned with them right now.
The Big 12 drops the North and South divisions from the recent past, combining all teams into a singular 10 team conference. We could call it the Big 10, but that name's been taken for a long time. This was the conference that was known as the Big 8, then went to Big 12 and now we'll just have to settle with that name even though the numbers don't add up. Former Big 12 member Nebraska joins the Big Ten while Colorado joins the Pac-12, formerly known as the Pac-10.
The Big Ten, now containing 12 teams, divides into two divisions, Leaders and Legends. Leaders consist of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin. The Legends comprise of Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. Nebraska is the newcomer to the conference. Perhaps the Big Ten ought to consider swapping names with the Big 12 or maybe it wasn't Nebraska that left the Big 12 after all. Maybe this is a case of all but one team leaving the conference. The numbers seem to match up, but why mess with tradition?
Independents - Brigham Young University joins Army, Navy and Notre Dame as the four unaffiliated teams in the FBS. Perhaps they ought to call this the Church Service conference. That probably wouldn't work because college football is mainly played on Saturdays.
Mountain West - Boise State moves in from the WAC, BYU becomes an Independent and Utah Joins the Pac-12. Interestingly enough, TCU plans to move out of this conference in 2012, while Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii plan to move in at some later date. That will make it a 10 team conference, probably not enough to create divisions.
The Pac-12, formerly known as the Pac-10, adds Colorado and Utah. The conference splits into North and South Divisions. The North Division holds Washington and Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, Cal and Stanford. The South Division has the two Los Angeles archrivals USC and UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State plus the newbies, Colorado and Utah.
Western Athletic Conference - Boise State leaves for the Mountain West.
The Mountain West and Western Athletic Conferences have a history of swapping teams. That seems to make sense as they both cover much of the same real estate. The one that puzzles me is the Pac-12. The inclusion of Colorado and Utah makes no sense to me. I question whether Colorado is even worthy to play in the Pac-12. It's program has been in the doldrums for some time. Utah, however, is a very worthy addition and I'm frankly looking forward to seeing how they perform against the likes of USC and Arizona State. However, the geography of these two teams makes no sense. Both are in states that are two and three states over from the Western seaboard. There are better, more worthy programs closer to the Pacific Ocean. Why not Nevada or Boise State? I'd even take Hawaii. Hawaii is actually in the Pacific Ocean.
So why all of these changes? Conference hopping has been considered and acted upon for a long time and we haven't seen the last of it. Some schools are looking at recruitment and exposure opportunities. For example Colorado and Utah, since joining the Pac-12, have made some gains in tapping the talent-rich, pool of California athletes. This, they expect will raise their game in the coming years and bring their programs to greater prominence. TCU plans to join the Big East Conference in 2012. The reason for that was to gain automatic BCS qualifying status. The Mountain West and WAC were simply not doing it for them. The BCS gods turn a blind eye on the Mountain West and WAC conferences. If you can't bring the BCS to the mountains, then bring the mountains to the BCS.
Nebraska's move to the Big Ten doesn't seem to be as much about athletics. According to Nebraska Chancellor, Harvey Perlman, the move was more about stability, academics, culture. Whatever that means, I expect Nebraska to distinguish itself in it's new home.
The big loser appears to be the Big 12. It's not even 12 teams anymore. Texas had considered moving to the PAC-10 and Texas A&M considered moving to the SEC. TCU appears geographically appropriate, but the Frogs would rather look eastward.
So, college teams are making their moves. Others are considering them or have future plans. They appear to be decisions made by the schools themselves in order to boost their programs and secure better places for themselves. Some of these don't make sense to me and I suspect they might not make sense to lots of other fans, but I don't see any threat to the enjoyment of the game.
To get a good perspective on these and other changes, I like looking to cartoonist Walt Kelly of Pogo fame: "Don't take life so serious, son. It ain't nohow permanent."