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A Modest Proposal: Southern College Conference Realignment

Now that Swampland Sports has launched Tribal Fever (TF), our dispatch dedicated to college sports in the South, we figured it was time to do weigh in on the current state of college football conferences.

The college football conference landscape in the Footprint has become downright confusing.  It used to be that there were three main conferences, the SEC, the ACC, and the Southwest Conference, with a whole lot of solid independents mixed in.  Back then, college sports was more than happy to be a regional attraction.

The SEC changed everything when they followed NASCAR's lead, exposing their passionate fan base to the nation at large.  The SEC did so with two big moves.  First, they expanded to 12 teams adding Arkansas (from the Southwest Conference) and South Carolina (an independent), split the conferences into two divisions, and created an SEC title game.  Second, the SEC signed a national TV contract with CBS, a network looking to chip away if only slightly on ABC's longtime domination of college football.

The SEC was supposedly following the Big Ten's lead, a conference that had recently added Penn St.  However, the SEC upped the ante considerably.  Others would soon follow suit.

The next domino to fall was the disbanding of the Southwest Conference.  That conference had a group of Texas schools and Arkansas.  When Arkansas departed for the SEC, the wounded Southwest Conference disbanded.  Another midwestern conference, the Big Eight, jumped into the breach and stole away the four top Texas teams (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor) creating the Big 12, with two divisions and a title game a la the SEC.

Things stayed stable for a while until a few years back when the ACC decided to take a page out of the SEC's playbook.  Historically the best basketball conference in the South, the ACC decided it wanted to get better at football.  Adding one dominant team in the early 1990's (Florida State) was not enough.  In 2004-2005, the ACC raided the Big East grabbing Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College.  Boston College was only added after a huge, but failed, effort to land Notre Dame.

This led the Big East, founded as a basketball conference, to raid Conference USA (C-USA) of Louisville, South Florida (USF), Cincinnati.  (They also added basketball only schools from C-USA, Marquette and Depaul.)  Now the Big East had 8 football schools, 16 basketball schools, and Notre Dame in basketball only.

C-USA responded by adding the remnants of the old Southwest Conference that didn't go to the Big 12 along with Marshall and the University of Central Florida (UCF) who were misplaced in the MAC Conference.  This conference had no fully shifted from its roots as a midwestern conference to a Southern one.

The much smaller Sun Belt Conference also emerged around several Southern schools looking to make the jump to Division I status in football.

Ok, so let's get this straight.  If you are a fan of college sports living in the Footprint, then you have to follow the SEC, the ACC, the Big 12, and the Big East?  Let's also not forget that both Conference USA and the Sun Belt have legitimate teams, some of which have team that are better than the lower ranks of the bigger conferences.

We at Tribal Fever will cover whatever package these teams come in. However, we don't believe that the ACC or the Big East are properly structured to even come close to the kind of fervor that the SEC generates, at least not on the gridiron.  This is where our proposal comes in.  It's time for all these conferences to stop looking at the "big" national picture and focus on creating a great conference with good rivalry possibilities that can grow within the conference and create a story that can be understood outside of the conference.


The ACC had big dreams when they expanded.  They were shooting for Notre Dame.  Then, they scaled back to Boston College.  Either way, the idea is all wrong.  College sports play second fiddle at best in the big Northeast media markets.  When Boston College's coach, Tom O'Brien, left BC to go to an inferior squad at NC State, his point resonated with Tribal Fever.  O'Brien knew that he had better long term odds building a big time program in Raleigh than he did staying in Boston.

Boston College should have never left the Big East.  Right now, it looks like a lateral move for them.  The ACC also hasn't gained anything from the move.  Consider it failed experiment, but TF has the cure.

The ACC has basketball wrapped up, but it also has too heavy of a concentration of schools in North Carolina (4) to make football work.  There's barely enough homegrown talent to support 2 schools in NC.  UNC was wise to hire Butch Davis.  His ties to the NFL and the south Florida recruiting scene should help him create some football success in Chapel Hill.  Before moving on to Texas, Mack Brown had UNC up in the rankings because he is a great recruited.  O'Brien will likely be successful at NC State as well.

However, there are too many basketball schools and not enough football schools.  That's the reason behind our realignment.

Boston College West Virginia
Clemson Clemson
Duke Duke
Florida State Florida State
Georgia Tech Georgia Tech
Maryland Marshall
Miami Miami
North Carolina North Carolina
North Carolina State North Carolina State
Virginia Virginia
Virginia Tech Virginia Tech
Wake Forest Wake Forest


West Virginia might be a small state, but they are football through and through.  By adding both WVa and Marshall, an existing rivalry is added.  The folks in Morgantown might cringe at adding Marshall, but it is a small price to pay.  UVa turns their nose up at Virginia Tech as a school, but Tech makes Virginia relevant in football.  Marshall can do the same for WVa.  It's the SEC way - each team should have at least one big rivalry game so that there is something to focus on in the inevitable down years.

Bottom line, the ACC needs some football toughness to go along with their basketball supremacy.  The state of West Virginia gives them that in spades.


Yes, Maryland is an old ACC school, but Maryland just isn't part of the South anymore.  This school is just not perennially elite in either basketball and football.  They are a plus for the Big East and a push for the ACC. 

We've already mentioned the BC mistaken to move to the ACC.  Now, they can take Maryland with them to a new home - the Big East. 


This conference has been a mistake ever since it added football.  A basketball conference based in the big Northeast media markets cannot be shifted on the fly to a competant football conference.  First, the schools aren't big enough to field teams.  Second, these type of schools lie too far outside the heart of good football recruiting regions.

The Big East reminds us of an old rock band that has lost all of its key members but still go out and tour behind a bunch of stand ins.  The songs might sound the same but you might as well see a bar band covering their songs.  The Big East's football conference has no rivalries.  It is just a bunch of solid to good Division I teams looking for conference with BCS ties. 

Although we're pro-South here at TF, it would be great to have a strong college football presence in the Northeast, actually made up of team from the region, if only so that the SEC and the other Southern conferences could whip up on them. 

Big East
Cincinnati Boston College
Louisville Maryland
Pittsburgh Pittsburgh
Rutgers Rutgers 
Syracuse Syracuse 
UConn UConn 
USF Notre Dame 
West Virginia Penn State
(basketball only) (basketball only)
DePaul Georgetown
Georgetown Providence
Marquette Seton Hall
Notre Dame St Johns
Providence Villanova
Seton Hall  
St Johns  


The Northeast finally will get a conference it can be excited about. This version of the eight team conference fields teams with tradition in the region (Penn St, Notre Dame, BC, and Maryland). 

It also solves the Notre Dame issue that is vexing college football right now.  The Irish need a conference.  They turned down the Big Ten a decade ago.  Since they won't join the Big Ten, that conference hasn't been able to add a 12th member.  At this point it makes more sense to cut loss Penn State.  They were never a good fit anyway.  Their football hasn't added anything.  Their basketball is non-existent.  They would have a slight conference imbalance but they could always add another school as basketball only.


The University of South Florida (USF), Cincinnati, and Louisville are three of the best teams in the Big East.  However, this sacrifice must be made so that the Big East can become a real regional conference.

Losing midwestern basketball only teams (Marquette and DePaul) cleans up the conference further.  16 teams is too many teams.  It's better for everyone to let them go. 


All of this realignment creates a clear long term winner - Conference USA.  The Footprint is so college football hungry that it can easily support another strong conference to complement the SEC and the ACC. 

The only issue is that the name "Conference USA" must go away.  This is a Southern conference.  It is an urban-based conference.


The "New" Metro Conference
East Carolina Cincinnati
Houston Houston
Marshall Louisville
Memphis Memphis
Rice Rice
Southern Miss          USF
Tulane Tulane
Tulsa Tulsa

Back in 1990, the Metro Conference had no football members.  They did have a strong basketball league that included Louisville, Tulane, Florida State, Memphis, St Louis, Cincinnati, and Virginia Tech.  However, each of these schools remained independent in football.

The Metro conducted a two day meeting about expanding into football and possibly adding Boston College, East Carolina, Miami, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Syracuse, Temple and West Virginia.  Unfortunately, Louisville's Howard Schnellenberger, their coach at the time, insisted that a conference schedule would impede him playing a "Notre Dame-type" independent schedule.  Schnellenberger had previously turned Miami's program around with that kind of approach.

Florida State ended up going to the ACC.  Then, the rest of that group, with Miami as the big fish, joined the Big East, another basketball conference that was going into football.  The Metro ended up merging with the Great Midwest forming Conference USA.

We at Swampland Sports think it is high time to reestablish the Metro Conference.

Cincinnati, Louisville, and USF might initially balk at returning to the Metro/C-USA, but they should reconsider.  Yes, The Metro will never be the SEC or the ACC, but neither will the Big East.  That conference in its current form is a weird amalgam of schools that have no connection.  Does anyone really see a rivalry building between Rutgers and Louisville over the long haul?  Rivalries are primarily build in college sports based on geography.  The Big East today is way too spread out.

On the other hand, let's look at these markets - Dallas/Ft Worth, Houston, Tampa, New Orleans, Orlando, Birmingham, Memphis, Louisville, Tulsa, and El Paso.  These are all strong growing markets with upside.  Traditionally, the big Footprint schools don't live in cities, but in smaller college towns like Gainesville, Athens, Tallahassee, Oxford, etc.  Emerging southern cities are a perfect place to build new traditions.  All of the new SC markets are growing as the South grows.  That means lots of new transplants.  

Think back to the effect that the Big East had when it was first formed.  That conference took schools in all the big northeast markets (DC, Philly, NYC, Providence, Boston) and created a basketball conference.  These were markets already well served by the NBA.  However, there was a "sum more than the whole of its parts" effect to the Big East.  In its heyday, it rivaled all the older, established conferences.

The "new" Metro would do the same.  These are all football hungry markets.  USF is a great example.  Tampa already has the Bucs.  They also have established allegiances to Florida and FSU.  However, USF is still thriving in Tampa even though its football team is barely a decade old.

The Metro was and would again become a very strong basketball conference.  Memphis and Louisville are perennial winners.  Houston has been strong in the past as has UTEP and Tulane.  The others will get better quickly.

The Big East just isn't that big of a help to Louisville, Cincinnati, or USF.  They alone bring much of the football appeal.  The basketball is almost too good and too deep.  Having a 16 team conference makes it very hard to be good in both sports.   Will USF ever compete in basketball with the rest of the Big East powers?  Nope.  Can they in the Metro?  Yes!


This conference is just starting to spread its wing.  As we've mentioned, there is serious passion for college football in the Footprint.  This led several smaller schools to ramp up to Division I.  The Sun Belt has cobbled them all together in one neat package.  TF wants to make it a little neater.

The Sun Belt has all kind of possibilities.  It should be the South's verson of the Mountain West or the WAC.  Those conferences always play wide open football and put and occasional scare into some of the big boys.  The Sun Belt is almost there right now, and TF has found a couple of ex-Conference USA teams to help the cause.

Sun Belt
Arkansas State Arkansas State
Florida Atlantic    Florida Atlantic   
Florida International Florida International
Louisiana-Lafayette Louisiana-Lafayette
Louisiana-Monroe  Louisiana-Monroe 
Middle Tennessee  Middle Tennessee 
North Texas North Texas
Troy  Troy 
  (basketball only) Western Kentucky 
 Western Kentucky East Carolina 
Denver Southern Miss 
 New Orleans (basketball only)
 South Alabama  New Orleans
 UALR  South Alabama



The Sun Belt gets two nice additions from Conference USA.  Southern Miss and East Carolina are solid football schools.  However, they don't fit with the new urban feel of Conference USA.  They are much better hear in the Sun Belt.  The Sun Belt is now like a mini SEC or ACC playing in small market in the rural South.  Now, all they need is one more team to have 12 for a conference title game.


Denver?  How they ever were in this conference is a mystery.  Time to go back west of the Rockies.


Sure, we know this won't happen.  There are too many college presidents involved.  No one thinks big picture.  That's how messes like the current Big East get created. 

For now, we can watch the wonder of SEC football.  A conference that has loads of meaning packed into every game, no matter how small it may seem.  Other conferences need to look at the big dog and take note. 

The conference value lies in the rivalries.  The rivalries come from geography.  Until the geography mess is cleared up, it just won't seem right.

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