The 2016 College Football Playoff title game between Clemson and Alabama was partly billed as a battle between the SEC and the ACC. The Tide’s win led many to conclude that the “top to bottom” quality of the Southeastern Conference was superior. The perception of the respective conferences played into most experts’ pregame pick of Alabama, and they were correct.
A season of playing better opponents sharpened Alabama to a finer edge. Maybe it’s also that Bama had about five times as many players who were elite high schoolers, than Clemson. And Tiger QB Deshaun Watson still kept the game close.
Do we believe that conferences have their own spirits? That simply being a part means your school is elevated or lowered by proxy? The answer seems to be yes, at least for the purposes of sports talk. But it’s harder to swallow when teams are moving around. If there is a kind of spirit attached, it wouldn’t be immediately transferable when a school moves in, nor out. Or, to paraphrase one sports columnist, “Realignment redefined tradition.”
College conferences have changed so much, just since the turn of the century. For example, Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left the Big East for the Atlantic Coast in 2003-04. BC’s president said, “The move will generate greater revenues… We have secured our future for the long term.”
The ACC team total rose to an unprecedented twelve, and then fourteen. Those three additions have been average basketball teams in their new conference, and consistently beat up the old-timer schools on the football field. The bottom line was guaranteeing the conference a spot in the Bowl Championship Series.
Go back to 1980, and we find only seven ACC football teams. The PAC-12 was the PAC-10, with Utah lodged within the WAC. Syracuse, Florida State and South Carolina were independents.
Things like the BCS/CFP machine, NCAA Tournament, and increased money and exposure from major college sports as a whole, meant that schools started playing chess. Universities began leaving long-time associations for another pasture. Independents were absorbed. Someone coined the term “Power Five conference.” Everything from recruiting to media coverage were affected by how people saw your favorite conference. Football fans long coveted a tournament of their own, and got one—the end result of all that jockeying.
Coaches in those major conferences began politicking as to how strong their intramural competition was. Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops famously ripped the SEC’s out-of-conference schedules.
“Sometimes you have a tendency to put your teams from your conference in there and vote other teams down to try and impact it,” another coach said of the coaches’ poll. We can be sure that there are similar agendas at play within selection committees.
With all of this flipping and switching and propaganda, it is difficult to see why we ever act like conference affiliation means anything, anymore.
The men in charge of conferences are calculating and professional. These are organizations which looked different recently and will probably change again soon. It’s not even an issue of loyalty. So we really have no reason to take pride in a conference. Some of us do it anyway.