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The Realignment Window: A history of lesser teams winning because the good teams left

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Leaving for a better conference sounds enticing. But what if you stay put and win your depleted league? These are the best teams ever at doing that.

Rutgers vs. Louisville celebration in 2006 Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Histories of conference realignment list the winners as the teams that found homes in “better” leagues, the ones who make money and get a status bump for playing against stronger programs. College football doesn’t allow for much upward mobility, but realignment is the rare shortcut.

But what if there’s a whole ‘nother class of realignment champs? What about the teams who who win (at least on the field) not by moving up, but by being left behind?

Just about every league has a history of overlooked teams benefitting from the shuffle. These are teams that have taken advantage of The Realignment Window.

The 2000s Big East

Leaving: eventually everybody, but in particular Miami and Virginia Tech
Benefitting: Pitt, Louisville, USF, Cincinnati, UConn, and sort of West Virginia

Leaving was good to Virginia Tech, which joined a down ACC. The Hokies won four ACC titles in seven years, often with underwhelming records. But their exit, along with the fading Miami’s, was really good for a bunch of Big East teams:

  • 2004 Pitt made the Fiesta Bowl right after Miami and Virginia Tech skedaddled. The 8-3 Panthers got crushed by Urban Meyer and Alex Smith’s Utah, but the fact remains they participated in a BCS bowl.
  • Remember Bobby Petrino’s 2006 Louisville, which might not’ve won the league if the Hokies had still been around? We’ll come back to Louisville later. But for now, remember the second-place team was 11-win Rutgers. Realignment is what made PANDEMONIUM IN PISCATAWAY possible.

Rutgers later “won realignment” the more conventional way by joining the Big Ten East, where it has to face three or four Playoff contenders every year.

  • In 2007, ex-Conference USA startup USF got to #2 in the BCS. So did unusual national title contender WVU, which would’ve made the BCS Championship if not for the most shocking rivalry upset ever.
  • In 2009, Cincinnati — another C-USA pickup that had never played in a power conference before — arguably was one Alabama blocked field goal against Tennessee from playing in the BCS Championship. That same Cincinnati was arguably a botched PAT away from sending Pitt to another BCS bowl.
  • In 2010, the UConn Huskies became the worst Big Bowl Team in history. But the moments before that game were probably the last time anyone would ever be optimistic about UConn as an FBS program.
  • In 2012, Rutgers won 25% of the conference title (with Louisville, Syracuse, and Cincinnati). It’s Rutgers’ only title in a football history that dates to 1869.

The late-2000s Conference USA

Leaving: USF, Louisville, Cincinnati
Benefitting: East Carolina

The Bulls, Cardinals, and Bearcats left between 2003 and 2005. They’d each contend for national championships over the next decade or so.

Their exits gave ECU an opening in C-USA. The Pirates won it in 2008 and 2009. We’ll come back to ECU later, because they’re great at turning realignment water into wine.

Louisville again appears. A special Louisville section is at the end.

The WAC, a succession timeline

The history of the WAC is a list of the best teams granting center stage to new local bullies.

  • The WAC formed in 1962.
  • By 1966, the clear best team was Wyoming. The Pokes won all three titles from ‘66 to ‘68 and stayed competitive into 1969. They collapsed after coach Lloyd Eaton dismissed 14 black players who’d wanted to protest racism in the LDS Church during a game at BYU. After that, Wyoming couldn’t recruit.
  • That paved the way for Arizona State. Starting in 1969, ASU won or shared seven of nine WAC titles. That drew the attention of the Pac-10, which added the Sun Devils in 1978.
  • Arizona State’s exit meant a door for BYU, which had a few conference titles but was yet to arrive under LaVell Edwards. The Cougars shared the title in 1977, ASU’s last year. They then won seven solo WAC titles in a row, the start of a stretch of 15 won or shared titles in 21 years, including a national title in 1984. BYU went to the Mountain West in 1999.
  • Three years later, Boise State won the WAC, something it would do eight times in nine years before the Broncos themselves left for the Mountain West, which basically absorbed the WAC. Because time is a flat circle, the Broncos’ conference includes the rebuilt Wyoming Cowboys.

Boise’s rise as the non-power program is easily traced to BYU getting out of the way, just as BYU benefitted from Arizona State getting promoted, and just as ASU might’ve never risen if Wyoming ... hadn’t had a racist coach.

The late-’50s and early-’60s Border Conference

Leaving: Texas Tech
Benefitting: New Mexico State and others

In 2017, NMSU played (and won) its first bowl game in 57 years, hailing back to its days of camping in the aptly named Border Conference.

That’s where the Aggies played Arizona, Arizona State, Northern Arizona, New Mexico, UTEP, Texas Tech, Hardin-Simmons, and West Texas A&M (many under different names, including NMSU, which was New Mexico A&M). Tech was the dominant Border team (along with ASU), winning it seven times from 1947 to ‘55.

Tech went independent in 1956. The Red Raiders’ departure led to four schools winning the conference title prior to the Border’s disbanding six years later.

That included NMSU going 11-0 in 1960 and pounding the hell out of a bunch of teams. The program had a player win the national rushing yardage title four years in a row. This remains bonkers.

The 1950s and ‘70s Southern Conference

Leaving: the future ACC
Benefitting: West Virginia, VMI, East Carolina

In 1951, the SoCon had 17 teams. By 1953, it had lost Maryland (which would claim ‘53’s national title, somewhat dubiously by today’s standards), Clemson, South Carolina, UNC, NC State, Duke, and Wake Forest to the ACC.

This ruled for West Virginia, which had never even appeared in the AP Poll before. (Though the Eers probably would’ve if the poll had been around in 1922.) The Mountaineers seized on their newly bad conference, going 8-2 and getting to the Sugar Bowl, where Georgia Tech beat the hell out of them. WVU finished #10 anyway, winning its first of four straight conference titles (and eight over the next 15 years).

At that point, the Eers peaced out into indie life, where they waited until the Big East scooped them up, eventually giving them their second Realignment Window and nearly a national title shot.

When WVU wasn’t winning the SoCon, VMI usually was, taking it four times in six years during WVU’s lull. The Keydets won the league with such beautiful overall records as 6-4 and 7-2-1. They did go 9-0-1 en route to 1957’s league title. That year, the record of non-VMI SoCon teams was 34-41-2.

ECU later won four SoCon titles between 1966 and 1976. Those were their last conference titles until 2008 and 2009, when they won the C-USA Louisville had vacated. All told, ECU has six Division I conference titles, and we can attribute each to The Realignment Window. So the Pirates have twice watched their conference captains leave for better ships, then forced all remaining fellow stowaways ashore.

The 1930s and ‘40s SoCon

Leaving: the future SEC
Benefitting: Duke

The Southern spawned not just the ACC, but also the SEC. After 1932, Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida, LSU, Ole Miss, Tulane, and Vanderbilt, and Sewanee (!) split out of the 23-team league, leaving the SoCon with a party of 10.

When the future SEC teams had resided in the SoCon, Duke hadn’t been much. The Blue Devils had a few pretty nice years after joining major football in 1922, but they were usually below .500 and never did better than 8-1-2 in 1930.

Then two things happened: a) Duke hired Wallace Wade in 1931, and b) two years later, the SEC teams left. Duke won the SoCon in 1933 and would do so five more times under Wade through 1941. The Blue Devils remained competitive and often great into the early ‘60s, by which time they’d help form the ACC.

The old Missouri Valley

Leaving: Nebraska and Missouri
Benefitting: Tulsa and Drake

Nebraska and Mizzou dominated this nascent league for a while. One or the other won or shared the title 17 times between 1907 and 1927. Then they left to form the Big 6 with Oklahoma, Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State.

This meant a tiny Missouri Valley. For the next four years, the league had five teams, and Drake won it every year, sharing with Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in 1930 and 1933. But the league was growing, and the Bulldogs didn’t get another share until 1972.

Tulsa won or shared five MVC titles between 1935 and 1985, the last year before the rest of that league went FCS. Illinois State, West Texas A&M, Indiana State, Wichita State, Southern Illinois, and Drake were their competition by the end. After all that, the Golden Hurricane decided to give various FBS conferences a try, leading to numerous one- or two-win seasons.

A special Louisville section

Louisville has won eight conference titles, playing the realignment game masterfully for decades.

  • The first two came in the old MVC, under Lee Corso in 1970 and ‘72, with the latter a three-way split. The solo title came over Tulsa, Memphis, North Texas, and an 0-9 Wichita State. That was the whole league, with the traditional powers long gone.
  • The next three came in a weak Conference USA, which Louisville joined in 1996 after two decades of independence. Despite losing Howard Schnellberger, who didn’t want to coach in C-USA, the Cards won three titles between 2000 and 2004.
  • The next three came in the post-Canes/Hokies Big East, which had scooped up the Cardinals to offset defections.

After the Big East closed up, UL spent 2013 in the AAC before getting onto a financial lifeboat and joining the ACC. Everything comes back to it sometimes being awesome to just live at a lower level, though. Had the Cards stayed in the zombie Big East, they’d have several more conference championships and wouldn’t have had 2016 Clemson in the way of their best team ever (and yeah, way less money and long-term stability, but that stuff’s no fun).

Then again, Louisville’s one game against the AAC that year was a 36-10 loss. Maybe we’d all be better off just eating at Arby’s.

Power conferences carry lots of benefits, including the only one that drives athletic decision-making. But there’s another way to see the world.

All of the schools mentioned in this post who aren’t currently in Power 5 leagues would jump at the opportunity to be in them, because making eight digits a year in TV money is a lot better than barely making seven digits.

But I’m guessing you’re not an athletic director. I’m not either. So why not embrace the limitations of strength of schedule and enjoy your time in the small pond? You’re not winning a national title, so you might as well eat some minnows.