Large-scale conference realignment has been terrible for intercollegiate athletics as a whole.
The realignment itself isn’t anything new. Penn State’s addition to the Big Ten was incredibly controversial decades ago and Nebraska departing the Big 12 felt weird at the time, but it didn't drastically shake up the national landscape.
What is new is the fact that the latest round left one of the oldest, most storied conferences in the country behind for dead. Before you get mad, yes I am entirely aware of the old Big East and how the Big 12 has faced existential dread throughout its existence. But the thing about the Big East is that there’s a new, basketball-centric one and the Big 12 is still around even though it looks a lot different.
The Pac-12 is dead, its storied history ends here. They don’t have a conventional rebuilding road ahead, unlike multiple other examples. What’s on the horizon could be even worse for the sport.
The topic of football, particularly the largest national brands, splitting off from the rest of the collegiate athletics landscape has been gaining steam for a while. Recent realignment has poured fuel on that fire, especially if you subscribe to The Athletic.
Now, that Athletic piece described this move, the top brands launching their own league with divisions, as the English Premier League. I don’t know why that was the chosen example because there’s a league that actually plays American football like that and it’s called the NFL.
The NFL and college football may play the same sport on paper, but the two entities are extremely different. College has something that the NFL simply never will.
I’m not going to say something about college having more soul to it or something though. This is still and always has been a money-making venture, but there’s more to it than the NFL, which is literally just a business.
College football teams are attached to their university. Every alumni of a school can claim that team with some measure of pride. There’s traditions, long lines of family who went to a school and old stories about that school, and probably its athletics, told around dinner tables and long drives to campuses across the country.
Stories shared among friends in groupchats. Wearing a bison sweater and explaining to those unaware that, yes, Indiana did in fact have a mascot at some point. Talking about Braxton Miller with a random guy in the bar because he has a Brutus Buckeye shirt.
Sure your dad probably rooted for the Packers and you do too, but it wasn’t the all-encompassing experience that college was. That natural attachment breeds tradition.
The stands at Mississippi State being flush with cowbells. The pride in the O-H chant booming around the stands of the Shoe. Black and yellow-clad Hawkeyes fans turning in their seats to wave to patients at the children’s hospital overhead.
Indiana never losing a tailgate. Heading to breakfast club the morning of a game and (maybe) ending up at Memorial Stadium. Recalling old matchups throughout the years with friends in other fanbases, like the Penix pylon reach or the sheer ability of Tevin Coleman.
I’d mention more, but the beauty of the college game is that there’s so many traditions and tidbits that I really can’t unless I want to overdo it, I already have.
There’s something more at stake than a playoff berth when Oregon State meets Oregon or Indiana meets Purdue. That’s all there really is in the NFL though. Betting odds, the playoff race and a bunch of teams that more or less play the same way.
There’s a certain atmosphere that the NFL just can’t replicate. This isn’t to say those teams lack tradition, it’s just at a different level.
We could be on the verge of losing that. It’s already dead for an entire conference, why would it stop there. There hasn’t been some grand moment of pause for the Pac-12. a reckoning as to where following the money is taking all of us.
A blueblood women’s basketball program is, as of now, without a conference in a year’s time. Tack on the rest of the athletic department at Stanford, the best top to bottom, and things start getting very bleak.
But there’s no recognition or mourning for any of that that isn’t quickly shoved aside, just churning out more content on what could come next or how USC could match up against Ohio State. A matchup that looks good on paper but that neither fanbase truly cares about because there’s no tradition there.
That’s what the NFL is, not college football. Beyond watching it on TV, people love this sport for all the things listed above that set it apart be it a tradition, storyline or unique character like a Mike Leach, Nick Saban, 2020 Tom Allen and so on.
It’s different. It’s weird. It might not always look as pretty as those NFL games, but we love it all the more. Unless we have some real reckoning about where the sport is right now and where it could be going, we are going to lose that which makes college football what it is.
We have an NFL. We don’t need another one.