Realignment didn’t start with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany’s announcement on Dec. 15, 2009. But it sure feels like it.
Delany told the world that day the Big Ten would become active participants in expansion, which since has changed the landscape of college athletics. Consider his statement the earthquake that left dozens of devastating aftershocks. Several Big 12 schools didn’t know how miserable they were until they thought they had an option to leave. The Big East’s collapse was reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. It previously was held together by parts that had no interest in the sum. When it was kaput, it was kaput.
Earlier in 2009, the Pac-12 hired an aggressive commissioner in Larry Scott, who nearly wiped out the entire Big 12 when he invited six members. Only one, Colorado, showed up to the Pac-12 party. But it forced Delany to make a choice at least six months earlier than he had wanted.
The SEC then plucked two unhappy Big 12 members in Texas A&M and Missouri. The ACC and Big Ten virtually ended the Big East by poaching Syracuse (ACC), Pittsburgh (ACC), Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten). The Big Ten pounced on ACC charter member Maryland weeks after longtime crush Notre Dame joined the ACC for all sports save football. The Big 12 picked the Big East carcass clean by grabbing West Virginia and inviting TCU even before the Horned Frogs became an official member.
When you peel back the layers of realignment, you understand it really all began in the early 1990s. That’s when the SEC snagged Arkansas, which ultimately caused the Southwest Conference to fold. Independent Penn State joined the Big Ten, which damaged three terrific eastern rivalries. The SEC also landed South Carolina, a brilliant move that allowed the conference to begin a lucrative championship game and spin the realignment wheel.
The Big Eight merged with the three best remaining Southwest Conference schools — Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech — along with Baylor to become the Big 12. The geographical divisional structure permanently damaged one of the great rivalries in Nebraska-Oklahoma, which ultimately led to Nebraska’s departure.
But through it all, what have we lost through realignment? The answer: rivalries. They are the lifeblood of college sports, especially football. Only one team (OK, maybe two) wins a national title each year. But picking up bragging rights or a traveling trophy over a rival means nearly as much for those who fall short. If you think it doesn’t, just ask an Iowa fan living in Des Moines or an Auburn fan right now. Losing to your rival and listening to the banter for a year is a reminder of your inadequacies. Nobody likes inadequacies.
So let’s rediscover 10 (plus two) of the biggest rivalries that were discarded in the high-stakes realignment poker game over the last 25 years.
10 (plus 2). BYU-Utah. The teams have played 88 games since 1922. They’ve met every season since 1946. Until 2010, they were together in the Mountain West Conference, but Utah was called up to the majors (Pac-12) and BYU chose independence. With the Pac-12′s nine-game schedule, Utah wanted a break from its biggest rival. In 2014 and 2015, the teams won’t play. It angered enough people that the schools decided to restart their rivalry from 2016 through 2018, the only reason why this series isn’t higher on the list. It possible it could become an annual game once again, but when it comes to rivalries, absence doesn’t make hearts grow fonder. They grow farther apart.
10 (plus 1). Maryland-Virginia. The Terrapins and Cavaliers have played annually since 1957 and that ends in 2014, when Maryland bolts for the Big Ten. Nobody suggests this football rivalry is heated; Virginia has a longer-standing series with North Carolina and a hate-hate relationship with Virginia Tech. But the schools have faced one another 88 times, and it’s always a shame when those games go away. Plus, the states’ histories are so intertwined, spanning 400 years, that it just seems unfortunate for a series like this to evaporate.
10. SEC rivalries. Through all the fans’ and media bluster about the SEC’s prowess (which is completely accurate over the last 10 years), the league’s schedules don’t always add up to the hype. Last year, for instance, SEC West champion Alabama didn’t play the East’s three best teams. SEC East champion Georgia didn’t face the West’s top three squads. Both took advantage of the scheduling quirk to square off in the SEC championship game, their first meeting since 2008. Alabama-Georgia have played only 11 times since 1977 and aren’t officially scheduled to meet in the future.
When the league added Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992, it did simplify the SEC schedule a tad. In the 1980s, schools played only six SEC games. But realignment interrupted regular series, many of which involved Tennessee. Ole Miss-Tennessee competed every year from 1972-1991 but since have played just six times. Likewise, Florida and Mississippi State played every year but twice from 1954-1991 but since have met only six times.
9. Cincinnati-Louisville. The schools have played all but three years since 1966 but this season marks their finale as conference rivals. Only 100 miles separates the schools and both touted their assets when the ACC was looking to replace Maryland. Louisville got the call, and Cincinnati was left behind.
Few traveling trophies are as cool as the Keg of Nails, which goes to the winner each fall. Hopefully, the schools will play as non-conference foes in the future, but it’s unlikely to remain an annual affair.
8. Big 12/Southwest rivalries. The Great Plains region and state of Texas had several, long-standing traditional games between teams of uneven strength. Kansas-Nebraska was the nation’s longest uninterrupted series at 105 years and the third most-played series (behind Minnesota-Wisconsin, Kansas-Missouri) before the Cornhuskers left for the Big Ten. But Nebraska was the hammer and Kansas provide the nail in this series, which ended with Nebraska holding a 91-23-3 advantage. Nebraska’s series with Iowa State (105 games), Kansas State (95) and Missouri (104) spanned a century with similar results and its games with Colorado (69) often had national importance. Missouri played Iowa State (104) and Kansas State (97) forever it seemed before heading to the SEC.
The Southwest Conference had several long-standing rivalries that were disrupted by the league’s breakup after 1995. Baylor and SMU had missed only four seasons from 1916-1995 (two for World World II, two for SMU’s death penalty). Baylor-Texas A&M played every year from 1901 through 2011, except during World War II. But with Baylor’s threats of a lawsuit preventing Texas A&M from a leisurely leap to the SEC, don’t expect these schools to rehash the good old days under a shade tree in East Texas.
7. Big Ten rivalries. This was a big deal during the first two seasons of Legends-Leaders when Iowa-Wisconsin (86) was shelved. Now that the league decided to the revamp geographically and Iowa-Wisconsin since has been preserved, a few other longstanding rivalries were put on the shelf.
Illinois and Ohio State will meet for the 100th time this fall. They will have played every season but two from 1914 through 2015. They compete for an odd, wooden turtle named the “Illibuck” which is supposed to signify the long-lasting nature of the rivalry. Instead it will crawl into a shell in 2016, when they will meet about five times every 12 years.
Likewise, Michigan-Minnesota will play their 100th game this fall. The Little Brown Jug is the oldest traveling trophy in major college football. The squads were the Big Ten’s most dominant through the first half of the 20th century. Minnesota won six national titles through the 1960 season, and Michigan is college football’s winningest program. But they also go their separate ways in realignment and will average five meetings over 12 seasons.
6. Pittsburgh-West Virginia. The “Backyard Brawl” reached 104 seasons before the sides called a truce after the 2011 season. West Virginia now is the Big 12′s geographic outlier, while Pittsburgh enters its first season in the ACC. They played every season from 1943 through 2011, and met in late November or early December every year from 1997 through 2011. The 100th and most important game was in 2007, when a woeful Pittsburgh squad upset the Mountaineers 13-9 to knock West Virginia from the BCS championship game. The teams are discussing picking up a few games here and there, but it won’t have the same appeal or value it once did.
5. Arkansas-Texas. The schools have played 77 times, including 73 before Arkansas bolted the Southwest Conference in 1992. Arkansas was the only non-Texas school in the Southwest and usually had a program to match Texas. In their 1969 meeting, one of many termed “Game of the Century,” Texas stopped Arkansas 15-14 and President Richard Nixon declared the Longhorns the national champion. In non-conference play, the schools have had three regular-season meetings and once faced each other in the Cotton Bowl.
In the mid-1970s, the Big Eight held discussions with Arkansas about joining the league, but those fell apart. I’ve often wondered had Arkansas become the ninth member or later became a foursome with Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech in the mid-1990s, could it have kept the Great Plains conference intact? Arkansas could have provided an even greater counterweight to Texas when problems started choking the Big 12 in 2009-2011.
4. Pittsburgh-Penn State. Each school’s fan base anticipated this game more than any other before Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993. They’ve played 96 times, including every year from 1900 through 1931, and then 1935 through 1991. It was required viewing in western Pennsylvania, especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s. From 1976 through 1986, the schools combined for three national titles.
Since Penn State joined the Big Ten, the teams have played four games, but none since 2000. There is momentum for resurrecting the series on a more regular basis, however. The teams have scheduled a four-game series from 2016-19, and it’s likely to whet the appetite for future meetings between the programs.
3. Missouri-Kansas. If this was an all-sports list, this one would top the charts. The football programs have played 119 times, second-most all time. The level of disdain on both sides of the Missouri River has changed little since the mid-19th century, except for all the massacres, of course.
Once it decided to leave the Big 12, Missouri wanted to continue its rivalry against Kansas. But the Jayhawks were/are adamantly opposed to playing Missouri again without the conference structure. That also includes basketball, which exceeds the intensity of the football rivalry.
Former KU Coach Don Fambrough famously said, “Kansas State is our rival. Missouri is our enemy.” You can’t breed hatred like that by switching conferences.
2. Texas-Texas A&M. You know it’s a rivalry when one school (A&M) inserts the other (Texas) in its official war hymn. For generations A&M served as the Bobby Ewing to Texas’ J.R. Ewing. They met every year from 1915 to 2011, always around Thanksgiving. It survived both world wars, the Southwest Conference implosion and the first wave of Big 12 reductions.
Then in 2011, with Texas signing a lucrative cable deal with ESPN for its own “Longhorn Network,” A&M had enough. It sought a divorce from its more powerful bigger brother, and the SEC provided a safe harbor. Texas A&M would like to continue its game with Texas, but the Longhorns are not interested — at least right now. College football is worse off because of it.
1. Oklahoma-Nebraska. The teams dominated Big Eight play, combining for 84 league championships. They played 71 consecutive seasons from 1927 through 1998, nearly all had league title implications. Since the AP poll began in 1936, the series featured at least one ranked team 58 of 68 games, both teams ranked in 24 games at least one top-10 team 46 times and two top-10 teams 18 times. Six times the teams were ranked in the top four entering their game.
When the Big Eight agreed to equally accept four Southwest schools to become the Big 12, the league split geographically and divided Oklahoma from Nebraska. Oklahoma featured another great rivalry with Texas and tended to look south rather than north. Nebraska did not have a rivalry that matched its series with Oklahoma. The series cycled out in 1998 and the teams played two years on, two years off until Nebraska left for the Big Ten after the 2010 season.
The Oklahoma-Nebraska series stands alongside Michigan-Ohio State, Alabama-Auburn and Army-Navy as one of the college football’s greatest rivalries. The schools have a two-game series scheduled in 2021 and 2022 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1971 “Game of the Century.” But this was a treasured series, and college football suffers because of it.