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Alex Cooper's Take on NCAA Conference Affairs


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College Football Conference Supremacy Using a Cross-Country Scoring Model – An Update

It’s here! The AP preseason college football top 25 poll is out. Temperatures may not be cooling a bit yet, but this is another indication that the seasons are a-changing. We are one step closer to college football, and fans and media now have another high-profile season prediction over which to argue. Part of this argument for several years now has been over which conference in the country is the best. This is a very difficult argument to actually win on anything other than hot air. Do you count bowl victories? National championships won? Non-conference records?

Four years ago, I made an argument on this blog for the efficacy of using a cross-country scoring system as a means by which we can evaluate empirically the old, fun, and ever-present debate of fandoms across college football: which conference is truly the best? Now that I am four seasons wiser, I am still convinced that this scoring method remains a valid measurement of collective success. I won’t rehash it all now (feel free to refresh you memory by reading it here), but the basic idea is that the sport of cross country evaluates both individual performance and group performance in a single competition. We can appropriate that for assessing college football conferences.

In college football, it’s easy to see who the best team is by the end of the season (hint: they’re the ones holding a big, shiny trophy that looks like a miniature version of a futuristic skyscraper). The landscape of college football has shifted in the past 30 years to one of a more conference-based system, meaning teams can rarely go independent of a grouping of other schools of a similar status and be successful. Indeed, the last time a team won the national championship as an independent was in 1989 (Miami [FL] just before joining the Big East). National champions are often from conferences. The conference of the national champion is often elevated in status upon the victory, and rightly so; national championships are worthy of praise and are only captured by programs with a considerable strength. Conferences should celebrate their teams’ success on a national stage.

This narrative of equating a team’s national championship with conference supremacy has only become more prevalent as conferences themselves become more politically powerful in the NCAA and important to fanbases. The SEC perpetuated this argument for years during “The Streak” of 2006-2012 when the conference had 7 consecutive national championships by 4 different teams. However, SEC fans in the years since have been both burned and bolstered by this measurement of success: no conference since The Streak has won even back-to-back titles, so the argument of conference supremacy is constantly debated. In each case of victories by Florida State (ACC, 2013), Ohio State (Big Ten, 2014), Alabama (SEC, 2015 & 2017), and Clemson (ACC, 2016 & 2018), fans, media, and related institutions themselves have fed off of the bragging momentum winning the title has given the champion’s conference as a whole. For example, Wake Forest, a team that finished their regular season right at .500 (6-6) in 2018, congratulated division opponent Clemson on their victory:

This tweet may seem good-spirited and harmless, but a critical eye will see that the Demon Deacons’ program is seeking to bolster the Atlantic Coast Conference’s reputation by promoting a national championship win from a member institution; this win will somehow elevate their own program in the Wake (pun intended) of a year of mediocrity. But However, does a rising tide of a team’s national championship really lift all boats in the conference? It certainly does not hurt. Though, this single achievement alone is often misappropriated by fans of other teams in the conference of the national champion as the data point sufficient enough to pronounce the whole conference as superior. This narrative is perpetuated not only at the tailgate but also on twitter and at the television analysts desk. See this tweet from a sports journalist:

Using a highly selective dataset from the years after The Streak, Machota presents data that shows the ACC on top. As superior to the SEC, Big 10, and all other conferences not listed.

This is a simply insufficient measurement for evaluating conferences. Peter Burns recognizes this:

Within those 6 years Machota cited, there were instances where other teams in the conference of the champion were not up to championship snuff or even nationally prominent. I agree with Burns on the head-scratching, but for a different reason: how can one evaluate an entire grouping of teams by just one team? This leaves out 90% of the on-field play for a conference that year out of the equation.

If only there were another system to measure individual and team success simultaneously.

Fortunately, the sport of cross country has already figured this out. The formula is simple: the place you finish in a race is the number of points you score for your team. Each team adds up its 5 fastest runners’ places (4 in the United Kingdom). Lowest team score wins.

Also fortunately, college football is obsessed with ranking teams. ESPN even has a weekly show dedicated to releasing a Top 25 poll. And these rankings look a lot like a cross-country race result: the best team is ranked first, and the best runner finishes first.

Therefore, to evaluate conferences using a more robust measurement than the binary national-championship-or-no-national-championship metric, I propose using a cross-country scoring system where individual football teams are like individual runners, and football conferences are like the cross-country team that scores based on several of its best members.

My first article on this topic was released at this time in 2015 after Ohio State beat Alabama and Oregon consecutively to win the first College Football Playoff. I pushed back on the popular discourse of the Big 10 Conference (B1G) regaining supremacy in college football (see old twitter commentary from NBA stars and fast-food chains alike). Using a cross-country (XC) scoring method, the B1G that year was not first and not even second. This way, Ohio State’s first-place finish that year certainly helped the conference and was not discounted at all; cross country teams know the value of a first-place finish to a team score. However, every conference was evaluated by an evaluation of their teams that was wider in scope than ESPN or Twitter usually allows for.

Since this time, I’ve kept on scoring conferences in this manner using the AP Top 25 poll. Each week I tabulate the scores to see how throughout the season how the conferences stack up.  And now that the AP has released its preseason 2019 poll, it is time to share this updated data to see how the competitiveness of collegiate athletic conferences has evolved.

As with any scoring model, this methodology has its limitations. The ranking of these schools is done not by an objective clock as in a cross-country race but rather a grouping of individuals with opinions and biases. This article uses exclusively the Associated Press’ poll, though you could easily adapt it to use the USA Today Coach’s Poll that works also by acquiring votes from participants. I’ve chosen the AP which uses journalists rather than coaches, but a narrow margin in the AP XC ranking could be flipped if the USA Today XC rankings. These differences in voting highlight the human element of this model. Additionally, this model is ordinarily-based rather than interval-based. That is, one could use this same methodology but add up the points the AP gives each team based on their votes by conference instead of just adding up the rankings as is done here. This could arguably take into account not just the fact that team #7 is considered “better” than team #8 but quantitatively assess just how much better team #7 is than team #8.

I think the current methodology, though derived from running, is still in line with the spirit of college football. The human element of polling and ranking is something that has caused endless debate in the history of the sport and has not receded since the institution of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS, 1998-2013) or the transition to the College Football Playoff (CFP, 2014-Present). The AP poll is consequential in that debate; though the coach’s poll was used in the old BCS formula, the AP still continues to crown its own champion as the NCAA does not itself award a D1 FBS champion. And until the CFP rankings come out deep into the regular season, the AP poll is used as the premier measurement of the landscape of the season. And these polls matter in the sense that a team is ahead of another, not by how much ahead. The focus is always on the ranking, not the point total. An interval calculation for this XC scoring model would also unhelpfully skew the results in the favor of those top few teams with those further down the ballot mattering very little. The argument for using rankings elevates all teams receiving votes as contributors to their conference’s overall success.

One more consideration: this model has proved to work most effectively when using a conference’s top 4 rather than top 5 schools. There are usually about 35-40 teams receiving votes each week in the AP, and with the number of independent teams or Group-of-5 conference members that usually appear somewhere in the rankings, this 5 team mark is hard to consistently maintain. Consider 2017: each Power-5 conference scored each week by using 4 teams, but three of the five conferences had at least 3 weeks of no scoring when using the 5 team metric. Additionally, conference size is not consistent; the Big XII has ten teams and the Pac 12 has twelve. The ACC, SEC, and B1G all have fourteen, making that 5th slot easier to grab. So here, we’ll score like the British in cross country and count 4 teams.

With all this in mind, let’s get to the data. First, we’ll do a deep dive into the past two seasons to see how this methodology works throughout a season. Then, we’ll zoom out to see the totality of conference competitiveness during the post-Streak era in which our earlier tweets were from.

2017: Preseason Expectations Underwhelmed

Coming off a thrilling Clemson (ACC) national championship victory the season before, the AP poll preceding the 2017-18 season showed a close race for the best conference off the bat with one clear front-runner: the Big Ten. The Midwestern conference had finished 2016 on a good run and as the best conference by the AP XC metric, and expectations for the next season were high. B1G schools accounted for 4 of the top 11 slots. And thus, the conference’s overall score was very low to place it initially far ahead its other competitors.

AP XC 2017 Preseason Results

SEC ACC Big 10 Big XII Pac-12
41 42 28 43 50
1 3 2 6 4
12 5 6 7 8
13 16 9 10 14
15 18 11 20 24
17 21 30 22 27
25 29 39 23 32
41.5 31 43 26 34
41.5 35.5

But as the season progressed, the landscape began to change. Through the first seven or eight weeks, the look of the B1G out front with a pack in the middle with the other four conferences was becoming normal. Then Weeks 9 and 10 changed everything for the B1G. In Week 9, two of the conference’s ranked schools lost, including #2 Penn State who lost a big lead against Ohio State. The same thing happened again in Week 10, this time most notably to Ohio State against an unranked Iowa team. Meanwhile, 4 ranked SEC teams won in Week 10, and the Pac 12 had several ranked losses. This flipped the narrative of the season on its head. The Big XII, ACC, and Pac 12 eventually finished the regular season well above the B1G and SEC, and an abysmal 1-8 bowl record for the Pac 12 placed them last at the end of the season. The SEC maintained its position from Week 11 on, rebounding from some top-of-the-conference shakeups with Auburn to become the first conference in the CFP to have two teams in, one of which (Alabama) won the title. The B1G did not finish as strongly as the preseason pollsters might’ve expected, but a good 7-1 bowl record that year allowed for a strong finish in the final rankings. Here are the season results:

APXC_2017_4team

SEC ACC B1G Big 12 Pac-12
Preseason 41 42 28 43 50
Final 31 64 35 54 74
Range 19 23 23 23.5 27
Average 38.3 50.0 34.9 52.0 58.1
Max (Worst) 49 64 46 66.5 74
Min (Best) 30 41 23 43 47
Season Change -10 22 7 11 24

So in this case, the national champion did come from the conference with the strongest overall season performance.

2018: Lone Tigers of Clemson Not Enough for ACC

The preseason polls echoed the ending of the last year in 2018 as they often do with the SEC and B1G in the top tier, followed by the other conferences. The Pac-12 continued its frustrating stint as it again finished last of the scoring teams for the season. The Big XII, though it had successful teams at the top in Oklahoma and Texas, did not change hardly at all from its preseason score to its final score in mid-pack. The B1G again had another year of not meeting its expectations: it had the worst change from preseason to postseason in the rankings, adding 25 points to its total score throughout the season. This is not unrelated to the conference’s second year in a row of failing to get a team into the CFP. The SEC throughout the season followed a decently steady trajectory; its range of variation throughout the season was smaller than any other conference’s.

The interesting case of 2018 was the ACC. Spoiler alert: Clemson dominated the season by winning more games than any other college football team in history and capturing its second title in three years. Remember that Wake Forest tweet from earlier? It was after that championship win. But Peter Burns’ positing of a dominant championship team with a gaggle of mediocrity that followed for the ACC can be assessed here. Sort of.

My decision to use 4 instead of 5 teams to calculate conference scores partly stemmed from the reasons mentioned earlier: more conferences can compete and differences in the quantities of conference membership are minimized. Had I used a 5 team scoring system for 2018, the Big XII (10 teams) would’ve not scored 7 of the 16 weeks because of lack of teams in the polls, and the Pac-12 (12 teams) would’ve missed twice. The 14-team ACC, however, would have missed 5 times. Neither of its 14-team counterparts (SEC and B1G) have missed out on this.

APXC_2018_5team_discontinuous

But no big deal; I’ll use the 4 team scoring.

In 2017, all five conferences had at least 4 teams voted into the AP poll every week. In 2018, the ACC was the only conference to miss this mark. Not once, but four times. Including the last three polls of the season, when it is supposed to count the most. The Big XII and Pac-12, smaller conferences who also missed out on consistently having 5 teams ranked, were all present here. But not the ACC. The ACC had only two teams ranked at the end of the season, and NC State suck in tied for last place to make three scoring teams. 

APXC_2018_4team_discontinuous

SEC ACC B1G Big 12 Pac-12
Preseason 31 49 30 63 58
Final 23 #N/A 55 64 79
Range 15 36 27 21 34
Average 24.4 67.2 46.3 57.3 71.9
Median 24 67 47.5 58 71
Max (Worst) 31 85 57 65 92
Min (Best) 16 49 30 44 58
Season Change -8 23* 25 1 21

The irony here is multifaceted. The first is structurally. The 5 team scoring system was too heavily favored towards big conferences and the national champion, both of which fit the ACC in 2018. But even in the smaller poll, the ACC could not manage to put more than 3 out of 14 teams to even be assessed by a more all-encompassing metric. In cross-country, this would be listed as a DNF – “Did Not Finish.” Literally, the ACC started the season, and somewhere along the way, it passed out and didn’t cross the finish line.

The second irony is goes back to the popular laud and acclaim given to the ACC as a whole for its collective national championship. Clemson had a fantastic, unmatched team in 2018. But what the AP XC metric shows clearly is that one team does not equal one conference. The argument that the ACC reigns supreme is ridiculous because not only were they not the best conference in 2018, they were not even good enough to be in the discussion. I would say that this is unprecedented, but it’s not: the last conference to not score in the 4-team race for bragging rights? Yep: the ACC, in 2012.

2012-2018: Battling the Ghosts of SECs Past

I find calculating the AP XC results for each week exciting. It’s an added bit of fun after scorching in the heat or freezing yourself to a bleacher seat the day before to not only see those AP rankings come out on Sunday afternoon and see what teams best advanced their cause but to then run the numbers and assess the larger landscape of conference health and vitality. Plotting the perception of how good conferences really are across a season could be a valuable and fun aspect of the larger fan and media debate with more substance than the usual empty bickering. But, as any coach will tell you mid-season, those rankings don’t really matter. They of course do to fans and the media and to the players who cannot help but see the hype or disappointment around their team’s placement within them. But to the extent that they define a season, they are not important. Sometimes for a program who hasn’t been there before or hasn’t been there in a long time, it is the difference in a season for the fanbase (see Mississippi State in 2014).

But the culmination of a season in its totality is embodied in the final rankings. After the confetti falls, all the exciting bowl games played, and the votes are cast, everyone’s total body of work is considered in the final evaluation of the season. These final rankings are the most valuable because they include the most amount of input from teams and less speculative input from voters.

This is to say that the final rankings are really what matter each season. And because this AP XC scoring method is a framework that can be used inter-seasonally and AP polling is always a constant, we can examine trends across years just as we’ve done within a few single seasons. Let’s take a look at the results of the end of the SEC 2006-12 “Streak” to the present to see how things have changed:

APXC_2012-18_4team

SEC ACC B1G Big 12 Pac-12
2012 20 N/A 69 72 60
2013 19 63.5 59.5 66 54.5
2014 38 53 47 63.5 43
2015 49 66 31 45 66
2016 51 45 32 60 36
2017 31 67 35 54 74
2018 23 N/A 55 64 79
* National Championship
Range 32 22 38 27 43
Average 33.0 58.9 46.9 60.6 58.9
Median 31.0 63.5 47.0 63.5 60.0
Max (Worst) 51 67 69 72 79
Min (Best) 19 45 31 45 36

It is clear that the SEC at and just after its Streak was at an unparalleled strength nationally. Its 40 point victory in 2012 was evident not only of Alabama’s national championship that year but of the performance of all 7 of its teams (half of its 14 members) ranked in the top 25. Not only did its top 4 tams that year rank inside the top 9 of the AP, but its other schools receiving votes pushed back other teams from other conferences increasing (i.e. worsening) the score of its opponents. Even when Florida State (ACC) won the title in 2013, the SEC was strong enough to win the conference race, again putting 7 in the top 25 with 8 teams receiving votes. 

The first years of the College Football Playoff, 2014-2017, was a different story. The SEC lost momentum, and the Big 10 annually challenged for the top spot. After Ohio State won the 2014 championship, the B1G won the conference race the next two years despite the SEC and ACC splitting the titles (Alabama in 2015 and Clemson in 2016). The Big XII has struggled during this period; despite a strong collective 2015 finish in which it was second only to the B1G and had its best score and place over this time period, it has finished last 4 of the 7 years over this period (*the ACC did not score in 2012, so it ostensibly had a worse year than the Big XII then). The Big XII has struggled to keep in step with the rest of the country as the landscape of conference membership has evolved into a bigger-is-better format, and that is reflected here. The Pac-12 has been erratic, jumping from a great collective 2nd-place finish in 2016 to dead last with a poor score in 2017. And the ACC: while it did win 3 of these 7 national championships, it only managed to put 4 teams into the AP poll 5 of these 7 years, indicating this is a top-heavy conference struggling to keep its whole collective body healthy. No other conference was unable to put at least 4 teams into the final AP poll.

I must put in a good word for the American Athletic Conference (AAC [not to be confused with the ACC. Sorry, I don’t make these acronyms]). Some readers might be wondering what I do to consider Group-of-5 teams or independents. In the model, these conferences are always included as legitimate competitors, and any individual team is considered in the rankings just like a cross-country race would. The independent category is considered its own category. Most times, these conferences are so infrequently included en masse that usually, the UCFs, Notre Dames, and Navys of the world just push back Power-5 schools. But in 2016, the American actually put 5 teams in the AP poll. Their 4-team score was 130, 70 points behind the last Power-5 conference (Big XII, 60 points). This was the only instance over the seven year period in which a Group-of-5 conference made a dent in this competition. This highlights the strength of the Power-5 conferences as a whole and the trend college football has taken since the 1990s to move to a conference-based competitive system.

Notice finally the relationship between a team winning a national championship and its conference winning the AP XC race. Only twice in this sample have the two coincided: Alabama and the SEC both won in 2012 and 2017 (though 2012 was by a vastly greater margin than 2017).  Perhaps a national championship victory can give a boost to the conference’s next season XC performance, but only 3 of the 7 years has seen a conference XC win after a member institution’s win the previous year.

This is all to further reinforce the ridiculousness and unfounded conference chants after a single team wins the national championship. In fact, in the post-Streak years, this has been true only once.

Perhaps much of this debate of conference superiority itself came from the years of The Streak when SEC fans prided themselves on the conference’s many consecutive national championships. The backlash in the other direction has been for B1G and ACC fans to chime in after one of their own’s victory to not only elevate their own conference’s status but to downplay the SEC’s. I’ve argued previously that the SEC is an exceptional conference in its self-conceptualization and expressions of collective fandom because of its collective fan attitudes towards victory and its connections to place-based, regional, Southern identity (see here and here), but the opposite side of that coin is the rest of the nation reacting against that collective fandom. It’s a natural reaction to throw the data point that underpinned and buttressed the “SEC supremacy” argument for years during The Streak back in the faces of those very same fans when their conference is denied a championship. This AP XC metric, however, shows that the era of SEC dominance was truly more than just their consecutive national championships, but that era of dominance is clearly over. We now have more parity in conference strength and no longer see one conference with an unmatched upper hand. Most importantly, it is evident that the idea of the “best” conference truly depends upon more than what team hoists the trophy every January.

2019: AP Predicts Clemson, SEC Stay On Top

Coming off another Clemson (ACC) national championship victory last season coupled with its conference’s abominable collective performance, I was very curious as to what the Associated Press would say about the landscape of conferences ahead of this coming college football season. Today, we all found out. In the poll, Clemson was predicted to win it all, followed by last year’s #2, Alabama. A total of 46 teams received votes, an amount that is not unusual for this time of year but one that always is larger than the final poll. These numbers represent the press’ best guesses as to what will happen this year in college football with 0 data from the game field.

The poll released today again sparked debate about conference dominance. It always does. Twitter, a treasure trove of hot takes, already is rife with attempts to quantify and rank conferences. Some are simply cherry-picking from the data in an arbitrary fashion (sorry Paul):

The old count-the-number-of-teams-in-the-top-25 method is a classic demarcating metric for many of conference dominance.

These takes alone are, as I’ve argued at length, insufficient. Let’s run the race again.

AP XC 2019 Preseason Results

4 Team
SEC ACC B1G 10 Big XII Pac-12
19 84 45 66 61
2 1 5 4 11
3 22 7 10 13
6 29 15 21 14
8 32 18 31 23





12 36 19 43 25
16 20 43 43
26 24 45.5
28 30 45.5
35 39
5 Team
SEC ACC B1G 10 Big XII Pac-12
31 120 64 109 86
2 1 5 4 11
3 22 7 10 13
6 29 15 21 14
8 32 18 31 23
12 36 19 43 25





16 20 43 43
26 24 45.5
28 30 45.5
35 39

This year’s AP Preseason poll predicts another year of the Southeastern Conference at the top of college football, the Big 10 hanging on for second, a fight to get back into the swing of things for the Pac-12 and Big 12, and the ACC with Clemson at the top. We don’t see many changes from the end of the last season with a few notable exceptions: Georgia (SEC) is back in the top 3 after an embarrassing loss in the Sugar Bowl to Texas last January. Michigan (Big 10) has bettered their place significantly. While Washington State (Pac-12) appears lower than they finished last year, conference foe Oregon enters this year ranked 11th after finishing unranked last year. All of these changes can be seen in how they help their conferences from where they finished last year. Here is a longitudinal graph of the 4-team XC race since 2012 if these 2019 predictions were to be absolutely correct:

APXC_2012-19preseason_4team

The ACC once again has the top team, but they are not in any position to claim a best-conference status. Five teams received votes this preseason (down from last year at six), but only two teams made it into the top 25 (down from last year at four). So while the ACC scores in the XC model, its score is off the bat at the ceiling of how many points a conference can score and still have at least four teams receive votes. That is, of conferences with at least 4 teams in the AP poll, their score is relatively bad.

On the other hand, the SEC is thought to be a very strong conference. Their preseason 4-team XC score matches the best finish in this dataset: the SEC in 2013 (19 points). As Finebaum above noted, the ability of the conference to stack their teams at the top of the rankings is impressive, and this is key to receiving a good conference XC score. This is a high bar for a conference to have going into the season; it will be difficult for any conference, the SEC included, to be under 20.

Note: There were no group-of-five conferences or a threshold of independent teams to score in this preseason poll. Only the Power 5 conferences made the cut.

This 2019 season will be interesting to observe as it plays out as to which conference is the best by the end, which makes the most moves, and what teams help their conferences the most. As we have seen in the 2017 and 2018 case studies, there is often a great deal of variability and volatility in the week-to-week movements of the status and perception of conference health. To what extent will the press be right this year?

This metric is a robust, rankings-based method of assessing college football conferences. And considering the popular acclaim for conference pride and fandom alongside a growing media market that is conference-based (see info on the latest network to join the squad), there needs to be a conversation surrounding conferences that is not based only on opinions and cherry-picked data. Sports information technology is only improving, and the media needs to make more sophisticated arguments backed by data than it currently does. So every week this fall between Saturdays when the question arises as to which conference had the best week or is having the best year, we can have an answer to these questions. Look no further than the scoring method used by that other fall college sport, cross country.


If you are eager to see the results of each week’s race for college football conference supremacy and can’t wait till my next update, feel free to clone and contribute to my github repository. This python-based program is very rough around the edges, but it uses the AP rankings from ESPN.com to tabulate these XC scores. Find the github repo here.

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Tweeting Images of Fandom: A Geographic Photo Analysis of Southeastern Conference Football Support

 

College football is a United States phenomenon that occurs every autumn. Much of the attention given to the sport is usually directed towards the competitive game itself. Entire media apparatuses exist to predict and retrospectively analyze the outcomes of college football games. This is, however, to serve fanbases across the country that invest in following their football team throughout the course of a season. Popular support for college football teams is visible in American culture through inscriptions in the landscape, consumptive economic activities, and altered mobility dynamics in host cities and towns on gamedays. There exists a heightened affinity for the following of college football in the southern United States, and football contributes greatly to the cultural geography of many areas in the US South (Morgan & Klimasewski 2015). For many regional residents, their support for their favorite college football team, especially those members of the Southeastern Conference, helps them to define and construct a place identity.

The study of sports geography has traditionally focused on player production origins and the marketing and management of mega sports events. However, there is a need to further examine vernacular, grassroots sports fandom and the ways in which support of sports teams impacts landscapes, identities, lifestyles, the environment, and human dynamics. While focusing on more popular actors like players, coaches, or managerial staff within various sports apparatuses is useful for garnering a greater understanding of competitive and recreational cultures and geographies, everyday fans deserve attention for the roles they play in the economic, tourism, and cultural development of sport within society.

A widespread tool of fandom available to many of these common fans is social media. Fandoms and fanbases are constructed as imagined communities that supports itself by continued affirmation and recreation (Anderson 2016, Hills 2002).  Social media has proven to be a useful tool for fanbases seeking to do this as it instantly connects groups with common interests across any distance to show a collective simultaneous interest in an event or matter (Dillette et al. 2018). Social media platforms like twitter are useful in conducting geographic research because the media is generated in spaces and places that give insight into how, where, and when people (re)create places (Poorthuis et al. 2016). Game days are particularly good times to study these fan cultures becuase of fans’ observance of pregame and game-time rituals. Rituals should not be lost as banal, mundane activities; rather, ritual can give meaningful insight into societies, cultures, and communities (Geertz 1972).

This project therefore uses twitter to examine the dynamics of college football fandom on game days in the US South in relation to fans’ place identity and construction of a community of fandom. Only tweets from public accounts were used. To search for relevant tweets, vaguely purposeful keywords like “game day” and “tailgate” were used in conjunction with official and unofficial team hashtags (Notes 1 & 2). Hashtags succinctly group tweets and their text, pictures, or videos to a single topic on twitter, and these hashtags can be used to foster virtual community construction (Dillette et al. 2018). This essay employs a twist on the volunteer employed photography, a research method that is valuable in studying sport and its actors’ relationship to place and space (Hinch & Kono 2018). These photos were volunteered on public accounts into the public domain of twitter. Social media photos are particularly useful in photography analyses because text usually accompanies the pictures that can compliment, explain, and in some ways complicate the image or the user’s intent in posting it.

This essay is focused on bottom-up fandom, so while most of the the pictures returned by the query (Notes 1) used to search twitter were generated by the official football accounts of the SEC schools, only photos posted by non-affiliated persons were used here. Additionally, no extra information was gleaned for ordinary users through further information gleaned from their personal accounts; this does not apply for verified users or fake/fan accounts.

In what ways do users express Southeastern Conference football fandom through photos on twitter?

Footprint


SEC football fandom is not reserved exclusively for the fall. Fans often follow their team during the off-season through recruiting in the spring and practice in the summer in anticipation of the next upcoming season after the triumphs or defeats of the previous one. Noted sports geographer John Bale includes anticipation as a vital part of the sports spectator’s experience (2002, 120). Football is one of the shorter seasons in college sports, and if it is an important component to one’s collective regional identity, that fan will attempt to stay connected to the sport outside of the autumn season. A considerable number of hours on ESPN’s SEC television network is devoted to covering the 14 teams’ off-season activities because there is a market for this coverage because of this anticipation. Social media serves as a year-round platform where fans can continually engage with their collective support. This fan’s tweet shows an empty Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with a countdown until gameday. There is a potential energy communicated in this visual: the stadium is not yet full of its thousands of fans, the field is not yet primed and painted for the action, and no athletes are visible. There is an excitement and longing for the experience of the very day when the pageantry of gameday is realized and the ritual is rejuvenated.

Returning to Bale’s (2002) spectator’s experience, he identifies after anticipation the journey to spectate and then the on-site, spectate experience itself. It would be useful for college football to add another step in between the journey and the game: tailgating. Fans of the SEC tend to take their tailgating very seriously. Southern Living, a magazine that serves as a guide for how a good Southerner lives in the exceptional South (Lauder 2012), has published two editions of the SEC tailgating cookbook because this particular ritual is a vital part of gameday for many ticket holders. This tweet from 2007 was sent at 9:15 AM showing off a fully set-up tailgating scene in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The sender contently declares his place to be superior to all others because of the food, event, and stadium view. Cooking food is a very common component of tailgating, and this fan is showing that s/he is so committed that they are already cooking early in the morning for what was that day a 7:00 PM game. In the background is Tiger Stadium where the tailgater’s LSU team would later that day play. Again, we see the stadium as a significant icon for fans as they express their fandom. Participation in the tailgating ritual on a gameday in proximity to this cathedral creates for this tweeter the ideal place and experience.

The University of Mississippi’s tradition of tailgating is to convert the campus’ central quad into a pregame festival known as “The Grove.” This tweet’s photo is not focused on any one tailgate but rather on the quantity of the tailgates. The Grove is known for the sheer mass of people who congregate there on gamedays and for its excessively posh tailgating atmosphere where, for example, people use crystal drinking glasses and fine tablecloths under their tents.

A component of these formalities at Ole Miss is that many tailgaters will dress nicely for the day. These essentially Southern standards are reflected and reestablished by media (like Southern Living) and stores (like Belk, an official corporate sponsor of the Southeastern Conference, whose most recent tagline is “Modern. Southern. Style.”). This expectation of elegance is reflected by this fan account’s tweet declaring The Grove as a collective fan community to be the “#MostBeautifulPeopleAlive.” Like marketing and other media, social media works as a force to (re)create social standards. In order to claim membership in the Ole Miss community, to truly be excited for and be a respected spectator at the game, a Rebel fan must achieve a status of beauty. Notice also the makeup of this collective fan community: it is mostly white. The majority of the visible faces in this picture appear white; this construction of ideal fandom then establishes whiteness as a part of the elegant pageantry vital to Ole Miss football fandom.

While the elegance is emphasized at Ole Miss, other SEC schools’ fans use gameday as an event for which to spiff up and look their best. This tweet from LSU focuses on presumably undergraduate fans preparing for the game, and all are dressed nicely. This photo, unlike the previous ones, is less concerned with the landscape of tailgating than the people who construct and participate in the experience. For this tweeter, the important aspect of gameday is not necessarily the competition, the food, the clothes, or the tradition (though some or all of those might be connoted): it is the friendship, community, and relationships engendered in the midst of the ritual.

Gamedays often serve as respites for students of the home team’s school from their schoolwork. Notice the cup that is partially visible in the right of the frame. The red solo cup is a US cultural icon for parties and tailgates as Toby Keith’s 2011 song by the same name makes clear. Research finds that alcohol consumption increases on college football game days at the home campus (Menaker & Chaney 2014). Though a majority of undergraduates are under the legal drinking age in the United States (21), alcohol, often found in disposable plastic cups like this one, usually is included in students’ weekend tailgates with friends. This tweeter is expressing her fandom by emphasizing friendship and more subtly including alcohol.

Geographer Blake Gumprecht (2010) found in researching the American college town that Greek life on college campuses dominates formal aspects of student life. This is apparent at SEC tailgates and football games. Fraternity and sorority members often congregate with other members of their organization to participate in the many gameday activities. Unlike their peers’ more informal friendly gatherings, Greeks usually brand themselves not only with their team’s logo but with their organization’s letters as well. This display of community membership is a point of pride, distinctiveness, and honor for members.

In this tweet, a new sister of Chi Omega at Mississippi State emphasizes her sorority’s button as a focal point of her gameday experience. The tweeter is her father who is also proudly wearing Chi-O letters on his shirt along with the Mississippi State logo. Tradition is a popularly lauded ideal in the Southern gameday rituals, and both Greek organizations and familial ties are a part of that tradition. The commonly used saying of “Faith, Family, Football” is meant to indicate the traditions of these rituals. This father is evoking the family and football tradition by sharing with the world his observance of the ritual with his daughter. He emphasizes his daughter’s acceptance into a new family: a sorority. Greek organizations often use familial diction in defining members’ roles. Membership is sometimes even inherited if an inductee’s elder blood relative was also formerly a member. This father is clearly pleased with both his and his daughter’s observance of the tailgating tradition of gameday and the infusion of sorority membership into the ritual.

This next tweet is also evocative of the tradition of tailgating with family; the tweeter expresses his pleasure at his reunion with his cousin at the 2018 Florida vs Georgia game. This annual matchup played on a neutral site in Jacksonville, FL is colloquially known as the world’s largest outdoor cocktail party, and it is certainly possible the cup-holding Gators fans are participating in this tradition. The tweeter shared this image perhaps not just for the family connection but also for the eccentric, colorful Florida getup his cousin was donning. This speaks to an extremely common occurrence at a college football gameday: the commodification of fandom. Merchandise purchasing and display reflects the consumer’s values and serves to emphasize his/her fandom (Lee et al. 2011). The tweeter’s cousin paid money for each item in his blue-and-orange outfit so he could then display his fandom. This tweet was probably sent in part because this outfit expresses “more” fandom than the average tailgater’s does, but the merchandise consumerism culture is not reserved for exceptional displays; also visible in this picture are Gator branded bins, cornhole boards, a chair, a tent, and even a grill. Entire economic enterprises are predicated on the popular positive correlation between merchandise consumerism and fandom.

It is also worth noting that this tweeter tagged @YallLifestyle in this tweet. Further examination of that account’s website reveals that the tweeter is actually the co-founder of the company, Y’all Lifestyle. The online store markets its products by appealing to an essentially Southern way of life. The website explains that the “y’all lifestyle” is about

Living in the South. It’s tailgating on SEC campuses in the fall, where you start the morning with a Bloody Mary and “How are y’all?”, followed by the roar of a packed stadium, and then meeting up again with family and friends to celebrate the win or critique the loss – but either way, there’s never a shortage of cold beverages, good buddies or laughter close by.

Football fandom via tailgating and game-going is integrated into a vision of a Southern lifestyle that is itself a marketing strategy: those who ascribe to this vision of southern living are being encouraged to purchase from this company that shares the ideal.

This tweet reemphasizes the integration of tradition and tailgating. It refers to the Mississippi State custom of opening up its most coveted tailgating spot, The Junction, in an Oklahoma land rush-esque fashion where fans sprint to claim their plot. In Starkville, MS, this pregame activity itself is a competition. Even as fans prepare to view a football competition later in the day, they will first compete for space where they can participate in the tailgating ritual. The “gaze” of the camera is focused on the fans’ anticipation, but it also shows the empty, coveted space. Why is this space so valuable? Perhaps because of the excellent proximity to the Davis Wade Stadium, as shown below:

But also the tradition itself serves to elevate the value of this space in the tailgaters’ minds. The tradition of rushing The Junction is part of gameday for Mississippi State fans, one that, as fellow fan noted in a direct reply tweet, never gets old. The rushing and other tailgating processes themselves are placemaking activities. Here, The Junction, formerly empty, grassy space, is made into a place infused with meaning by those who are lucky enough to stake their claim.

Several themes already explored appear in this tweet about the University of Tennessee: the tweeter and his wife (who is tagged in the tweet) are seen in their orange and smoky gray getup in preparation for the Vols’ season opener in 2018. Rather than a picture of the couple at an iconic pregame tradition in Knoxville like the Vol Navy or the band’s “playing to The Hill” performance outside the stadium, they are photographed in front of a backdrop of another tradition fans can observe: running through the “T,” the Tennessee football team’s traditional entrance into Neyland Stadium. The vantage point of the backdrop allows the couple to simulate participating inside this active tradition that fans usually experience with a more passive voyeurism. It is unclear if this picture was taken on the day this tweet was sent, but if it was, it was shot in Charlotte, North Carolina where Tennessee played in a neutral-site game. In this case, this backdrop serves as a means by which to infuse the very placed gameday traditions of Knoxville, TN into the unclaimed no-man’s-land of Charlotte, NC.

Prominently making an appearance in this tweet is Smokey, Tennessee’s live blue tick hound mascot. Mascots are icons that are frequently included in the festival of gameday; several SEC schools have dog mascots, and LSU even has a live tiger, Mike. Mascots are revered by their fans even as they are misunderstood by outsiders (see Parks & Recreation‘s satire of this). Often, a team’s nickname and mascot are related (the Georgia bulldogs’ mascot is an actual bulldog), but this is not always the case. Mascots can be represented in artificial human costumes or by live animals. Regardless, they are not static sideline ornaments but can be very powerful, icons evocative of a school’s history or its fans’ collective memories. Some mascots can be extremely controversial (Bever 2011), but they inspire a great deal of pride. Smokey is seen in this tweet as an icon of Tennessee football, and the tweeter and his wife’s proximity to the hound serves to elevate their fandom in the eyes of his followers.

This tweet from an LSU fan shows a local spin on the Southern tailgating tradition. Some elements remain the same: the branding of the self and automobile with team logo merchandise and the self-beautification efforts, for instance. There is also an integration of Louisiana and specifically New Orleans culture into this scene. Étouffée referenced on the alliteration sign refers to the dish commonly eaten in Louisiana, the state of both LSU and New Orleans. The elephant meat in this theoretical étouffée refers to the opponent Alabama’s mascot, Big Al, an elephant. This sign is meant to evoke images of hunting and dominating a lesser prey; in so doing, it glorifies the violence of college football as a sport.

Notice also that the girls holding the sign are sitting up on the convertible as if it were a float; one is also wearing gold beads. This is evocative of Mardi Gras and the many parades that occur annually in New Orleans. Mardi Gras and other Carnival celebrations around the world are cultural rituals in their own right (Turner 1969). This picture was before the 2012 National Championship in New Orleans. Through text on a posterboard and parading through the streets, these fans are signing to Alabama that this territory belongs to LSU. These fans claim the Louisiana city as their own by couching LSU traditions (a rivalry with Alabama) with New Orleans’ (particular foods and rituals) into a larger Louisiana way of tailgating. This is not a unique, isolated occurrence for LSU; the hashtag in this tweet (#GeauxTigers) shows support for the LSU team in the widely used, more Louisiana-French phonetic way of spelling “go.” State borders are particularly important in constructing fandoms geographically in college football (Roseman & Shelley 1988), and the combining of LSU tailgating rituals with New Orleans culinary and Mardi Gras rituals shows a particular perceived ownership of Louisiana by the LSU fanbase.

Many fans experience college football in places away from the stadium, and this is no less significant than those tourists who attend the game in person (Roseman & Shelley 1988). It is unclear if this tweeter and her daughter featured in the image will attend the Alabama game later in the day, but the background of the picture appears to be a house, and the daughter in the foreground is outside in the yard area. Themes of family appear again in this tweet. The young featured toddler has no real agency of her own to decide what, if any, college football team she would support. Here, the mother is actively bequeathing her Alabama fandom to her daughter in hopes that she will continue the tradition of cheering for the Crimson Tide. Just as with other merchandise sales, this tweeter has purchased a trademarked item to express her own fandom, but in this instance, she intends for her daughter to be the expresser. That is, the mother creates a character of her daughter as an Alabama fan; this creation and narration actually expresses her own fandom. In all likelihood, the toddler is not smiling because she realizes that the Alabama team is playing a football game that day, but her mother interprets it as such to her followers. In so doing, she expresses her own fandom as an Alabama supporter and demonstrates that she is committed to the Faith-Family-Football pillars that are tent poles to the SEC fan community and culture.

This twitter user appropriates her dog’s existence to express her football fandom much like the mother in the last tweet did. This dog, Jeffrey, is being used as a prop to express his owner’s excitement for Florida football. The owner purchased an officially licensed Florida collar and jersey for Jeffrey and pretends that his facing the television demonstrates a similar anticipation for the upcoming contest to her own. This is a clear example of anthropomorphism, a phenomenon by which people ascribe non-human traits and characteristics to nonhuman agents (Epley et al. 2013). And while this fan tweets this cute anthropomorphic scene to connect with other football fans, Jeff himself probably does not care much whether the team in jerseys similar to his own wins or not.

Beyond the utilization of a pet to express one’s own fandom, this tweet shows a gameday experience away from the stadium. Instead of tailgating, this tweeter has chosen to watch the game from the comfort of her own home. The television looks adequately big enough with a high enough definition to allow for an optimal viewing experience, one that many fans choose. These remote fans can use media and television to construct virtual spaces of belonging that still allow them to feel the game and perform their fandom even in their state of diaspora (Baker 2018). Jeffery, probably a usual character around the home, helps this tweeter perform her fandom even as she is excited for the game to happen where she is not (the Swamp, Florida’s football stadium).

This is an example of an expression of fandom that directly conflates football fandom with larger contested cultures. This anonymous account by the name of “OneSouthernMan,” listed in his twitter bio as a “Connoisseur of Everything Southern” including food, Southern belles, guns, politics, and SEC football. It is telling that his perception of Southern-ness includes college football, specifically SEC, football. This tweet’s textual content includes the language of SEC football, but the image tells a much different story. The image shows a collection of pamphlets, the left on icons of the Confederacy and the right on Christianity. The Lost Cause ideology in the South evocative of the defeated Confederacy and its Antebellum predecessor is a powerful, active, and potent mindset in the South today, and it is often connected to the Confederacy’s flag and heroic generals, all detailed in these pamphlets (Bohland 2013). The region is also often though of as the “Bible Belt” of conservative evangelical Christianity (Brunn et al. 2011), though the right-hand pamphlets are not explicitly conservative or evangelical in nature.

This tweet’s text uses the hashtag #RollTide, the favorite saying of Alabama fans. It even tags Alabama’s official football account in the tweet. College football, specifically Alabama football, was on OneSouthernMan’s mind when he sent this tweet. He also says “God Bless #Dixie.” Dixie is a term evocative of the old Confederate south that is highly charged, radicalized, and strongly identified with in Alabama (Alderman & Beavers 1999, Cooper & Knotts 2017). Why the coupling of Alabama football, Confederate iconography and verbiage, and images of Christianity? Perhaps it is Eldridge’s proximity to The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. However, since OneSouthernMan is an account dedicated to the expression of a decidedly white male Southern identity, this tweeter believes that the Confederacy, Christianity, and Crimson Tide are natural components of this identity. This tweet seems subtle enough, but it is indicative of the depths to which SEC football is entrenched in and intertwined with some’s southern identity and calls into question just what and for whom that southern-ness is

As previously mentioned in the cases of Southern Living and Belk, there exist corporate actors apart from the individual fan that have recognized the importance of football fandom in the lives of SEC supporters and seek to capitalize on this fandom. Merchandise, specifically clothing, dominates most university bookstores and unofficial fan shops. Other industries have realized this potential. Johnsonville sausage has a deal with Southeastern Conference to be the official sausage brand of the league. This seems like an unnatural alliance on the surface: besides frankfurters being sold at sports events traditionally, there is nothing tying link sausage to SEC football. Johnsonville was founded and is headquartered in Wisconsin, far from any state hosting an SEC institution. The sausage company sees attaching the SEC brand to its product and advertising it at games will more fully open up a market in the southern US. Other SEC sponsors attempt to execute a similar strategy. This tweet shows Alabama and Tennessee fans alike lining up on a rainy third Saturday in October to buy the official sausage of the SEC that is somehow “made the Knoxville way.”

This next tweet returns to the tailgating fields, this time in Lexington, Kentucky. This tweeter is eager to show off his newly constructed custom banner for his tailgate tent. He also establishes his proximity to the stadium where the game would later that night be played. He includes the Georgia equipment truck in his shot to go along with his highly antagonistic diction in his tweet.

The interesting angle to his shot is in his picture of the stadium because it shows both top-down and bottom-up corporate sponsorship. The University of Kentucky’s stadium was prominently named “Commonwealth Stadium” for many years, but recently, Kroger purchased the naming rights to the field and facility. The new “Kroger Field” name is prominently displayed on the side of the stadium imposing and inscribing a name change onto the landscape. This is not insignificant; place naming actively allocates meanings to places, orders the ways in which people interact with their environment, and facilitates identity construction (Alderman 2015). Kroger, a Cincinnati-based Fortune 500 corporation, is attempting to strengthen its connection to the state of Kentucky through this top-down sponsorship technique in the minds of Wildcats fans and, hopefully for Kroger, future grocery shoppers. Anheuser-Busch on the other hand is attempting to drum up business using a similar appeal but from a bottom-up approach. The tweeter is displaying his “Dilly Dilly Y’All” beer koozie. “Dilly Dilly” is the most recent Bud Light marketing slogan, but this is amended to appeal to Kentucky fans. The state outline of Kentucky is mapped on to the koozie, showing the beer company’s attempt to create a linkage between the beer and the state. Bud Light assumes, based on the university’s official colors on the koozie, a connection between state identity and Kentucky Wildcats fandom. Furthermore, “Dilly Dilly” becomes “Dilly Dilly Y’All,” giving a southern spin to the corporate trademark. Using this southernism further connects a state that has a complicated history with vernacular southern identity to its Southeastern Conference region. These koozies are cheap to make and can be distributed to masses of fans rather than investing on one logo/name display as Kroger did with the Wildcats’ field. This strategy is clearly working for this tweeter; he intentionally holds up his beer can to show his consumption during his tailgating along with his place identity.

Marketing football fandom is not only done through corporate actions, however. This tweet from a local clothing store in Athens, Georgia reminds those lady Georgia Bulldogs fans of the expectation for women to look their nicest on gamedays. This tweet contains a countdown of anticipation like the first tweet, but this is less about excitement and more about conforming to a social expectation. The local business evokes language and images of Georgia fandom: spelling “dogs” as “Dawgs” and referring to Samford Stadium by is commonly used name, “between the hedges.” The model in the shot wears red and has black hair. She, like many fans we’ve seen in these tweets, is white.

Substantial research suggests that American football is connected in myriad ways to masculinity (Steinfeldt et. al 2011). This tweet, unlike others, has been directed towards the feminine fan. A glance at a stadium or tailgate on gameday would show that college football fans are not only men. This local store understands that and uses the expectation of women to dress nicely in Athens when going to Georgia football games. While it is not unusual for men to wear coats, ties, or other nice garb to a game, the popular imaginary associates the nice dress at Southern football games primarily with women (see this CNN article). The dress featured in this tweet could be viewed out of context with no connection to Georgia football at all. However, this store markets it using football as a social tool to create and recreate the expectations that drive their business in a college town (Gumprecht 2010).

These tweets show a different type of marketing with college football. In preparation for the 2018 gubernatorial and US senate elections in Tennessee, then-candidates Marsha Blackburn and Bill Lee attended the Vol’s SEC home opener against rival Florida when plenty of fans would be in attendance. The two Republican candidates campaigned together meeting fans and documenting their tailgating on social media. Both candidates were marketing themselves as worthy governing officials by appealing to the average citizen. College football attendance and tailgating is seen as a popular activity and is, in this case, connected to a state-funded public institution. Both candidates appear to be interacting with orange-wearing Tennessee fans in a very common way with the message that they are not so different from any other Tennesseean. Their campaign twitter accounts use the team’s hashtag #GBO that a fan might use along with variations of the traditional kickoff refrain that “It’s Football Time in Tennessee.” Just as corporations and local stores seek to connect their business and products to the tradition of football, these candidates are using football as an investment into and appeal to a popular fandom for their own benefit.

This tweet shows a newlywed couple celebrating their marriage on a gameday for their Alabama Crimson Tide. It is not unique but is still very telling when a couple includes their fandom in wedding pictures. This wedding was held on the same day as one of Alabama’s most important games of the 2018-19 season: the College Football Playoff semifinal. The Tide can be seen on the television in the background running up the score. This tweet becomes far more interesting when the identity of the tweeter is Sara Gonzales, a conservative television pundit living in Texas. With the exception of Florida in 2008 and 2012, every state in the 11-state SEC footprint has designated its electoral college votes for the Republican presidential candidate in the twenty-first century. This expression of fandom from a conservative commentator then is a very interesting intersection of these two attributes of a particular southern culture. It is also interesting to see Crimson Tide fandom transcend the Alabama state borders. State borders play a major role in the bounding of fandom, so this Texan cheering for the Tide speaks to the persistence of anomalies in systems and categorizations.


Scholars have warned against constructing and studying the region of the US South as essentially unique from everywhere else in the country and world (Wilson 2017), and some have specifically called for an unbounding of the region in the way we discuss it and its attributes (Nagel 2018). For the purposes of this examination into southern football, it means recognizing the ways in which SEC fandom is not constrained to the 11-state conference footprint but rather is part of larger national and international systems. The game of football itself is an imported sport: it developed in the North in the late nineteenth century after it was inherited from England as a modified form of rugby, a modification itself of soccer (Riesman & Denney 1951). And of course, twitter is an internationally available media that itself allows global access to localized cultures. These remaining tweets show the ways in which SEC football fandom operates outside of the mind of the perceived South.

This tweeter has journeyed from Delaware to Auburn, Alabama for a football game. This requires either a plane flight or at least a 13 hour drive, a serious tourism travel commitment. The tweet suggests that the tweeter is probably from the South but is at least familiar with and is proud of a connection to the region. Her companion on the other hand is an outsider inexperienced in this ritual. The two seek the authentic tourism experience of southern gameday by wearing the correctly logo-ed gear for the home team. The tweeter seems to assume that Auburn football is representative of an entire regional tradition and that immersion is the best communicator of that tradition. In this tweet, a southern expatriate returns to the region and chooses SEC gameday as a demonstration of an essentially southern ritual. This tourism journey to the spectate can be easily considered a pilgrimage (Baker 2018).

It is worth noting too that the these fans are not obviously white. Certainly ascribing a racial category to otherwise anonymous persons in pictures is tricky and perhaps problematic. However, it is pertinent here to the discussion of SEC fandom because even the potential of racial ambiguity in the stands works against the normative notions of whiteness that are subtly instituted and reinforced as the standard of the ideal Southern fan. Whiteness works as a structure of normative privilege (Bonds & Inwood 2016), and this is apparent in southern stadium seats on Saturdays. A more diverse fanbase works to unbound an unassuming white South and its white football fans.

This tweet was sent by a Vanderbilt fan apparently engaged in a reunion with his friends, also Vanderbilt fans, on a Commodore gameday. The group is preparing or the game by remotely tailgating in South Haven, Michigan.

South Haven, MI is a small town on Lake Michigan, a considerable distance away from Nashville, TN. These friends, like their campus tailgating counterparts, are enjoying others’ company outdoors in preparation for a football game, but these men are well outside of even the SEC footprint. Media has allowed them to keep tabs on the game and participate in the traditional tailgating ritual away from Vanderbilt. Social media allows them to be included in the online fan discussion, a virtual tailgate, by using the team’s official hashtag #AnchorDown. This is still an authentic experience of SEC football fandom even in an area where there are very few SEC fans.

Similarly, this group of LSU fans has congregated together to perform the tailgating ritual in Canada. Kraszewski (2008) would suggest sports-based gatherings like these for displaced fans help them to reconnect with and negotiate understandings of home, and Baker (2018) expands this discussion by highlighting the fluidity of emotion across space. This tweet features the house of at least one of these LSU Canadians. These fans are constructing home by performing the fandom of a sport played beyond their international borders. The house even has a flag in the style of the USA banner with the LSU tiger eye and colors superimposed. This is a striking intentional choice for an expatriate who does not usually see the stars and stripes fly where he or she lives but is a flag present at every US football game. The tweeter is keenly aware of their expatriate status and uses it to uniquely define this Canadian fan group. One girl in the picture wears an LSU hockey jersey to this tailgate. LSU and indeed no other SEC team has a varsity hockey program, yet she wears the logo of her favorite team much in the same way her peers in Canada might where the ice sport is more popular. And while the #GeauxTigers is meant to invoke the Cajun French spoken in Louisiana, it may hold a double meaning coming from Canada where French is actually an official language.

This tweet completely subverts normative notions of SEC football fandom. This tweet shows a still image of the performative ritual for Arkansas Razorbacks fans: Calling the Hogs. A man, his wife, and their daughter are doing the calling, and they all are outfitted in Arkansas garb. The mother’s shirt plays upon the “Family Faith Football” mantra, and the daughter is dressed much like the young Alabama fan from above. This family structure is not one considered normative in the South however; this is an interracial family, and the daughter is mixed-race. Such relationships and family structures were considered taboo in the US South until a relatively recent history, and they can still be viewed as subversive (Djamba & Kimuna 2014). If SEC football fandom is seen as ideally Southern, then the support for the Razorbacks within this interracial family structure could certainly be subversive.

Perhaps this family feels more at ease performing their fandom because they are in a different country. The location from which this tweet was sent is a vital component of this unbounded fandom. There are three flags in this picture: one with the Arkansas logo, one like the LSU flag in the previous tweet that superimposes the Hogs’ logo and colors on the American flag, and the Norwegian flag. These SEC fans are actually performing the traditional Fayetteville, Arkansas ritual in Norway. Even the background of this shot is significant: these fans are at Sverd i fjell (English: Swords in rock), a commemorative Norwegian monument.

Sverd i fjell in Norway | https://imgur.com/gallery/KOJeOCb

These fans outside of Arkansas, the South, the Unities States, and North America. The vernacular understanding of “football” is a game played with a round ball and goals in Norway. This shot is intended to highlight the international nature of this family’s fandom: flags of both the US and Norway are present, and the iconic ritual of Arkansas fandom is performed in front of a Norwegian icon. In fact, the tweet before this one from the same sender includes a video of not only this couple but a whole group of Arkansas fans calling the hogs from this site:

This was even picked up by the SEC Network, the conference’s premier US-based media apparatus and displayed to fans watching the game because of the unique, unusual, and highly devoted expression of fandom.

Once again, we see the use of American football fandom used to help negotiate notions of home in physical spaces far removed from the spectate and the fluidity of emotions across that space. Twitter as a social media platform has made it easier to construct and participate in ever-expanding virtual fandoms in the internet age (Bale 1998).


Notes

  1. The search query used on twitter’s advanced search GUI for pictures:

    (game day OR tailgating) (#SEC OR #HailState OR #HottyToddy OR #RollTide OR #WPS OR #CommitToTheG OR #WeAreUK OR #PoweredByTheT OR #WarEagle OR #BBN OR #GeauxTigers OR #AnchorDown OR #GoGators OR #RockyTop OR #GBO OR #MIZZOU OR #UGA) since:2018-08-01 until:2019-01-08

    Hashtags were gleaned either from the official football accounts of the SEC schools or by recognition of popular usage during research.

  2. South Carolina’s mascot of Gamecocks would not return search results on twitter for its potentially graphic homonym, and #USC returned mostly material on the University of Southern California.

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Djamba, Yanyi K., and Sitawa R. Kimuna. “Are Americans really in favor of interracial marriage? A closer look at when they are asked about black-white marriage for their relatives.” Journal of Black Studies 45, no. 6 (2014): 528-544.

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Kraszewski, Jon. “Pittsburgh in Fort Worth: Football bars, sports television, sports fandom, and the management of home.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 32, no. 2 (2008): 139-157.

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The Race for Supremacy; College Football Conferences Evaluated by a Cross-Country Scoring System

The objective of competitive sport is to determine the best member of any group. Every sport known to mankind has a way of determining this on a single-competition level (a single game, match, or meet). For instance, the best team of the two soccer teams on the pitch is determined by which one scores the most goals. The best ping-pong player is determined by who gets to 21 points first. The best golfer is the one who tallies the lowest number of strokes. But a single competition has not been able to satiate competitive sports’ desire to truly find the best. So on top of the complicated rules of the games themselves, leagues comprised of multiple parties and multiple competitions are instituted. The best baseball team in the MLB is determined by the team that can navigate the October playoffs the best where their regular season records give them the opportunity to compete for this title. In college football, a committee determines the most worthy teams to then weave through a bracket. NCAA basketball has an ever-increasing number of teams a committee allows into its final tournament.

The point of this examination is to show that sports have devised system after system to determine who the best is. But what happens when an arbitrary sports concept is debated? What happens when the best member of a group is not specifically determined by the system in place?

One situation that fits this description is the constant and ever-present debate in college football on which conference is the best of them all. Sure, there is a system in place to determine the best team of all the ones in the nation, but there is no explicit system to determine the best conference. That title seems to be won by the amount of mass and social media consensus there is on the matter (which is usually never really a consensus at all). It seems ridiculous that sport as an institution has an overwhelming wealth of ways to determine the best of a group, and yet we seem content to tweet and monologue against one another to create a subjective “best.” Surely there has to be an applicable system to sort this conference bragging right battle out.

There may be many applicable systems to use here, but one that seems rather good is the system cross country uses to determine the best team. Cross country is a team sport with a huge individual factor. Each runner on a team places relative to the other racers and scores that number for his or her team. For instance, if Jimmy wins a race from North High School, North High gets 1 point for its team score. The first five finishers get their places added to constitute their team scores. The lowest score wins. The idea behind this is that the entire complete team has to be strong. If Jimmy from North High wins but then his teammates all finish as the last four runners in the race, North High as a whole isn’t that good and won’t win compared to a team that has most of their runners towards a group. Cross country has a knack for determining the best group of individuals relative to other groups.

What happens when you apply the same system to college football? The college football season is comprised of individual teams in groups called conferences. When we debate what the best conference is, maybe a more objective way to determine this is to evaluate that question by using the cross-country system instead of Twitter.

The way this system is applied is that each individual football team is likened to an individual runner, and the conference each football team is associated with is like the team the runner competes under. The “race results” are the complete final polls at the end of each season (top 25 plus other teams receiving votes).[1] The top five teams in each conference count towards the conference’s score, and while every team after that doesn’t count towards this total, each one simply pushes back other teams from other conferences just as the 6 and 7 runners on a varsity cross-country team do.[2] If a team in cross country has fewer than 5 runners, it is ineligible to have a score to compete for a team title. The conference with the lowest score wins.

Let’s take a look at the height of the SEC’s supposed dominance in college football and the cessation of the early 2010s conference realignments: Alabama’s 2012 42-14 national championship thumping of Notre Dame to give the SEC its 7th straight national championship had people talking about a dynasty for Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Texas A&M had just become the SEC’s 14th member and made an immediate impact nationally with Johnny Manzile. There was little debate in the media about the best college football conference at this point because the facts spoke for themselves. However, does this objective cross country system presented above back up these claims? What conference was truly the best in 2012?[3] Let’s take a look by using the final USA Today Coach’s Poll for the 2012 season:

Rank Team Conference B1G SEC Pac 12 Big XII ACC
129 27 87 101 N/A
1 Alabama(56) SEC 1
2 Oregon Pac 12 2
3 Notre Dame Ind.
4 Georgia SEC 4
5 Texas A&M SEC 5
6 Stanford Pac 12 6
7 South Carolina SEC 7
8 Florida State ACC 8
9 Clemson ACC 9
10 Florida SEC 10
11 Kansas State Big XII 11
12 LSU SEC 12
13 Louisville American
14 Boise State Mtn West
15 Oklahoma Big XII 15
16 Northwestern B1G 16
17 Utah State Mtn West
18 Texas Big XII 18
19 Oregon State Pac 12 19
20 Vanderbilt SEC 20
21 San José State Mtn West
22 Cincinnati American
23 Nebraska B1G 23
24 Northern Illinois MAC
25 Tulsa CUSA
26 Michigan B1G 26
27 UCLA Pac 12 27
28 Baylor Big XII 28
29 Oklahoma State Big XII 29
30 Wisconsin B1G 30
31 UCF CUSA
32 Arkansas State SunBelt
33 Arizona State Pac 12 33
34 Rutgers B1G 34
35 Kent State MAC
36 Louisiana Tech SunBelt
37 Ohio MAC
38 Arizona Pac 12 38

So here, by visualizing the final polls like a cross-country meet, we can conclude that the media critics were justified by proclaiming the SEC as the best conference in the country; it simply blows away the other 4 power conferences here. A perfect score in cross country is 15 (1+2+3+4+5), and 27 is recognized as an extremely dominating team score. It’s a thumping 60 point victory over 2nd place (Pac 12, 87pts) that soundly establishes the SEC as dominant. Other things to consider: Ohio State (12-0) was not included in this poll because of their postseason ban; the Big Ten could’ve grabbed some good points had they been included as the Buckeyes finished 3rd in the AP poll this year.[4] Also, the ACC had some quality performances in Florida St. and Clemson (8th and 9th, respectively), but the concept of the best conference explored demands a complete and at least somewhat deep showing from a conference. Just as a cross-country who only has 2 runners, the ACC did not obtain a team score for this year and cannot be considered for the team title regardless of its 2 top-10 finishes. This is a fair way of assessing the ACC’s 2012 season.

To the heartbreaking disappointment of all SEC fans, 2013 saw the end of The Streak as Auburn, a team coming off the fantastic Kick 6 finish to the Iron Bowl and a SEC Championship to a top-5 Missouri team, lost in the final minutes to a Jameis Winston-led Florida State team in the national championship game. A week earlier, Trevor Knight and a hot Oklahoma team throttled a still powerful Alabama team to give the SEC an 0-2 record in BCS games. Fans of other conferences everywhere celebrated the end of the SEC’s reign over college football, and social media, newspapers, and televisions alike exploded with debate on the best conference in football. SEC fans claimed that their conference was obviously the deepest top to bottom of any in the country still, but others argued that the lack of BCS hardware was indicative of the conference’s fall from grace. Let’s take a look at the USA Today Poll at the end of the 2013 season to explore this debate further:

Rank Team Conference B1G SEC Pac 12 Big XII ACC
N/A 33 75 97 N/A
1   Florida State (59) ACC 1
2   Auburn SEC 2
3   Michigan State B1G 3
4   South Carolina SEC 4
5   Missouri SEC 5
6   Oklahoma Big XII 6
7   Clemson ACC 7
8   Alabama SEC 8
9   Oregon Pac 12 9
10   Ohio State B1G 10
11   Stanford Pac 12 11
12   UCF AAC
13   Baylor Big XII 13
14   LSU SEC 14
15   Louisville AAC
16   UCLA Pac 12 16
17   Oklahoma State Big XII 17
18   Texas A&M SEC 18
19   USC Pac 12 19
20   Arizona State Pac 12 20
21   Wisconsin B1G 21
22   Duke ACC 22
23   Vanderbilt SEC 23
24   Notre Dame Ind.
25   Nebraska B1G 25
26 Washington Pac 12 26
27 Fresno State Mtn West
28 Northern Illinois MAC
29 Marshall CUSA
30 Texas Tech Big XII 30
31 Kansas State Big XII 31
32 Ole Miss SEC 32
33 Texas Big XII 33
34 Miami (FL) ACC 34
35 Cincinnati AAC
36 East Carolina AAC
37 North Texas Pac 12 37
38 Arizona Pac 12 38
39 Utah State Mtn West
40 Navy Ind.
41 Louisiana Lafayette SunBelt

Looking at these results, some striking things jump out. For starters, despite every Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and North Carolina fan’s victorious “ACC!” tweets and posts on Monday, January 7 2014 after the epic game in Pasadena, the ACC as a whole conference was not even able to put 5 of its 14 members in the top 41 teams in the country to compete in the team title even though its champion also won the national championship. The Big Ten (now with Ohio State in the final polls) also couldn’t put enough fire power into the Coach’s Poll to compete as a team score. To quiet the ACC and B1G fans who are irritated at this point about the formula not being fair or representative of the 2013 season, let’s score this season as the British do and only add the top 4 finishers from each group:

If 4 teams were scored
B1G SEC ACC Pac 12 Big XII
59 19 64 55 66

The B1G and ACC did put 4 teams in the top 41, so this is represented here. The take-away here is still one that cross-country demands be recognized in every meet: regardless if you have the best runner in a race, only a complete and deep team will win. The ACC had a national champion, but it’s ludicrous to argue for the ACC’s supremacy because FSU won the championship. 29% of the ACC made it into roughly the top 33% (third) of the national rankings; that is appalling for a Power 5 Conference.

Was the SEC still the best conference after the ending of The Streak? Well, in the 5-team scoring, it only slipped 6 points to still command a dominating win of 33 points, a 42pt victory over 2nd place (Pac 12 again). It had all 5 in the top 15, just a bit under 2012 when its top 5 were in the top 10 nationally. In the 4-team scoring, the SEC still dominates by finishing just 9pts away from a perfect score (10pts in a 4-team competition). These stats make for a convincing team score that sets the SEC up as the best in college football for 2013; The Streak may have been over, but as Paul Finebaum aptly said in the title of his book on the SEC following the Seminole championship, “My conference can still beat your conference.” And here, it does. The SEC was the best conference of 2013.

Notice that the Pac 12 finished second for a second year in a row. It cut its margin of loss from 60pts to 42pts. This will be an important trend to keep an eye on moving forward.

The 2014 season saw the beginning of the College Football Playoff era, an Ohio State national championship via an Alabama defeat, and a poorer-than-average SEC showing in the postseason. Alabama lost the Sugar Bowl, Mississippi St (#1 for about half the season) lost the Orange Bowl, and Ole Miss lost the Peach Bowl. B1G fans celebrated as the SEC-biased BCS system died out to give way to a truer champion, Pac 12 fans clamored for respect and a fight for the best conference discussion, and SEC fans qualified the sufferings on the strength of conference’s regular-season schedule. This is the current debate in college football because no game has been played in 7 months. So, let’s turn to our trusty objective system. This year, both the AP and USA Today polls were applicable. Who’s the best of 2014?

USA Today Coach’s Poll 2014

Rank Team Conference B1G SEC Pac 12 Big XII ACC
76 55 63 106 81
1 Ohio State(64) B1G 1
2 Oregon Pac 12 2
3 TCU Big XII 3
4 Alabama SEC 4
5 Michigan State B1G 5
6 Florida State ACC 6
7 Georgia Tech ACC 7
8 Baylor Big XII 8
9 Georgia SEC 9
10 UCLA Pac 12 10
11 Missouri SEC 11
12 Mississippi State SEC 12
13 Wisconsin B1G 13
14 Arizona State Pac 12 14
15 Clemson ACC 15
16 Boise State Mtn West
17 Arizona Pac 12 17
18 Kansas State Big XII 18
19 Ole Miss SEC 19
20 Utah Pac 12 20
21 USC Pac 12 21
22 Marshall AAC
23 Auburn SEC 23
24 Louisville ACC 24
25 Memphis AAC
26 Nebraska B1G 26
27 Air Force Mtn West
28 Notre Dame Ind.
29 Duke ACC 29
30 Stanford Pac 12 30
31 Minnesota B1G 31
32 Arkansas SEC 32
33 LSU SEC 33
34 Utah Stat Mtn West
35 Texas A&M SEC 35
36 Rutgers B1G 36
37 Washington Pac 12 37
38 Oklahoma Big XII 38
39 Oklahoma State Big XII 39
40 Louisiana Tech CUSA
41 Navy Ind.
42 Northern Illinois MAC

AP Poll 2014

Rank Team Conference B1G SEC Pac 12 Big XII ACC
81 55 63 #NUM! 83
1 Ohio State(59) B1G 1
2 Oregon Pac 12 2
3 TCU Big XII 3
4 Alabama SEC 4
5 Michigan State B1G 5
6 Florida State ACC 6
7 Baylor Big XII 7
8 Georgia Tech ACC 8
9 Georgia SEC 9
10 UCLA Pac 12 10
11 Mississippi State SEC 11
12 Arizona State Pac 12 12
13 Wisconsin B1G 13
14 Missouri SEC 14
15 Clemson ACC 15
16 Boise State Mtn West
17 Ole Miss SEC 17
18 Kansas State Big XII 18
19 Arizona Pac 12 19
20 USC Pac 12 20
21 Utah Pac 12 21
22 Auburn SEC 22
23 Marshall AAC
24 Louisville ACC 24
25 Memphis AAC
26 Notre Dame Ind.
27 Stanford Pac 12 27
28 Nebraska B1G 28
29 Air Force Mtn West
30 Duke ACC 30
31 LSU SEC 31
32 Utah State Mtn West
33 Arkansas SEC 33
34 Minnesota B1G 34
35 Oklahoma Big XII 35
36 Texas A&M SEC 36
37 Northern Illinois MAC
38 Colorado State Mtn West

So, by not only one but two polls, the SEC still wins the cross-country race to earn the title of best conference in the country. However, SEC fans are still displeased after last year and are coming under fire for this claim still. Why? Because in both polls, the Pac 12 scored 63 points. 55 points is a sizable jump from the previous two seasons of 27 and 33 points, but the more shocking stat is that the SEC’s margin of victory decreased from 60 points in 2012 to 42 points in 2013 but then to just 8 in 2014. This is an alarming and staggering drop that reflects objectively why the SEC’s dominance has been questioned after the 2014 season. What can we conclude from this? Last year, the SEC was still the best, but there was no dominance. There was no supremacy. A much more even field exists now where there is a 26 point spread between the first and fourth conferences. If one were to look at a cross-country meet’s results that had these team scores, he or she would be impressed at the competitive nature of the meet, recognize that there was no outlying victor or loser, and probably would wish that they could’ve attended themselves. College football is becoming more competitive now between the conferences than it has been since Florida’s 2006 national championship. Two years of the SEC not winning the national championship doesn’t alone show the conference is slipping. Dipping into these numbers and rankings does.

Once again here though, it is apparent that individual national championships help a conference but do not deem it the best automatically. Ohio State’s championship doesn’t mean that the Big Ten is the best conference as it is still 21 points behind first. The whole conference must become deeper if it is to have a shot at that claim. Ohio St, Michigan St, and Wisconsin’s bowl wins obviously helped the conference in its final polls though as those three got some nice, low numbers for the B1G; now, as often is a struggle for a cross-country team with three good runners, the conference needs a solid 4 and 5. The ACC majorly benefited from its addition of Louisville here, but it needs the Cards and Duke to move up with Florida St, Georgia Tech, and Clemson to really get into the conversation.

College football stands now in a power vacuum in the conference area. Will the SEC come back with a vengeance and become dominant next year after a fluke 2015 season? Or will the Pac 12 continue its trend and overtake the SEC finally? We can get a taste of what will happen by examining the (ultimately meaningless but fun to speculate with) 2015 preseason polls that have come out. Here are what coaches and sports writers are predicting this season synced to the cross-country system:

USA Today Preseason 2015 Poll

Rank Team Conference B1G SEC Pac 12 Big XII ACC
92 47 66 84 98
1 Ohio State B1G 1
2 TCU Big XII 2
3 Alabama SEC 3
4 Baylor Big XII 4
5 Oregon Pac 12 5
6 Michigan State B1G 6
7 Auburn SEC 7
8 Florida State ACC 8
9 Georgia SEC 9
10 USC Pac 12 10
11 Notre Dame Ind.
12 Clemson ACC 12
13 LSU SEC 13
14 UCLA Pac 12 14
15 Ole Miss SEC 15
16 Arizona State Pac 12 16
17 Georgia Tech ACC 17
18 Wisconsin B1G 18
19 Oklahoma Big XII 19
20 Arkansas SEC 20
21 Stanford Pac 12 21
22 Arizona Pac 12 22
23 Missouri SEC 23
24 Boise State Mtn West
25 Tennessee SEC 25
26 Mississippi St. SEC 26
27 Texas A&M SEC 27
28 Oklahoma St. Big XII 28
29 Virginia Tech ACC 29
30 Utah Pac 12 30
31 Kansas St. Big XII 31
32 Louisville ACC 32
33 Nebraska B1G 33
34 Minnesota B1G 34
35 Penn St. B1G 35
36 South Carolina SEC 36
37 Miami ACC 37
38 Texas A&M SEC 38
39 Illinois B1G 39
40 Duke ACC 40
41 Air Force Mtn West
42 Louisiana Tech CUSA
43 Marshall CUSA
44 Utah St. Mtn West
45 West Virginia Big XII 45
46 NC St. ACC 46
47 BYU Ind.
48 Florida SEC 48
49 GA Southern Sun Belt
50 North Carolina ACC 50
51 Maryland B1G 51
52 Michigan B1G 52
53 Kentucky SEC 53
54 UCF AAC
55 Cincinnati AAC
56 Washington Pac 12 56

AP Preseason Poll 2015

Rank Team Conference Big Ten SEC Pac-12 Big 12 ACC
89 49 64 87 98
1 Ohio State (61) Big Ten 1
2 TCU Big 12 2
3 Alabama SEC 3
4 Baylor Big 12 4
5 Michigan State Big Ten 5
6 Auburn SEC 6
7 Oregon Pac-12 7
8 USC Pac-12 8
9 Georgia SEC 9
10 Florida State ACC 10
11 Notre Dame Ind.
12 Clemson ACC 12
13 UCLA Pac-12 13
14 LSU SEC 14
15 Arizona State Pac-12 15
16 Georgia Tech ACC 16
17 Mississippi SEC 17
18 Arkansas SEC 18
19 Oklahoma Big 12 19
20 Wisconsin Big Ten 20
21 Stanford Pac-12 21
22 Arizona Pac-12 22
23 Boise State Mtn West
24 Missouri SEC 24
25 Tennessee SEC 25
26 Mississippi State SEC 26
27 Texas A&M SEC 27
28 Oklahoma State Big 12 28
29 Virginia Tech ACC 29
30 Penn State Big Ten 30
31 Louisville ACC 31
32 Cincinnati AAC
33 Nebraska Big Ten 33
34 Kansas State Big 12 34
35 NC State ACC 35
36 Florida SEC 36
37 Texas Big 12 37
38 Michigan Big Ten 38
39 Northern Illinois MAC
40 Brigham Young Ind.
41 West Virginia Big 12 41
42 California Pac-12 42
43 Western Kentucky CUSA

So depending on whether you trust the sports writers or coaches more, the SEC will begin the season with a 15 or 19 point lead over the Pac 12. Regardless, there is a close field that resembles the end of last year to begin the season; people still believe the SEC is the best conference in the country, but they do not believe it will be dominant as it was a few years ago.

Graph showing the conferences' scores in the mock cross-country meet based on the USA Today Poll the past three seasons and the projected finishes for the upcoming one.

Graph showing the conferences’ scores in the mock cross-country meet based on the USA Today Poll the past three seasons and the projected finishes for the upcoming one.

This cross-country method doesn’t consider nonconference records, strength of schedule, number of teams in the top 25, 15, or 10, records in bowl games, or margins of victory. It only considers the final results of each season and orders the conferences accordingly. It is an interesting way to somewhat objectively line up the conferences next to each other without people from each fanbase shouting about the injustices that its conference is experiencing because an unfair assessment of a season. Taking a proven and trusted sports system that already exists and using it in a different way to still apply to sports is an extremely useful and interesting way to evaluate on-field performance. These numbers give weight to the SEC’s claims of the best conference in the country but its simultaneous slow fall from dominance. Just like any way of evaluating the best conference in football, this system isn’t perfect and has its inherent flaws with how polls are created, but these same polls with all their personal biases that people may argue against are the same polls that college football has observed for years to determine the best teams. But hey, what’s college football without some controversy? This system merely calculates with those polls a way of determining the best conferences. What will it show after the January 11 game in Glendale this year?

[1] Complete rankings (more teams than just the top 25) for the final AP poll were found only for 2014 and the 2015 preseason poll, so the USA Today Coach’s Poll is used for the majority of this exercise; the AP Poll is used when applicable. Complete teams were necessary to ensure most conferences could have at least 5 teams to tally a team score.

[2] The computer program in Excel used to explore this cross-country/college football idea did not easily allow for a true cross-country formula in which the 8th and later runners on a team (IE some SEC schools in the bottom of these polls), runners from an incomplete team (Florida St. and Clemson [ACC] in 2012 for example), or unattached runners (Independents like Notre Dame or Navy) would be removed from the team score. For the purpose of the experiment, all runners/football teams score their ranking and work to push other teams back. The author does not believe this diminishes the goal of what the article is trying to convey; making these changes wouldn’t alter the final results enough to make the effort to score it in a true cross-country fashion. The system used here gets the point across.

[3] For this exercise, only the “Power 5” conferences were examined; with all due respect, the “Group of 5” or mid-major conferences just don’t truly stand a chance in the grand scheme of things.

[4] See footnote 1 for why the AP Poll wasn’t used here. IE, it’s not to diminish the B1G’s team score.


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XII=10 | The New Big 12 Conference

New LogoBYU

 

 

 

 

Earlier this month, ESPN reported that BYU’s head coach, Bronco Mendenhall, had stated his support for a move by his school’s athletic department to join the Big XII Conference. BYU went independent in football in 2011 after 11 years in the Mountain West as a charter member. The Cougars were conference champions four times in those eleven years, and they made eight bowl appearances. An individual TV deal with ESPN looked to be more lucrative for BYU at the turn of the decade, however, and the Cougars have been independent ever since. Now, in 2014, just as the dust of the massive conference realignment that started in 2010 has started to settle, BYU is making moves to become a part of the 10-team Big 12 Conference. Mendenhall mentioned many reasons for this move:

“We would love to be in the Big 12, I would love to be a member of that conference. I think that would make a lot of sense. Our attendance is high enough, and our winning percentage is high enough. We have the entire Salt Lake City and Utah market as well as a worldwide following because of the [Mormon] church. There’d be a ton to offer the Big 12 because it’s a money-generated world right now. You’re talking about an amazing kind of brand.”

These are only a few of the monetary and logistical reasons the Cougars have for wanting to join the Big 12. Scheduling as an independent team against quality opponents is difficult already, and since the SEC and ACC made their respective decisions to stay at an 8 conference + 1 Power5 game schedule, they each excluded BYU as a team that could fill that 1 spot not filled by an extra conference opponent. In short, the SEC and ACC said BYU wasn’t good enough to count. This limits the amount of teams BYU can play. Their 2014 schedule looks incredibly sparse in quality with the best teams on it being Texas, Virginia, and UConn. Being a member of the Big 12 would instantly rectify this problem. Mendenhall and his team have also proved that they can play in the Big 12; The Cougars beat Texas at home by an embarrassing score for the then nationally ranked #15 Longhorns of 40-21. It is reasonable for Cougar fans to feel that they could compete well in the Big 12 after a whipping of that nature. The rematch in Austin, TX will be played on September 6 this fall; the legitimacy of BYU’s last win will be tested.

The real reason, of course, that BYU would like to be a Big 12 member is the revenue increase it would experience. The Big 12 distributed $220.1 million to its member schools this past year which was more than both the SEC and ACC. BYU would love to take a slice of this pie for their own as it would be more than their deal with ESPN earns them now.

The Big 12 itself responded just a few days after Mendenhall made his comments. Its response was simple, decisive, and undebatable: “No.” The Big 12 simply jut isn’t interested in adding another team. The major reason for this is the revenue distribution mentioned above. As confusing as it is with the name of the conference versus reality, the Big 12 has 10 teams. West Virginia’s athletic director, Oliver Luck, was one Big 12 AD most vocal about the conference’s disinterest in adding BYU or any team for that matter.

“Our denominator is 10. The more you split it up … I don’t think we can find a partner who’s available right now to stay at the value we have (per school) or let alone increase what we have. That’s the consensus we have (staying at 10).”

Simply, the Big 12 doesn’t think BYU will bring in more than it’ll take. This is an interesting prediction when considering Mendenhall’s reasonable comments about BYU’s access to “the entire Salt Lake City and Utah market as well as a worldwide following because of the [Mormon] church.” It would seem that the Cougars could gross a sufficient amount when these factors are combined with being in a Power 5 conference. The bowl openings for BYU would be exciting and new for a fan base that once traveled to the Las Vegas Bowl for 5 consecutive years this past decade.

Another, more logistically valid reason the Big 12 has for not wanting an 11th team is because 10 teams allows for an extremely convenient scheduling format for both football and basketball. Each team plays 9 football games against every other team in the conference once, and in basketball, 18 games are played against every team twice. An 11th team would mess up this system. The Big 12 was decimated by the 2010 conference realignment when it lost Nebraska to the Big 10, Colorado to the Pac 12, and Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC. The avoidance of the Pac 12 stealing the remainder of the Big 12’s schools in Texas and Oklahoma and the acquisition of TCU from the Mountain West and West Virginia from the Big East boosted membership back up to its current level of 10 members, but it was a difficult process for the conference despite these small gains. The conference lost its divisions of North and South in football and subsequently its football championship game. The Big 12 was the second conference to go to a division/championship game football scheduling format in 1996 after the SEC did and found success in 1991. The Big 12 helped pioneer the very idea of a large conference existing and thriving in college sports. The identity of the conference existed in its very name: it was a big conference of 12 schools. When 2010 happened, that simply wasn’t true anymore. The 10-team bond that the Big 12 came to sport paled in grandeur to all the other powerful conferences that all had at least 12 teams and a championship game.

With the drastic changes the Big 12 experienced, it had to rebrand. And rebrand it has done. Instead of seeking to add more teams to be like its fellow prestigious conferences, the Big 12 has embraced the fact that it is different. It has taken a stand against expansion in favor of a simpler and, in its own eyes, better format for collegiate athletics. The conference ran an add in the 2014 edition of Sporting News‘ College Football Annual that demonstrated this rebranding:

Big 12 add in Sporting News' 2014 College Football Annual

Big XII add in Sporting News’ 2014 College Football Annual

The new tagline of the Big XII is prominently displayed in bold: One True Champion. Under, it explains that “in the Big 12 Conference, there are no divisions. Ten teams. Nine games. One true champion.”

Is this a sustainable position for a conference to take in the long-term with others expanding with no sure sign of stopping? Only time will tell. One would think that the monetary benefits of an increase in revenue per school by fewer teams would be attractive to individual schools all over the country. ACC and SEC schools have their conference championship games and nearly a decade of national championships between the two, yet a Big 12 school is earning $22 million simply because it has to split its revenue up with fewer universities.

The more intriguing question of sustainability is not rooted in economics but rather scheduling. The Big 12 has made a national statement that it is defying the trend of current collegiate athletic activities, and its member institutions are fully committed to this vision. The round-robin format the Big 12 is using used to be the way every conference crowned its champion year in and year out. Just in the past 23 years, the division/championship game system has exploded onto the scene to where it is generally accepted as the normal standard that most conferences should meet. Even the vast majority of mid-major conferences use this system now; the Conference USA, MAC, and Mountain West all do, and the American and Sun Belt sit at 11 members with the potential to move to a division system if they added another team. That lists all the conferences in Division 1 FBS (1A) which means that now 70% of conferences in the FBS have a division system. That also puts the Big 12 at having the fewest members of any conference in the top division of college football. The Big 12 is defying the trend of the nation; refusing BYU was no simple move.

With the current trend dictating that a conference champion be decided in one game between division champions, it is an entertaining debate to compare this with the Big 12’s format. That will have to be decided in time in the context of the new College Football Playoff era that begins this year. For now, the Big XII Conference is not only happy with its current situation, but it has re-defined itself by it. The Big 12 with divisions, a championship game, and teams in Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri is no more. This is the new Big 12 where XII=10, and they like it like that.

 

Works Cited:
http://byucougars.com/schedule/m-football/2014
http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/11043237/bronco-mendenhall-says-byu-love-big-12
http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/11066269/big-12-ads-say-no-discussions-expansion
http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2094508-why-the-big-12-is-better-off-sticking-with-10-team-for-now
And of course, the always helpful http://www.wikipedia.org/

Next in the Big 12 series: the geography of Central USA, its impact on the formation of the new Big XII, and whether the new conference makes sense geographically and culturally. Coming. (Not “coming soon”; no promises)


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The Double Bye: College Basketball’s Wealth Disparity

It is about that time again that all sports fans love: March Madness. What do we love about March and college basketball? Tournaments. The NCAA Tournament is the 2nd most watched sporting event in the United States behind only the Super Bowl. America loves filling out the 68 team bracket after the Sunday selection show reveals who goes where in the national seeding. The NCAA Tournament’s less popular and underrated predecessor are the conference tournaments that serve to crown a champion for each league and send that team to the Big Dance.

I have learned a bit of “bracketology” in the manner of who faces whom in tournaments. When I was learning and creating my own brackets for the first time, I understood tournaments to work in the traditional manner of working backwards from the championship game. In a perfectly seeded tournament, the #1 and #2 teams will play each other in the final game. Working back from that point, you keep the #1 seed in the most advantageous situation as possible throughout. If you have a 3 team tournament, the 2 seed dips back to play the 3 seed, and the 1 seed stays put to await the winner. The 1 seed is lethargic; it does not want to move back in the bracket more than it has to. But, if there is a 4 team tournament, the 1 seed has to dip back to play the 4 seed thereby evening out the bracket. The 1 seed plays the easiest team they can. This process is repeated over and over until one has the number of teams playing in the tournament. In a 5 team tournament, the 4 seed, the worst seed left in the farthest up round, dips down to play 5. 6 teams competing sees 3 dip to play 6, 7 teams puts 2 facing 7, and 8 teams forces 1 down again to play 8. This process can be repeated an infinite number of times to accommodate as many teams in a tournament as needed. It usually only extends to 16 teams as is manifested in each region of the NCAA tournament.

In past years, most conferences have had no more than 12 teams competing. 5 of the 6 power conferences used the traditional method of seeding to structure their conference tournaments. However, there was one exception: The Big East. The old Big East, a conference of 16 teams, used to have only 12 spots in its historic tournament in New York City; the bottom 4 teams simply were not eligible to compete. The conference looked at those 4 teams and realized there was revenue to be generated with an extra 4 games in Madison Square Garden. Someone took a look at the traditional 16 team bracket and took the “path of least resistance for the top seeds” way too far. Instead of having the top 4 seeds, the teams that have a bye in a 12 team bracket, drop down to accommodate the new teams as a traditional bracket would, the Big East instituted a “double bye” for the top 4 teams so that the 9-12 seeds dropped down to play the new teams. The Big East disbanded after its continual raiding by the ACC, and the ACC found that it had too many teams for its previous 12 team model; it went to the double bye system along with the SEC. The B1G plans to next year with the additions of Rutgers and Maryland.

You may be asking why this all matters. The top team is probably going to win it all anyways, right? And there are just as many games played in either system, so fans get the same amount of basketball.

The issue is that the system is unfair to the lower seeded teams in the tournament. To illustrate situations, let us examine the 2014 ACC double-bye Tournament that is being played right now:

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The idea of the doubly bye is to give the top seeds as clear of a path to the championship as possible. This is done by playing one less game and therefore having one less opportunity to lose. There are several issues with this model. First, as aforementioned, there are an equal number of games in the balanced bracket as there are in the double bye (one less game is played than there are teams competing). Those games have to go somewhere. The burden falls on the last 8 teams in the tournament. They each have to win 5 games to win the championship as opposed to 3 for the top 4 seeds. This is argued that it is a reward for the regular season. This is very true. It is indeed a theoretical reward. However, that does not mean it is fair.

Take the ACC bracket above: Georgia Tech played a close overtime game against Boston College in the first round of the tournament and won. The next day, the tired Yellow Jackets played another overtime game against Clemson and lost by just a bit. If a traditional bracket was used, Clemson would have played Georgia Tech in the first round, and Duke would have played Boston College. The winner of those two games would play each other. How would the latter setup change things? Would a fresh Georgia Tech team have performed better against Clemson? There is something to be said for having games to warm up. Duke would be able to use Boston College as a warm-up game for the winner of Clemson-Georgia Tech. However, the closer the seeds, the less of a warm-up and the more of a slugfest the teams are involved in. Theoretically, in a perfect bracket, Duke and Clemson would end up playing each other with a game a piece under their belts and the rust shaken off. In the double-bye model, Duke will come out cold against either a warmed-up Clemson team or a beat-up Georgia Tech team. In the double bye, the top seeds come in cold, and the bottom seeds have too many games to play through.

The old Big East saw results in its tournament that supported this idea. An article from North Carolina’s official athletic blog published this week reviewed the double bye as it makes its ACC debut this year. (Take a look  here at http://www.goheels.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=3350&ATCLID=209432004 .) It addresses the Big East’s utilization of the system here:

In all, the Big East held five conference tournaments–from 2009 through 2013–that included four teams receiving the double bye. In those seasons, the top 4 seeds had a combined record of 11-9 in the quarterfinals, and a top-4 seed won the event in three of the five seasons. That’s not exactly the “overwhelming” statistical advantage for the lower seeds Boeheim recalled, but it’s not chalk in every round, either.

The name mentioned in the quotation refers to Jim Boeheim, Syracuse’s head coach. Syracuse is in its first year in the ACC after competing in the Big East since 1979. Boeheim leads one of three teams (with the others being Notre Dame and Pittsburgh) into the field of 15 that has double-bye experience. Syracuse was not very successful when it received the “rewarding” double bye in the Big East Tournament. In 2012, they were regular season Big East Champions and therefore received the #1 seed. Mark Cooper of the New York Times wrote that the only thing standing in the way of the regular season champion Orange with a 30-1 season record and #2 national rank was the double bye. (http://thequad.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/syracuses-next-challenge-the-dreaded-tournament-double-bye/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=2) The two seasons prior to the 2012 season, Syracuse lost in its first games with the double bye. Even with all of the regular season success Syracuse experienced in 2012, they failed for a third year in a row after receiving the double bye to even reach the Big East Championship Game. Jim Boeheim, now leading the second seeded ACC team into the tournament in Greensboro with a double bye, has good reason to not like the existing bracketing system.

“It’s always difficult to wait for that double bye,” the Syracuse coach said on the ACC teleconference this week. “We found in the Big East that those teams didn’t win at a high percentage even when they’re the heavy favorites to win. I think there’s an advantage to playing a game or two in a tournament and get yourself ready to play. It’s proven in the Big East that statistics are overwhelmingly in favor of the teams that are playing one or two games to have a great chance to win it. The percentages should be the other way because you’re playing one of the top seeds.”

The ACC Tournament has seen already that two of the four teams, including Boeheim’s Syracuse team, that received the double bye have already been defeated by teams that have played a game already. Only the top seed Virginia advanced, and Duke is currently playing Clemson in the reality of the scenario presented earlier. The Blue Devils are leading the Tigers at halftime by a small margin.

This shouldn’t be in the conferences’ best interests. When their best teams lose in the conference tournaments, those are the last games the NCAA selection committee looks at before seeding the NCAA Tournament. It leaves a great possibility that the top conference teams can play their way out of a #1 seed nationally. The ACC this season is at a disadvantage to the B1G for this reason. The B1G does not (this year; they will when they gain 2 more teams next year) have the double bye this year, and they are in a slugfest with the ACC for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

This is all to show that the “advantage” that the double bye gives teams is not always as great as it appears in theory.

While I do not advocate that sports decisions should be based on economics, the conferences that do think that way should consider the quality of the matchups they present. The economic thought is “give fans closer games with the double bye rather than a 1 vs 16 blowout to bring in more fans.” I was astounded at the exceptionally poor attendance in all the conference venues in the first rounds of each tournament, especially the ACC and SEC. The reason has to do with the double bye. Fans don’t show up to conference tournaments until the big teams start playing. No one wanted to see Notre Dame play Wake Forest who wasn’t a fan of those two teams, but a Notre Dame-North Carolina game (what would have occurred had a traditional bracket been instituted) would be more appealing to a neutral fan simply because North Carolina is better historically and currently than Wake Forest. I may have different preferences than everyone else, but I would rather see Roy William’s team play more than Jeff Bzdelik’s. I had to look up who Wake Forest’s coach even was. Nothing against Coach Bzdelik (although he isn’t expected to be invited back to Winston-Salem next year), but the coaches with history in the ACC don’t get as many games to display to the fans. I would be more willing to buy a booklet of tickets to the ACC Tournament if I knew I had the possibility to watch Mike Krzyzewski’s team in four possible games rather than three. The stadiums in Greensboro and Atlanta would have filled up more in the first rounds if Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Tennessee were competing.

In all, the conferences need to take a good hard look at the double bye system for a lot of different reasons. The idea is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, but in actuality the rich get swindled and the poor get beat up. The economics of the system simply aren’t working, and the conferences are not getting the best teams into the finals of their tournaments. The conferences that have more than 12 teams need to copy the NCAA Tournament’s traditional formatting of bracketology to get the best overall results for the last games before the Big Dance.


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Simplifying the Conference Realignment

Imagine a Rip Van Winkle situation in which you, a college sports fan, went to sleep in 2009. Five years have gone by, and you just woke up today in 2014. Suddenly, you are very confused as to why Syracuse just beat Pittsburgh in an ACC basketball game and Missouri lost in the SEC Championship Game. You are probably wondering as well what on earth the American Athletic Conference is at all.

It does not take a complete blind eye to be confused by the realignments that have rocked collegiate athletics from 2010 to 2014. Here is the simplest possible written explanation of who went where and left from where.

ImageThe conferences used to be very stable and traditional: The Big East had 8 teams in the east, the SEC had 12 southeastern teams, the ACC had 12 Atlantic coastal teams, the Big 12 had 12 southcentral teams, the Big 10 had 11 midwestern teams, and the Pac 10 had 10 Pacific coastal teams. The carousel began turning when the Big 10 (with 11 teams) announced in 2009 that it would consider adding a 12th team to create a Big 10 championship game. Pandemonium erupted. Every major conference prepared to be raided. Rumors flew everywhere. TV contractors busily began to prepare to make deals. The Big 10 kicked over the lantern into the barn that set the NCAA conferences ablaze.

The Pac 10 then announced similar plans in response to protect its teams from being raided. It looked to add teams to create a conference championship game as well. The trouble was that no one knew exactly how many teams the Pac 10 would add. 12 teams are needed for a championship game, but would the Pac 10 stop there? Those questions were answered in June of 2010. In a matter of 10 days (June 7-17, 2010), the structure of collegiate sports was shaken senseless. The Pac 10 offered invitation for admission to Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St, and Colorado which were all Big 12 schools. Colorado accepted the invitation without hesitation making the conference the Pac 11. The conference was hoping that if all the schools that were offered admission would accept, it would become the first ever “super-conference” at a whopping 16 teams. The divisions needed for a 16-member conference themselves could have become separate conferences as only 8 teams are needed to make a conference. The decision hinged on Texas who had a lucrative TV contract. The other 4 schools committed to go where Texas did. The Big 12, down to 11 schools after Colorado’s exit, worked in a panic to try to retain all other members from leaving.

The Big 12 was notified that it would have another team leaving the conference, but it was not Texas. Right in the middle of the Pac 10-Big 12 struggle for teams, Nebraska, a Big 12 team, announced it accepted the Big 10’s offer to be the conference’s 12th team. This left the Big 12 with 10 teams. If Texas left and dragged the other 4 with it, the Big 12 would cease to exist as 5 members would not be enough to continue on. Texas finally made a decision of conference loyalty and stuck with the Big 12. The conference lost its championship game in football, but it survived much better than it could have had Texas left. The Pac 10, frustrated that it didn’t become the Pac 16, offered Utah the 12th spot in the conference that would make a football championship possible. Utah immediately accepted to leave the Mountain West and join. The Mountain West replaced Utah with WAC powerhouse Boise St. The WAC made no immediate repairs to the Broncos’ loss, thus stopping the carousel ride. The first wave of conference realignment was over, and it only took 10 days. Changes: Colorado- left Big 12 for Pac 10. Nebraska- left Big 12 for Big 10. Utah- left Mountain West for Pac 10. Boise St- left WAC for Mountain West.

In all, the first wave only saw 4 teams switch allegiances. This was similar in number to the 2003 raid of the Big East by the ACC for Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College. While the ACC’s actions caused a bit of reshuffling for the Big East and Conference USA then, the difference in the June 7 realignments was that it opened up the possibility for major reordering of the scene of collegiate sports as it existed. The possibility of a super-conference was opened up, and fans and sportscasters alike debated its attractiveness and effects on college sports. The first wave of realignment was a few pebbles sliding away that gave way to the avalanche that followed.

The immediate effects of the first wave were seen in the mid-major conferences. Hawai’i, Nevada, and Fresno St. of the WAC moved with Boise St. to the Mountain West. BYU moved to be independant. The WAC began to raid FCS schools for more members to try to stop the bleeding from their conference to the Mountain West.

The second wave began in the Autumn of 2011 when the SEC announced that it would move to be the biggest conference in the country at 14 members. Pandemonium once again erupted. The flame was rekindled, this time in the south. The Big 12 (now with 10 teams) knew very well what the experience would be like to be raided, but it had no real financial muscle left after surviving the last raid to protect from the SEC. The ACC immediately worried about a raid on its schools because of the geographic location and natural rivalries between some ACC and SEC schools. The ACC raised its exit fees to prevent a raid and looked to match the SEC in its goal for a 14-team conference. The SEC reached a deal with Texas A&M and Missouri of the Big 12 while the ACC simultaneously accepted applications from the Big East’s Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Suddenly, the NCAA had two conferences with 14 members.

The Big 12 had now dropped to 8 schools. While this number is sufficient to organize an athletic conference, the Big 12 looked to replace their losses to the SEC. During the SEC and ACC moves, the Big 12 moved to replace Texas A&M and Missouri. Texas Christian had been a part of the Mountain West, and they, along with new conference foes Boise St. and San Diego St. had accepted invitations to the Big East. The Big East looked to expand its footprint much farther west than its name suggested after Pittsburgh and Syracuse left the conference in a bind for football. The Big 12 offered TCU a more geographically reasonable deal, and TCU backed out of its Big East deal and accepted the Big 12 offer. Boise St. and San Diego St. backed out of their Big East deals after TCU did as well, leaving the once hopeful conference in dismay. The Big 12 further laid seige to the Big East when it offered an invitation a week after TCU had accepted its bid to West Virginia, a premier football and rising basketball in the Big East. Despite the geographical absurdity and obstacles, West Virginia accepted the same day. The Big East, a conference that in 2003 had been the ultimate victim of a realignment, once again was on its heels. In a matter of a few weeks, three members and three more potential members departed the conference. It in desperation invited 9 schools from across the country to join. Some accepted, some did not; the stock of the conference never did improve, however. One of those teams was Temple, a former member of the Big East that had minimal success in the conference beforehand. The second wave ended in uncertainty; the expectation was that the shuffling was not over.

The third wave began when the ACC in the Fall of 2012 once again pillaged the Big East for a national-best 15th member: Notre Dame. Notre Dame joined the ACC in all sports except for football where it would remain independent as it had in the Big East. It would, however, play a substantial portion of its football schedule against existing ACC schools as a part of the deal.

Directly following the ACC’s move, the Big 10, inactive since the first wave of realignment and the institution of its football championship game, made moves to match the growing size of conferences. It made deals with Maryland of the ACC and Rutgers of the Big East for those schools to become the 13th and 14th members of the conference. The Big East once again took another hit from yet another conference, and the ACC lost its lead in members as it was down to 14 again. Maryland’s move was sentimentally damaging to the ACC as the school was a charter member of the conference, and it had established several quality rivalries with many schools in the conference. The ACC also had only 13 football members which made for unequal divisions. Notre Dame refused to leave the independant world for football, so the ACC picked on the Big East once again and invited Louisville. The Cardinals, who would later that Spring go on to win the NCAA Basketball Championship as a Big East member, were relieved to have a way out of the collapsing Big East. The ACC was once again at 15 teams.

Going into 2013, the Big East was in serious trouble; it faced imminent extension. It began the realignment period at 16 teams strong in all sports while admittedly weaker in football at 8. The conference couldn’t replenish its football teams as quickly as they were going. The Big East simply could not stay the bleeding; only Cincinnati, Connecticut, and South Florida remained as football members. The wound deepened when seven non-football members known as the “Catholic 7” announced a group departure from the Big East in all sports. The Catholic 7 expressed an interest in severing ties with the other football members of the Big East that were becoming geographically decentralized. The Catholic 7 and Butler, Xavier, and Creighton announced in the spring of 2013 that they would create the new Big East; the name and logo would legally travel with them to the beginning of the non-football conference. The football members of the old Big East, including Louisville and Rutgers, met to discuss their orphanage (Louisville and Rutgers had 1 more year before admittance into their new conferences). The schools formed the American Athletic Conference as a league in all sports. It took over the Big East’s automatic qualifying spot in the BCS for the last year in its existence. The conference added members to refuel its numbers. It raided from the Conference USA as it had done to counteract the ACC’s 2003 raid when it picked up Cincinnati, South Florida, and Louisville. The AAC added Central Florida (UCF), Houston, Memphis, & Southern Methodist (SMU). East Carolina, Tulane, Tulsa, and Navy (football only) will join for the 2014 season. Temple, Cincinnati, Connecticut, and South Florida are members as well. The American, moving into the College Football Playoff era of college football, did not receive an AQ spot in the new system as it had in the BCS meaning that overall, the league’s stock has dropped significantly. The Big East was the hardest-hit conference in this realignment, but it took a few years for the shockwaves to trickle down. In all, 13 of the original 16 departed the conference. The third wave of realignment was over, and the collegiate sports scene has been quiet ever since.

Many mid-major conferences that were raided by the Big East or Mountain West have had to pull up schools from the FCS league to make amends. This has put more teams than ever before in the FBS; in 2013 there were 124.

The potential for a fourth wave of realignment is ever-present but has no direction. There have not been any substantial rumors of new conference switches, but rather now the bureaucratic effects of the realignment are working themselves out. In the 2014-15 athletic year, all teams should be playing in their new conferences.

Here is a very simplified version of the entire article in regards to football of the 6 BCS AQ teams:

ACC- Gained Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and Louisville. Lost Maryland.

American Athletic (form. Big East)- Gained UCF, Houston, Memphis, SMU, Temple, ECU, Tulsa, Navy & Tulane. Lost Louisville, Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, & West Virginia.

Big 10 (B1G)- Gained Nebraska, Maryland, & Rutgers.

Big 12 (Big XII)- Gained TCU & West Virginia. Lost Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M, & Missouri.

Pac 12 (form. Pac 10)- Gained Colorado & Utah.

SEC- Gained Texas A&M and Missouri.

 


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9+1 ACC-SEC Deal Optimal

This article is in response to the ACC’s proposed 8+1 schedule with the SEC which is illustrated in these links:

http://espn.go.com/college-football/story/_/id/10419715/acc-eyes-schedule-includes-one-sec-game-every-year

In light of the conference carousel that has been turning for the past few years, leagues have had to reorganize the way they schedule games between their teams. I firmly believe that the more teams a conference adds, the more conference games a team needs to play in order to make a conference champion valid. Of course, I love the idea of a closer tie between the ACC and SEC because 1) it often makes sense geographically, 2) the conferences share an enormous amount of history together (for example, Georgia Tech and South Carolina used to be flip-flopped between the leagues, and earlier this decade, there were serious rumors about the two conferences combining to create a southeast superconference),  and 3) it leaves a door wide open for a Virginia Tech-Tennessee annual rivalry. What would the other schools do, though? Would it be on a rotating system of playing a different team from the other league every year or a set rival in the other league? People will have a hard time believing Texas A&M-Boston College rivalry would hit it off. I don’t think that’s always the point, though.
Historically, the geography of the ACC has been in the South only extending as far north as College Park, Maryland. Now, ACC teams spread into western Pennsylvania, northern New York and northeast Massachusetts. The ACC is no longer a south-Atlantic Coast Conference, but rather (for the most part excluding northern Kentucky and near-Chicago Indiana) it is truly a conference of Atlantic coast schools. It is just stretched all along that length. Geography isn’t a motivating factor for college football conferences anymore, though. The Pac12 has both the University of Colorado which is 4 states over from the Pacific coast and teams that are in states that border Canada and Mexico. The B1G will sport new Nebraska-Maryland and Minnesota-Rutgers rivalries (quite possible because the conference isn’t protecting any cross-division rivalries in the new East-West divisional system like the ACC and SEC do). The SEC has Missouri in its East division. Even Guilford College in North Carolina is a member of the ODAC, my DIII conference for schools in Virginia.
With geography no longer a central factor, it is feasible for the ACC to request this of the SEC. Why? Strength of Schedule. The ACC would benefit greatly from this aspect of scheduling. Whether or not the teams from the ACC in this deal would leave with a “W” or not, the conference’s strength of schedule as a whole would jump considerably. The ACC saw what happened to the Big East. There are only 5 AQ conferences for the College Football Playoff while the BCS had 6. The American did not fare so well as it patched some Conference USA and Big East teams together to try to put forth a bid. Florida St’s national title and Clemson’s Orange Bowl win last year only helps the conference’s reputation nationally. The fact still remains, however, that the conference finished under 500 at 4-5 in bowl games and 4-7 to SEC teams all season long (Florida St. had 2 of those wins). The ACC desperately needs a spark to spread excellence throughout the conference top to bottom.
The SEC is objectively the most dominant conference in college football, and despite it’s 0-2 BCS record as opposed to the ACC’s 2-0, it went 7-3 in the bowl season winning the two conference’s rivalry bowl games (Music City and Chick-fil-A). It has also won 7 of the last 8 national championships. The SEC doesn’t have to worry about national prestige. Why would this be a good idea for them, then? This question begs another: would it increase the strength of schedule for the conference as a whole? This is a contentious point. The argument is an 8+1 ACC-SEC model against 9 games in SEC conference play. The SEC would gain a greater strength of schedule by playing 9 intra-conference games because overall, the SEC is stronger than the ACC. However, intra-conference play may not impress the College Football Playoff committee as much as more quality inter-conference games. The ACC, while it is in the bottom tier of the group, is indeed an automatic qualifying conference. If the SEC were to play the ACC more regularly, the nonconference strength of schedule would be improved which could impress the committee. SEC teams are criticized for playing a “cupcake” nonconference schedule. Last year, Tennessee played Austin-Peay, Alabama played Chattanooga, and Florida played Georgia Southern (oops…). While one game wouldn’t eradicate a few lackadaisical nonconference games, it is a healthy balance between way too easy and way too hard. It would give the SEC schedules more validity and the league as a whole more credibility if its teams could continually smash others from another AQ conference. The conference has realized this in its participation in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against the ACC where it regularly wins.
If the 8+1 model is adopted, however, that leaves the two conferences at an 8 game regular season for intra-conference play. The other 3 AQ conferences have adopted a 9 game league schedule already for good reason. The ACC and SEC now sends two teams to the championship game after only having played 8 of the 13 other teams in the conference. Cutting the difference from 5 teams not played down to 4 makes a division championship and a spot in the conference title game more honest, rewarding, and reflective of the body of work a team has put together. As the leagues get bigger, so should the percentage of conference foes on each team’s schedule. The ACC and SEC should not fall behind in this regard, especially the SEC for the boost in strength of schedule all teams would gain by adding another SEC game.
What is the solution to this conundrum then? I suggest a 9+1 model. It is the best of both worlds. This would increase the rivalry between the ACC and SEC, cut down on weak nonconference schedules by two games (the extra conference game and the “+1” game), increase the number of AQ games every team would play, still leave room for a few easier nonconference games or other AQ matchups, and give the College Football Playoff committee a more impressive resume year in and year out. Two games can be played against Chattanooga and Austin-Peay when your SEC school’s other nonconference game is against Florida St, Clemson, or Virginia Tech. The leagues wouldn’t have to schedule all of the inter-conference games on the weekend before Championship Saturday, either. 4 series play at that time already, and as long as that number stays even, scheduling will work out. Some schools should have permanent rivals in the other conference; the existing rivalries should persist, and other matchups could be created like Virginia Tech-Tennessee, Vanderbilt-Duke, and perhaps a Miami-LSU/Auburn (Miami should play Florida and Auburn should play Clemson, but Florida St. and South Carolina have those taken care of). Others can rotate or be set at the commissioners’ discretion. Games like the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game can help spread this agreement out over the season and bring in extra revenue. This solution addresses many of the concerns of the new format of college football that includes bigger conferences and a committee-based playoff system. An undefeated champion from either of these conferences that would win out with this 9+1 system would automatically earn a spot in the College Football Playoff and be a legitimate contender for the national title.
-Alex Cooper