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Which college football teams are most helped — and hurt — by conference realignment?

There has been much discourse since the latest round of realignment and media deals that every team in the ACC and the Big 12 should want to be in the Big Ten or SEC, because those conferences make the most money. But the fans themselves aren’t seeing a dime of it. Their lone concern is whether their team wins on Saturday — and more money hardly guarantees more victories.

With college football undergoing a massive facelift in 2024 — bigger conferences, an expanded College Football Playoff — every fan base in the country should be asking just one question: Is any of this going to help us win games?

For example: Oklahoma will make a lot more money in the SEC than it would have in the Big 12. But it also faces a much tougher path to a national championship, whereas Kansas State’s chances of reaching the CFP have increased due to the Big 12’s bigger field and the loss of Oklahoma and Texas.

So what about your school? Does its chances of success increase, decrease or remain the same in the sport’s new world order?

To assess, I’ve given all 67 power-conference schools a score between minus-5 and positive-5. The score is solely about a team’s ability to win, and does not take into account the team’s current coaching staff or roster. Scoring a 0 means the school is neither better nor worse off. A score from 1 to 5 ranges from mildly better to far better, and -1 to -5 ranges from mildly worse to … uh oh.

ACC

SMU: +5

Has there been a bigger realignment winner in the last 30 years? SMU had not finished in the Top 25 in four decades at the time it got the call up to the big leagues last September. Now it comes in with momentum after finishing last season No. 22.

Clemson: +3

Dabo Swinney’s 2015-2020 teams had to be near-perfect to reach the four-team CFP; his 11-2 ACC title squad in 2022 would have earned a top-4 seed. His aloof portal approach doesn’t help his cause, but it doesn’t factor into this score.

Florida State: +3

The irony of FSU trying to sue its way out of the ACC is that the new system works in its favor. Would it rather be the best team in the ACC and earn a top-4 seed and a first-round bye, or the fourth-best team in the SEC and live on the bubble?

Louisville: +2

Louisville has upside. The school has the resources and recruiting footprint to be a regular ACC and CFP contender, and it helps that Louisville is no longer trapped in a division with Florida State (which it does not play this season) and Clemson.

Miami: +2

The U has been stuck in the mud for two decades, but it began flexing its muscle as soon as NIL went into effect in 2021. The program has most of the elements needed to be a 12-team CFP regular, provided the right coach is in place.

Virginia Tech: +2

The Hokies would have made a 12-team CFP nine times in a 16-year span (1995-2010) under Frank Beamer. They may never replicate that level of consistency, but there’s no reason they can’t become a semi-regular contender again.

NC State: +1

The Wolfpack have not won a conference title since 1979. That might be a tad more attainable now that they’re no longer in the same division as Florida State and Clemson. (At least elsewhere, Wolfpack vibes are high.)

Georgia Tech: 0

Recruiting has always been challenging for the Yellow Jackets, made even more so now by NIL. But based on its history, Georgia Tech could make an occasional CFP appearance. It would have gone in 1990, 1998 and 2009, and would have been the first team out in 2014.

North Carolina: 0

This unquestioned basketball school has been long considered a sleeping giant in football but has yet to wake up. If it finally does, it will more likely be due to an inspired head-coaching hire than the various changes to the sport.

Pittsburgh: -2

Pitt is nearly 50 years removed from its national heyday, but it did win the ACC in 2021, which would have garnered a 12-team berth. But star receiver Jordan Addison’s jump to USC the following spring was a window into new NIL reality.

Syracuse: -2

It’s early, but new coach Fran Brown has discovered there’s money in the banana stand. Landing Ohio State QB Kyle McCord raised eyebrows. More broadly, though, it’s hard to argue the new landscape does much to benefit the Orange.

Virginia: -2

Arguably the one thing UVA had going for it was the mediocrity of the ACC Coastal Division, which it won in 2019 while going 9-3. Now, the Cavaliers — who last finished in the Top 25 back two decades ago — risk falling into deep irrelevance moving forward.

Wake Forest: -2

The tiniest school in Power 4 has more donor support than one might assume, and it’s not a championship-or-bust fan base. But reaching a 12-team CFP could be largely unattainable. Will programs like this be able to sustain interest?

Boston College: -3

BC is the type of school that suffers in a world of roster-poaching and NIL deals. Success will also be increasingly defined by Playoff appearances, and the Eagles have finished in the top 12 only twice since World War II.

Duke: -3

Duke just lived through the downside of its new reality. It lost coach Mike Elko to an SEC school after just two seasons and quarterback Riley Leonard went to Notre Dame, likely for a seven-figure NIL deal.

Stanford: -4

The Cardinal will always attract recruits that covet that degree. But the school’s admissions process limits it to taking only a few transfers a year, which creates a big disadvantage in the new landscape. And like Cal, the ACC is not ideal.

Cal: -5

Serious question: Would Cal have been better off getting Washington State/Oregon State’d? An already lagging program must now compete in a far-away Power 4 conference while receiving 30 percent of its money (and without SMU’s boosters).

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Big Ten

Ohio State: +4

Only once in the past 19 seasons have the Buckeyes lost more than two regular-season games. That means they would have made a 12-team Playoff all but once in the past 19 seasons. And probably pulled off an extra national title or two.

Michigan: +3

For the most part, Michigan will still be Michigan. The Big House will still pack in 110,000. The season will still be defined by whether it beats Ohio State. But a 12-team Playoff field certainly doesn’t hurt.

Penn State: +3

Had the 12-team Playoff been in place all along, James Franklin would have made five appearances in his first 10 seasons. The format is ideal for programs like PSU: not quite “elite,” but has the resources to compete nationally.

Michigan State: +2

While the Spartans only made the four-team CFP once, they could have made a 12-team field as many as five times from 2011-21. They also get Ohio State off the books in 2025 and 2026 after having played the Buckeyes in 14 consecutive seasons.

Oregon: +2

The Ducks are the best-positioned of the four West Coast schools joining the Big Ten. They recruit nationally and have Phil Knight’s war chest. While national titles have remained elusive, regular CFP appearances are realistic.

Maryland: +1

The Terps are free! They are no longer stuck in the Big Ten East, where their ceiling would forever be 7-5 and fourth place out of seven. But the upside may be limited until the school’s donors make a bigger splash in the NIL world.

Rutgers: +1

Like “rival” Maryland, Rutgers is finally out from under the Big Ten East. It’s also doing surprisingly well in NIL. The program’s ceiling may still be limited to 8-4 or so, but that would still be much better than its first decade in the conference.

Nebraska: 0

It may be tougher for the Cornhuskers to contend for Big Ten championships in a bigger league. But right now, that’s not even the target, given they haven’t even reached a bowl game in eight years. How much worse can it get?

Wisconsin: -1

The program has long churned out double-digit wins by “holding serve” against most of the conference while occasionally punching up against Ohio State or Michigan. That could become harder with the arrival of USC, Oregon and Washington.

Illinois: -2

This program has struggled to find its footing for more than two decades, and nothing about this new world helps it. If anything, it will be tougher. Right out of the gate, the Illini face Penn State, Michigan and Oregon this season.

Indiana: -2

The good news: no more getting clobbered by Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State in the Big Ten East. The bad news: Indiana, long known for apathy in football, is not likely to be as flush in NIL money as most of its competitors.

USC: -2

While it didn’t play like one for most of the past 15 years, USC was the most prestigious program in its former conference. In the Big Ten, it will be, at best, the third banana to Ohio State and Michigan, and possibly fifth behind Penn State and Oregon.

Washington: -2

The Huskies were the class of the Pac-12 the last two seasons, but it helped not to have an Ohio State or Michigan in their league. Now they have both, plus USC, Oregon and Penn State. Will the brief Kalen DeBoer era go down as an outlier?

Minnesota: -3

It’s unfortunate for the Golden Gophers that they have yet to reach the Big Ten Championship Game, because now it may never happen. A Playoff berth is not impossible, but Minnesota has had one top-10 season in the past 60 years.

Northwestern: -3

The new world may not be kind to overachiever programs like Northwestern. While it regularly makes bowl games and posts occasional Top 25 seasons, it has not finished high enough to make a 12-team CFP since 1996.

Purdue: -3

Not likely to contend for Playoff berths whether the field is four or 12. Purdue’s goal is to get to bowl games, and reaching six wins becomes harder without the benefit of a Big Ten West schedule.

Iowa: -4

The Hawkeyes have made a living out of grinding out mediocre Big Ten West foes while losing 42-3 to Michigan or 54-10 to Ohio State. In an 18-team league with no more unbalanced divisions and three incoming Top-25 recruiting schools, Iowa could be in for a reckoning.

UCLA: -4

Almost nothing about the new world does the Bruins any favors. UCLA is a basketball school whose donors have done little to support football’s NIL efforts. It is joining a conference full of big brands and football-first fan bases. Not a recipe for success.

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Big 12

BYU: +5

The Cougars have finally climbed the mountaintop after spending their entire history either in a non-power conference or as an independent. They now have direct access to the CFP, and won’t finish ranked 16th with just one loss, as happened in 2020.

Cincinnati: +4

The Bearcats’ dream season in 2021 does not have to be an aberration going forward, as they won’t have to go undefeated to make the Playoff. And power-conference status should help them land more recruits in their fertile city and state.

Houston: +4

After nearly 30 years in the post-Southwest Conference wilderness, the Cougars are back in a major conference alongside old rivals Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU. But achieving consistent success in the Big 12 is hardly a given after up-and-downs in the AAC.

UCF: +4

Like BYU, Cincinnati and Houston, UCF got its Power 4 life raft, and it’s not like the Knights were struggling beforehand. They’ve reached three BCS/CFP bowl games since 2013. The only question is how they’ll fare as a geographic outlier in the new Big 12.

Baylor: +2

Since 2013, the Bears have won three Big 12 titles and reached four BCS bowls but have fallen short of reaching the CFP. In a 12-team field, all of those teams would make it. And that was with Texas and Oklahoma in the conference.

Kansas State: +2

K-State could thrive in the new world. It would have made the 12-team CFP four times since 2011. It has sneaky-good NIL support. The biggest challenge will be revenue-sharing. Only three public Power 5 schools made less in 2022.

Oklahoma State: +2

Mike Gundy has fielded eight double-digit win teams, all of which would have been 12-team CFP contenders. Most of those teams lost to Oklahoma, against which Gundy is 4-15. The Cowboys no longer have to deal with the Sooners.

TCU: +2

The Frogs would have made a 12-team field three times since 2014, and, thanks to the Metroplex, they have the highest recruiting ceiling among the holdovers.

Colorado: +1

Anything would be better than the Buffs’ abysmal 13-year tenure in the Pac-12. The Buffs get back into the Texas footprint, which they benefitted from in the old Big 12. But the school still faces an uphill climb in the NIL world, with or without Deion Sanders.

Texas Tech: +1

The Red Raiders have largely flailed since the late Mike Leach’s 2009 ouster, but it’s not for lack of resources and fan support. Getting out from under Texas could help, and while CFP berths might be infrequent, they’re attainable.

Iowa State: 0

The Cyclones, who have not won a conference championship since 1912, will still have all the same evergreen challenges. They could benefit from a more level version of the Big 12, but they’ll still have to perpetually overachieve.

Kansas: 0

The same Iowa State blurb can be applied to Kansas, which has finished ranked roughly once per decade. An expanded Playoff gives the Jayhawks slightly more hope for glory, but 2007 seasons may remain incredibly rare.

Utah: -1

Utah enters its new league as strong as any of its programs, but man, did the Utes have a good thing going in the Pac-12. Not only did they reach four league title games in five years, but they could lord their Power 5 membership over rival BYU. No more.

West Virginia: -1

The Mountaineers have lost a great deal of their identity since leaving the old Big East for the Big 12 in 2012, and the further dilution of the conference won’t help. But they did at least gain their first geographic partner when Cincinnati joined.

Arizona: -2

Joining the Big 12 was great for Arizona basketball. Probably not so much for football, where it has little in common with schools in football-crazed Texas. History suggests the Wildcats will rarely contend for a spot in the Playoff.

Arizona State: -3

ASU president Michael Crow had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Big 12. The pro-market school has little in common with the likes of Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, which, unlike the Sun Devils, have rabid fan bases.

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SEC

Alabama: +4

I don’t expect post-Nick Saban Alabama to make a 12-team CFP nearly every single year, like I do Ohio State, simply because of the depth of the SEC. But it’s still one of a small handful of programs built to succeed in any era.

Georgia: +4

Now, even Georgia’s “down” seasons might still end in CFP berths. Kirby Smart would currently have seven straight, up from three in eight seasons. Between Smart and Mark Richt, the Bulldogs would have 13 since 2001.

LSU: +3

The Tigers have won three national championships this century, but they might have played for even more were there a 12-team field. They would have made nine by now. Of course, they may also fire coaches more frequently for missing the Playoff.

Texas: +3

Unlike rival Oklahoma, Texas has won just three conference titles this century, so that shouldn’t be the measuring stick. But Mack Brown showed what the ceiling can be. He would have reached eight 12-team CFPs in a decade.

Florida: +2

Florida must play Georgia every year while mixing in Texas and Oklahoma. But a 12-team Playoff could prove a godsend; the Gators would have made the postseason three consecutive times under Dan Mullen and 10 times since 2000.

Ole Miss: +2

Ole Miss has not won the SEC since 1963. Oklahoma and Texas won’t make it any easier. But the program can make the 12-team CFP, and its NIL collective has become one of the models in the sport.

Tennessee: 0

The Vols are still playing rivals Alabama, Florida and Georgia for the next two seasons while adding Oklahoma. That’s rough. But Tennessee’s collective is strong, and it has the resources and recruiting cachet to reach occasional CFPs.

Auburn: -1

A drawing of the history of Auburn football arcs like a roller coaster, with brief spurs of national supremacy mixed in between long stretches of middle-of-the-pack. And the league just added two more above-the-middle historical programs.

Missouri: -1

Missouri would have reached 12-team fields in 2007, 2013 and 2023. That development is good. But the Tigers have benefitted at times from being in the SEC’s easier division, which is now gone, and they are .250 all-time against Oklahoma and Texas.

Arkansas: -2

On the bright side, Arkansas gets old rival Texas back. On the downside, the Razorbacks have yet to win the SEC in its 32 years of membership, and it’s not getting easier. They would have reached a 12-team CFP three times in those 32 years.

Texas A&M: -2

The best thing the Aggies had going for them in the SEC was that Texas wasn’t in it. Alas. The return of annual matchups with the Longhorns should be fantastic for entertainment purposes but could make for a tougher schedule.

Kentucky: -3

Mark Stoops is on track to have a statue sculpted for taking the Wildcats to eight straight bowl games, but those Gator and Music City bowls might not feel as significant in the new world. They also may become harder to reach with no SEC East.

Mississippi State: -3

The Bulldogs have finished above .500 in SEC play this century just once, in 2014 with Dak Prescott. The SEC getting bigger, and possibly moving to nine conference games, is likely to be unkind for State.

Oklahoma: -3

From 1938-2021, the Sooners claimed a Big 8/Big 12 championship in 47 of those 83 seasons. No major program in the country has more league titles. Realistically, OU will not come close to enjoying that level of dominance in the SEC.

South Carolina: -3

Save for that one three-year peak under Steve Spurrier from 2011-13, the Gamecocks have rarely lived in the top half of the SEC. Now they’re losing the SEC East. It will become even more difficult to maintain relevance.

Vanderbilt: -4

Vanderbilt was already stuck playing the worst cards in the SEC deck. Now there’s a whole new set of challenges stacked against their deck: the bigger SEC, the importance of NIL and roster poaching from the portal.

The rest

Notre Dame: +2

Some might fixate on the fact that the independent Fighting Irish can never get a first-round bye in the new system, but that misses the larger point: They could reach many more CFPs. They would have made five in Brian Kelly’s 12 seasons.

Oregon State and Washington State: -5

There’s no sugarcoating it: Two historic Power 5 programs have been relegated to de facto Group of 5 status, playing de facto Mountain West schedules. And unlike actual G5 schools, they have no guaranteed access to the Playoff.

All Group of 5 programs: -3

For the first time in history, one of these schools is guaranteed to compete for a national championship every year. But that does not offset the further irrelevance — nor the pain of Power 4 schools poaching all of their best players.

Bigger takeaways

  1. As usual, the biggest changes to the sport almost always mostly benefit the “big boys” the most. Outside of the former G5 programs moving up, the biggest beneficiaries are the Alabamas, Georgias and Ohio States of the sport. There are, however, a few exceptions: Oklahoma and USC fall into the “be careful what you wish for” category.
  2. And while the Big 12 is currently scrounging for any additional penny it can raise, no conference had a higher percentage of on-field gainers. That’s because Playoff berths are now attainable for the likes of Oklahoma State, Kansas State and TCU.
  3. Only two of the former Pac-12 schools (Oregon and Colorado) got a positive score, as most are entering their new conferences begrudgingly. It will never not be stupefying to think about how Pac-12 leadership screwed it up so badly.

(Top illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; Photos: Sam Wasson, Kevin C. Cox, Scott Taetsch, Brett Deering / Getty)

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