College Football Handicapping: New Teams in Major Conferences
by Trevor Whenham - 8/21/2014
Remember when there used to be stability in conferences in college sports? Oh, the good old days. Yet again this year we are seeing a shift in teams among the power conferences. Louisville joins the ACC in a move that makes sense and is long overdue. Meanwhile, Rutgers and Maryland join the Big Ten in a move driven entirely by conference greed because it certainly doesn't add any value on the field. When we are trying to figure out what these moves will mean on the field and from a handicapping perspective this year, we luckily have a lot of recent history to learn from.
Here are six things we have learned from recent conference realignment:
Failure isn't certain: The sense most often seems to be that a team moving to a new conference is in trouble - that they are going to struggle early on. That's in large part because a team rarely makes a move to a lesser conference unless they have to. In the case of Louisville and Rutgers for sure this year, and arguably Maryland as well, they are certainly taking a big step up in class. Often times the struggles are real. Texas A&M, though, is a recent example of a team that made a move and thrived. They were just 7-6 in their last season in the Big 12 but finished at 11-2 in their SEC debut. Heading into that debut season there were a number of concerns. Among them were the introduction of a new coach facing a rough awakening in the SEC and the lack of a proven, experienced quarterback. As we now know, Kevin Sumlin was just fine and a certain freshman quarterback came from nowhere to win the Heisman. I'm not suggesting that success like this is the norm - history certainly hasn't backed that up - but it would be a mistake to take the lazy approach and just assume that a team is going to automatically struggle in their new home.
A coaching change doesn't mean doom: Louisville is not only facing a big upgrade in divisions, but also doing it with a new coach after Charlie Strong left for Texas and has been replaced with Bobby Petrino. While there are all sorts of issues to consider with Petrino and his fate with the Cardinals, Sumlin taught us that it is possible for a team to face a fairly radical coaching change and still survive and thrive in a new environment.
Early failures don't have to be lasting: In their first year in the SEC, Missouri was a total disaster - they were 5-7, and that record was flattering. They were no match for the best teams in the conference - or even the middling ones. Last year, in their second year in the conference, they were 11-1 in the regular season and 7-1 in conference, with their only loss coming in double overtime against South Carolina. There are a lot of reasons why the turnaround happened - young talent turned into experienced leadership, the schedule worked more in their favor, they played closer to their potential after a disappointing first season, and so on. The important fact, though, is that a team that looked hopeless one year suddenly wasn't the next year. If the foundation is strong then a team can make a fast change.
Program weaknesses are exposed: The expansion of the Pac-12 provides a perfect example here. They added Utah and Colorado in 2011. Both schools had had success in the past, but for a variety of reasons - lack of leadership, poor coaching, struggles recruiting, failure to adapt - they had fallen into a period of struggles. Instead of shaking them up and motivating them to adapt, the move to the bigger conference has just amplified the issues for both teams. They have been just lousy since their debuts, and while you could argue that Colorado is somewhat further ahead of Utah, neither is in any threat of being a legitimate contender any time soon. If a team has fundamental, structural issues (I'm looking at you Rutgers and Maryland) then there is a good chance that the change in scenery will not help.
Coaching is crucial: There is a direct and significant relationship between the quality of the coaching a team has and the effectiveness of their change. Sumlin and Gary Pinkel at Missouri are both very strong, and their teams were fine. Utah and especially Colorado have had coaching issues. Bo Pelini at Nebraska is at best an average coach, and Nebraska's move to the Big Ten has been just as average. You can most effectively handicap a team making such a move by looking at who is in charge. As a cheat sheet, Petrino is a vile human being but a great college coach, Kyle Flood at Rutgers is unproven since this is his first head-coaching job; but he sure looks to be over his head; and Randy Edsall had a good reputation at UConn; but the fact is that in a dozen years there he never did better than nine wins. Unfortunately, it isn't totally straightforward - Gary Patterson is an outstanding coach, but TCU has really struggled in their first two years in the Big 12.
Impact of new buildings is overrated: One of the storylines people talk about most with a conference move is that teams and players will visit new cities and play in new stadiums. In almost all cases - except for the truly iconic and insane buildings - that impact is severely overrated. Players travel so much now, and are taken such good care of when they do travel, that where they play hardly matters at all anymore - the experience is largely similar regardless of the setting. That means that it can be easy to overestimate both the disadvantage new teams will have on the road their first time through and the advantage they will have at home the first time they host opponents. Similarly, advances in video and scouting minimize the surprise factor when playing an opponent for the first time.
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