Will UConn’s return to the Big East spark major conference realignment?

Posted on Jul 7 2019 - 4:33pm by John Macon Gillespie

In the midst of the summer, college sports fans always hunger for some semblance of news to tide them over to the opening of football season.

Last month, they got it.

The University of Connecticut announced that its athletic programs would be rejoining the Big East Conference, the association it was a part of from 1979-2013. The move makes some sense for UConn fans who are hungry for the Huskies to be reunited with former basketball rivals like St. John’s, Villanova and Georgetown after the school’s membership in the American Athletic Conference made these rivalries nonexistent in recent years.

Connecticut’s move to the Big East, which won’t take effect until 2020, also has a problematic side, however, one that impacts its football program.

UConn left the Big East in 2013 after the non-FBS members of the conference separated from the FBS members, effectively ending the conference’s sponsoring of FBS-level football. This gave rise to the American Athletic with schools’ hopes of foraging a future in football. As the conference has expanded, however, schools like UConn have had to travel to schools like Tulane and Tulsa while losing touch with some of its historic rivals.

This might not be as troublesome for the Huskies if their football program had experienced success in recent years, but that could not be farther from the case. The Huskies have gone a combined 7-29 over the last three seasons, including a 1-11 mark last season. With lackluster showings on the gridiron, Connecticut seemingly lost sight of why it joined the American Athletic to begin with, which was for hopeful relevance in football.

The return of UConn to the Big East is seemingly a white flag in terms of making its football program relevant in the national landscape and the first major change in the conference landscape since the wave of realignment in 2012-2013. UConn will now likely play as an FBS Independent or attempt to be a football-only member of another conference, one without as much emphasis on football as the American.

The ways that UConn’s move affects its football program have been readily discussed in recent weeks, but how could this change affect the landscape of college football as a whole?

Could UConn’s decision lead to more schools unhappy with their conference situation pursuing new affiliations? The realignment push earlier this decade led to the geographically-spread American Athletic and brought Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, and if a new wave of conference change comes, we could have more unique geography in some of the more
established leagues.

UConn’s move also reminds us of the athletic culture differences between Power Five and Group of Five schools. A Power Five program would be crucified by its fan base for seemingly giving up on its football program, but a school like UConn, which is historically a basketball school, probably won’t experience as much pushback. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s interesting, nonetheless. I’m a big proponent of keeping your “money sport” fans happy at whatever school you’re a part of, and men’s and women’s basketball has always been that for UConn.

Still, this further intensifies the argument that the Power Five conferences should become their own autonomous entity in football, separate from the Group of Five. It has become increasingly clear that the goals and ceiling for Power Five and Group of Five schools are simply different, and the NCAA benefits no one in FBS football. I’m not necessarily a proponent of this idea, but I am a proponent of whatever can lead to the dissolution of the NCAA for a more practical governing body, at least when it comes to college football.

UConn’s departure from the American can also help solidify the conference’s image on the gridiron as a whole. The biggest drama-starter from the conference in recent years has been UCF who, despite undefeated regular seasons in 2017 and 2018, failed to make the College Football Playoff, largely due to a weaker strength of schedule thanks to having played in the American. This led to UCF declaring itself national champion as a sort of shot against the CFP committee for leaving it out of the four-team tournament.

With a team like UConn gone, however, the American has the opportunity to replace the Huskies with a school that has a stronger emphasis on football or simply leave the conference with 10 football-playing members.

Regardless, the American, featuring schools like UCF, East Carolina, Houston and Memphis, can only have its football image strengthened with the departure of Connecticut next year, and for a conference that was established on the principle of football being a priority, that is a welcome sight.