In 1984, George Orwell wrote that "nobody ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it." For the schools that make up college football's core conferences, that statement has always rung true.
Today's FBS landscape has never been more divided between the haves and the have-nots. Less prestigious Group of Five upstarts have been denied access to both the College Football Playoff and membership into the so-called Power 5, creating a murky situation where undefeated mid-majors are unable to prove their worth against the sport's crème de la crème.
However, to understand why there is such a divide in college football, one must look at the history of the Power 5 itself, and how decades of realignment and expansion have enabled CFB's blue bloods to gain even more dominance on the gridiron.
1990's: The decline of the SWC
In the 1980's, the once-powerful Southwest Conference had fallen on tough times. Over two-thirds of the SWC's nine schools had been placed on probation for NCAA recruiting violations. At the time, NCAA sanctions prohibited a school's games from being televised, a crippling financial blow to the conference.
The one non-Texas member who also happened to be sanction-free was Arkansas, perhaps the third-most powerful member after Texas and Texas A&M. In 1990, they decided to head to the Southeastern Conference along with South Carolina, where they boosted membership from ten to twelve schools split into two new divisions. The SEC then implemented the first ever conference championship game in 1992, altering college football forever.
The departure of the Razorbacks signaled the beginning of the end for the Southwest Conference. In 1994, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor accepted an offer to merge with the Big Eight, creating the new Big 12 conference. Smaller schools in TCU, Houston, Rice, and SMU were forced to find membership in smaller, less competitive conferences.
2000's: Conference Championship realignment
After the wild success the SEC and Big 12 soon had with championship games, other conferences began to take notice. In order to hold such an event, NCAA rules deemed that a conference must have at least twelve members, so that teams could be split into two divisions.
In order for the ACC to expand, they required three new members, preferably on the Atlantic coast. Logically, they looked towards the Big East, who had shifted away from their roots as a basketball-only conference in the 1990's.
Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College all accepted offers to join the ACC in 2003, leaving behind Big East football that was deemed relatively top-heavy. With the addition of CFB powerhouses in Miami and, to a lesser extent, Virginia Tech, schools like Florida State and Clemson had worthy football rivals that they could compete with in a potential conference championship game, with the first being held in 2005.
To recover from their ACC-induced losses, the Big East decided to poach away schools from Conference USA, a sprawling mid-major conference formed in the aftermath of the SWC's collapse. Heading to the league were five programs, three of which would compete in football: Cincinnati, Louisville, and the University of South Florida. While adding the three helped keep the Big East's numbers stable, the loss of reputable football programs was a crippling blow to the conference.
2010's: Death of the Big East and expansion for everyone else
In 2009, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney announced plans for league expansion. Reasons for doing so included increasing the reach of the newly formed Big Ten cable network and possessing the desired twelve-team membership to hold conference championships. Soon after, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott issued his own desire to see Pac-10 expansion, setting the stage for major conference realignment.
Conference changes kicked off when Colorado left for the Pac-10 on June 10th, 2010. Several schools in the league had engaged in talks with Pac-10 officials on a potential departure as well, raising the possibility of a super-conference bolstered by the Big 12's premier football schools. On the following day, Nebraska left for the Big 10 in 2010, citing increased stability compared to the Big 12.Rumors of schools such as Texas and Oklahoma leaving to go to the Pac-1o worried Nebraska, who would be left out in the cold if the Big 12 folded, leading to a move from chancellor Harvey Perlman.
While the move certainly made sense for the Cornhuskers at the time, Nebraska's status within the Big 10 today seems diminished compared to the power they wielded in the Big 12. Two years after this move, Rutgers (Big East) and Maryland (ACC) would also come to the league, giving the Big 10 fourteen members.
Four days after stealing away Colorado, Larry Scott revealed that Texas had decided not to accept the Pac-10's offer, a move that ensured Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech would stay in the Big 12 as well. Needing to fill in their twelfth slot, the Pac-10 reached out to the University of Utah, who decided to leave the Mountain West Conference and join the league. Big 12 crisis was averted when Texas chose to stay, but the conference could no longer hold a championship game with just ten schools.
The SEC was fortunate enough not to have any member schools depart for greener pastures, instead choosing to expand their ranks to fourteen teams. The league managed to court both Texas A&M and Missouri from the Big 12, with A&M chancellor R. Bowen Loftin citing the move as a "100 year decision", even as many questioned leaving behind their long time rivals. Still, the reasons behind the two schools (as well as Colorado) leaving were likely related to the creation of the Longhorn Network. Instead of creating a league-wide television deal, like the Pac-10, SEC, and Big 10 had, Texas had decided to partner with ESPN on their own exclusive channel, giving them tons of additional revenue while ignoring their fellow league members. Infuriated by what they saw as an abuse of power from Texas, A&M and Mizzou saw a move away from the Big 12 as their only options.
For the Big East, this round of conference realignment would prove even more damaging than the previous ACC-fueled losses in 2005. Seeing the writing on the wall, they chose to expand themselves, adding TCU to the league in 2o1o. Ultimately, it would not be enough to prevent their demise. The ACC, still eyeing northern expansion and hoping to prevent their league from being picked apart by the SEC and Big 10, finally accepted Syracuse and Pittsburgh into the league in 2011, a move that sent shockwaves across college football.
Syracuse made perfect sense for ACC expansion; as a school with a strong basketball program and solid football tradition, they appealed to just about every other current member, as well as a move into the New York market. Pitt's arrival came in the wake of rumors that the Big 12 was looking to bring them into the fold. Such a move would have given the league a reason to further expand east, coming into direct contact with the ACC's mid-Atlantic region.
TCU reversed their decision and joined the Big 12 instead of the Big East, and along with West Virginia, who also left the Big East, gave the Big 12 ten teams again after the losses of Texas A&M and Missouri. Louisville would head to the ACC in 2014, reducing Big East football to the point where the league could no longer function. The remaining football schools not in one of the Power 5 conferences formed the AAC (American Athletic Conference) a broad league of fairly strong football mid-majors.
Just like that, there were now five "major" conferences, each with regional and historical importance as well as several famed programs, strong traditions on campus, and fearsome rivalries played annually. The formation of the Power 5 was complete, with the Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, and SEC standing tall above all other leagues in the nation.
The Power 5 Today
Today, the five major conferences dominate college football, landing high-ranking recruits, television deals, and increased playoff opportunities compared to the much smaller "Group of 5" conference.s While all of the Power 5 conferences now hold championship games and have each qualified for the college football playoffs over the past decade, dominance has shifted away from the Pac-12 and Big 12 in recent years, while SEC and ACC teams have begun to perform at a much higher level.
Even as teams such as Cincinnati and UCF have pushed for admission into the College Football Playoff, most fans still dismiss these teams due to a lack of brand recognition and a perceived weaker schedule. Even as the possibility of a more even playoff field remains, so too is the chance for these schools to be granted admission into the Power 5 they cite as being elitist. If college football has taught us anything over the past twenty five years, it would be that conferences are only temporary.