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Realignment Report Card: Grading moves three years after chaos began

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Texas A&M's move from the Big 12 to the SEC has paid early dividends for both the school and league.

The conference realignment merry-go-round began spinning in earnest three years ago this week. On June 10, 2010, Colorado accepted an invitation to join the Pac-10. The next day, Nebraska accepted the Big Ten's offer. The drama would continue in fits and starts for 34 months, finally ending at the highest level of college sports this April when ACC presidents agreed to a Grant of Rights arrangement that should keep things stable until the newest batch of television contracts get close to expiring in about 10-12 years.

In the process, a major conference (the Big East) collapsed and rebooted as a middle class league (the American Athletic Conference), the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC got bigger, the Big 12 got smaller and we all learned more than we ever needed to know about how money gets made in the cable television universe. (Want to see all the moves? Click this graphic created by the incomparable Nick Infante of CollegeAthleticsClips.com.) Now that things have (hopefully) settled for a few years, it's a good time to examine all the moves involving the current five power conferences and decide which schools and leagues came out best.

For each move, I've assigned a letter grade that balances the benefit to the school with the benefit the addition of the school provides to the league. If it seems I'm basing most of my opinion on how each move affects football, it's because I am. Football brings in most of the money, and football drove most of these moves.

Texas A&M

Old league: Big 12
New league: SEC
Grade: A

No athletic program had more to gain from a rebranding than Texas A&M, and no conference needed a giant school in Texas more than the SEC. Those circumstances made this a perfect marriage even before football coach Kevin Sumlin proved to be the best hire of the 2011-12 offseason and quarterback Johnny Manziel jumped from a third-stringer on the Aggies' depth chart to the Heisman Trophy winner in a span of nine months.

Texas A&M has a lot going for it. It has a large, passionate fan base. It is a member of the academically prestigious Association of American Universities. It has some of the most unique traditions in college sports. Unfortunately for the Aggies, as long as they stayed in the Big 12, Texas A&M would always be perceived as the little brother of Texas. Now, thanks to a conference hop, Texas A&M is the SEC school in the Lone Star State. That has a much nicer ring to it, especially among recruits in the football-mad state who want to play in America's most dominant conference but don't want to leave their home state. This move would have worked without the Sumlin-Manziel renaissance, but that confluence of happy events accelerated the process. Manziel will eventually leave, and Sumlin may someday try his hand at the NFL, but even without those two, Texas A&M will still be an SEC school in Texas. Barring some disastrous coaching hire down the road, that should keep the Aggies from slipping back into the state of mediocrity that bogged down the program for most of its time in the Big 12. The SEC School In Texas is a powerful brand, and it sure beats Little Brother.

Meanwhile, this union was a perfect cultural fit. Fans at other Big 12 schools considered the buzzcut-sporting, whooping Aggies a tad odd. Most SEC fan bases believe there's something wrong with a school if its fans aren't odd. The Longhorns, who have the quietest 100,000 fans in America on fall Saturdays, look down on the Aggies. Florida, LSU and Alabama fans just said, "Welcome to the party." They may have also said, "Psst, I don't mean to be nosy, but I think y'all forgot to bring your female cheerleaders to the game." Still, the Aggies belong at the tailgate alongside the Crimson Tide, Gators, Rebels and Tigers (Auburn and LSU variety).

Texas A&M also brought something very important to the SEC: It brought a state of 24 million people into the conference footprint and made a dedicated SEC television network a realistic possibility. Without a major Texas school -- only Texas or Texas A&M would have worked, and Texas wasn't coming -- the SEC states simply had too small a population to make a network feasible. By adding Texas A&M, the league had a big enough footprint to make a dedicated network an attractive option for ESPN, which already owned most of the rights to the events it will broadcast on the network. In terms of symbiosis and immediate benefit to both the school and the new league, no move in this round of realignment worked out better than this one.

The only negative from the move is the end of the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry, a needless consequence due to wounded pride on both sides. If the Aggies and Longhorns will grow up a little, hopefully that rivalry will resume at some point in the future. Out-of-conference rivalries can remain vital even in this new age. USC and Notre Dame make it work. Florida and Florida State make it work. Texas and Oklahoma made it work for 95 years before the Big 12 formed. Texas and Texas A&M can make it work if their leaders quit being babies about it.

TCU

Old league: Mountain West
Never joined league: Big East
New league: Big 12
Grade: B+

Among the programs that jumped from the land of the have-nots to the land of the haves, none found a more comfortable fit than TCU. All TCU needed to become a player in almost every recruiting competition in Texas was the cachet provided by a major conference. The Horned Frogs tried to get that cachet by joining the Big East, but that league slipped into the middle class the moment commissioners decided to eliminate BCS automatic-qualifying status. Fortunately for TCU, the Big 12 needed a program that could join in 2012. So instead of the quasi-cachet TCU would have gotten from a BCS-AQ Big East, it received the maximum amount of cachet by joining the elite league based in its own state.

Now, TCU has a power-conference football program with a proven coach (Gary Patterson) based in one of the nation's most talent-rich metropolitan areas. The only other possible move that might have made the same impact would have been the SEC taking Miami. The SEC would never do that, because the schools in the SEC know how dangerous Miami's football team would be when combined with the might of the SEC brand. Big 12 school leaders didn't quite see it that way, and they may wind up regretting their decision if TCU begins regularly trouncing their schools for recruits in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

MANDEL: After tumultuous 2012, TCU ready to compete for Big 12 title

Nebraska

Old league: Big 12
New league: Big Ten
Grade: B+

Just as TCU fits comfortably into the Big 12, Nebraska feels as if it has always been part of the Big Ten. (Except when people make TV segments about Big Ten legend Tommie Frazier; that just feels weird.) Culturally, the Cornhuskers always looked and acted like a Big Ten program. Still, it took until 2010 for the school and league to finally make it official.

Nebraska's football program has won one division title (2012) and competed for another (2011), and the Cornhuskers look poised to compete for the Legends Division title again in 2013. When the league goes to an East-West divisional alignment in football, Nebraska should always be competitive in a division that includes Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin.

If Nebraska and Oklahoma could somehow find a way to play an annual out-of-conference game, I'd bump this move to an A-plus. That was the best game in the Big 8 and pretty much the only thing anyone misses about Nebraska being in the Big 12. With the playoff coming, it might be worth it to both schools. Oklahoma has never been scared to play anyone. Neither has Nebraska. So let's make it happen every year.

Notre Dame

Old league (sort of): Big East
New league (sort of): ACC
Grade: B+

With the Big East crumbling, Notre Dame needed a new home for its other sports. The Big Ten always seemed the most natural fit, but the Big Ten wanted Notre Dame as a full member. Football independence is precious to the Fighting Irish and to Notre Dame alumni, so precious that any financial gain from joining the Big Ten might have been offset by a dip in donations from angry boosters. So the Irish got the best of both worlds.

They joined a league with 14 other schools that span the entire Eastern Time Zone. The vast area Notre Dame would prefer to recruit in all of its sports is encompassed by the ACC. It can go into the Northeast, where elite private Catholic schools pump out alums that dream of attending Notre Dame. It can go to the Deep South, where the population is moving and where many of the most talented high school athletes already live. By agreeing to a five-game slate against ACC football teams each year, Notre Dame guaranteed itself appearances in the critical football recruiting states of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The Irish also hooked themselves into the ACC's bowl structure, which helps Notre Dame and the conference.

The ACC got a huge boost from landing Notre Dame. A so-so media rights deal got renegotiated thanks to the move, and those two events convinced every school in the league that a Grant of Rights was in the best interests of the school and the league. Barring some major shakeup, that move should put a stop to realignment at the highest levels until this newest round of media rights deals expires in the middle of the 2020s.

Louisville

Old league: Big East
New league: ACC
Grade: B

The Cardinals wanted badly to go to the Big 12. They poured everything into a bid to join that league, but interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas was determined to add West Virginia. When the Big 12 took the Mountaineers, everyone in Louisville assumed they'd sink with the HMS Big East.

But never doubt the ability of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany to keep things interesting. When Delany's Big Ten swiped charter member Maryland from the ACC, the ACC needed another school to fill out its roster. It picked Louisville.

From an athletic standpoint, that choice looks incredible. This academic year, Louisville has won the men's basketball national title, played for the women's basketball national title, won the Sugar Bowl and has its baseball team in the College World Series. The ACC lost a middling athletic program (Maryland) and replaced it with a program featuring an old-guard elite men's basketball team and on-the-rise teams in nearly every other sport. ACC members will have to dispense with their trademark academic snobbery now that they've chosen a school for purely athletic reasons, but they were going to have to dial that back anyway in the wake of North Carolina's academic scandal.

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Pitt could enjoy a recruiting bump after realigning from the crumbling Big East to the expanding ACC.

Pittsburgh

Old league: Big East
New league: ACC
Grade: B

Any school that got out of the Big East deserves credit. One could argue that if Syracuse and Pittsburgh never left, the Big East might not have fallen apart. But that probably isn't true. The market forces at play were pointing toward consolidation, and ACC commissioner John Swofford and his team made better moves than their counterparts in Providence to ensure the ACC was the league that survived. Still, if Pittsburgh officials hadn't been instrumental in convincing former Big East commissioner John Marinatto to turn down a megabucks media rights deal from ESPN in 2011, the Big East team would have put up a much better fight.

For Pittsburgh's football program, a change of scenery might be helpful. The Panthers will open 2013 in a prime-time Labor Day game against Florida State, and the added exposure should aid in recruiting. Going back to the Dave Wannstedt era, Pittsburgh liked recruiting in Florida. Now, it also will regularly visit Georgia and the Carolinas. Add those areas to an already fertile recruiting ground in western Pennsylvania, and Pittsburgh should be able to field a competitive team every year. The trick will be convincing those players at home that they're better off playing in the ACC than at one of the nearby Big Ten schools. That will be easier than Big East versus Big Ten, but it's certainly not a given.

STAPLES: How commissioner John Swofford brought stability to the ACC

Syracuse

Old league: Big East
New league: ACC
Grade: B

The Orange could wind up being critical for the ACC for reasons beyond the ones that made them an expansion target. When the conference nabbed Syracuse in 2011, the school offered a name-brand athletic program of interest to a big television market. But the ACC might cash in more depending on just how interested that big market is in Syracuse. If you've visited New York City in the past year, you've probably seen a Syracuse athletics ad atop a taxi. The gist of the ad is that Syracuse is New York's team.

In the Big Ten, they're hoping Rutgers is New York's team. The truth is that New York doesn't have a team. If anything, New York's team is Penn State or Michigan or another of several jumbo-sized state schools that sends lots graduates into jobs in finance and media. But it only matters if cable carriers believe Syracuse is New York's team. If they do, then an ACC network becomes much more feasible -- provided that the ACC and ESPN can extricate themselves from a long sublicense agreement with Raycom that would eat into the inventory too much to make a network possible. If the New York market is on board, the money might be right to make all sides happy. If not, a network becomes a tougher sell.

Maryland

Old league: ACC
New league: Big Ten
Grade: B-

Maryland needed to switch leagues because it needed money. The athletic department in College Park does not receive a subsidy from its cash-strapped university, so Maryland accepted an invitation to the league that, within five years, should be generating more money than any other.

What did the Big Ten get? It hopes it gains a foothold in the District of Columbia and Baltimore television markets, making the Big Ten Network even more valuable. That is going to depend on how cable companies view subscribers' attachment to Maryland. If the Big Ten Network starts pulling in more than a dollar for every subscriber in those two hefty markets, then this was a great move. If it doesn't, then the Big Ten added another mediocre football program to a league suddenly full of them and another good men's basketball program to a league suddenly loaded with excellent ones.

Utah

Old league: Mountain West
New league: Pac-12
Grade: B-

The original BCS Busters also were the first to punch a golden ticket out of the land of the have-nots. Now, the Utes must prove they belong in the big leagues. Since joining the Pac-12, Utah is 7-11 in conference play in football. A turnaround could take some time since Utah's new conference rivals had a significant head start in terms of resources. Still, Kyle Whittingham did more with less before. Now that the Pac-12's new media rights deal is really kicking in, let's see what he does with just as much as everyone else.

This grade would be higher if it only reflected the value brought to the school. This move gets downgraded because we know what commissioner Larry Scott wanted to do. He wanted to add Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado and create the Pac-16. He almost did, until Texas pulled away at the last moment to preserve the still-gestating Longhorn Network.

Colorado

Old league: Big 12
New league: Pac-12
Grade: C

The move that changed virtually nothing gets the most average grade available. Colorado would likely be in the same boat whether it had stayed in the Big 12 or moved to the Pac-12. The athletic department still would be facing a financial crisis but on the verge of receiving some relief thanks to a recent megabucks conference media rights deal. Mike Bohn still would have hired Jon Embree to coach the football team, not given him the resources he needed to succeed and then acted surprised when he didn't succeed. Bohn, like Embree, still would have gotten fired.

The Buffaloes now get stomped in football by Oregon instead of getting stomped by Oklahoma, and their main conference recruiting ground (formerly the populated parts of Texas, now California) remains roughly 1,000 miles away. The good news is that first-year football coach Mike MacIntyre worked wonders at San Jose State, and the new influx of Pac-12 cash should allow him to upgrade his resources. The Buffs would have gotten a similar jolt of cash had they remained in the Big 12, but they also would have had to endure a second near collapse of the league. They probably made the best move for them, even if -- in the long run -- they wound up in a similar situation.

Missouri

Old league: Big 12
New league: SEC
Grade: C

One bad football season does not make this a terrible move. Remember, in the preceding five years, Missouri was much better at football than Texas A&M. The Tigers certainly need to get better on the football field -- because their new rivals in the SEC East aren't getting any worse -- but calling this move a mistake because of one lousy football season is premature. If, in 10 years, Missouri has not moved out of the SEC's cellar, then feel free to say that the Tigers traded a world of pain for the financial security of the SEC.

As far as the SEC goes, Missouri was the only choice everyone could agree upon in the situation the league faced in 2012. Some presidents and athletic directors wanted Florida State, but they faced fierce opposition from a bloc led by Florida and Georgia. The most logical additions would have been Virginia Tech or NC State -- which would have been geographic fits that opened new television markets -- but neither wanted to leave the ACC. Missouri was geographically contiguous and added two decent-sized television markets (St. Louis and Kansas City). It also gave the SEC another AAU member. Of course, if Gordon Gee is to be believed, the Big Ten will try to snatch Missouri down the road. That would be interesting, but it seems highly unlikely.

West Virginia

Old league: Big East
New league: Big 12
Grade: C

The Mountaineers get credit for getting out of the Big East, but they've put themselves in a tough situation. That became evident last year when the football team went to Austin and won a shootout against Texas and turned around the following week and traveled to Lubbock, where it was promptly destroyed by Texas Tech. A six-game losing streak to end the men's basketball regular season included a four-day stretch that featured trips to Lawrence and Norman. With no East Coast travel partner, the Mountaineers appear awfully isolated.

No one can blame West Virginia for jumping at the Big 12's offer. Just about anything would have beaten staying in the Big East. But looking back, it seems everyone would have been better off had the Big 12 taken Louisville, leaving West Virginia to replace Maryland in the ACC. Of course, that's easy to say now. At the time, West Virginia officials had no choice because no one knew Maryland would leave the ACC. If the Big 12 chooses to expand -- which seems a long shot at the moment -- officials would be wise to select at least one more East Coast school to make life a little easier for their friends in West Virginia.

Rutgers

Old league: Big East
New league: Big Ten
Grade: D

This is a great move for Rutgers, which would have languished in the Big East. But given just how horribly Rutgers has handled just about everything since the move was announced, it certainly doesn't seem as if the Scarlet Knights were worth the trouble.

Delany and company had better hope Rutgers delivers the television households in the New York market that the Big Ten covets. Otherwise, the league has taken on a batch of public relations nightmares for nothing. The good news is that even if Rutgers doesn't command those households, the fact that Rutgers' membership in the Big Ten brings Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State into the New York metro area on a regular basis could convince cable companies that alums of those schools also need servicing in spite of the per-subscriber price the Big Ten is asking.

GLICKSMAN: Amid ongoing scandal, Kyle Flood a bright spot for Rutgers

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