There’s a nasty habit among college football fans to make apples-to-apples comparisons and use transitive properties to draw conclusions. Team A beat Team B which beat Team C a month ago by four touchdowns so Team A would handle Team C easily. It’s an irrational thought process.
Those same habits rear their nasty heads when it comes to conference realignment. Obviously Cincinnati is stuck in the American Athletic Conference but the chatter around the Bearcats joining the Big 12 or ACC is never ending. As of now, most have conceded that joining Louisville in the ACC is probably unrealistic with that conference signing a Grant of Rights, blocking future raids. However there are a couple of factors that have caused postulations (however innane) about Cincinnati moving to the Big 12 to heat up.
The first is the fact that the Big 12’s waiver to allow a conference championship game with just 10 members is still stuck in NCAA limbo. Without a 13th game to boost votes, a Big 12 team would be at a disadvantage in the polls when lined up against SEC and Big Ten programs who have the opportunity to add an extra quality win to their resume. And with strength of schedule a key factor in deciding the four teams to participate in the playoff bowls, this is obviously critical to any conference. Additionally, with anti-conference realignment Texas AD DeLoss Dodds stepping down and Steve Patterson from Arizona State named his replacement, there is a ray of hope that some change could be ahead for the conference. Obviously it’s unclear just what direction Patterson will take Texas and subsequently the Big 12 but the most widely agreed upon rationale is that some change is better than nothing. As such, it increases Cincinnati’s chances of being sent an invite, no matter how small, than during the DeLoss Dodds regime.
And some are quite unsettled by that possibility.
They point to West Virginia’s performance in the Big 12 since their move before the 2011 season as a reason to be worried. The Mountaineers, like the Bearcats now, were perennial conference title contenders in the Big East. It was basically assumed that they would be in the thick of it in November or at the very least bowling in the postseason. After winning the Big East in 2011 and carpet bombing Clemson in the Orange Bowl, West Virginia joined the Big 12 with lofty expectations. Their first season the new conference was a disaster.
After starting 5-0 and putting on an offensive clinic against Baylor and Texas, the Mountaineers lost their next five games. It took wins over Big 12 bottom dwellers Iowa State and Kansas to pull themselves up to 7-5 on the season before getting blasted by Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl. Now, in 2013, West Virginia is 4-6 with just two conference wins. They’ll need to win both of their final two games against Iowa State and Kansas to get to 6-6 and go bowling. That’s a far cry from the 8-9-10 win seasons most Mountaineer fans were used to in the Big East.
Some Cincinnati fans see this and believe West Virginia’s performance during the last two years in their new conference is reflective of the Bearcats’ ceiling if they were to move to the Big 12.
They cite travel and a mismatched culture as the main reasons why the Mountaineers haven’t experienced the same magnitude of success as in the Big East. Neither of those arguments make any sense to me. To the first point, yes Morgantown is almost 900 miles away from the nearest Big 12 school but that has a minimal effect on a team’s performance. After all programs in the PAC-12 and ACC regularly travel hundreds of miles North or South for games and that certainly doesn’t seem to hinder Oregon or Florida State. Plus it should be noted that even though West Virgina must travel the 900+ miles for away games, Big 12 schools have to travel that same distance when going to Morgantown. So between home and away games, the effect of travel should be neutralized over the course of the season.
Then there’s the argument about West Virginia not matching the Big 12 culture. Again, this just doesn’t make a lick of sense. Being a cultural mismatch certainly hasn’t stopped Missouri from pacing the SEC East this season and it’s no reason to excuse the Mountaineers’ poor play during the last two years.
The reason West Virginia has struggled in the Big 12 is because Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey are all gone and the Mountainers don’t play defense. That’s all. It has nothing to do with travel distances to games or a new culture. It’s purely their performance on the football field that has caused WVU to struggle to reach bowl eligibility while in the Big 12.
So why then would that doom Cincinnati to the same fate if the Bearcats were to play Big 12 games as well? It doesn’t.
Cincinnati controls its own destiny on the football field. What the Bearcats do on a play-to-play, game-to-game basis aren’t linked to what the Mountaineers do in similar situations. It’s impossible to project how UC would perform if they were invited to the Big 12 but I would take their chances in that conference before relegating them to several years in the AAC.