A Brief History of Conference Realignment is a study of how we got where we are today, the traditions that we are burning like bridges in the chase for television money and the ones we burned long ago for far stupider reasons.
As the final gun sounded in the inaugural Rose Bowl Game on January 1, 1916, the college football universe had started organizing into distinct solar systems. Four conferences -- the Western (Big 10) Conference, Missouri Valley, Rocky Mountain, and Southwestern -- and, while the majority of teams were still playing as independents, the benefits of conferences were becoming more pronounced. Conferences provided easy scheduling in an otherwise unwieldy football world, and allowed for easy transportation to away games by making most games within a day or two of each team's campus.
These scheduling and transportation benefits shaped the next two realignment events. In 1916, the Pacific Coast Conference -- predecessor to the Pac-12 -- was formed by Washington, Oregon, Cal, and Oregon State. The Huskies won the inaugural title by tying with Oregon and defeating the other two conference teams; even in its inception, the Pac-12 was playing a full round robin (they only gave it up in 2012). Washington State joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1917 and Stanford was added in 1918, bringing the conference to six schools.
In 1917, the Big Ten finally became the Big Ten. Michigan, which had left the conference in 1907 so that it could play more home games, was again offered admission to the Western Conference and decided to accept. The re-inclusion of the Wolverines pushed the Big Ten to its natural size, making it the first conference with double-digit membership. Michigan refrained from playing a full Big Ten schedule at first, adding just one Big Ten opponent -- Northwestern -- in its first season.
Of course, 1917 was important for another reason: In April, the United States entered World War I. Schedules in 1917 were limited, and the Rose Bowl featured an all-military matchup between Mare Island (California) Marines and Camp Lewis (Washington). Mare Island's left tackle, knowing his deployment to the Western Front was inevitable, told reporters that it would be the last battle the teams would fight in the name of sports.
With most of the eligible players fighting in Europe, college football barely got off the ground in 1918. There were 53 schools playing football as independents in 1916; by 1918, that number had been reduced to 34. Alabama did not play in 1918 (Auburn did WAR DAMN EAGLE). Neither did LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, West Virginia, North Carolina, or either of the Arizona schools. Three Rocky Mountain Conference programs -- Utah, Utah State, and Wyoming -- took the year off, and the other five member schools played only two to four conference games. Missouri also took the year off in the Missouri Valley. For obvious reasons, Army limited their schedule to one game, a 20-0 win over Mitchell Field. Navy played five games against primarily naval bases, going 4-1 and defeating Ursinus College 127-0. No word on whether they were using Bret Bielema's two-point conversion card.
The war could not prevent conference expansion, though. When most teams returned to the gridiron in 1919, the five existing conferences each had at least six members, and expansion was only beginning. In 1918, the Southwest Conference added SMU to its ranks, taking the conference to an even eight member schools. Nebraska briefly left the Missouri Valley in 1918 to play as an independent, but returned to the league in 1921. Grinnell (IA, for the non-Iowans here) was added to the Missouri Valley in 1919. Brigham Young became the first private school to join the Rocky Mountain Conference in 1922, with Montana State and Northern Colorado joining the league in 1923.
Three massive realignment events occurred in 1920-1922. First, in 1920, the Missouri Valley became the first conference to successfully and permanently pry a member of another conference into its fold. Oklahoma, which had been a founding member of the Southwest Conference in 1915, left its two fiercest rivals behind to join the Mo Valley. The Sooners immediately won the conference championship, going 6-0-1 in its first season in the league. The addition of Oklahoma, and the return of Nebraska a year later, gave the Missouri Valley nine members by 1921.
Second, the Pacific Coast Conference got into the expansion mix again in 1922, adding Southern Cal and Idaho to bring its total membership to eight universities. Southern Cal would go on to win 38 conference championships in the next 90 years. Idaho would leave in the late 1950s.
Third, and probably most importantly, the Southern Conference appeared on the scene in 1922. Prior to the formation of the Southern Conference, most Southern teams were members of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletics Association, a conference-in-name-only whose level of organization barely rose above an annual track meet. The SIAA was made up of a grab-bag of large state universities and small private schools, and did not actively support football.
A dispute quickly arose over whether freshmen were eligible for intercollegiate athletics. The large member institutions -- particularly Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Mississippi State, and Tennessee -- wanted to ban freshmen from competition, while small schools wanted to use their newcomers. The large schools refused to accept the results of a vote held to settle the dispute and seceded from the SIAA. Nobody ever said a Southern man possessed an acute sense of irony.
Six more teams -- Florida, LSU, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane, and Vanderbilt -- left the SIAA to join the fledgling league one year later. Six non-SIAA schools also joined, and official conference play began in 1922.
While it had more structure than its predecessor, the Southern Conference was less a conference and more a loose association of Southern teams. The conference initially included 22 members, including Washington & Jefferson University and Sewanee. Despite the fact that schedules routinely included 10-12 games, only three Southern Conference teams managed to play more than five conference games in the league's first season. With the Sun Belt not yet in existence, it's unknown how the teams filled the remainder of their schedules.
From 1913 to 1914, there was no change in conference alignments. There would not be another quiet offseason until 1926-27.