How College Football Is Organized: Conferences
More than 100 teams make up the Football Bowl Subdivision of NCAA Division I. Teams play only 11 or 12 games each year, so there's no way that a team can play every other team A conference consists of eight to 12 teams from one region of the country and usually includes schools of similar size and stature. Each team plays most of the other teams in its conference every year.
Teams join conferences for many reasons. Most important is for money: conferences have rules to ensure that every team makes some money each year. For example, if a team plays in a bowl game, some of the money they make is distributed among all the teams in the conference. This way, a team makes money even in years when it isn't doing well.
Another reason for being part of a conference is for the schedule. Since about eight of every year's games are conference games, the school only has to look for three or so other games to schedule. Of those eight or so conference games, usually about four are guaranteed to be home games. Without a conference, it might be difficult to find teams to play, especially teams that are willing to play as a visiting team.
NCAA Division I-A Conferences
The six best-known and most competitive conferences are called the BCS conferences.
The Southeastern Conference (SEC): As the name suggests, these schools are all in the southeastern part of the country, from the Atlantic Ocean to Louisiana. The SEC is divided into an Eastern and Western Division. The division winners play a championship game at the end of the season. The Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators won their divisions in 2009; Alabama won the championship game, and played in the national title game.
The Big Ten: You might think that a conference called the Big Ten would include 10 teams, but it actually contains 11 schools. Why? The Big Ten had only ten teams from 1950 until 1990, when it added Penn State University. All of the conference's teams are in the midwest, stretching from Pennsylvania to Iowa and Minnesota. The 2009 champion was Ohio State, with Iowa and Penn State tied for second place.
The Pacific 10: Nicknamed the Pac 10, this conference includes ten teams from the four western states of California, Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. The University of Southern California Trojans dominated the Pac 10 through most of the 2000s, finishing at the top of the standings from 2002–2008. The only other team to win the league in the 2000s was Oregon, who won in 2000, 2001 … and again in 2009. The Pac 10 does not play a championship game.
The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC): For many years, the ACC was known for basketball. Historically great basketball programs from North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, and the rest of the conference took the spotlight away from football. In the 1990s and 2000s, the league added several football powerhouses, including Miami and Florida State. In 2009, Georgia Tech beat Clemson in an exciting ACC championship game.
The Big 12: In 1994, the Big 8 conference merged with four Texas schools from the former Southwest Conference to make the Big 12. The conference members are mostly located in the Great Plains. Texas beat Nebraska in the 2009 championship game on a last-second field goal, sending Texas to the national title game.
The Big East: When three of this conference's teams left to join the ACC in the mid 2000s, the Big East invited new members Louisville, Cincinnati, and South Florida. The result has been a competitive and exciting football conference. Cincinnati went undefeated in the 2009 season, but needed a last-minute touchdown against Pittsburgh to clinch the conference title. The Big East does not play a championship game.
Words to Know
INDEPENDENTS: An independent team is not part of a conference. Only four Division I-A teams are independent: Notre Dame, Army, Navy, and Western Kentucky.
The World's Biggest Mascot
At the beginning of every half, the Big 12's Colorado Buffaloes are led onto the football field by Ralphie, a live buffalo.
The six conferences described above generally command the best players and the most television and fan attention. The five other Division 1-A conferences—the Sun Belt, Western Athletic, Mid-American, Mountain West, and Conference USA—are often called mid-majors. Mid-major teams have strong programs that are competitive with each other, but they usually have a hard time when they're up against teams from the BCS conferences.
In fact, a bigger program will often pay a mid-major team a lot of money to play a game at the bigger school's home field. Why? The big team gets a home game that they're likely to win. The mid-major team may not like the idea of getting crushed in a road game, but the money they make might pay for a large number of scholarships or a new fitness center.
And who knows? A few times every year, a mid-major beats a big-time team. In fact, two mid-major teams made it to a BCS bowl after the 2009 season: the 2010 Fiesta Bowl pitted the WAC's Boise State against the MWC's Texas Christian.