Boise State or San Diego State? Depends on the conference
In the last 48 hours, my Twitter notifications have been flooded by Boise State fans and San Diego State fans arguing with each other.
San Diego State fans are not thrilled with my latest program value rankings, while Boise State fans are quite fond of them.
Those rankings quantify each program’s relative value as it stands right now. And right now, Boise State is unquestionably the bigger brand. The Broncos are easily the biggest brand in the Mountain West, which is why the conference pays Boise State an extra $1.8 million per year when divvying up the TV deal money.
But there are two other factors that play into conference realignment decisions that are much tougher to quantify:
- What is each program’s potential value in 10, 20, 30 years?
- Each conference has its own institutional identity. How does each program fit with those values?
Last summer, the American Athletic Conference and Sun Belt Conference picked apart Conference USA. But each conference took a very different approach.
The AAC honed in on schools it viewed as having potential: schools that play in large markets in football-crazed parts of the country. The six schools the ACC added (Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB & UTSA) all fit that bill despite the fact that they are not popular brands. But the AAC is betting that they could be!
The Sun Belt went the opposite direction, nabbing a few schools with established brands that fit into its tight geographical footprint. The four schools the Sun Belt added (James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion & Southern Miss) score pretty well in the metrics I use to measure value, but you could make the case that they don’t have as much upside as the schools the AAC added.
The Boise State-San Diego State debate really comes down to established brand vs. potential. If a Power 5 conference wants to go the Sun Belt route and add an established brand, Boise State is without doubt the top football program on the board. If a conference is more interested in potential, San Diego State can certainly sell its location in southern California.
But the other factor at play here is №2 above: How does each program fit with a conference’s values? In this case, it really depends on the conference.
Let’s use the AAC-Sun Belt example again. Each conference’s strategies last summer were reflective of how those conferences are built.
The six schools joining the AAC check off a lot of the same boxes that existing members like South Florida, SMU and Tulane check off. The four schools joining the Sun Belt have a lot of similarities to existing members like Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Louisiana.
When it comes to the potential conferences that Boise State or San Diego State could join, the most likely landing spots are the Pac-12 or Big 12, which have pretty disparate values.
The Pac-12 is built around strong academic schools within a pretty tight geographic footprint. Both Boise State and San Diego State fit the geographic footprint, though San Diego State may have an edge there just on the fact that the Pac-12 is reeling from losing a foothold in southern California. San Diego State also has the edge in academics, though it is not in the same stratosphere as most of the Pac-12 academically.
The Pac-12 also prioritizes schools that have robust athletic departments. Nine of the 12 current members sponsor at least 20 different sports and four of them sponsor 25 or more. Boise State and San Diego State each sponsor 18.
The Big 12 is built differently. The conference now stretches from Florida to Utah, has a mix of public schools and religious private schools, and doesn’t prioritize academics or robust athletic offerings.
Last year, the Big 12 showed a preference for established brands, going outside of its established geographical footprint to add the two biggest non-Power 5 brands on the board at the time in BYU and UCF. Based on that strategy, Boise State would seem to have an edge over San Diego State if the conference comes knocking.
Ultimately, though, these two schools may end up jumping to a new conference together. Ten years ago, they signed on together to be football-only members of the Big East. A year later, they both pulled out to stay in the Mountain West. Last summer, they both (along with Colorado State and Air Force) explored moving to the AAC only to stay in the Mountain West. They’ve been pretty much linked since 2011.
Which conference they end up in probably depends on which conference steals schools from the other. The Big 12 looks like it might be in the power position to pick off some schools from the Pac-12 now. But I still think the Pac-12 is the stronger conference right now — as long as Stanford, Oregon and Washington don’t leave — and could be the one that ultimately makes the power move.
For both Boise State and San Diego State, the path to a Power 5 conference probably comes by backfilling into whichever conference loses that power struggle.