What Conference Realignment Means For College Softball
We are about to embark on the next era in college sports over the next few academic years. Oklahoma and Texas are leaving the Big 12 and joining the SEC, while BYU, Houston, UCF and Cincinnati will take their places in the Big 12.
The Big 12 won’t have the same glow to it without Oklahoma and Texas, the conference's two most valuable schools. The AAC is losing the three schools that have defined its success and national relevancy over the last few years, and BYU is finally joining a conference in all sports after being a member of the WCC and an independent in football.
While on paper these changes may seem underwhelming, there is more to them than just the name brand of the schools. We’re getting a chance to see the Big 12 fight for its respect back, and the AAC to stay relevant and keep its “Big 6” moniker going.
How much worse is the Big 12 getting?
Whenever you lose two schools like Oklahoma and Texas, you’re going to get worse. They each have boatloads of money and resources and play a huge part in what the landscape of college sports looks like every year.
But what the Big 12 was able to get in BYU, Houston and UCF (Cincinnati does not play softball) was about as good of a haul as they could’ve gotten.
Since the program's inception in 2002, UCF has made the NCAA Tournament eight times and played in the 2021 Tallahassee Regional final. Houston has played in two Super Regionals (2008 and 2011) and has been to the NCAA Tournament nine times. BYU has won four different conference championships since 2001, played in the 2021 Tempe Regional final and has been in the NCAA Tournament every year since 2005.
Of course, Oklahoma has won the WCWS five times and Texas has appeared in the WCWS five times. But they dominated the Big 12 for years and now we get to witness a power shift at the top. Could we potentially see BYU, Houston and UCF use their new resources to get to the top of the Big 12?
There could be four or five ranked Big 12 teams in a few years. Ranked teams help bring in top recruits and create parity so that we’re not predicting the same conference champion every year.
Additionally, they’ll become an eight-member league in softball once BYU, Houston and UCF join. A more compelling and exciting conference tournament could be held by going to a straight-to-bracket format instead of the two pools of three it currently uses. More games, more upsets and more storylines will create attention that the Big 12 needs if it wants its respect back after losing Oklahoma and Texas.
How will the new AAC look?
As long as the AAC kept experiencing success due to the likes of Cincinnati, UCF and Houston in football, this type of change was bound to happen. On the softball end, Cincinnati doesn’t play the sport, so they’re not losing anything there. But Houston was in the NCAA Tournament as recently as 2019 and UCF was consistently one of the league’s best three teams.
And when UCF and Houston leave, the AAC will add Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB. Due to the reputation that the AAC has built for itself over the last few years, lots of schools wanted in. Football drove the decision behind who got to join the conference, but softball will certainly be impacted by these moves in a big way going forward.
Other big changes
Changes were also made to the America East, ASUN, Atlantic 10, Big Sky, CAA, Conference USA, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Southland, Sun Belt, WCC and WAC in 2021.
Let these moves show that conference realignment is here, and it’s not going anywhere. The implications of these changes will be seen in college softball for many years to come.