College football is a sport deeply rooted in tradition and history, where storied rivalries, legendary coaches, and iconic moments have defined the sport for over a century. However, in recent years, the landscape of college football has undergone significant changes due to realignment, as teams have shifted conferences in search of financial stability, competitive advantages, and broader exposure. While these moves have generated excitement and controversy among fans, one often-overlooked aspect is the impact of realignment on single-game, season, and career records. It may not matter on the gridiron, but armchair quarterbacks will have to rethink their arguments about who was the best ever receiver in the Big 10, or who holds the season sack record in the Big 12. Let’s look at how realignment has influenced college football records and the legacies of players and teams.
The Changing Conference Landscape
The only reason I took off on this wild thought exercise is because no one seems to want to sit still. The college football realignment frenzy began in earnest in the early 2010s and seems to have peaked with the latest round of shifts, notably those that leave only two schools in the (soon-to-be-former) Conference of Champions. Schools have switched conferences for a variety of reasons, including financial incentives, geographic alignment, and the desire to compete at the highest level. The result has been a seismic shift in conference affiliations, with some teams moving multiple times within a short span. (Looking at you Colorado and Utah)
For the purpose of this article, we are going to examine a few passing and rushing records involving the Pac-12 schools headed to the Big 10. I’ll add some scoring records to really drive home the crazy, too.
Conferences Are Not Equal
Take a look at the top 10 career leaders in passing yards for each conference.
Clearly the Pac airs it out more. Even discounting the Mike Leach/Air Raid, or Oregon State’s occasional videogame numbers (remember we are only talking about Big 10 bound schools) you are still dropping Matt Barkley, Jake Browning, and Carson Palmer onto the top of the list ahead of Chris Painter. Marcus Mariota’s #10 spot would jump to #7 on this new hypothetical Big 10 career passing leaderboard. Does it seem fair for a player who never competed in a conference to hold its high water mark in any stat?
How about rushing yards?
Now we have flipped the script. The top 3 from the Pac-12 are now dropped to 4th, 5th, and 6th. I’m not going to be the one to tell Royce Freeman that the Pac-2 career rushing record now belongs to Ken Simonton, or that he has dropped 3 spots in his new, former (is that a thing?) college conference.
One more to drive it home.
JT Barrett was an absolute animal when it came to scoring, so he got to keep that top spot. But the former #2 falls all the way to #9 and is the only other player on the board who actually played in the Big 10.
And this is just talking a few select, career numbers. Now we must rethink all our talking points about conference vs conference.
Who Gets Credit for the Wins?
Right now, the Pac-12 is 273-264-12 vs the Big 10. When Oregon, Washington, USC, and UCLA switch sides do we have to stop and recalculate those 4 schools’ records vs the two left behind? That’s way too much math for your average twitter user. Or sports commentator. And what about former players? In 2024 do they start referring to Justin Herbert as a Big 10 product? We have to recount all the pro players against their alma maters’ new conferences to redetermine which conference sends the most players to the League. My brain already hurts.
Realignment will also have a significant impact on a team’s and player’s legacy. Records and accomplishments that were once celebrated might be viewed differently in light of changes in competition. Fans and analysts may debate whether certain records are truly indicative of a player’s skill or simply a product of their conference environment (even when they weren’t in that conference to start with). Winningest coach in conference history? Not anymore. Pac-12 Football Hall of Fame? You went to a Big 10 school now. Where does it end?
Who Cares, It’s a Game
College football realignment has reshaped the sport in numerous ways. Players and teams that navigate these changes must adapt to new competition, styles of play, and scheduling, which can influence the statistics they accumulate. While records remain an entertaining aspect of college football history, we now have to find a way to debate them in the context of realignment when evaluating their significance. Ultimately, the essence of college football remains rooted in the passion of its fans, the dedication of its athletes, and the rich tapestry of traditions that continue to define the sport. Let's celebrate those this season and worry about debating records in the spring.
See you on Saturday.
*Stats pulled from https://www.sports-reference.com/cfb/