A harsh realignment reminder for USC, UCLA: Success in a new league is rare, indeed
We all know, first and foremost, that the Big Ten’s West Coast expansion project is about profit. That’s why the two football programs in Los Angeles were invited instead of the one in Eugene, Oregon, which has had far more recent success than either.
However, it also isn’t solely about the media revenue. Just mostly. The Bruins and Trojans wouldn’t be invited to the party if they weren’t expected to enhance the B1G brand from a competitive standpoint.
The question is whether they actually will. As their 3 predecessors in the 2010s demonstrated, jumping conferences is not an easy transition. Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers all have losing records in conference play since entering the Big Ten.
USC and UCLA fans are undoubtedly saying, “You just compared us to who?”
And they are correct to think these aren’t quite apples-to-apples situations. But they also aren’t so wildly different. Transitioning to a new league has proven difficult across the board.
In the conference realignment era, very few programs have seen an uptick in on-field success. Measured by winning percentage, it’s a list of one: Texas A&M. And the Aggies have yet to even reach an SEC Championship Game.
Here is a look at how history stacks up against the Big Ten’s newcomers.
All but one school that has changed leagues since 2003 has done better in its new home. There are some conference titles in there and some programs are only slightly worse (which makes the extra money worth it), but most aren't consistent, viable contenders. And that can't be fun pic.twitter.com/sXSELXnxjt
— Craig Meyer (@ByCraigMeyer) July 7, 2022
Started near the top, now they’re here
Nebraska is the only thing resembling a peer program to USC and UCLA in terms of historical on-field success. And most of that resemblance is with the Trojans. In some ways, they feel identical.
After dominating nationally for most of the 1990s, Nebraska lost its fastball in the 2000s before entering the B1G. USC is on the same timeline, just a decade later. The Trojans were college football’s golden property in the mid-2000s, but declined starkly in the 2010s after NCAA issues and various coaching exits. They also come to the B1G a decade removed from powerhouse status.
Despite that, both programs arrived at a similar moment of optimism that the good ole days may soon return.
Nebraska reached the Big 12 Championship Game in each of its final two years in the conference. They were painfully close losses—a controversial, last-second 13-12 loss to undefeated Texas in 2009 followed by a 23-20 loss to Oklahoma in 2010.
It was reasonable to believe Bo Pelini had the Huskers ready to take the next step and compete immediately in the Big Ten. And that they did, reaching the Big Ten title game in Year 2. Facing a Wisconsin team that only qualified for the game because Ohio State was on probation, an early coronation felt certain.
Instead, the Badgers humiliated the Huskers by a 70-31 count. Nothing has been the same in Lincoln since. Nebraska now has a .473 all-time winning percentage in Big Ten play. In its final five years of Big 12 competition, Nebraska had a .625 conference winning percentage.
USC has not experienced recent success, but it’s widely expected that will change by the time the Trojans enter the B1G in 2024 thanks to the arrival of former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. Riley brings acumen and talent. In his first offseason, he’s proven adept at using—and in the opinion of at least one peer—exploiting the transfer portal.
There’s a very good chance USC, like Nebraska, will reach the conference title game in both of its final two seasons in the Pac-12.
But will the Trojans prove better than the Huskers at sustaining it in the Big Ten?
The recruiting edge
For many reasons, Texas A&M seems like the proper peer for USC in the realignment era. Like the Trojans, the Aggies were a program riddled by downright ineptitude in their final years in their old conference.
In its final five years as a Big 12 member, A&M won just 46.2% of its conference games. USC hasn’t hit the skids to that extent, going 58-30 in the Pac-12 over the past decade and 19-14 over the past four seasons. But by USC standards, it certainly isn’t cutting it.
Like USC, Texas A&M sits in fertile recruiting ground. And once the Aggies joined the SEC, they became more attractive to those local recruits. Despite leveling up in difficulty from the Big 12, A&M has a .568 conference winning percentage in the SEC.
Surely the same thinking applies for USC. Over the past 10 recruiting classes, an average of 4.6 Top-50 national recruits are from Southern California. Playing in a more competitive conference will theoretically keep them home with more frequency.
Last year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony was a perfect illustration of how that’s not currently happening. Of the four finalists, two were SoCal prep quarterbacks—Bryce Young and CJ Stroud. They play for Alabama and Ohio State.
If USC stems that tide, the Trojans will hit the ground running in the Big Ten.
As for UCLA, chances are this process will include some pain.
UCLA’s transition will be challenging
Yes, UCLA recruits from the same backyard as USC. The issue is Chip Kelly isn’t getting those kids to come to Westwood.
UCLA hasn’t signed a class ranking better than fifth in the Pac-12 since Kelly’s 2018 class ranked fourth. That was his first signing class, meaning it’s all been downhill once recruits actually watched the Bruins play.
UCLA is 20-23 (.465) in the Pac-12 over the past five seasons, which includes Jim Mora Jr.’s last year at the helm. Out of every Power Five program to switch conferences over the past decade, the Bruins have a profile most similar to one of their future B1G stablemates—Rutgers.
The Scarlet Knights had a .444 conference winning percentage in their final five Big East seasons. Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, Rutgers is a miserable 12-58 (.171) in conference play.
Granted, Rutgers’ football tradition is built entirely around playing in the first college football game in 1869, plus Greg Schiano’s first stint in charge from 2001-11. UCLA has a much stronger history, though it hasn’t played in a top-tier bowl since reaching the Rose Bowl in 1998. It may not be realistic to expect the Bruins to perform at anything better than a Purdue-like level in the B1G.
Perhaps that outlook changes if UCLA is able to keep a likely emasculated Oregon from having the same success raiding Southern California recruits. But going all the way back to when Miami and Virginia Tech moved from the Big East to the ACC in 2003, every program but Texas A&M has a worse winning percentage in its new conference than it had over its final five seasons in its previous conference.
Only USC has a strong enough tradition and infrastructure to be the next to buck that trend.