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How would conference realignment impact UConn football scheduling?

With the Big Ten and SEC both going to 16 teams and more movement on the horizon, scheduling as an independent could get harder.

New UConn football coach Jim Mora, Jr. speaks to the crowd at the UConn women’s basketball game at the XL Center on Sunday, November 14, 2021.
New UConn football coach Jim Mora, Jr. speaks to the crowd at the UConn women’s basketball game at the XL Center on Sunday, November 14, 2021.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn and the other FBS independents are in a unique situation when it comes to scheduling.

For the 2022 season, the ACC, American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, SEC, and Sun Belt have eight conference games, while the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 will play nine league contests. In contrast, the seven independent programs must find 12 games, while the remainder must schedule three or four on their own.

Athletic Director David Benedict has done a solid job getting attractive games on the schedule for the newly independent program, but a paradigm shift in college football is likely to make that job much harder.

The SEC is adding Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12 for the 2025 season, while the Big 12 is going to back-fill the Sooners and Longhorns with BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston starting in 2023. The bigger, more recent news is UCLA and USC’s departure from the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in time for the 2024 season.

As a result, the Big Ten and SEC will each be at 16 members, while the Big 12 is making overtures to the unstable parts of the Pac-12, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah, though these are just rumors.

Whether that happens, or the great-at-football portion of the ACC moves on to the SEC, or Notre Dame joins a conference, or some combination of the above, what’s clear is that this is not settled and movement will continue.

As conferences consolidate, the number of league games they play will have to increase, limiting the number of slots available for independent schools like UConn. This will not be an issue in the short term, as the movement between leagues will not start in earnest until 2024, but the game of musical chairs has begun.

While there is no reporting suggesting this could potentially come to pass, UConn’s independence could even come to an end. It’s more likely that Hell freezes over before the Big Ten or SEC come calling, but if the ACC loses some of its larger football brands, including Clemson, Florida State, and Miami, it would need to back-fill those schools’ slots and may reach out to gauge UConn’s interest. The interest would most likely be mutual.

That scenario would be extremely complex legally, as the ACC’s grant of rights ties its 14 full members together through its TV deal with ESPN, which ends in 2036, while UConn has a high exit fee from the Big East.

Where this hits UConn the most is in 2026 and beyond. According to FBSchedules, the Huskies are full in 2023, as they have reported that the one game that has yet to be announced by the school will be filled with UMass. Additionally, the Huskies have just two open games in 2024 and one open date in 2025. As there is no FCS school on the schedule in 2024, it’s likely that the Huskies will add one FBS school to the slate in each year.

However, there are only eight games scheduled in 2026, including two each against current ACC and Big Ten members, and fewer contests under contract in later years. As these Power 5, or whatever the successor term is, opportunities become less common, the independent schools will have to rely more on each other, in addition to leaning on the current Group of 5 leagues, which are only as stable as the ones above them on the pecking order.

As of 2024, there will be four FBS independents: Army, Notre Dame, UConn, and UMass. Notre Dame, with its ability to potentially join the Big Ten and also with its many annual rivalry games and blue blood status, is not going to have an issue finding games. Army will likely have a similar experience as a service academy, though UConn will face the Black Knights in all but one year from 2024-2029.

UMass is the closest FBS school to UConn. The series has been contested each year since 2018 and is on the schedule until at least 2025, according to FBSchedules. Look for this rivalry to continue. The teams are about an hour apart, both independent and for now, both among the worst teams in the country, providing a balanced and simple matchup.

Lastly, games against MAC schools are going to probably experience an uptick. UConn will play Ball State in 2022 and 2025, with four games against Buffalo between 2024 and 2029, ending a decade-long streak of MAC-less schedules.

The MAC has been the odd man out over conference realignment as the rare bastion of stability, particularly among the Group of 5. Currently at 12 members, the league has only had 17 all-time, four of which departed by 1955, less than a decade after its founding. Additionally, aside from Northern Illinois, which returned for good in 1997 after spending 1975-1986 as a member, only two schools joined the league after 1973.

Overall, as the highest powers in college football consolidate and withdraw into each other, it seems less and less likely UConn will have continued and consistent access to appearing on schedules of the high-end programs in college football. Relying on fellow independents and Group of 5 schools that are similarly out of luck will be key moving forward as the Huskies continue its independent track. Perhaps a conference move is in the cards for UConn as well?