SMQ: A brief history of conference affiliation in college football

(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /
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Conference affiliation hasn’t always been essential in college football. When did conferences really begin to hold the majority of power within the sport?

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With the College Football Playoff National Championship looming on Monday night, the all-SEC final has piqued interest in that conference. Just as it did many times during the BCS era, the SEC is going to walk away once again as the conference of the national champion. And, just like the LSU-Alabama matchup in January 2012, the SEC-on-SEC showdown could also result in a more rapid doubling of the playoff field.

Even casual fans of college football understand the outsized importance of conferences in the sport. Rather than the NCAA, it is these groups of member schools that drive the future of college football. More than any other actor on the scene, conferences can make or break life for individual schools and the sport as a whole.

This was not always the case. Conferences are a long-standing part of college football. They were also optional rather than mandatory for much of the sport’s history. These days, to go independent means a school is either A) undesirable to any other conference, B) Notre Dame, or C) trying to act like Notre Dame.

When did conference affiliation become so critical for the sport. In this week’s SMQ, let’s dive in and look at the history of conferences in college football. First, let’s look at the early history of conference development and then delve into our questions about when conference membership became effectively mandatory within the sport.