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The seasons are changing again

12/22/2011

As the crazy conference-switching wheel began spinning again furiously this summer and early fall, those in the sports that had nothing to do with the decisions -- every sport but football, of course -- just resigned themselves to watching and waiting.

Some changes already had been made and were in effect, such as Nebraska being in the Big Ten and the Pac-10 expanding to the Pac-12 with the additions of Colorado and Utah.

Texas A&M then made clear its intention to divorce hated rival Texas -- and with it the Big 12 -- and join the SEC next year. Oklahoma started chatter about leaving for the Pac-12, but that conference put the kibosh on further expansion for now. That left the Sooners' brass to scramble back to working at solidifying what remained of the Big 12.

However, Missouri -- which had coveted the invitation to the Big Ten that Nebraska got -- jumped from the Big 12 to the SEC. Based on athletic-department budgets, Mizzou doesn't appear prepared right now to realistically compete across the board in the SEC. But the league's stability appealed to the Tigers.

TCU and West Virginia will be joining the Big 12; Pittsburgh and Syracuse will go to the ACC. Although the latter three are still in legal wrangling with the Big East about when they will leave.

As for that conference, it added its trump card to the geographical ridiculousness of the realignment frenzy with the recent announcement that Houston, Central Florida and SMU would join the Big East as full members, while Boise State and San Diego State come aboard for football only.

The Broncos are expected to return to the Western Athletic Conference for the rest of their sports (they left the WAC for the Mountain West for this season), while the Aztecs expect to leave the MWC for the Big West in their other sports.

The carousel hasn't stopped spinning -- the MWC and Conference USA will meet in January to discuss a merger -- and if the ACC wants any more teams from the Big East, all it has to do is call. (Connecticut, in particular, is waiting by the phone.)

Football alone has driven all of these moves. Even men's basketball -- the other half of the "big two" on college campuses -- has had to face the fact that it's typically been irrelevant in the league-swapping moves. Those in the other sports don't have delusions about their status in the hierarchy, though; they didn't need this chaos to know that football is king, and they are subjects.

Yet this has felt like something beyond irrelevance. It's almost been like everything else besides football barely exists. Here we are in December with the dust still not settled, and the "other" sports are trying to figure out whether they're better or worse off, and by how much.

They may need to rethink long-standing recruiting strategies in regard to rivalries and geography. They may be losing conference foes that have been crucial staples every season toward their development. And new travel requirements might force other philosophical changes for some programs.

Because most sports other than football have more than one game/match a week, their game travel -- both due to increased expense and more missed class time -- is a bigger worry.

This is where we add -- with perhaps too much cynicism regarding the "big two," but also a large degree of truth -- that, overwhelmingly, these "other" sports are populated by student-athletes who go to college to actually Â… go to college. Those kids love their sports, but they absolutely must get their degrees.

There's little for coaches and athletes to do but get used to the changes already put in place and those coming. The first set of championships -- save football -- under the current conference realignments have been completed, as the fall sports seasons have ended.

The conference to win the most so far in 2011-12? The Pac-12, which triumphed in women's soccer (Stanford), women's volleyball (UCLA) and men's water polo (USC). The ACC won NCAA titles in field hockey (Maryland) and men's soccer (North Carolina).

The other two national team championships went to the Big Ten (Wisconsin in men's cross country) and the Big East (Georgetown in women's cross country.)

Which among all of those was the biggest surprise? None really rated as such, actually, although some of the titles were a little more unexpected than others.

In soccer, the championships both went to teams that were the overall No. 1 seeds. UNC's men had a new coach after Elmar Bolowich left for Creighton, but the adjustment to longtime assistant Carlos Somoano was smooth.

The Tar Heels had been to the men's College Cup in each of the previous three seasons, but fell short of a championship. They lost in the title match to Maryland in 2008, and in the semifinals in 2009 and 2010. But with the return of star Billy Schuler -- who had missed most of the 2010 season with a shoulder injury -- UNC was a powerhouse that this time couldn't be stopped.

The Tar Heels' only losses were unexpected ones to Virginia Tech and Davidson, but they won the ACC tournament. Their closest calls in the NCAA tournament were a 1-0 overtime win against Indiana and then a victory on penalty kicks against UCLA in the national semifinals. In an all-North Carolina final, the Tar Heels prevailed 1-0 against Charlotte.

Meanwhile, the Stanford women's soccer program had done everything in the sport except win an NCAA title. The Cardinal made it to their fourth consecutive College Cup, and this time the senior class got what it had been denied before.

Stanford beat Duke 1-0 for the championship after having lost in the title match the previous two years. At 25-0-1 for 2011, Stanford's seniors finished their four-year careers at 95-4-4.

Speaking of first-time national champions, Georgetown's women's cross-country team won its first NCAA title. In the men's race, Wisconsin won its fifth title.

There were two repeat fall champions from 2010. Maryland won its second consecutive field hockey NCAA title, and its fifth in the past seven years. USC's men's water polo squad defeated rival UCLA for its fourth consecutive NCAA title. Four in a row is an unprecedented feat in a sport that has an NCAA championship dating to 1969.

UCLA did, however, have the happiest ending in women's volleyball. The Bruins were seeded ninth, but that was a poor indication of how good the team really was. One of the squads that had spent time at No. 1 in the AVCA poll during the regular season, UCLA knocked off two important obstacles in regional play: four-time defending national champion Penn State, and then NCAA tournament No. 1 seed Texas.

The Bruins' archrival, USC, was the top-ranked team at the end of the regular season, but was seeded seventh as the selection committee continues to be at odds with the way the nation's coaches evaluate teams.

The Trojans had two five-set battles in their regional -- against host Hawaii and Pepperdine -- before succumbing in five sets to Illinois in the national semifinals. Then the No. 2 seed Illini, who reached their program's first title match, finally ran out of gas against UCLA. The Bruins won their fourth NCAA championship in women's volleyball, but their first since 1991.

If you were looking for a realignment impact on the fall championships, there really wasn't much. The most obvious big difference was three-time national champion Nebraska moving from the Big 12 and making the Big Ten even more difficult in volleyball. The Huskers actually won the regular-season title in their new conference, but then were upset by one of the old Big 12 foes they had long dominated -- Kansas State -- in the NCAA tournament's second round.

Of course, more potential realignment impact may be evident in the winter and spring sports seasons. And more could come next year, too, when there are additional conference shifts. But whatever the case, the coaches and student-athletes will simply adjust to the changes. The power of football demands it.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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