We looked at six programs that made similar jumps from mid-major conferences to major leagues in the last two decades. Only two posted better records in a tougher conference, though the long-term results are much more optimistic.
Here’s a historical look at the jump UCF is making after the Knights’ back-to-back nine-win seasons in the AAC.
Move: Mountain West to Big 12 in 2012
Before the change: TCU won at least 11 games in six of its seven seasons in the Mountain West. Gary Patterson’s team went 11-2 the year before joining the Big 12 and hadn’t lost a conference game in three years.
First year in the major conference: The Horned Frogs went 7-6 overall with their first losing conference record in eight years. After consistently winning 11 games annually as a mid-major program, TCU won only 11 total over two years.
After that: The Horned Frogs quickly recovered. They went 12-1 and narrowly missed the College Football Playoff in Year 3. They have three other top-10 finishes since joining the Big 12, including last year’s run to the CFP final.
Move: Mountain West to Pac-12 in 2011
Before the change: The Utes posted double-digit victories five times in eight years under Urban Meyer and Kyle Whittingham. They also claimed three conference titles and won 26 of their last 30 league games. Utah went 10-3 overall the year before moving up.
First year in the major conference: Utah lost its first four Pac-12 games but finished 8-5 overall after beating Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
After that: The Utes have become one of the steadiest major programs in the nation. They’ve won back-to-back Pac-12 titles and finished nationally ranked in six of the past eight seasons (excluding the 2020 COVID year). Utah will likely open the season against Florida as a top-15 team.
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Moves: Conference USA to Big East in 2005; AAC to ACC in 2014
Before the change: The Cardinals lost only one game each in their last season in Conference USA and their only season in the AAC. They won a conference title in three of their last four seasons before moving up to the Big East (which was then a power conference) and finished 15th nationally before moving up to the ACC.
First year in the major conference: Louisville dipped both times. The Cardinals went 9-3 in their first season in the Big East and 9-4 in Year 1 in the ACC.
After that: Charlie Strong — who later became USF’s coach — helped Louisville become attractive enough for the ACC to grab. The Cardinals have been a mixed bag in that league with a pair of top-25 finishes and Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy but three losing seasons in the last five years.
Move: Conference USA to Big East in 2005
Before the change: The Bearcats hit a seven-win ceiling in the early 2000s and finished 7-5 under Mark Dantonio just before moving up. The highlight: a shared league title in 2002.
First year in the major conference: Cincinnati regressed to 4-7 overall and 2-5 in the conference.
After that: The Bearcats won at least 10 games in five of their next seven seasons and won four league titles in the Big East before it imploded. Cincinnati then became one of the nation’s premier mid-major programs in the AAC, breaking through to the 2021 playoff, and has made the Big 12 move alongside UCF.
Move: AAC to Big Ten in 2014
Before the change: The Scarlet Knights were a regular bowl team in the Big East before it split, then went 6-7 in their lone season in the AAC.
First year in the major conference: Rutgers improved to 8-5 overall in its first year in the Big Ten while retaining a 3-5 conference record.
After that: Rutgers has become one of the worst major programs and hasn’t finished with a winning record since. The team has 10 conference wins over its last eight seasons.
Move: Conference USA to Big East in 2005
Before the change: The upstart program had success as an independent and was 11-11 overall with an 8-8 league record in two seasons in Conference USA.
First year in the major conference: Jim Leavitt’s Bulls improved from four wins to six, including a 31-point upset of No. 9 Louisville.
After that: The Bulls had their famous ascent to No. 2 in the country in 2007 but never finished ranked in their Big East tenure. They posted a 22-34 league record in that conference and remain in the AAC, which formed from the Big East’s collapse.
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