Because of the development of the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series in 1998, and the lack of a playoff format for the Football Bowl Subdivision prior to the College Football Playoff, the demarcation line between major and mid-major conferences was much clearer in college football than in other sports. The six conferences of the BCS each had guaranteed appearances in one of the four major bowl games (Rose Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, and Sugar Bowl), whereas mid-majors — the teams that were not in one of those six leagues — relied on an at-large bid or a high ranking to qualify for a major bowl. (The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, an independent, was an exception.) It was rare for any mid-major program to receive one of two at-large bids (or only one, if Notre Dame qualified) to one of the four major bowls, even if such a program completed a perfect season. The establishment of the BCS National Championship Game opened two additional at-large berths and mandated invites for mid-major schools above a certain ranking, which led to an increase in mid-major appearances in the four major bowls. Then conference realignment brought about the end of the Big East football conference. Schools that did not join a major conference from the Big East formed the basis of the football teams in the American Athletic Conference. No mid-major ever qualified for the BCS title game. With the advent of the College Football Playoff in 2014, The American became a mid-major conference.
Only one mid-major team has won a National Championship: Brigham Young University's Cougars, then in the Western Athletic Conference, won the 1984 championship on the strength of its perfect record and a win in the 1984 Holiday Bowl. BYU largely won the championship by default, since no other team had held an undefeated record, and there were still lingering doubts about the team deserving the honor because it was in a lesser conference. Since the establishment of the Bowl Alliance (and its successors the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff), no mid-major team has ever qualified for the championship game or tournament, much less won it.
Currently, there are five mid-major Football Conferences: the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference, the Mountain West Conference, and the Sun Belt Conference. The term mid-major isn't used as often for these five conferences as much as the term "Group of Five", to distinguish them from the Power Five conferences. Several conferences that no longer sponsor football could also be considered mid-major; two that existed in the BCS era were the Big West Conference and the Western Athletic Conference.
Mid-major schools have compiled a record of 8-3 in the major bowl games since the 2004 football season. Since 2004, only the 2005 and 2011 seasons did not see a mid-major team in one of the major bowl games. The 2010 Fiesta Bowl featured two unbeaten mid-majors (Boise State and TCU); this is the only time two mid-majors have qualified for top-tier bowls. Prior to 2012, each of these teams entered their bowl undefeated, until Northern Illinois qualified following the 2012 season. UCF qualified for the January 2014 Fiesta Bowl (following the 2013 season), in the final year of the BCS, because the American Athletic Conference inherited the Big East's slot in the BCS for that year only. The current arrangement of the New Years Six bowl games mandates that the highest-ranked mid-major/Group of Five conference champion be awarded a New Years' Six bowl berth, even if they have suffered losses. This was last invoked for the 2017 Cotton Bowl Classic, which featured the Western Michigan Broncos of the Mid-American Conference.
Historically, the Mountain West Conference has been the most successful at placing its champions in major bowls; doing it on five occasions. The now-defunct Western Athletic Conference did it thrice, while the American Athletic Conference and Mid-American Conference have each done it twice. Conference USA and the Sun Belt have never qualified a champion for a BCS or New Year's Six bowl.
Boise State is the mid-major program to qualify for the most major bowl games; it has done so thrice, twice while in the WAC and once in the Mountain West. TCU and Utah each did it twice; both are now members of "Power Five Conferences": TCU is now in the Big 12 and qualified for the 2014 Peach Bowl while there, whereas Utah is currently in the Pac-12.
The bowl game to host the most mid-major champions is the Fiesta Bowl; it has done so six teams (including twice in 2009). The Sugar Bowl has done it twice. The Rose Bowl Game and Orange Bowl each did so once under the Bowl Championship Series, while the Peach Bowl did so once under the "New Years Six" and the Cotton Bowl is slated to in January, 2017.
In contrast, the "high-major" Southeastern Conference placed only three teams in the 2016 NCAA Tournament, and one of those appeared only in a First Four "play-in" game.
Given the sustained success of many so-called "mid-major" conferences, higher profile conferences find it more difficult to distinguish themselves with the "mid-major" and "major" labels, unless one takes into account the distinction of being in now-defunct BCS football playing conference. However, only four teams from a mid-major conference have won a National Championship since the tournament expanded to 64 teams (Louisville, 1986; UNLV, 1990; Connecticut (UConn), 2014; and Villanova , 2016).
So-called major basketball programs generally belong to one of the following five conferences, generally known as the Power Five:Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
Big 12 Conference
Big Ten Conference
Southeastern Conference (SEC)
These leagues were so-called AQ ("automatic qualifying") conferences during the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) era in college football, and are primary members of the College Football Playoff (CFP) structure that began in the 2014 season. The CFP is centered around a group of bowl games often called the "New Year's Six", with two of them hosting CFP semifinals each season in rotation. Football champions of these conferences are assured of a spot in a "New Year's Six" game, though not necessarily in a CFP semifinal.
The two leagues that resulted from the 2013 split of the original Big East Conference (which had been an AQ conference in the BCS era)—the football-sponsoring American Athletic Conference and new, non-football Big East Conference—are often considered to be major basketball conferences as well. When the original league split along football lines, the non-FBS schools, plus Creighton, Butler, and Xavier, formed the current Big East. In the 2013–14 season, the first after the split, American member Connecticut won national titles in both men's and women's basketball. The American also includes several other historically major programs such as Cincinnati, East Carolina, Memphis, and Temple, and as such is considered a power conference.
The term "mid-major" is sometimes used to describe all of the other 25 basketball-playing conferences not receiving automatic tie-ins to either the BCS or CFP. However, most of the time the term is specifically applied only to the non-CFP conferences that consistently produce quality NCAA Tournament teams (distinguishing them from the "low-major" conferences). Often the definition of a "mid-major" is a conference that garners at least one at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, or has teams advance regularly, while not garnering the attention and television dollars of a major conference.
Until the last decade, the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, the Mountain West Conference, and the Western Athletic Conference were widely considered to be above the level of the other "mid-major" conferences, but still generally below the level of the six major conferences. However, due to recent changes in membership in some conferences, as well as the sustained success of some "mid-major" conferences, most no longer consider the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West to be below the level of the CFP conferences in college basketball. One reason why is the 2012–2013 RPI (a rating used by the tournament selection committee), which in 2012–13 ranked the Mountain West as the third best conference in Division I (ahead of the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) and the Atlantic 10 seventh (ahead of the SEC). The strength of these two non-CFP conferences in men's college basketball in 2012–13 was not an aberration, given that in 2011–12 the Mountain West finished the year ranked fifth, and the Atlantic 10 ranked seventh, both ahead of the Pac-12. Given the rankings of these two leagues, as well as their prestige, performance, recent post-season results, national perception, exposure, attendance, and many other factors, most observers have trouble considering certain non-CFP conferences as "mid-majors".
When not being used to refer to all of the Division I non-CFP teams (aka "low-majors"), so-called "mid-major" (non-BCS) basketball programs generally belong to one of the following nine conferences. Note that some of these conferences, including the Mountain West, Conference USA, and the Atlantic 10, may be considered a "high-major" as opposed to a mid-major depending on whom one asks.Atlantic 10 Conference (A-10)
Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)
Conference USA (C-USA)
Mid-American Conference (MAC)
Missouri Valley Conference (MVC)
Mountain West Conference (MWC)
Sun Belt Conference
West Coast Conference (WCC)
Western Athletic Conference (WAC)
Conference USA and the WAC both once had many strong basketball programs, but since 1999 WAC men's basketball has dropped in prestige due to members leaving to the American Athletic and Mountain West, respectively.
This list is not static from year to year, as many fail to agree which conferences are truly the majors and which are the mid-majors and/or low-majors during any given season. (The Big West and Ohio Valley Conference were previously included on this list; they finished the 2011-2012 season as the 21st and 25th, respectively, ranked conferences in the RPI.) Some still refuse to consider the Mountain West to be a "major" conference, despite outperforming several other "major" (BCS) conferences for the last several years in a row. There are many conferences (besides the six BCS conferences) that have regularly had teams advance to the Sweet Sixteen or beyond, regularly challenge for multiple NCAA Tournament bids, have multiple teams "buy" games from lower-ranked conferences, and have finished in the top 10 in conference attendance every year for the last decade.
The basketball website Collegeinsider.com created its own definition of "mid-major" when it introduced a pair of end-of-season awards for outstanding mid-major individuals in college basketball: the Lou Henson Award for players (first presented in 2010) and Hugh Durham Award for coaches (first presented in 2005). Since the 2013–14 season, players and coaches from the following conferences have been ineligible for these awards:All conferences that sponsor FBS football, except for the MAC and Sun Belt
These conferences are also generally ineligible for the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
Mid-major teams often have a difficult time scheduling major conference opponents, especially at home. Major conference teams usually will not schedule a high quality mid-major team, knowing that there is an uncomfortably high chance that they will lose (especially if the game is at the mid-major team's home court) and if the major team does win, there is often little benefit in media exposure for beating a non-major school. Some major conference teams also believe that scheduling games with additional competitive teams isn't necessary for their current team's development, as they believe there will be enough "tough games" during conference play. This phenomenon often manifests itself in major squads playing mostly lower ranked mid-major conference teams (while refusing schedule requests from better mid-major squads) in their out-of-conference schedules, thereby establishing very impressive records against lesser foes and bypassing higher quality mid-major teams in the process.
In recent years, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee has stressed the importance of a team's strength of schedule (SOS) in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Teams with a low-ranked nonconference SOS have often been penalized in their seeding and in some cases not selected for the tournament at all. In 2006, Florida State was left out of the tournament field in large part because its out-of-conference schedule was rated #316 out of 333 Division I teams.
The difficulty most mid-majors have in scheduling BCS conference opponents has a large effect on their ability to qualify for the NCAA basketball championship tournament and for the National Invitation Tournament. Often, mid-major teams with outstanding records are passed over for at-large berths in the NCAA Tournament in favor of teams from BCS conferences with mediocre records, based partly on the fact that the mid-major teams often have a lower strength of schedule. Without the ability to play more "major" opponents, most mid-majors have to stake their Tournament hopes on winning their conference's season-ending tournament (which promises an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament) since the possibility of an at-large bid is often remote.
The Gonzaga Bulldogs team faces a slightly different set of challenges. Since its Elite Eight appearance in 1999, it has successfully established itself as the closest thing to a major program in a mid-major conference, making the tournament field in every year since, even in years it failed to win the West Coast Conference tournament. Its position in a mid-major conference is no longer a primary issue with regard to making the tournament field, but is often perceived to adversely affect its tournament seeding. The Bulldogs typically play a nationally competitive nonconference schedule, frequently going on the road, and have proven themselves capable of defeating nationally prominent opponents. However, the relative weakness of the West Coast Conference (WCC) hurts Gonzaga's strength of schedule, which in turn lowers the Bulldogs' Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) (an important numerical criterion in tournament selection). Xavier University is another program that must overcome the mid-major label. On January 9, 2008, PG Drew Lavender was named the "Mid-Major Player of the Week" by Rivals.com but Lavender refused to accept the award making the case that Xavier was no longer a mid-major. This act caused many prominent journalists to debate if the Atlantic 10 is a mid-major conference or not. This quandary no longer applies to Xavier, as it joined the reconstituted Big East in 2013. Other nationally prominent mid-majors, such as the Memphis Tigers (prior to joining the American Athletic Conference) and Wichita State Shockers, are also likely to face these challenges.
Mid-major teams as a rule have to play these BCS conference teams as road games, but many BCS conference teams are scared of such. Some mid-major teams are now preferring to play "home" games in larger nearby arenas. Gonzaga uses the Spokane Arena in its home city or KeyArena in Seattle for these larger-audience games. Some mid-major and major conference teams have made the use of non-campus arenas permanent; Milwaukee, DePaul, Memphis, Georgetown, and Marquette all moved men's games off-campus in order to gain more exposure, with the last three sharing professional arenas.
The NCAA tournament selection for the 2006 men's tournament was surrounded by controversy related to mid-major programs. A number of teams from mid-major conferences had unprecedented success in the non-conference portions of their schedule, and were therefore ranked highly in the RPI throughout the season. A change in the NCAA's RPI rating process prior to the 2005 season also improved many of these teams' chances by changing from a formula that treated home and road wins and losses equally, to a formula that gave higher weight to road games. Because many BCS conference teams played no more than one or two non-conference games away from home, there was a de facto bolstering of RPI ratings for many mid-major teams, leading to speculation about how this "new" version of the RPI would be used in the selection process by the NCAA tournament selection committee. In spite of a new precedent being set by the committee by leaving the highest ranked RPI team ever, #21 Missouri State of the Missouri Valley Conference, out of the tournament field, some mid-majors with strong RPI's received at-large bids over lower-ranked BCS conference teams. This prompted harsh criticism from sports writers and coaches of BCS conference teams that did not receive bids. This criticism flew in the face of the fact that the six BCS conferences still received more bids (32) from the committee than in most past years. The mid-major conference teams that were selected went on to silence those critics when a record number (five) advanced to the "Sweet 16". Even more significantly, one of those teams, George Mason of the Colonial Athletic Association, made it to the Final Four. In both the 2008 and 2009 NCAA tournaments, mid-major Siena had a strong showing, advancing to the second round with wins over Vanderbilt and Ohio State respectively. In 2008 the Memphis Tigers, led by Derrick Rose, out of Conference USA, reached the national championship game before being defeated by the Kansas Jayhawks in overtime. In the 2010 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, the Butler University Bulldogs reached the Final Four, becoming the 3rd mid-major to make the Final Four in the modern (1985–present) era. On April 3, they beat Michigan State of the Big Ten Conference to become the second mid-major to reach the national championship game since 1998.
The 2011 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament was the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that two mid-majors met in the Final Four. The Butler University Bulldogs returned for their second consecutive appearance after winning the Southeast Regional in New Orleans as a #8 seed. The Virginia Commonwealth University Rams of the Colonial Athletic Association advanced to their first Final Four appearance after winning the Southwest Regional in San Antonio as a #11 seed. VCU became the first team in history to win five games to reach the Final Four, winning the First Four round in its inaugural year. VCU tied LSU in 1986 and fellow CAA team, George Mason, in 2006 as the highest seed to reach the Final Four (#11). The previous time two mid-majors advanced to the same Final Four was the 1979 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Tournament, when Indiana State of the Missouri Valley and Penn of the Ivy League qualified. Butler is no longer a mid-major due to its membership in the Big East since 2013. VCU has since joined the Atlantic 10, where it has consistently been among the top teams, even following the departure of coach Shaka Smart for Texas in 2015.
Mid-major basketball teams also face significant disadvantages when it comes to resources to spend on recruiting, marketing, and operations, including coaches' salaries. Mid-major basketball blogger Kyle Whellison, who describes as mid-major any team from a conference where average total spending on men's basketball programs is less than $2 million and average total spending on all athletic programs is less than $20 million, notes that teams from major conferences win games against teams from mid-major conferences roughly 84 percent of the time.
Since 2002, CollegeSwimming.com has produced an objective ranking system for Mid-Major, Division I swimming programs. Initiated by Clark Campbell, the poll has been used to provide attention to teams that were often targeted for elimination ostensibly for Title IX or budgetary reasons. Swimming, along with most other NCAA sports, is fundamentally different in its financial model from the so-called "revenue sports" of basketball and Division I FBS football. The NCAA classifies the latter two sports as "head-count" sports, which means that the total number of players that can receive any athletically-related financial aid from the school is limited. Because a partial scholarship counts fully against the head count, it means that in practice, scholarships are almost always awarded as full grants-in-aid. On the other hand, the NCAA classifies swimming as an "equivalency" sport, meaning that scholarships can be divided among a number of student-athletes. CollegeSwimming.com's definition of a mid-major institution takes this into account. Though the lineup has changed, institutions eligible for the CollegeSwimming.com poll are those institutions that a) are not members of a BCS conference, Mountain West Conference, or Western Athletic Conference; or b) provide fewer than one-half of the allowable scholarships under the NCAA rules.