In college football, the term Power Five conferences refers to five athletic conferences whose members are part of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) of NCAA Division I, the highest level of collegiate football in the United States. The conferences are the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference (SEC). The term "Power Five" is not defined by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the origin of the term is unknown. It has been used in its current meaning since at least 2006. The term is also occasionally, incorrectly, used in other college sports, although it is irrelevant because in sports such as basketball there are considered at least six, and as many as eight high-major conferences.|
The Power Five conferences make up five of the ten conferences in FBS; the other FBS conferences are informally known as the Group of Five. The FBS consists of the Power Five, the Group of Five, and a small number of independent schools. Prior to the establishment of the College Football Playoff in 2014, the Power Five conferences, as well as the old Big East Conference, were called Automatic Qualifying (AQ) conferences, because the champion of each conference received an automatic berth in one of the five Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowl games. The final college football season for which the BCS was in effect was the 2013 season. With the split of the old Big East, there are now five power conferences.
The conferences that comprise the Power Five are designated by the NCAA, individually by name, as "autonomy conferences". Section 18.104.22.168 of the NCAA Constitution grants such conferences autonomy "to permit the use of resources to advance the legitimate educational or athletics-related needs of student-athletes and for legislative changes that will otherwise enhance student-athlete well-being". Eleven areas of autonomy are listed, including promotional activities unrelated to athletics participation, pre-enrollment expenses and support, and financial aid.
With the establishment of the College Football Playoff in 2014, the term "automatic qualifying conference" is no longer in use, as the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) has been discontinued. However, five of the six former AQ conferences are now known as the "Power Five conferences": the Big Ten Conference, the Big 12 Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Pac-12 Conference, and the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The sixth AQ conference, the Big East, was split up during the 2010–2014 NCAA conference realignment, with five members joining P5 conferences, Notre Dame establishing a relationship with the ACC, the remaining non-football members forming the new Big East Conference, and the remaining members forming the American Athletic Conference. It is unknown where the term "Power Five Conference" originated from; it is not officially documented anywhere by the NCAA.
The American and the other four conferences in the FBS are known as the "Group of Five" (sometimes called the G5). Besides the American, the other four members of the Group of Five are Conference USA (C-USA), the Mid-American Conference (MAC), the Mountain West Conference (MW), and the Sun Belt Conference.
The FBS also has six independent schools as of the 2018 season: Notre Dame, Army, BYU, Liberty, New Mexico State, and UMass. Notre Dame is currently considered equal to the Power Five schools, being a full (with the exception of football) member of the ACC with an annual five-game football scheduling agreement with that conference; Notre Dame also has its own national television contract and its own arrangement for access to the CFP-affiliated bowl games should it meet stated competitive criteria. All Power Five leagues that require their members to schedule at least one Power Five team in nonconference play (currently the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12) consider Notre Dame to be a Power Five opponent for such purposes. The ACC, Big Ten, and SEC also count BYU as a Power Five opponent for scheduling purposes, and the Big Ten and SEC count Army as well.
College football underwent another major conference realignment from 2010 to 2014, as the Big Ten and Pac-10 sought to become large enough to stage championship games. Members of the original Big East left the conference to join the Big 12, Big Ten, and ACC. The Big 12 lost members to the SEC, the Pac-12, and the Big Ten, while the Big Ten also gained one former ACC member. The remaining members of the Big East split into two conferences: the American Athletic Conference (the American) and a new Big East Conference that does not sponsor football (only three of its 10 members sponsor football, all at the second-tier Division I FCS level). The American, the football successor to the Big East, is no longer considered a power conference. Despite the major conference realignment from 2010 to 2014, relatively few schools dropped out of or joined the ranks of the power conferences. Two of the three non-AQ schools that had appeared in multiple BCS bowls left the Mountain West Conference and joined a power conference, as Utah joined the Pac-12 and TCU joined the Big 12. Former Big East members UConn, Temple, Cincinnati, and South Florida are all now part of The American; of those, only Temple was a founding member of the Big East in football.