Radical Realignment

College Football's "Independence Day"?

As we reach the 4th of July, thoughts of freedom, liberty and “All Created Equal” are – hopefully – dancing in all of our heads. This column is purposefully non-political, I’m writing about the greatest sport in the world and am sticking to it. However, there is a message that resonates with millions of fans on this Independence Day – particularly those fans of non-blue blood programs.

The college football world is an aristocratic system right up there with the British Empire. It’s an “Upstairs Downstairs” relationship between the Power Five Conferences (ACC, B1G, Big 12, PAC-12 and SEC plus football independent Notre Dame who is now a quasi-member of the ACC) and the “Group of Five” (AAC, CUSA, MAC, Mountain West & Sun Belt, plus independents like BYU and Army) with the AAC and Mountain West serving in the role of butler for the “Downstairs” conferences. The Group of Five is guaranteed just one spot in the New Year’s Six major bowls. The only way a Group of Five team could make the actual playoff would be an undefeated season against a really strong non-conference schedule and lots of chaos resulting in multiple two loss conference champions from the Power 5. Likewise, some Power 5 schools are mired in situations that make it very difficult to rise above the mean. We’ve covered the plight of Maryland as an example.

Just under a decade ago, FBS (also known as Division I-A) football underwent a pretty big realignment, with the Big 12 and the old Big East (who’s teams are now spread between AAC, ACC, Big 12 and Big 10) being the biggest losers. The PAC-10 became the PAC-12, adding Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West –after trying to add Texas and Oklahoma. The SEC was the benefit of Texas A&M’s desire to get out from under Texas’ shadow. Missouri went with Texas A&M but, awkwardly, became a member of the SEC East. Nebraska left the Big 12 and went to the Big 10 in 2011. The Big 12 reacted by adding TCU to it’s ranks from the Mountain West…but the conference stopped there, leaving it with 10 teams.  Maryland and Rutgers left the ACC and Big East respectively to join the Big 10 in 2014. After the merry-go-round stopped spinning, we were left with a 10 team Big 12 and a 14 team Big 10 and no more Big East…confused yet?

Realignment was largely driven by the desire for eyeballs with many conferences either having specific television deals for most of their games to be shown and launching their own networks.

This has led to some unwieldy conference makeups. It’s made it harder to compare strength of schedules, a vitally important piece to the puzzle of picking the participants in the College Football Playoff. In the SEC, for example, Texas A&M joined in 2012 and just got to play Georgia for the first time in 2019. The next time they play, unless both make the SEC Championship Game, will be 2024. That’s twice in 12 years. This problem repeats itself all through the SEC and ACC, also popping up in the Big 10 (although their 9 game conference schedule helps ease that issue). Meanwhile, the Big 12…with it’s 10 teams…plays a full round robin. The PAC-12 can’t get everyone in every year, but each team plays 9 of the 11 other teams in the league every year, so they are playing each team no less than every other year. How can this and the entrenched disparity between P5 and G5 Conferences be addressed?

Into the breach stepped Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde, an excellent writer with a long history covering college football and the NCAA in general. Last week, he put together a detailed and radical realignment of 119 FBS programs and 1 FCS program into ten-12 team conferences. (To get to 120, Pat elevated multi-time FCS national champion North Dakota State to FBS and relegated 11 lower-level programs down from FBS to FCS for the sake of round numbers and competitiveness).

In Pat Forde’s own words:

“Ten leagues, each with 12 members, each designed to maximize proximity and reduce travel demands and costs. All current conference structures are broken and reassembled. There are no more than eight Power 5 programs in a single new conference, and no fewer than four. And there are no independents….

…In football, each school will play a full round-robin schedule plus one nonconference game (no FCS opponents)…no conference championship games (anymore)…”

The conferences are really interesting – perhaps a bit far-fetched in some cases – but they make geographic sense and are relatively balanced. Leagues with huge powers like Alabama and Ohio State have at least a couple other teams that are on their level, but very few teams that would go 1-11 or 2-10 every year against their conference opponents.

For the college football playoff, Pat’s plan includes the 10 conference champs and two at-large teams chosen by a selection committee with top four teams getting a first round bye and first and second round games played on the higher seed’s campus – which would be very exciting. Then the Final Four would take place like it does now.

What I like best about the postseason in the “Forde Plan” is that it doesn’t get rid of bowls outside of the expanded playoff. There would be fewer bowls overall, but still an opportunity for the Marylands or Oregon States of the world to get a postseason reward and spotlight for the accomplishment of winning seasons…and more football for me to view.

Other positives: It makes travel simpler for non-revenue sports as most of the ten leagues would have schools close enough to drive or take very short flights.

It would give smaller schools in states and regions with the big boys more…independence - a chance to play and compete regularly and grow their programs. This kind of empowerment is also one of the main reasons this kind of realignment is extremely unlikely to happen. Georgia doesn’t want Georgia Tech in the same league as them probably, but the two of them REALLY don’t want to give Georgia Southern and Georgia State equal footing. Same with LSU and Tulane or Ohio State with Cincinnati and Ohio.

Another reason this kind of shakeup is unlikely are the lucrative television contracts that the Power 5 conferences, Notre Dame, and even BYU have signed as well as their own conference networks.

A better – or at least more realistic - solution to the problems outlined above is each conference embracing what’s can affectionately be called “The Pod Plan”. The idea, put together by the crack team of college football writers/podcasters at the Banner Society (RIP to those who were inexplicably furloughed by Vox Media), replaces league divisions like the SEC East/West and B1G East/West with “pods” where every team plays three (or in ACC four) standing rivals each year and then has a rotation of all the other teams. The best two teams play for the conference title. While it’s not perfect in that some regional rivalries that have been every year affairs would now be once every other year, it ensures that every SEC player that stays for four years will get to play at every stadium in the SEC before they graduate. It gives fans fresher matchups while, again, making sure that Alabama and Tennessee and Auburn and Georgia don’t lose their rivalries because of being in different sides of a league.

You can check out the plan from this 2019 article, written by Jason Kirk, Alex Kirschner, Bill Connelly (now at ESPN), Bud Elliott (now at 247Sports), and Matt Brown (check out his Extra Points newsletter).

On this Independence Day weekend – both of these plans celebrate the best of independent thought in how to reimagine college football without destroying what makes it great – competitive, regional rivalries and constant debate year-round.

Feel free to share your thoughts with me on Twitter @JustinReady and be sure to follow @theduckpin for latest updates. Next week, we’ll look at some rules that we should declare independence from as well.