The game of College Football has been one of change the last 2 years. Conference realignment aided by previously unheard of TV contracts has rearranged the way we look at conferences (and the way we value teams within a conference). Talk of a long fan anticipated playoff seems like it has traction with the people that matter. How much more change can we expect? I wouldn’t anticipate any more change beyond a playoff until at least 2016 (or maybe longer if the Big 12 can come to an agreement to extend their grant of media rights to 2025 thus binding the conference until then, http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Special-Content/News/2012/Big-12-ESPN.aspx) But what if the 2016 date holds firm? What changes can we expect? If the 2016 date holds for the Big 12 media rights, then I think we can expect more major conference realignment, and possibly a complete NCAA Division 1 split. Before we get to the split, who goes where in the new realignment and why?
The first move would be Larry Scott making a second attempt for Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma St. Scott said last September regarding further expansion, “Simply put, our presidents and our athletic directors are absolutely thrilled with where we are in a world of 12-team conferences. We're at the top of the heap and we love our position. If the world changes -- and it's not a world of 12-team conferences anymore -- then we might re-evaluate.” (http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Daily/Issues/2011/09/12/Colleges/Pac-12.aspx) Scott makes it clear in this article that he believes super-conferences will happen and that he’s determined to keep the Pac 12 ahead of the game. The ACC and SEC have gone to 14 teams, the landscape is no longer one of 12 team conferences. This is why Scott makes the first move. Much like the first run at the 4 Big 12 schools, Texas drags its feet due to the LHN and the problems it creates within the Pac 12 media structure (the LHN’s contract with ESPN doesn’t expire for 20 years barring Texas from joining the Pac 12). This time Scott is able to get the votes to add the Oklahoma schools by themselves. The Pac 12 is now at 14 with Oklahoma and Oklahoma St. The major hang-up that everyone will talk about is that Oklahoma and Texas will not want to be in separate conferences; but this isn’t true. We saw last year that it came only a few Pac 12 votes away from becoming reality. The new Pac 14 is formed.
The next move is from Jim Delany and the Big Ten. The Big Ten won’t be the first to move, but if the Pac 12 makes the move to 14; the Big Ten will follow suit. The Big Ten and Pac 12 are the closest to sibling conferences that exist within major college athletics. I don’t think it was merely coincidence that the first two conferences to expand were the Pac 12 with Colorado, followed only by a few days with the Big Ten and Nebraska. The two have even made a scheduling pact spanning multiple sports that will take effect in 2017. After 2017, every Pac 12 football school will play a Big Ten football school as part of their non-conference schedule. (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/29/sports/ncaafootball/pac-12-and-big-ten-announce-scheduling-partnership.html). This is another reason the Big Ten will be in lock-step with the Pac 12 in any expansion scenario. The first team the Big Ten will target is Maryland. Although Maryland is a founding member of the ACC, the door may not but shut on the idea of the east coast school leaving their long time conference home; the reason being purely financial. The Maryland athletic department has undergone major budget cuts and even so has been hemorrhaging money in the last decade. Just this November, Maryland was force to cut 8 varsity sports from its athletic department (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/terrapins-insider/post/maryland-president-wallace-loh-agrees-to-cut-eight-teams-to-alleve-budget-woes/2011/11/21/gIQAt1SuhN_blog.html) This financial burden paired with the per team payout the Big Ten can offer (which is the top of all college football conferences) is what will push Maryland to consider and eventually apply for Big Ten membership. The second team Delany will target is of course, Notre Dame. This time Notre Dame will listen, and listen hard. In August, NBC announced plans to move a few Notre Dame home games a year starting in 2012 to its cable network, Versus (now NBC Sports Network). (http://www.onefootdown.com/2011/8/12/2355720/a-couple-irish-home-games-on-versus-how-does-this-change-notre-dame) Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports chairman, is now in charge (taking over for known Notre Dame enthusiast Dick Ebersol) and may not be as pro-Notre Dame as his predecessor. Lazarus, however, desires to build the NBC Sports Network into an entity that rivals sports giant ESPN, and he is using Notre Dame as the center piece. NBC has fallen behind recently losing money in large amounts compared to the other major networks. Notre Dame’s TV contract with NBC expires in 2015, by that time I believe Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame AD) will see that the NBC Sports Network can’t compete with ESPN. This is due to the fact that NBC Sports Network has very little exposure compared to ESPN in the realm of the NFL, NBA, MLB, and College Football; Swarbrick will recognize that the ship is sinking and will recommend not renewing Notre Dame’s contract with NBC. This isn’t the only factor in Notre Dame joining the Big Ten. The scheduling pact the Big Ten has made with the Pac 12 would be very attractive in the sense that it nationalizes the exposure of the conference from new east coast member (Maryland) to longtime rival on the west coast USC. Notre Dame prides itself in being national. This arrangement would allow it to continue being so, even from within a conference. The Big Ten would probably move Wisconsin to the Legends division adding Notre Dame and Maryland both to the more eastern based Leaders division.
The next move would come swiftly from the ACC. Although Texas couldn’t make the LHN work within the Pac 12 structure, the ACC seemed more accommodating. Deloss Dodds even made the statement that if Texas switched conferences, they would in fact look east. (http://lufkindailynews.com/news/local/lufkindailynews.com/news/local/article_c7f11fa0-4eeb-11e1-9dcf-0019bb2963f4.html) ACC commissioner John Swofford would waste no time in getting back to 14 teams; and Texas would be anxious to find a more prestigious home after Oklahoma and Oklahoma St were accepted into the Pac 12. Texas would replace Maryland and get the ACC back to 14 teams.
This would leave the old Big 12 with the following teams: Kansas, Kansas St, Baylor, Texas Tech, West Virginia, TCU, and Iowa St. The last move in this round of conference realignment would be a tug ’o war between the Big 12 and the Big East. At this point what happens could be anyone’s guess, but since this is my guess; here it goes. My bet is that the Big 12 with its better football branding would win that contest and the Big 12 would add the following schools from the Big East: Houston, SMU, Boise St, Rutgers, Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Central Florida, UConn, and San Diego St. At this point, BYU would also be willing to look at joining a conference due to scheduling issues they would encounter as being an independent in this landscape as well as their TV deal being dwarfed by those of the major conferences. This makes 18 teams, but I believe the conference would push for 20 teams not out of convenience, but out of necessity. Compared to the larger brands in the other major conferences, the Big 12 would have to maximize its inventory to compete. The final 2 teams rounding out this 20 team conference would be Fresno St and Hawaii. The format for this conference would have to use 4 pods consisting of 5 teams per pod. The pods would rotate scheduling each other so that every team would play all the other teams in its own pod (4 games) plus all the teams from the pod they are partnered with for that year (5 games). This would result in every team playing 9 conference games and seeing every other team in the conference home and home in only six years. Using these teams, the pods would have to look something like this:
San Diego St
This would be one massive undertaking for a conference to expand from Hawaii to South Florida, but in this case desperate times would call for desperate measures.
The next major change in College Football would be a split of NCAA’s FBS Division. The gap between the haves and have not’s is no longer just a gap, it’s a canyon. This schism between the large athletic department budgets and those with smaller ones has been exasperated by the TV contracts given to FBS conferences of late. There has already been discussion that the top football division needs to be re-configured. In January, Mark Emmert (NCAA President) said that a working group has been created to examine this issue (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/story/2012-01-29/ncaa-division-I-structure-football/52875162/1). If the preceding realignment scenarios happen, this would only further push the need to split the FBS Division into two. This division split would consist of the 14 team SEC, Big Ten, Pac 14 and ACC I have illustrated above along with the 20 team Big 12. Air Force, Army, and Navy would all be included as independents. This would make a top FBS Division of 79 teams. The remaining 35 teams would be combined with the top FCS teams to create a new division in which they would compete for a separate national title. I imagine scheduling in this new environment would be competitive, with every conference having at least 14 teams, every team in the Upper FBS Division would be playing 9 conference games. The Pac 14/Big Ten scheduling pact would become a desired model due to the sharing of media rights and the new exposure this sharing brings to each conference in terms of marketing and TV sets tuned into each Conference Network. With Texas joining the ACC, it wouldn’t be hard to see the SEC and ACC coming to a similar scheduling pact as the Pac 14/Big Ten have agreed upon. These two conferences already share multiple, yearly, cross-conference rivalries including: Florida St/Florida, Clemson/South Carolina, Georgia/Georgia Tech, a budding rivalry between Vanderbilt/Wake Forest, and a possible option with Texas/Texas A&M. The specifics of a relationship of that magnitude are hard to see given the differing way those conferences handle media rights; but on the surface a relationship of that fashion would seem beneficial.
The final change is the type of playoff format these changes would be conducive to. The Pac 12 presidents agreed in principle earlier this month to do away with the BCS system and move toward a playoff where conference champions are only allowed to participate. (http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/2012/03/10/20120310bcs-playoff-system-pac-12-plan.html) Talk amongst the presidents also included that of a possible 8 team playoff sometime in the future. The only firm stipulation that seemed to come from this meeting was that the integrity of the Rose Bowl be upheld as a Big Ten/Pac 12 game. All conferences would have to agree upon a format; the SEC will not buy in to a ‘champions only’ format as stated by SEC commissioner, Mike Slive, earlier this month (http://collegefootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/03/07/only-conference-champs-not-t he-way-slive-wants-playoff-to-go/). Jim Delany has been somewhat quiet on the specifics of a format only agreeing that the Rose Bowl is what is important to Big Ten presidents and that playoff games at campus sites would be ideal. John Swofford has also been quiet regarding a playoff format, but the ACC seems to be in line with the SEC. The format that might come out of all these negotiations and concessions (and with the proposed conference changes illustrated above) may be a tweaked 8 team playoff. To placate the Pac 12 wanting champions only, the 5 conference champions of the ACC, Big Ten, Pac 14, SEC, and 20 team Big 12 would all automatically qualify for the playoff. The remaining 3 seeds would be left as at-large bids to placate the wishes of the ACC and SEC to not have a ‘champions only’ playoff. The Pac 14 and Big Ten would be seeded on one side of the bracket, the ACC and SEC would be seeded on the other. The Big 12 champion along with the 3 at-large teams would be seeded as required with the emphasis of Big Ten and Pac 14 teams being placed on the same side of the bracket. The first round of the playoffs could be played at campus sites of higher seeded teams. The semi-final games would be played at the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl. The Rose Bowl semi-final would be for the Big Ten/Pac 14 side of the bracket; the Sugar Bowl semi-final would be for the ACC/SEC side of the bracket. If the teams were in the 14 team format conferences this past year, this playoff would have looked something like this:
Wisconsin - Big Ten Champion
Stanford - at large
Oklahoma St - Pac 14 Champion
Oregon - at large
Clemson - ACC Champion
Alabama - at large
LSU – SEC Champion
Kansas St – Big 12 Champion
The winner of Game 1 would play the winner of Game 2 in the Rose Bowl while the winner of Game 3 would play the winner of Game 4 in the Sugar Bowl. The national championship game site could be bid out much like the Super Bowl is before the season begins. A playoff format of this type would satisfy the desire to keep the Rose Bowl within the Big Ten/Pac 14 and would also keep the Sugar Bowl relevant to the SEC.
These ideas are all guesses about what could happen in the landscape of college football within the next decade. Some guesses are more educated than others; some guesses are extrapolated to their extents. I realize that not everyone will agree with some of these situations I have illustrated, but a few of these could very well happen. College Football has changed more in the past 5 years than it has in the previous 15 combined, no matter if all these illustrations happen or none at all, the growing popularity of the game is undeniable. It will be interesting to see what the game produces to advance itself in the coming decade.