I've thought long and hard (no, really...) about the realities of the present climate for major college football. Here's the final summation, which people much smarter than me have explored in great depth: the system isn't fair. It isn't equitable. It enriches the long-entrenched programs while penalizing those that would like to experience even a modicum of ascension.
This is toxic for the sports landscape, and it leads to that charade of a "playoff" at the end of the year is supposed to pick a true national champion. Our current "playoff" is an improvement, of course, on the previous systems that included the AP Poll and the clown show of the BCS.
But that doesn't mean that we can't demand more. We need a more equitable system...
Look, the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), which was formerly known as NCAA D1AA, has a sixteen-team playoff every year. Those student-athletes, just as those playing in all of the other divisions, take final exams and have to complete their schoolwork on time. They wrap up their championship game in early January--just as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) teams do.
Right now, selecting four teams for the "playoff" is subjective. There are many conferences that play FBS football, but there are five so-called "power conferences" (SEC, PAC-12, BIG-10, BIG-12, and ACC) vying for those spots.
This year, for the first time ever, two SEC teams made the playoff. That's correct--two teams from a single conference made it to the final four because there supposedly weren't enough viable candidates from the rest of college football.
College sports are at a crossroads that are bordering on a crisis. Attendance fell precipitously last year, a drop that hasn't been seen in thirty-four years! The games are expensive and season tickets, which often require a substantial "donation" to the university's booster organization, are pricing out families. Couple that with the fact that every game is on television in ultra-clear HD, and it's no surprise that people are staying home.
This trend bleeds revenue for the athletic departments, and some schools without active fan bases or big-money donors (and yes, I understand that Phil Knight subsidizes my Ducks; just another stroke of luck for ol' Powell...) flounder.
Consider a proud university like Oregon State University as an example. They are falling way behind in the race to keep up with richer, more successful programs. They are flying to Ohio to play OSU in the Horseshoe as sacrificial lambs to begin the year for a $1.7 million-dollar payout that they rely on to keep the entire athletic department afloat. That's right, a team that went 1-11 last year, finished last in the PAC-12 in recruiting this year, and whose coach unceremoniously quit in the middle of the campaign (leaving $12 million on the table; Who does that?) is going to go on the road to play Ohio State University.
Makes perfect sense, right?
And the cost of national travel is astronomical. Please read this superb article on the discrepancies and costs of travel in intercollegiate athletics. If you don't have time to look at it, here's a quick snippet:
Travel is one of the most arduous aspects of college basketball. Hours upon hours every season are dedicated to getting to the next town, buses and planes essentially becoming players' and coaches' mobile second homes.
Some have it easier than others.
Most schools, though, can't afford to charter planes. The cost of travel drains resources and is distracting to student-athletes. Maybe they should play closer to home, am I right?At the highest levels of Division I, buses park next to charter planes filled with spacious seats, teams' schedules based on when the runway is open. Convenience affords efficiency: Practice at home, fly out in the evening, play the next day, head straight home.
So, yeah, what if we could do it better? It would take some growing pains and two decades of adjustment, but I believe it would be worth it in the long run. Realignment would help institutions save money, which they could pass on to the customers that support these programs in the form of reduced ticket prices. It would also create a month of competitive football that would be unlike anything else in sports.
You think March Madness is crazy?
Just wait for December Delirium...
It would level the playing field, creating an opportunity for teams like 2017's undefeated UCF squad to prove its mettle on the field of play. Novel idea, right?
Here's what I'm thinking, because this post is getting long and it's only going to get longer:
We create six conferences, each with two divisions, and we play it off to decide the national champion at the end of the year.
I put some time and energy into this, and anyone reading this will likely disagree with my realignment proposal, but I took traditional conference ties, traditional rivalries, and geography into account in organizing this.
That last component, by the way, was the most critical factor in my thought process. Simply put, I'm trying to make it all easier for the fans, athletes, and schools...
Caveats and Considerations:
- Some current FCS schools would have to step up and join the FBS in my scenario. Some FBS teams, I think, are squeezed out (UTSA?). First draft here...
- Some current FCS schools that rely on sacrificial whippings as payday games would suffer a blow to their bottom lines.
- Some traditional rivalries would be disrupted. But I contend that new rivalries would emerge in less than two decades. It only took ten years for The War on I-4 (South Florida and Central Florida) to become super heated. In twenty years, the landscape would be settled. Change is difficult at first, even when it's made with the best of intentions. In fifty years, though, fans wouldn't have remembered any other configuration--just as I now know very little about the old PAC-8.
- Teams would play nine games in their division (round robin), plus two preseason games. One preseason game would have to be against a team from a different FBS division, which might keep some rivalries in play. The other could come against a team from the FCS. For a team that falls below .500, there would be no bowl game (the bowl system would remain, albeit a formal playoff would also emerge alongside it), so they would only play eleven games (potentially losing revenue with our current twelve-game slates).