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How to Save College Football from Itself

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How to solve all of the world's problems...or at least its college football problems.

College football needs to modify how this prize is captured
College football needs to modify how this prize is captured
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This article is meant to represent an ideal framework for how college football conferences and the playoff system could and should be structured. While I acknowledge that this article takes a very simplistic and even nostalgic approach to what has increasingly become a zero sum, profit-driven game, I will seek to explain the rationale and logic behind why these suggestions could be ideal for all involved parties.

Financial considerations, and, namely, television rights contracts and the push to create superconferences to generate said gigantic television rights contracts threaten to ruin colllege football as we know it. Over the past several years, the following rivalries and countless others have been disrupted:  Texas / Texas A&M, the Backyard Brawl (Pitt / West Virginia), the Border War (Kansas / Missouri), Notre Dame / Michigan, Nebraska's membership in the Big 6, 7 , 8, and 12.

Despite concerns of conferences being torn apart and rivalries going by the wayside, the financial interests of the top-level participants appear to have satisfactorily justified the changes that have occurred. However, it is worth keeping in mind that the collective financial interest of college football’s participants is what makes those premier programs so valuable.

There’s a phrase that comes to mind about how "a rising tide lifts all boats". Well, along those same lines, if a giant tsunami knocks K-State and dozens of other similarly situated universities’ football teams out of contention for college football’s top prize, the yacht that contains college football’s premier programs could find itself washed ashore or even shipwrecked, far away from its island paradise of maximum television revenues, as millions of fans may turn away from the game. Such a giant tsunami is what I am afraid could await college football when the current television contracts near their expiration (they extend through the 2024 football season). The recent statistics indicating a reduction in college football attendance in 2014 could, unfortunately, be a sign of things to come.

Playoff and Basic Conference Framework

So here are the components of the model I think would be ideal for college football:

An 8-team playoff, along with a traditional bowl framework for teams that do not make the playoff. There would be 6 major conferences, with 12 teams in each conference. Each major conference team would play 8 league games and all teams would play a total of 11 regular season games. Teams not in the major conferences would have the option of transitioning into FCS or remaining FBS teams in the new framework. Each major conference would have 2 divisions, with a conference championship game. Champions of the 6 major conferences would be in the playoff and 2 at-large spots would remain that would either be filled by teams from inside or outside the major conferences.

A formula similar to the BCS would be used to rank all teams, which would come into play for choosing the 2 at-large spots. The top 1 or 2 non-major conference team(s) ranked in the top 12 of the BCS-like formula (if any) would be given a spot in the playoff. If any spots would remain, the top 1 or 2 (depending on how many non-major conference teams would have been selected) teams (regardless of conference affiliation) that were not conference champions would be given a spot in the playoff.

A committee would be in charge of seeding the 8 teams. First round/quarterfinal games would include home games for the top 4 seeds, to reward the most impressive teams and teams that had played the most difficult schedules, while also including some more of the on-campus pageantry of college football. The semifinals and championship games would be played in major bowl game destinations similar to the current playoff format.

Each conference (including non-major conferences) would be able to form its own television network and/or advertise games on their regular networks, which would have exclusive rights to all conference football games for its members.

With regard to the 6 major conferences (which are outlined in more detail below), no television network could own the rights to more than 2 major conferences —- accordingly, one could expect ESPN to obtain the SEC and Midwest Conference, FOX to get the Great Plains Conference and the PAC 12, and NBC and CBS to fight over the ACC and the Northeast Conference. The right to cover the playoff would be bid out in a fashion similar to how it is currently handled.

The 6 major conferences would include the Southeastern Conference, the Midwestern Conference (Big 10), the Great Plains Conference (Big 12), the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Pacific Coast Conference (PAC 12), and the Northeastern Conference (similar to the Big East).

So this is pretty much college football, circa 2004, with an 8-team playoff and a handful of twists. Here would be the members in each major conference:

PCC GPC MWC SEC ACC NEC
Arizona Baylor Illinois Alabama Central Florida Boston College
Arizona St Iowa St Indiana Arkansas Clemson Cincinnati
California Kansas Iowa Auburn Duke Connecticut
UCLA Kansas St Michigan Florida East Carolina Louisville
Colorado Missouri Michigan St Georgia Florida State Marshall
Oregon Nebraska Minnesota Kentucky Georgia Tech Maryland
Oregon St Oklahoma Northwestern LSU Memphis Pittsburgh
USC Oklahoma St Notre Dame Mississippi Miami (FL) Rutgers
Stanford Texas Ohio St Mississippi St North Carolina Syracuse
Utah Texas A&M Penn St South Carolina North Carolina St Virginia
Washington TCU Purdue Tennessee South Florida Virginia Tech
Washington St Texas Tech Wisconsin Vanderbilt Wake Forest West Virginia

Justification

This would put numerous rivalries back in place that have been purged as a result of conference realignment. Also, it would make much better geographical sense than some of the proposed super conferences, West Virginia in the Big 12, and Missouri in the SEC East. This would contribute to the fan experience. The competitive advantage that college football has over the NFL is tied to the historic rivalries, the pagaentry of college football, and alumni of all of its universities feeling a connection with their teams.

This would be a stable model that could generate substantial revenues, without risking the alienation of dozens of universities and millions of fans. The current model is very unstable.

This would prevent an ESPN monopoly of television rights. ESPN (inclusive of ABC) has done a fantastic job of covering college football and several other sports, but it is beginning to run the risk of turning into a monopoly in its ties to college football, whether in fact or merely in the eyes of its end consumers (the latter has definitely begun to occur). Under the model I have proposed, ESPN could wholeheartedly take on its bidding for the rights to the 2 conferences it is most interested in covering, while not having the opportunity to substantially shape how college football champions are crowned. Again, this could be in ESPN's best long-term interests, as it would prevent fans becoming disenfranchsised with the network's ties to college football and/or college football itself.

Lastly, this would provide for great college football games to determine a champion. It seems like a fair playoff system. Conference games would have meaning. Teams would still be rewarded for tough out of conference scheduling (but not unduly penalized for any such losses). And, finally, there would still be the traditional bowl games at play for the teams outside of the Great 8.

Applied to 2014

The next question: what would this model look like if it had been employed during the 2014 college football season?

  • #8 West Virginia at #1 Alabama
  • #5 Baylor at #4 Ohio State
  • #7 Mississippi State at #2 Oregon
  • #6 TCU at #3 Florida State

Conclusion

In closing, there is virtually no way this would ever come about. There are too many players acting in their own nearsighted financial interest as if the pie (college football viewership) has reached its maximum capacity, rather than approaching college football viewership as a market that can become an even bigger pie through collective action. Nevertheless, the realities of the situation didn’t stop me from taking the time to think this up and type it out because I think college football can do better than the shipwreck I’m afraid it’s headed for.