NCAA conference realignment: reshaping the college football landscape

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Ten years ago this month, the last major realignment spasm began to rock the world of college sport. When it finally subsided in 2014, the landscape had radically changed. For the wealthy, but not necessarily for the better.The Big Ten ended up with 14 teams, ranging from Nebraska to New Jersey. The Southeast Conference has spread to Texas and Missouri. The Atlantic Coast Conference traveled nearly 1,000 miles inland. Pac-12 annexed the Rocky Mountains. The Big 12, pushed to the brink of collapse, stabilized by adding a school 1,200 miles northeast of the league office. Smaller conferences have followed suit, seeking financial sustainability.

A decade later, it is time to blow up what has been done and start again. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were deeply felt in an area where, for 10 years, money was no longer an object and the card made no sense. Struck in the face by a new fiscal reality, we may need to both brake and reach out – to geographically engage in more regional conferences, while broadening the reach of the College Football Playoff revenue gusher.

The radical realignment highlights:

  • An ecosystem of 120 schools, with 11 current FBS members relegated to the FCS and a high from this level. Congratulations to the State of North Dakota; condolences to UTEP, Texas State, UTSA, South Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe, Bowling Green, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Coastal Carolina, Troy and Liberty. (Relegation / elevation can be revisited every three seasons.)
  • 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 less than four. And there are no freelancers – yes, Notre Dame is in conference.
  • In football, each school will play a full round robin program plus a non-conference game (no FCS opponent). The non-conference opponent will be locked up for at least four seasons before there is an option to schedule someone else. There will be no conference championship games.
  • The 10 conference champions, plus two unofficial teams chosen by a selection committee, qualify for the expanded college football qualifiers. The teams are brought together by the committee. The first four receive a pass in the first round, while the seeds 5 to 8 welcome the seeds 9 to 12 in their home stadiums the first weekend in December. The quarterfinals will be played next week in the home stadiums of the seed 1–4. The semi-finals and the championship match are played in the current CFP format.
  • There will always be bowl games for teams who will not be taking the CFP. Slightly less, which no one should care about.
  • The conferences will also work for basketball and other sports – in fact, it will be better for non-recurring sports in terms of savings on travel costs. The approximately 230 non-FBS programs that make up the NCAA Division I will remain roughly aligned where they already are, with a few exceptions.

For a full size image, click here.

If only it could be presented to the central management of college football who cared about the good of the whole business. But that doesn’t exist, and it’s another column for another day.

What college football would gain from this realignment: consistency; conference championships that really matter; increased access to more lucrative playoffs; a more level playing field for little guys; renewed regional identity; expensive rivalries preserved, restored and, in some cases, forced into permanent existence. The benefits are many.

Complaints about conference schedules would disappear. Everyone would play 11 league games, facing each opponent in the conference each season. There would be no unbalanced schedule, beyond six home games against five, and that would be reversed every season. Without divisions, there is no chance of drawing lots from interdivisional opponents. And the endless caresses of conferences that play more championship games than the others would be silenced.

Having automatic playoffs tied to the conference championships – and having enough playoff space for each conference champion – would eliminate another chronic complaint. Win your league, try the national title. It’s as simple as that. It works for the NCAA basketball tournament, and it would work for the new FBS.



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