With the news that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will not serve past his current term that expires in June of 2020, there has been much reflection on his legacy. While there is much chicken-egg type debate over his role in the explosion of TV revenue (did he create it? did he accelerate it? did he merely ride it?), what’s definitely true is that his acquisitions of Maryland and Rutgers demonstrated a clear commitment to making TV revenue maximization the highest priority, if not the sole guiding principle, of the Big Ten Conference.
It feels like the world of college football conferences is in an unstable equilibrium right now, with all the power brokers waiting for contracts to near their expiration dates. With three of the P5 conferences sitting at 14 teams, this doesn’t feel like steady state conditions have been reached.
Back in December, I heard a lot of talk about how the Big 12’s TV rights deal with Fox expires in 2024 and that the Big Ten was positioning itself to take advantage of this by acquiring Texas and Oklahoma for 2025. The more I read about this, the more convinced I am that it is destined to happen. Both are programs with the resources to compete at the national title level in football, and they add enormous media markets to the BTN footprint.
However, with the increasing stratification of college football recruiting in an era where recruiting has more impact than ever, we’re quickly reaching a moment in history where the line between the national title contenders and the other teams becomes stark and impassable. Once this comes to pass, it would behoove the Ohio States of the world to trim the fat, cut the pretense and compete exclusively with each other. What I’m saying is that by the end of the next decade, there will be a third level of FBS football.
Currently, there’s the Power Five and the Group of 5, with a pretty clear line between them. The disintegration of the Big 12 will only accelerate the separation at the P5 level into the Superpowers and the Other Guys.
The Superpowers Separate
There’s a lot to unpack, so in this article I’ll just cover how the Superpowers will shake out. As an Illinois fan, this is the least interesting to me, but it’s the only thing of interest to the Casual Fan. If you’re not familiar with Bud Elliott’s Blue-Chip Ratio roundups, you should take a read because they pretty clearly spell out the stratification I’m talking about. From that list and the programs who’ve hung around near 50% BCR in the past, I’ll throw out 18 teams that will separate themselves as Superpowers in the next ten years: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Miami, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon, Penn State, Texas, Texas A&M, USC and Washington. Let’s make this divisible by four and add UCLA (based on their considerable resources and time spent near that 50% BCR figure) and Rutgers (based on five years of guarantees that as soon as Rutgers receives their full BTN revenue share, they will be a national powerhouse).
The very first domino to fall will of course be Texas and Oklahoma bringing the Big Ten to 16 teams and in effect killing the Big 12 as a viable P5 conference. I don’t know what will happen to the remaining B12 teams in the interim, but it’s not relevant to the fate of the Superpowers so I’ll gloss over it.
After a few years of increasing stratification where fewer and fewer P5 Other Guys are even able to sign players rated as highly as the lowest-rated players in Superpower classes, the next domino will be when a one-loss Alabama is denied a shot at a national title. At this point, the SEC will call attention to the line between the haves and the have-nots and pursue an agreement with the other Superpowers to form a league outside of the NCAA. This will be called the College Football Championship League.
Structure of the League
The nationalization of college football is geared towards the same end every other change in major sports over the last 15 years has been: chasing the NFL. This is why all discussion of the sport by national media outlet presumes an eventual expansion to an 8-team playoff, which is almost always accompanied by mentioning that the 2007 New York Giants were not the best team over the course of the regular season, but inexplicably caught fire after backing into the playoffs and won the Super Bowl. With that in mind, the CFCL will resemble the NFL in structure and will feature the exact same rulebook.
The four Power 5 conference names will still have a huge amount of brand value, and since they are the rights holders for game broadcasts, they will have to capitulate to the whims of the blue bloods. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this has happened. The P4 conferences would agree to partner with the CFCL, living on as glorified divisions.
Here’s how the CFCL would be structured:
SEC: Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Florida, Georgia
ACC: Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Rutgers, Notre Dame
Big Ten: Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, Penn State
PAC: USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington, Texas A&M
Notre Dame and Penn State would eventually be switched, but existing alignments would prevail at first.
There’s a 16 game regular season. If you’re USC, for instance, you play 8 games against the rest of the PAC (a home-and-home), 5 games against the other conference in your region (so you play every Big Ten team) and three cross-region games against rotating teams from the East Region.
At the end of the season, one remnant of the Big 12 lives on: the conference championship game format. This is one departure from the NFL; college football conference championship games have been too profitable from a TV rights perspective to be eliminated. The top two teams in the standings of each conference will play each other, with the winner being declared the conference champion.
Eight teams will make the playoffs (just under half, a similar proportion to the NFL): the four conference champions, and then two At-Large teams from each region selected by the successor to the CFP Committee. Each conference champion will be the “home team” in the Divisional Round; games will all be neutral site affairs. Each of the seven games will have a name that is a combination of the game’s description and its bowl designation.
The NY6 bowl organizations will be absorbed into the new CFCL Playoffs, since all the money has to concentrate in one place. The Citrus Bowl will be added to be the seventh bowl game associated with the playoffs, since it has by far the highest payout of any non-NY6 bowl currently.
Let’s just play things out by S&P+ and see what the CFCL Playoffs would have looked like in 2018.
SEC: Alabama (14-2) vs. Georgia (13-3): Alabama wins
ACC: Clemson (15-1) vs. Notre Dame (10-6): Clemson wins
Big Ten: Oklahoma (13-3) vs. Ohio State (12-4): Oklahoma wins
PAC: Washington (10-6) vs. Texas A&M (9-7): Washington wins
East Region Playoffs:
Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl Divisional Playoff Game: Clemson (16-1) vs. LSU (10-6)
This is the magic of this playoff format: this preserves the feature SEC fans love where you don’t have to make the conference championship game to get into the postseason and gives a wild-card team a shot at clear top seed Clemson, but Clemson wins convincingly
VRBO Citrus Bowl Divisional Playoff Game: Alabama (15-2) vs. Georgia (13-4)
Another thing we need to preserve? Rematches of top teams playing each other. This would be the fourth time this season Alabama and Georgia met. ESPN has long advocated rematches, especially those involving Alabama. Kirby isn’t smart enough and Alabama wins its third of four games against the Dawgs.
Capital One Orange Bowl Eastern Championship Game: Clemson (17-1) vs. Alabama (16-2)
Everyone gets upset before this game is played because they think it means the conferences need to be shuffled for balance, but this is quickly silenced as Clemson claims the East in dominating fashion.
West Region Playoffs:
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic Divisional Playoff Game: Oklahoma (14-3) vs. Michigan (11-5)
Honestly, could you ask for a better outcome than this? Just because they once again got stomped by Ohio State (twice this year) doesn’t mean Michigan gets left out of the national title conversation. But if you thought Ohio State carved them up, wait til the Sooners drop a 70-burger on ‘em.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl Divisional Playoff Game: Washington (11-6) vs. Ohio State (12-5)
In real life, this was the Rose Bowl we got this year, so it’s really not that far-fetched that this would happen. Ohio State wins
The Rose Bowl Western Championship Game Presented By Northwestern Mutual: Oklahoma (15-3) vs. Ohio State (13-5)
A rematch of the shootout that was the Big Ten Championship Game sends the Sooners to the national title game to take on the terrifying Clemson juggernaut.
Championship Game: Allstate Sugar Bowl National Championship Game: Clemson (18-1) vs. Oklahoma (16-3)
Since Brent Venables just has Oklahoma’s number, this game ends up being a bit of a letdown like the OU/Alabama game this year. Clemson is the CFCL National Champion for 2018.
But Wait, My Team Isn’t One Of Those!
Well, if you haven’t yet gotten the message that the networks and the power brokers of this sport don’t care about you, fan of an also-ran, I don’t know what to tell you. This sport isn’t for you anymore. It’s already like that. The difference is that the CFCL officially codifies it.
What happens to your team? Well, that’s much more interesting, and I’ll detail that if I ever get around to part 2 of this scenario.