This week, Pat Forde fractured the entire Football Bowl Subdivision and realigned it, throwing out much of the established order of things. The proposed new structure: 10 conferences of 12 teams each, playing a round-robin schedule to produce a league champion who gets an automatic bid to a 12-team playoff. (Two non-champions would receive at-large bids.)
This radical redrawing of everything within the sport naturally provoked some questions from colleague Ross Dellenger. So he asked, Forde answered, and you can judge for yourselves whether this is a great idea or a terrible one or something in between.
Ross Dellenger: Why is Troy relegated to the FCS? Keep in mind, this is the same giant-killer Troy that toppled LSU three years ago. Troy has been to eight bowls since 2004 (and that year, the Trojans beat Mizzou) and it has hit the double-digit win mark in three of the last four years.
Pat Forde: I’ll be happy to show my math. Condolences to the programs that didn’t make the cut in my fictitious realignment—but I don’t feel as bad for Troy as, say, Bowling Green. If you ONLY look at it through the prism of football, Troy is in easily, ranking in the top 85 members of FBS. But if you look at the other two factors I used —national academic standing and all-sports rankings—then it’s bad news for Troy. The Trojans are near the bottom nationally in both those categories. The inclusion of Charlotte was an exception to make the geography work—the 49ers are not in better standing than schools like Troy and Bowling Green. A couple of backbends had to be made to make the map work to its optimal sense. For that, I apologize specifically to Bowling Green and New Mexico State—and, sure, to Troy.
Dellenger: No conference championship games?! But, Pat, the money! Those things make millions. How and where do you recover that cash?
Forde: The expanded playoff will make so much flipping money that it will more than make up for the lack of conference championship games. And let’s remember, most championship games serve as little more than double jeopardy for the best team. They also are often mismatches brought on by imbalanced divisions. Other than Alabama-Georgia in 2018, has there been another thrilling, playoff-relevant conference title game in the last four years?
Dellenger: With only one nonconference game a year, don’t we lose one of the best parts of college football? Early-season clashes between powerhouse programs from vastly different regions (this year, for instance, Alabama and USC) diversify schedules that, year after year, become monotonous, right?
Forde: Most schools play one “powerhouse” nonconference game a year, right? Well, that game would still exist in the current format for most teams—and they can swap out nonconference opponents every four years to change things up. There won’t be as much intersectionality (I just invented that word) in my setup, but the playoff at the end is the payoff there. THAT is where the sexy matchups lie, and they will matter much more than the ones in September. Would you be O.K. with playoff games matching Notre Dame and Florida, Texas A&M and USC, Boise State and Penn State? I think you would be.
Dellenger: Is 12 teams for a playoff too much? That’s three times the number of playoff participants that we currently have. Some claim that college football’s most unique quality is the relevance of the regular season. In a 12-team playoff, we could legitimately see a three-loss team competing for a national title.
Forde: I would argue that the regular season is enhanced for more teams via this method. If 12 teams make the playoff, more of them will be in the chase longer than they are now. As it stands, our playoff attention is whittled down to 10–12 teams very quickly—usually within a month—and further reduced from there. In this case, conference races that go to the wire in all areas of the country sustain interest without diminishing the regular season to the point of irrelevance. If you win your conference, you’re in. That elevates the importance of the conference race.
Dellenger: Is fewer bowl games really a good idea? More football the better!
Forde: I think we can all live without the QuickLane Bowl, the Camellia Bowl and even the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. I really do. Especially if the replacement is an expanded playoff schedule that sustains us through the first half of December, before the lesser bowls kick in. The result will not be less postseason football; it will be less BAD December football.
Dellenger: What would this mean for some historic rivalries? If there’s one non-conference game, it would save Alabama-Tennessee, but teams like Notre Dame would need to choose (Michigan, USC, Navy…) and so would, say, Florida (LSU, Tennessee).
Forde: Life is full of hard choices. Picking one awesome, traditional, slam-bang rivalry game a year is the hard choice for a few schools—very few, really. Notre Dame-Navy is every bit the rivalry that hammer vs. nail is. The all-time series is 79-13-1 in favor of Notre Dame.
Dellenger: Won’t this result in more bad football? While sensible geographically, some of these conferences pit small programs against powerhouses with richer histories and resources. For instance, can you really expect FIU to compete for a championship in a conference with Georgia, Florida and Florida State? Or how about Tulsa in the same conference with Oklahoma and Texas?
Forde: The discrepancy between top and bottom of almost all my leagues is admittedly pretty pronounced. But as pointed out in the original story, there already are blowouts aplenty in Power 5 conferences. Have you seen the teams fielded by current Power-5 programs Rutgers, Arkansas and Kansas lately? Clemson and Alabama and Ohio State and Oklahoma are going to win big? Gosh, haven’t seen that before. And, given a more equal footing in terms of league revenue and the chance to—dare to dream—play the big boys at home, the chasm between the powers and the strivers may shrink pretty quickly. Which is, of course, one reason the powers would never go along with this. Florida, for instance, would want no part of regular road games against the likes of FAU, FIU, UCF and South Florida. Same with Georgia and Georgia Southern/Georgia State. Ohio State doesn’t want to play at any of its state’s Group of Five schools. And so on. When you’re accustomed to getting everything your way, it’s hard to give that up.
Dellenger: Does this create a bigger revenue gap among the top and bottom teams in each league or help narrow the playing field?
Forde: It would help narrow the revenue gap, if revenue shares are created more-or-less evenly as they are now in most conferences. This would obviously be another reason why the concept is never going to happen—ESPN and Fox don’t want to pay the same dollars to televise Texas home games and North Texas home games. But if you could drag everyone to the bargaining table, one of the guiding principles would have to be some element of equally shared revenue.
Dellenger: How does the pandemic impact this? How many teams can afford to play big-time football?
Forde: The pandemic is both a reason to do this, and perhaps a reason to not even think about doing it. Obviously, one of the guiding principles here was rigorous geography—decrease costs by playing closer to home and recruiting closer to home. It also would be better for the athletes, in terms of reduced health risk via traveling and less academic time being wasted going long distances to play. However, as you and I both know, the pandemic has stretched budgets very thin, which would make keeping-up-with-the-Joneses upgrades in facilities and staff a daunting prospect. It’s obviously a very difficult time to tell, say, Arkansas State it needs to invest tens of millions of dollars to compete with a new set of Power-5 opponents. On the flip side, think of the massively improved gate receipts some of these schools would get from hosting high-profile opponents.
Dellenger: What does this mean for basketball, other sports?
Forde: This should work for basketball as well. There will be a few tweaks to be made—BYU would depart the West Coast Conference to be a full-timer in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, and Connecticut would have to make up its mind about the Big East or stubbornly trying to play FBS-level football—but the structure will hold up. There are roughly 220 non-FBS Division I basketball schools, and most of them can continue competing in their current conferences. The question would be how large a conference slate to play in hoops, where a full home-and-home schedule would comprise 22 games. That might be too many, although some leagues are now playing 20. All things considered, this isn’t a basketball deal breaker.
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