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HCS Roundtable: Conference Realignment’s Influence on College Football

Conference realignment has been changing the way that college football looks and operates for several decades now, but the most recent wave has made a particularly profound impact.

After the 2023-24 athletic year comes to close next summer, the Pac-12 conference will be no more, with only four schools remaining under the league’s umbrella and looking for viable options to move forward.

We will also see a 16-team Big 12 and SEC, and an 18-team Big Ten, marking the beginning of the Super Conference era. To make matters worse, there are reports suggesting that the SEC and Big Ten will look to further change the way college football operates, with changes to the Playoff format coming, whether the other conferences want it or not. So, why is all of this happening? What has allowed these rogue conferences to dictate the future of the sport? We discuss, in a special Heartland College Sports Roundtable.

 

What Should the NCAA’s Role in the Future of Realigment Look Like?

Pete: Absolutely nothing. This is a gutless, worthless, soulless and antiquated organization, that if not for the NCAA Tournament, would be completely obliterated by now. The NCAA has had a chance to respond time and after time after time to the biggest issues in college sports from realignment to NIL and they’ve never done it. I don’t think the NCAA will exist in a decade and to that I say, good riddance.

Bryan: Somebody has got to step in and hold conferences accountable, right? Sure, I understand the autonomy that each program and league has to make its own decisions, but at what point does the governing body of college athletics say, “enough is enough?” We are going to see non-revenue sports traveling cross country to play midweek conference games. The impact of that alone is something that nobody can foresee. Whether the NCAA finds a backbone and steps in, or college football breaks off and does its own thing, I beleive there will come a time when regionality is a priority again, at least for the smaller sports. When will that be? It’s anybody’s guess, but don’t be surprised if tensions start to ramp u in 2024.

Matthew: None. The NCAA can barely hold renegade programs accountable. What makes you think they can do something about this? The fact is the conferences — namely the power conferences — run college sports. The NCAA has little to nothing to do with major college football, aside from regulatory (and they’re bad at that). The NCAA should have, and will have, no role in this.

Joe: I don’t know how realistic it would be to say that the NCAA will be the ones to step up. It’s a widely accepted notion that the organization is incredibly flawed and can’t seem to get on the same page as individual programs even when addressing a small issue, let alone conference realignment. In my personal opinion, I think it’s more likely that we see college football and the NCAA find a way to split off from one another rather than the NCAA stepping in to make positive change in the landscape.

 

What Will Be The Biggest Unintended Consequence of Realignment?

Pete: The loss of rivalries that make college sports great. OK, so Texas-Texas A&M is returning, but we’ve lost far more than we’ve gained through the last 10-15 years. Those rivalries and the hatred between fan bases is truly what separates college football, and basketball to a lesser degree, from professional sports. And too many of them are now gone as the sport becomes more akin to pro sports. I get the money, but I think we will look back in years and wonder why we did this to college sports.

Bryan: I’m genuinely concerned about the well-being of student-athletes who will spend more time on the road than they will resting at home or on campus. College athletes are already under enough stress to perform both on the field and in the classroom. While football plays one game per week, the rest of the team sports that Power Conferences participate in often play several games per week. How will a constant rotation of cross-country flights affect the headspace of athletes who are already at a higher risk for depression and anxiety than the students in the general population? We don’t know yet, but it will be something to monitor closely.

Matthew: We’re losing rivalries that have been a big part of the cultural landscape of the college game. But the colleges and the TV networks that broadcast the games aren’t worried about it because you’ll still watch. Bryan is absolutely right about the well-being of Olympic sport athletes, given the weekday travel that many of them engage in. Olympic sports, especially baseball and softball, may need to go to weekend-only schedules and reduce the number of games to help student-athletes manage that experience.

Joe: While it is true that the loss of key rivalries and an increase in travel milage will be major setbacks for college football as a whole, I think recruiting is going to take a massive hit. We’ve already seen an athlete who previously committed to play basketball at Washington State elect to reopen his commitment given the conference’s dire situation, and I think that trend should continue. With more teams on the move in the future I fully expect more athletes to base a portion of their choices off of the strength of the league they commit to play in.

 

What Will The Future of the College Football Playoff Actually Look Like?

Pete: 12 teams is the sweet spot, and I think the powers that be will stay with that for now. The question is how many auto bids. I’d go with five, and then the at-large. But how the SEC and Big Ten might try to twist the format to most-heavily benefit them remains to be seen. However as I noted in this article about the Big 12 potentially getting squeezed, Brett Yormark will have plenty of firepower to push back on the Big Ten talking points with.

Bryan: You can bet the farm that the days of six auto-bids is short lived, and that’s if it ever even gets put into practice. Will the playoff stay at 12 teams? I’m not sure, but it wouldn’t shock me in the slightest to see that number drop to six or eight teams. With just four “Power Conferences” remaining in 2024 and beyond, there’s a chance that auto-bids are totally nixed, with some rendition of an at-large system being used. In all, I believe a six-team format with no auto-bids is the best way to go for the sport as a whole, which I’ve laid out in detail in a past article. In short, the Playoff is going to look different than we’d thought, it’s just a matter of how much.

Matthew: For now, 12 teams and five auto bids seems the most likely path to me. I think the CFP committee is committed (at least for now) to give the top Group of 5 conference (or whatever that No. 5 league looks like) an auto bid. The framework has been agreed upon. It won’t be expanded or contracted. We’re haggling over who gets the auto bids.

Joe: The topic of auto bids has been the primary point of argument among league officials rather than the number of teams included into the playoff. Until a major framework is agreed upon five or ten years down the road I think the likelihood of losing one or two auto bids would make sense despite the SEC and Big 10 trying to shape the playoff in their favor. My best guess would be four or five auto bids and the rest of the teams selected by a new variation of the CFB Playoff committee.

What Will Conferences Look Like in 2033?

Pete: The Big 12 will exist, still. Is that a good enough answer? Am I being too biased? I know it’s popular to predict two super conferences and then everyone else, but I do wonder if we spend the next 5-10 years wondering if all this realignment really made sense in hindsight? Could the pendulum swing back the other way and we have the ~60 FBS teams in one big super conference that is broken up into divisions and those divisions basically mirror the conferences from 20 years ago? Sign me up!

Bryan: Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but I think we will have two super conferences that are broken into regional divisions, similar to what the NFL looks like, but on a bigger scale. Think two conferences with four divisions that have somewhere between 12-16 teams each, based on location. The original Big 12 comes back together, and although it looks different than before, there’s major history between the schools. Is it likely? Not really, but one can dream. In my heart of hearts, I believe the Big Ten and SEC will be running things in 10 years, while the Big 12 and ACC find enough stability to tag along for the ride.

Matthew: I think this is a broader question. In 2033 I believe college football will govern itself and be a three-tier FBS. The top tier will be the schools that want to play a semi-pro type of format where NIL and big money move the needle. That will be most of your Power 5 schools. At that point, I could see the type of NFL format Bryan is talking about because the other schools will be left out in the cold. Also, the NCAA won’t be involved.

The NCAA will manage the second tier, which will be the Power schools that don’t want to make that jump, the remaining Group of 5 schools and whatever FCS schools want to make the jump to 85 scholarships. The third tier will be FCS schools and a smattering of Division II schools that want to make the jump. At that point, the conferences will likely be irrelevant because they’ll be redrawn.

Joe: I’ll go with the outside of the box answer and say that the multi-league system will still exist. There definitely is a chance that things will have broken down into two or three super conferences of 20+ teams, but I think the reality is that realignment has pushed everyone, with the exception for the SEC and Big 10, to the “expand or bust” mentality. The Big 12 will have the best best basketball product in the country (even though it already does) and will have produced multiple national champions in football pending the decisions made to expand the CFB Playoff. Will it look different, yes! But in a rapidly changing spectrum, Brett Yormark is the guy I want steering the ship.

Will The Loss of Defining Rivalries Tarnish College Football as a Whole?

Pete: Yes, yes, and yes. It’s why I fell in love with the sport and eventually, smarter people than me will realize the loss of these has been a mistake for the sport. And my hope is someone(s) smarter than me will realize the mistake that has been made and make sure the great rivalries are protected in this sport, because if not, the sport will not reach its potential.

Bryan: I’m a traditionalist, so I’m going to say yes. It matters that teams like Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have played in consecutive years for over a century. Fan bases from both teams will argue who’s at fault, but everyone loses in this scenario. The 2024 season will be the first time ever that fans will be robbed of Bedlam, The Apple Cup, and Civil War, not to mention the countless games like USC-Stanford and Texas-Texas Tech that have become staples in conference play. I don’t like where college football is headed because I think it should stray away from a money-first approach like the NFL. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where we are headed.

Matthew: Maybe. We’re getting Texas and Texas A&M back next year, but losing the rivalries Bryan mentioned. But the football will be good enough across the board to keep you interested. I mean, Texas fans and Texas A&M fans have lived without a game for a decade and still hate each other. So the rivalries aren’t necessarily going away. What I would like to see once all this settles is that whoever is in charge of college football find a way to play these rivalry games on a rotating basis — say once every 3-5 years — so they’re not completely forgotten.

Joe: Yes and no. I will not be the guy to sit here and tell you that losing rivalries is good thing, but with some of college football’s best left to dust, ratings should reflect that, forcing networks and schedulers to address the issues at hand. Money and viewers dictate everything, so by my estimation, the bowl matchup schedulers will find a way for teams to play one another in a rivalry format so long that the teams are a semi-reasonable matchup. An example pf this would be scheduling Kansas vs. Missouri, or bringing back the Bedlam game in a bowl game format. Rivalries are what makes college football great, and maybe I’m being overly optimistic but I think we’ll find a way to get back to the basics sooner rather than later.

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