1994. Doak Campbell Stadium. No. 4 Florida vs No. 7 Florida State. Spurrier vs Bowden. The uproar of over 80,000 frenzied fans left an indelible imprint during an epic fourth quarter that converted me into a college football fan for good.
The ABC coverage team set the stage for an electric environment by conducting on-campus interviews at both schools before the game started. FSU students confessed to the camera the hatred and disgust they deeply felt for their rival school. And their feelings were reciprocated!
As an 11-year-old, I multitasked while casually watching Florida dominate 31-3 after three quarters. Then lightning struck for the home team! I was riveted, hypnotized, to the screen. The raucous FSU fans tomahawk chopped with glee and the Seminoles gave them a show, scoring 28 unanswered points to tie the game at 31! (Unfortunately, that’s how it would end as the NCAA didn’t begin overtime play until 1996.)
The Choke at Doak is a pleasant memory of my childhood and an epic example of the true brick-and-mortar of college football. These games are the reason we still tune in 30 years later. A rivalry game brazenly claims that regardless of the number of wins a school has in a season, true success is earned by beating a hated foe.
The powerful folks of the college football industry are regrettably discarding many of these important traditions. Geography is now an afterthought; the almighty TV dollar has spoken. Washington and Oregon will most likely be dragged far from their trusty in-state rivals to play in a conference along with UCLA and USC that is headquartered over 2,000 miles away from Los Angeles.
We’ve seen this play out before. A decade ago, the deck of conferences shuffled with Texas A&M and Missouri moving to the SEC, Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12, and Nebraska leaving the Big 12 for greener pastu—uhh, paper.
Texas vs A&M, The Lonestar Showdown, one of the most storied games in college football and one that has been played 118 times, hasn’t happened since. The Battle of the Brazos, Texas A&M against Baylor (first played in 1899 and played 108 times) hasn’t happened since.
Nebraska’s rivalries with Kansas, Missouri, and Iowa State, which date back to 1892 and 1896, have not been played since 2010. The Border War: Missouri vs Kansas, first contested in 1891, has been played 120 times; and you guessed it, the game hasn’t happened since Missouri left the Big 12.
Even the bitter Holy War between Utah and BYU, first played in 1896, has oddly not been scheduled for five separate unholy seasons since both schools split from the Mountain West.
George F. Will in The Washington Post asserted what we, the fans, feel about the game of musical chairs:
“The industry’s new landscape, littered with the smoldering ruins of torched traditions, was produced by cold economic reasoning, as befits industrial management. Lubricated by an unsentimental disregard for historic rivalries, this arrangement should at long last silence the increasingly ludicrous pretense that college football’s premier programs are anything other than entertainment behemoths.”
Money makes the world go round and college football is a multimillion-dollar marketplace. Will goes on to report that in 2020 the highest-paid public employee was either a Division I football or basketball coach in 40 of the 50 US States.
Athletic Directors around the nation proceed to make trite statements about realignment steps being taken for the best interest of student-athletes. The actual bottom line, though, is a simple supply and demand curve. Behind the scenes they are wheeling and dealing to bulk their departments’ bank accounts.
Another mega effect of the mega power conferences, the haves versus the have-nots, are statistics of the NFL Draft.
“In 2019, the NCAA estimates, the NFL drafted 11 percent (197) of the 1,769 eligible players from the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC).”
This is the largest factor destroying college football. Realignment is drawing lines in the sand, vastly distancing the members of the Power Five (once the Power Six, and soon to be the Power Four) from the other schools.
For the players, their NFL hopes and dreams (ahem, money) are at stake. For the ADs, making more money promises a robust department for all athletics. And now, with streaming juggernauts interested in the college football product, bidding battles and realignment rumors are only getting started.
College football conference realignment breaking apart the beautiful sport
The current buzz, despite Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff’s stern statements of denial, is that the Conference of Champions (founded over a century ago) will soon be dissipated. In a recent HBO interview with Bryant Gumbel, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren hinted at more moves to be made.
“Gumbel: You’re at 16 teams now. Could you foresee 20?
Kevin Warren: I could. Yeah. I could see perpetual and future growth.”
This perpetual growth could eventually bring the Big Ten to 24 teams, prompting the SEC to follow suit. The Pac-12, as a target of expansion for both the Big Ten and the Big 12, is a sitting duck (especially minus the Ducks.) Reporting for CBS Sports, Dennis Dodd detailed:
“The Big Ten’s continued pursuit of four Pac-12 schools is leading to concern that another round of expansion could collapse the Pac-12, industry sources tell CBS Sports…
An offer deemed substantial enough would likely convince Big Ten presidents that California, Oregon, Stanford and Washington would be valuable additions to the league from the Pac-12.”
Dodd explains that Amazon sitting at the media-rights negotiation table for lower-tier Big Ten media rights could be the catalyst for the Pac-12 losing the four Northwest schools.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 is widely rumored to be working to lure the four-corners schools. “Obviously going out west is where I would like to go—entering that fourth time zone,” new Commissioner Brett Yormark responded in a September press conference welcoming Cincinnati.
Still, insiders close to the Pac-12 insist emphatically that when UCLA and USC depart, the ten remaining members will be bound in a tight pact. This is from Pac-12 columnist John Canzano:
“Utah, Colorado, Arizona and ASU aren’t going anywhere in this cycle…
In the last few months, I’ve talked with numerous high-level officials on a variety of Pac-12 campuses. My sources never wavered. They insist the remaining 10 members are sticking together and I believe them.”
Call me a skeptic, but I most definitely do not believe them!
Of course, it’s in the best interest of ADs and other officials in the Pac-12 to have a public-facing united front; for now, at least—until the precise moment one of the universities makes another seismic and catalytic announcement. With the Pac-12 and Big 12 currently in a negotiation window with TV partners, the trajectory of both conferences has become a foot race to name the right price.
Bret Yormark expedited the process and beat the Pac-12 to the punch. As reported by The Sports Business Journal, he just extended the Big 12’s media rights for six years in a new deal that will provide membership schools nearly $50 million per year.
“In striking these deals prior to the exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and Fox, the Big 12 managed to achieve several of its primary objectives, namely stability and security, the ability to go back to its 12 member schools to seek an extended grant of rights and a leg up on any future conference expansion.”
Projections for what the Pac-12 will bring in are considerably lower than what Yormark has procured. And yet, in somewhat of a sparring match, insider Canzano reports the Pac-12 will soon sign a deal that also includes expansion.
“My target date for news on [the Pac-12 signing a new media rights contract is] sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving. I expect the 10 remaining members of the conference will all sign on. They appear galvanized on that front. Beyond that, conference expansion looms. I expect the Pac-12 will add at least one member, [San Diego St.]”
And over at the ACC, what are membership schools planning for their conference’s looming future? Currently secured from looting because of a media rights expiration date of 2036, signs show the league’s long-term existence could also be in peril, from Andrew Carter of The News & Observer:
“In the ACC, Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest are all still navigating a long transition from their basketball-centric roots to the future, and the reality that the sport that built the ACC has perhaps never mattered less to its bottom line.”
At least for North Carolina, the navigation is happening in a proactive lane. Carter of The News & Observer, through a public records request, discovered a text thread between UNC’s AD Bubba Cunningham and the university’s president on June 30, the day the Big Ten announced the UCLA and USC no migration. The texts reveal that Cunningham had already been advised that day over the phone with an extremely influential leader in college football.
Jim Delany, former Big Ten Commissioner of 31 years, graduated from North Carolina. He was prompt to answer the call for help and give guidance to his alma mater to strategize after the jolting news. Translation? North Carolina, an AAU member, will probably find a home in the Big Ten once the current ACC media contract expires.
At this point, would anyone be surprised if even the SEC decides to expand to the Pacific Ocean? All things considered, how far out of the imagination is that?
The mayhem of sources, statements, and rumors leads me to ask: What if?
What if traditions and regional rivalries were still honored? What if geographical boundaries still mattered in conference construction? What if the NCAA was a governing body with power to regulate realignment instead of a hostage to Disney/ESPN and other big-money media outlets?
Contemplating the question of what college football could structurally be with logic and order restored, I created my own hypothetical super-leagues. Perhaps borrowing from the brackets of March Madness, my model splits the nation into four regions along strict regional boundaries, using geographic landmarks.
With Kennesaw State’s newly announced addition, the number of FBS teams will be 134 beginning in 2024. I have split these schools into two regions of 33 and two regions of 34 schools.
I’ve organized each region into three tiers, following the model of professional European sports leagues that use promotion and relegation. In the spirit of fairness, each school would have to earn its place at the top of college football, not by reputation or money but by on-field performance!
Win the Tier I conference to play for the National Championship. Win the Tier II conference to be promoted to Tier I, replacing the team with that season’s worst record. (And yes, disqualifying said school from competing for the national championship the following season.)
Without further ado, here are the four super-leagues that we, the college football fans, deserve.
Note: The number in parentheses next to each school is the number of wins the team has had over the past four seasons. This is the main criteria I used to determine tier placement, additionally considering strength of schedule. The second number next to each of these schools is the number of wins over the past two seasons.