College football expansion/realignment has been discussed nearly every off-season for the past decade. The latest wave involves the Big XII (which currently consists of 10 schools) and their future plans for expansion. Schools that are not currently members of another Power 5 conference are mentioned as candidates to join the Big XII. This list includes Houston, BYU, Boise State, Memphis, Colorado State, Central Florida, South Florida, Cincinnati, and Connecticut. The pros and cons have been weighed for both sides; the conference can expand their media market footprint and thus bring a stronger hand to the negotiation table when it comes time for new TV contracts (the current Big XII contract runs through 2025, but expansion could trigger negotiation of a more lucrative deal), and the schools that are invited to move up could increase their TV revenue ten-fold. The downside might be a watered down share of the contract for current members as well as a less appealing overall strength of schedule.
The implications of expansion have been discussed at length many times over, so I want to approach it from a different angle. The Power 5 conferences (and Notre Dame) consist of 65 teams which compete for a spot in the 4 team College Football Playoff. Technically, the rest of FBS is eligible for a berth in this playoff, but it is an unwritten understanding that this will never happen without very extenuating circumstances. The entire FBS would be better off if the Power 5 teams broke away to form their own division, and the rest of FBS merged with the FCS. Here’s what that would look like.
The New Division: 4 Conferences of 16 Teams
Step 1 of creating a new division of college football is to determine who is included. Currently there are 65 candidates; a team that isn’t in the Power 5 by now has missed their chance (the divisions are fluid long-term; transitions in future years are inevitable, but this article is only looking at a theoretical starting point). Only 64 will be included, so who gets left out? I’ll get to that in a minute. First up, the 4 conferences: ACC, Big Ten, PAC12, and SEC. The Big XII and Notre Dame will be split amongst the 4 remaining conferences as follows:
Teams to ACC: West Virginia and Notre Dame; 16 total
Teams to Big Ten: Texas and Oklahoma; 16 total
Teams to PAC12: Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State; 16 total
Teams to SEC: Baylor, TCU; 16 total
Remaining: Iowa State
This doesn’t necessarily mean Iowa State is left out of the new division, however they are on the very short list of candidates. Other candidates to consider: Texas Tech and Rutgers. Why these teams? It comes down to fitting in with their peers. First, they are each geographic outliers, which has led to complications forming a rivalry. Sure, Iowa State has a natural rivalry with Iowa (which will ultimately be their saving grace), but what about Texas Tech and Rutgers? Do either of these schools have a reciprocated rivalry within the new division? Texas Tech is at best a secondary rival to Oklahoma State, and at best tertiary to any other Texas team. Rutgers doesn’t have a rivalry with anyone; they are a misfit in the Big Ten already so their absence would go unnoticed. To avoid getting into a diatribe on any of these teams, I’m going to affirm the move of Texas Tech to the PAC12, move Iowa State to the Big Ten, and push Rutgers down to the lower division. This allows each of these 3 to remain amongst their natural peers.
The New Division splits up very nicely, preserving traditional rivalries and prioritizing geographic proximity:
|Syracuse||Michigan State||Kansas State||Kentucky|
|Virginia||Ohio State||Oklahoma State||South Carolina|
|Virginia Tech||Penn State||Texas Tech||Tennessee|
|Florida State||Minnesota||Oregon State||LSU|
|Miami FL||Northwestern||UCLA||Mississippi State|
|North Carolina||Oklahoma||USC||Ole Miss|
|North Carolina State||Texas||Washington||TCU|
|Wake Forest||Wisconsin||Washington State||Texas A&M|
Each conference will be two 8 team divisions. Their schedules will include 7 games against the rest of their division and 3 cross-divisional games within their conference. Two non-conference games will allow for at most 1 game against a team from the lower division (in order to preserve long-running rivalries like Colorado/Colorado State, Utah/BYU, and Notre Dame/Navy). The 10 conference games will feature at most 5 home games, but will allow for neutral sites where both teams agree (e.g. Texas/Oklahoma, Florida/Georgia). Neutral site games do not count against the 5 home game cap.
The season will feature 12 games for each of the 64 teams. The 12 game schedule will allow for at most 6 home games (i.e. 1 non-conference home game per year); the remaining 6 can be set up as road or neutral sites, so long as the 6 home game cap is not violated. This ensures a competitive balance among the 64, and removes the ridiculous claim that a team needs 7 home games to “balance their budget.” Plus, bonus home games can be earned in the post-season (details below).
The season would be played over a 13 week span from the last Saturday in August to the Saturday before Thanksgiving (in 2016 this would be August 27 through November 19) with one bye week; all games are on Saturdays. One exhibition game is allowed two weeks prior to the start of the regular season. This can be played against a team from any division level and does not count towards the regular season record and is not used in any tiebreakers or rankings.
Each division winner will play in their conference’s championship game Thanksgiving weekend on the campus of the team with the better conference record (tiebreakers applied as necessary). The four conference champions will play in a 4 team playoff, with semis again at home sites two weeks after the conference championship games. The national championship would be played New Year’s Day at the Rose Bowl.
The Expanded FCS Division
The teams outside the 64 in the new division would join the current FCS division and abide by their rules. Less money coming in the door from TV revenue is a likely consequence, but reduced scholarship obligations and long-distance travel costs would lessen the financial burden currently facing most non-Power 5 programs. Additionally, this would finally enable the Boise States of the world to compete for a national championship.
I would love to see college football take this route because it provides everyone with a more level playing field amongst their peers, cuts down on low-quality matchups, and moves post-season games to home sites. Additionally, it creates more interest in the FCS level, as fans of teams in the new division could adopt their local FCS team in a similar fashion to minor league baseball. The financial burden on the new FCS teams would be substantially reduced, lowering the pressure on those teams to meet unrealistic expectations against teams with exponentially more resources.
Unfortunately this will likely never happen, as smaller schools would rather hold out hope of eventually being called up to a major conference and receiving their windfall of TV revenue. The Big XII needs to be very careful with their selection of new teams, but most importantly they need to be accommodating to their most high-profile teams so the conference has a future. If Texas and/or Oklahoma leave, the Big XII is done as a major conference. The best-case scenario for the Big XII is that the College Football Playoff expands beyond 4 teams so their conference may be granted an auto-bid. Four playoff teams for five major conferences is not sustainable, but whose hand will be forced first?