There’s an old adage that says “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. College football, to my knowledge, is as popular and successful as ever, so I suppose many would say why mess with a good thing. However, as a lifelong diehard fan of the sport, I truly feel it can be better. While many of the changes that have evolved during the course of my lifetime haven’t seemed to negatively impact business that does not necessarily mean that these changes have been positive. Monetary concerns have interfered in ways that have made college football a corporate sacrificial lamb while decreasing competitiveness and parity. Decisions are based on business considerations more than what’s best for the on-the-field product. These things may not significantly affect one’s enjoyment of the game on Saturday, but there is a cloud of self-indulgent self-interest hanging over the sport that has cheapened it somewhat and made even the most hardcore fan a bit cynical. I believe there are a few ways we can bring back atleast the appearance of virtue and tradition that is slowly and sadly evaporating.
1 Conference Realignment
Blame it on shrewd marketing, blame it on ESPN, blame it on whomever else you wish…..but the fact is that what we have right now in college football is about four conferences that matter, a few that used to matter but have fallen on rough times, and several others who are like the kid brother that desperately wants to play with the older kids but gets either knocked around or completely overlooked. We have craziness like the Big 10 having eleven teams, the ACC having a team like Boston College that’s nowhere near the Atlantic Coast for which the conference is named, and Conference USA having teams stretching across 1000 miles, from West Virginia to Texas. We have teams switching conferences like they’re a sorority girl sleeping her way through the campus until she finds the guy who’ll buy her the best gifts. Someone needs to stop the madness. The NCAA needs to act like the overseer it is supposed to be and stop letting individual conferences act selfishly while hurting the big picture. I will put forth details in a future series. For now I will just say that my conference realignment will take into consideration things like geography, traditional rivalries, and competitive balance. It will also keep an eye on how the conferences fit into the ultimate goal of crowning a legitimate national champion.
2 Eleven Game Season
For years college football teams played 11 games. Then the powers-that-be figured out that a 12th game would make them more money. This 12th game usually entails a powerhouse big conference team playing against a cupcake, a team from a much smaller and less competitive school, oftentimes from a lower division. It’s a win-win for the two schools involved. The smaller school gets paid a hefty sum for the game, money that goes into the school’s coffers and is undoubtedly spent on much needed projects most of the time. The smaller school also gets the added benefit of exposure, something that never hurts. And occasionally, as in Appalachian State’s remarkable upset of Michigan in 2007, the underdog wins which is just the cherry on top. The bigger school almost always gets an easy win to pad their schedule, something which is much more beneficial than it should be. In 2007 Ohio State beat 3 cupcakes (Youngstown St., Akron, and Kent St.) by an average of 32 points en route to an 11-1 regular season and a spot in the championship game, while other teams with tougher schedules but atleast 1 more loss were left on the outside looking in. The bigger team also gets the benefit of these types of games being on their home turf which enables them to make a lot of their money back since college football fans, being much more rabid and loyal than fans of pro teams, will sell out a 50 or 75 thousand seat stadium regardless of whether or not the game is actually good. The only losers are the fans, who will spend our hard earned money to attend or our precious time to watch these insipid and meaningless contests. I say bring the regular season back to 11 games…..2 or 3 non-conference games and 8 or 9 conference games. This would also give teams an incentive not to waste their precious few out of conference opportunities on games that, under my system, would hurt their strength of schedule and therefore their chance to make it into the playoff (more on that later).
3 One Poll
We have too many polls, too many voices telling us who should be #1. This has even lead in the past to a split national championship, where different teams were voted as the top dog by the writers and the coaches. The situation is worse now than it has ever been, even though the convoluted BCS system was supposed to achieve the goal of an undisputed champion. The BCS is itself comprised of a half dozen polls that require a PhD in mathematics to decipher. Add to that the fact that the Associated Press, one of the older and more respected rankings, opted out of the current system a couple years ago thereby re-opening the possibility of having two different championship teams. It’s just a mess. I am also of the opinion that a coaches’ poll is itself somewhat specious, with too many opportunities for jealousy, adversarial relationships, and revenge to inject themselves into the equation. What I propose is one poll made up of some acceptable mix of media, coaches, former players, and maybe even knowledgeable citizens with no ties to the sport itself. There could even be a mathematical component introduced that takes into consideration things like strength of schedule and point differential. In other words many of the same things that go into current polls, but all combined into one poll instead of several.
4 Notre Dame Isn’t Special
Notre Dame needs to be forced to join a conference immediately. Sorry Irish fans, but Knute Rockne and The Gipper are dead and it’s not the 1940’s anymore. It’s a real mystery to me why the sports media and the NCAA bend over backward in this day and age to put a product on a pedestal that’s really not that great of a product anymore. There are atleast a dozen teams who have been more successful than Notre Dame in the past 25 years and all of them are in conferences. Notre Dame has a winning tradition, a rich history, and a name brand that draws national interest and I am not disputing that. What I am saying though is that several other teams can lay claim to similar success, most of them more recent and relevant, and none of them expect the preferential treatment that the Irish demand. It’s time for Notre Dame to stop thinking it is somehow better than everyone else, join a conference, and play by the same rules as all the others. After all, a team that has a 58% winning percentage the past 4 years and a not much more impressive 65% over the past 3 decades doesn’t have that much legitimate leverage. In comparison, over the same 30 year time span, Ohio State has a winning percentage of 75%, USC 71%, and Florida State 78%. All of those teams are in a conference, so why should an exception be made for Notre Dame??
5 Conference Television Contracts
I like ESPN as much as the next guy. If you’re a sports fan “the family of networks” is nirvana. But I think maybe they have a bit too much power. And what’s up with Notre Dame having its own individual contract with NBC?? I know it seems like I’m picking on Notre Dame, and I am. It’s just that I cannot wrap my head around any reason why everyone seems to kowtow to them. It’s mind boggling. Also, why should the conferences have their own channels, like The Big Ten Network?? These are perfect examples of how the NCAA has abdicated its authority and let each conference run amok, basically going into business for themselves. When I turn on my television I see 5 places where college football ought to be found every fall Saturday (and I suppose Thursday night): ABC, CBS (and CSTV), NBC, ESPN (including ESPN2 & ESPNU), and Fox (which would include the regional Fox Sports channels and FX). Let each conference negotiate deals with a network, with each network limited to 2 conference deals. Maybe some networks only end up with one. So be it. If channels like TBS, USA, Spike, and Versus want to jump into the fray they would have the right to do so only after the “Big 5” have gotten first crack at what they want.
6 Limit Cupcakes
While going back to an 11 game season and having strength of schedule continue to be a key component in the ranking of teams very much helps the situation, we need one more control. Every Division 1 (the divisions would be realigned into Divisions 1,2,3,& 4…so no more 1-A, 1-AA, etc.) team would only be permitted to schedule 3 games with lower division teams in a 5 year period. That’s it. Sure, the fans enjoy the occasional David vs. Goliath upset, but more than that the fans like to see consistently competitive games.
7 No More Conference Championship Games
Let’s be honest…..there are only two reasons why conference championship games exist. First of all, some conferences (I’m looking at you SEC and ACC) are just too big. New conferences would have 9 or 10 teams maximum. Secondly…..greed. It’s always about the money. Always. If all the teams in a conference play each other over the course of the regular season there is no need to line anyone’s pockets…whether it’s a school, a conference, or a television network…with extra cash. These championship games are a relatively new invention and not necessarily a good one.
8 Only Three Independents
As previously mentioned, Notre Dame needs to join a conference because their arrogant sense of entitlement is misplaced and erroneous. However, under my plan we would have 3 independent teams…..Army, Navy, and Air Force. These teams represent our military, they represent the nation as a whole, they represent freedom and democracy. These are the teams that should be put on a pedestal and have earned a sense of entitlement, not because of success on the field but because of what their institutions and therefore their graduates do off the field. Besides, it would be a great recruiting tool. They would be the ambassadors of college football. And fans nationwide could cheer for these teams because they would be independent and not tied to a conference. Their schedules would vary greatly from year to year, befitting of their ambassador role. Having your favorite team get to go up against one of the service academies would be an honor and a privilege. Once upon a time these teams, Army in particular, were very highly regarded. But the business of college football got in the way and has made each of them just another team. Sadly, outside their own conferences they are looked upon by many as being among the aforementioned cupcakes. That may not change overnight, and it may not ever completely change. After all, football is a sport of size and power, and the academies don’t necessarily get the biggest and strongest athletes. But the least we can do is celebrate them and put them in the special category they deserve to be in because of what they do for all of us that is so much more important than a football game.
9 A Playoff
I saved the best for last. Well…next to last.
There are only two things preventing a playoff from becoming reality in major college football. One is a sense of “tradition”…the old “we’ve always done it this way” mentality. This issue is a very small one though when one considers a lot of the other charming customs and rituals that have been thrown out the window the minute someone figured out a more profitable way of doing things. The bigger obstacles are greed and power. All those bowls that used to be named after fruit and regionally relevant products have been replaced with corporate names. Universities and conferences and cities make a lot of coin from these companies, who eagerly pay for a ton of positive press and a matchless advertising opportunity. Those universities, conferences, cities, and companies have a good thing going from a financial standpoint. It’s mutually beneficial for all sides and they aren’t going to give it up without a fight. They use every excuse in the book, from feigning concern about the academic careers of student athletes to hand wringing hysteria about how difficult it would be for fans to follow their teams to playoff games. To put it bluntly, it’s all poppycock. My alma mater, Marshall, was a 1-AA school when I was a student. I attended several playoff games and it was awesome. If anything a playoff would be more exciting and fun than the current bowl system. I won’t dive into details here, as I plan on laying out those details in a sequel series related to this entry. Suffice to say that a 16 team playoff while still retaining a revised version of the bowl system is eminently doable and much preferable to the existing system, atleast for us fans if not for the suits.
10 Bowl Revisions
Under my plan a few things would be done to revise the current post-season structure, the first of which is the playoff. However, as previously mentioned, the bowls would be kept, just on a smaller scale. Instead of nearly three dozen bowl games there would be maybe two dozen, if that. Corporate sponsorship would not be eliminated but it would be minimized. In other words, we aren’t naming bowls after a company. Neither are we naming bowls after a place. While the Papa John’s.com Bowl, Capital One Bowl, and Chick-Fil-A Bowl are atrociously insufferable names, the Texas Bowl and New Mexico Bowl aren’t much less obnoxious. Also, a record of 6-5 is a winning season and that’s just about it. To be bowl eligible 7 wins in an 11 game season should be required. New Year’s Day would regain its prominence, with the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, and Fiesta being played on that day and only the national championship game remaining after, hopefully to be played almost always on January 2nd.