August 25, 2011

A CFB Manifesto: Superconferences, a Premiere League, and Playoffs

by James Ferguson
Guest Contributor

The future of college football has been on my mind a lot lately. This is a sport that I’ve loved since I was in first grade. It started with the University of Tennessee football, then moved to MTSU football when I went to school in Murfreesboro, then finally BYU football as I went to school and graduated from Brigham Young in Provo. There are plenty of things I absolutely love about college football, but there are also things I wish NCAA football had as well.

What I love: student-athletes, games on Saturdays (and later Thursdays and even Fridays), passion of college students and alumni (you know it’s different than the pros). I love the bowl games. I love the polls. I love upset specials and how every game is uber-important.

What I wish we had: a playoff, but not a big one (more on that later), a cleaner game (by trying to remove as many opportunities to cheat as possible), sponsorship opportunities for the students, tougher academic standards, opportunities for all schools to make it to the top level, yet a league of the best of the best.

With all the threats of expansion for the major conferences, it appears that the top division (currently the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FB$) will gravitate towards four Super Conferences of 16-ish teams each. Further, it appears that these conferences could break off and form their own division. While there’s a lot of potential here, I think some checks need to be in place for this to ultimately succeed and create a ground of opportunity for EVERY school in this country to have the chance to move to this top division and become an elite football school.



With all this in mind, I will echo the sentiment that some in the top ranks share: we need to have a convention of the top minds and leaders of college athletics, including university presidents, ADs, conference commissioners, and others. In this meeting, these leaders would come up with a new structure for the NCAA Football Premiere League (FPL). This structure would include new conference alignments, post-season schedule, rules regarding amateur allowances and limitations, academic requirements, opportunities for lower division teams to advance, and penalties for breaking rules.

If I were in this committee, my Premiere League would look something like what you’re about to read. Will there be imperfections? Yes. Will there be hurt feelings? I’m sure there will. I just hope that an idea like this makes its way to people who can take the sport I love and shape it for good for decades to come.

Conferences

First, we would need to lay out which teams make up this original Football Premiere League, and what conferences they belong in. A lot of people want only 16 teams per conference (how elitist of you), but I want 18 teams, giving us a top-tier league of 72 schools instead of 64. I tried to align these divisions using the following priorities (a) geography, (b) tradition, and (c) politics, where I knew what was involved. That said, a lot of people would have to bury their pride to make this awesomeness work. Here it goes:

The Big North
North-Great Plains
North-Great Lakes
Illinois
Indiana
Iowa
Michigan
Iowa St
Mich. St.
KU
Northwestern
K-State
Notre Dame
Minnesota
Ohio State
Missouri
Penn St
Nebraska
Pitt
Wisconsin
Purdue

Sorry, I can’t call it the Big “10” when there’s going to be 18 teams in it. Note the geography in the names (yeah, sorry Jim Delany, but “Legends” and “Leaders” is about as corny and ridiculous as you could get for division names). The Great Plains obviously covers the western side of the northern states. The other division covers schools around the Great Lakes area. While Iowa State, Pitt, and the Kansas Schools might not be ideal for the former Big 10’s academic excellence, they are still respectable schools.  It is assumed that every division in this league will have very strong football schools, and that holds true with these divisions.

The Southeastern Conference (SEC)
SEC-West
SEC-East
Arkansas
Alabama
LSU
Auburn
Miss St
Florida
Ole Miss
Georgia
Oklahoma
Kentucky
Okla St
S Carolina
Texas
Tenn.
Tex A&M
Vandy
Tex Tech
WVA

The greatest conference in the last 20 years deserves to keep its name (easy to do when you don’t include a NUMBER in your name). The big things to note here are that the Alabama schools move to the east division (now you have Florida & Bama in the same division). This makes room for the Texas and Oklahoma schools from the old Big XII. Also note the under-the-radar addition of West Virginia from the old Big East. I don’t think Mike Slive has any qualms adding these quality programs to his conference. All I can now say is WOW, that will be one loaded conference every year. The SEC will likely hold the automatic 1 seed for the playoff I’ll be getting to soon.

The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
ACC-North
ACC-South
BC
Duke
Cincinnati
Clemson
Louisville
Florida St
Maryland
Ga Tech
NC St
Miami
Rutgers
UNC
Syracuse
South FL
UConn
Va Tech
Wake Forest
UVA

This conference name seems to be the best fit with the new league, so I’m running with it. Note that all old ACC teams stay here, with the addition of the old Big East (minus West Virginia). The north division goes from North Carolina all the way up to New York, Boston, DC and west to Ohio (don’t think Delany ever allows Cincinnati into the Big North).  Meanwhile, the south ranges from Virginia and goes down through the Carolinas, Georgia & Florida. If you want, you could switch NC State and Wake Forest with the Virginia schools, I’m okay with either way.

The Pacific Athletic Conference (PAC)
PAC-West
PAC-MTN
UCLA
Air Force
Cal
Arizona
Hawaii
Arizona St.
Oregon
Baylor
Oregon St
Boise St
USC
BYU
Stanford
Colorado
Washington
TCU
Wash St
Utah

Similar to the Big North, change the name to remove the number. I’ve split this conference into the West and Mountain divisions. The West is essentially the old school Pac-8, before the Arizona schools joined from the WAC, and then I added Hawaii. This will keep the tradition of the old Pac-8 in tact for the most part, which keeps them happy. As for the Mountain division, it looks a lot like the old WAC mixing in some Mountain West, with the addition of Baylor, as there was no room for them in the SEC (and they’re lucky they’re in this league). This is the true upstart division of the Premiere League, with the underdog triumph of Utah, TCU & Boise State, plus the underrated tradition of BYU & Air Force, mixed in with the established traditions of the Arizona schools & Colorado.

There you have it, 72 teams. As for the other schools, I will cover that in a moment.

Postseason

There’s one thing I love about college football:  EVERY WEEK MATTERS! (unless you’re TCU, Boise, or Utah). College basketball falls short here. It is absolutely ridiculous that UConn won the national title. The Huskies went 9-9 in conference play, which should have eliminated them. It’s different in football, and I want to keep it that way, but with one caveat: a playoff.  The new league we have here lends itself to an 8-team playoff in the natural format that we’ve seen in college football for the last 10+ years.

The quarterfinals would be the conference championship games in the first week of December. The remaining 4 schools play each other around January 1st (in BCS bowls). No big deal, right?  One week later, you have the semifinal winners play in the championship game, falling at the same time as the current BCS national championship game. Alternatively, the semifinals could be played mid-December, with the championship game on New Year’s Day. This would make it a huge television event, coincide with old traditions, and solve the problem of making students continue the football season into the next semester.

This system would allow for a true national champion—a team that had a great season, won its conference, and beat the other best teams in the nation. This is what college basketball needs to be (like 32 teams instead of 64…er…68 as we currently have). Further, this only adds one total game for the fan-bases and students of the teams in the championship, as well as for the athletes.

What about bowl games? As I said earlier, I LOVE the bowl games. They make for great extra exposure for the other football teams that don’t make it to that elite playoff. We should keep about 10-12 bowl games. 12 bowl games would mean 24 teams other than the final four play one more, making for 28 teams out of 72 getting postseason action. There’s probably breathing room to add 2 more bowls, and you know what, I’d be fine with that. I love watching the extra college football during the holidays. This would take bowl games back to what they were originally—exhibitions meant to draw money to the host city and give teams an extra game. Both the playoff and the bowls could exist happily together.

Regular Season

I think the 12 game schedule works for the FBS, and I think that should remain the same in the Premiere League. The season would consist of 8 in-division games, 1 conference rival game, 1 non-conference rival game or other game, and then here would be an interesting twist for the other 2 games:

The Premiere League/Championship League Faceoff – This would likely be the first week of the season, where each team from FPL would play a team from the Football Championship League (FCL), the lower division. (Yes, I know these are basically the Euro Soccer League names). The FPL teams can work out contracts with the FCL teams, but contracts MUST include a home and home in the schedule. The FPL should go about 70-2 every year, but it’s those 2 that’d be fascinating to see, and would give teams in the lower division opportunity to prove they deserve a call-up. (Still coming).

The Conference X/Conference Y Challenge – Like the Big 10/ACC challenge in basketball, the schools from each conference will face another conference this weekend (likely weekend #3 or #4 in the season). For example, The PAC would face the SEC in year x, with the seeding set based on last year’s standings (so if Oregon was seed #1 for the PAC and Auburn was the 1 seed for the SEC, they’d play each other).

Relegation

Now for that part where I said every school needs the opportunity to make it to the highest level. It’s the very root of the American dream. I’m sure by now that some of you are fuming that your school didn’t make the top 72. From creating this list, here’s a list of the next 5 schools that would’ve made it to the top level:

Next 5 In
Nevada
Houston
SMU
Army
Navy

If your school still isn’t listed, please don’t burn down my house. Some of these teams may or may not get in, dependent upon politics involved. But here’s where the concept of relegation kicks in.

In those Euro soccer leagues where I stole the league names from, there is a system of relegation where a certain amount of teams get dropped from the Premiere League down to the Champions League, with some upstarts taking their place.

So let’s start simple with our league here. Every year, ONE team would get relegated to the FCL, while the national champion from that FCL would have the first option of moving up to FPL (then runner up with the backup option). So let’s say Baylor or Hawaii has a horrible year, finishes with a 1-11 record and is the worst team in the FPL. Let’s then say that Nevada ends up winning the FCL national championship. For the next season, Nevada takes Baylor’s place in the PAC-Mountain division. Nevada would have a two-year period to adjust to new recruiting levels and any other challenges they’d face where they could not be dropped back down to the FCL. Baylor would then have to win the national title in the FCL or place 2nd with the winner declining promotion to make it back. (Or, another option would be to have the worst school in each conference in a two-year period dropped, with four teams replacing them.

Why allow this if you are part of the Premiere League?  By giving the have-nots a chance, you can avoid collusion and monopoly charges from the government, and it’s fair to everyone.

The Student-Athlete

If I want to watch paid players, I’ll go watch the NFL. That said, I do think the players should be allowed to earn something to help their situation. The best way to do this would be sponsorships. Everything would need to be under contract (say Nike pays player X from school Y, it has to be documented and filed), but this would allow these amateurs to cover their expenses better. This also does a couple other things: (a) it keeps players off the school payrolls (tax nightmares) and (b) removes the need for boosters to hand these players money under the table. This argument has been detailed by Pat Forde and Jay Bilas of ESPN, or Stewart Mandel and Andy Glockner with SI, so you can check out their work. As for academics, they need to remain important. Again, it’s the whole pros vs. students thing. I’m already at 2,000 words at this point, so let’s move on.


Penalties

With high stakes comes high opportunity to cheat. Just look at the embarrassment college football has gone through recently. About half of the last 10 national champions were caught cheating with illegal benefits or recruiting. While I hope that the amateur sponsorships I mentioned above will remove most of this problem, there would still be a need to have considerable penalties if schools cheat. The death penalty is a bad idea, it killed SMU for over 20 years. The penalties here could be simple:  Level 1 – scholarship reductions; Level 2 – postseason ban; Level 3 – Relegation for X-number of years.

Questions

These questions would need to be answered:
--Should there be any kind of revenue sharing?
--What happens if teams who get moved up to the Premiere League don’t match geographically with existing conferences?
--How would this affect the Olympic sports?

It seems college football is heading in this general direction. If the powers that be could include something like this configuration in their plans, I think college football will be in a good position for a long time.

Follow James on Twitter at @jwfergie24 and read more at FergieSports.

3 comments:

David Kreutz said...

I'll give you credit for making a bold plan. However its a bold plan that is completely unworkable for a number of reasons.

First, the conferences are too big. 16 is stretching it to the limit as is, with 18 team conferences you're playing 1 MAYBE 2 games against the other half of your conference in a year. Factor in home and homes and you are looking at not playing a team in your conference for over a decade. You are practically not even in the same conference at that point.

Second, the reason relegation works in Euro-soccer is simple, they only play soccer. With college conferences its more than just football, even if its often a pretty major factor. If it were JUST about football, BYU would be in the Pac-12 not Utah. Bigger fan base, national brand, etc. But its NOT just about football, at least not for all conferences. The Big Ten and the Pac-12 care about academic affiliations as well. One of the reasons Colorado was ready to jump and the Pac-12 was ready to take them, despite the Buff's lackluster performance on the field for the last decade is the universities strong academic ties to other Pac-12 member schools. Every Pac-12 institution is a major secular research university. The reason why BYU and Boise are bad fits for the Pac-12. Likewise the Big Ten has a strong academic pedigree, the best among the BCS conferences in fact. That academic reputation swings both ways too. Texas has little interest in the SEC in part due to the conferences abysmal academic reputation. Aside from Vanderbilt and Florida, the rest of the schools aren't exactly running neck and neck with the Ivy League.

Third, as you allude to , the Olympic Sports. The reason that Hawaii and BYU were able to make the conference leaps they made is because they had landing spots (the WCC and the Big West) for their Olympic sports. Finding like minded schools for the rest of the sports, sports that are important to many schools is a big deal. Do you throw them for a loop with relegation too? Do you separate the football teams completely from the rest of the sports at your school? Do you relegate them on their own or do they have to follow the football program?

Fourth, rivalries. Many schools have multiple, meaningful rivalries, rivalries that could disappear if a school hits the skids for a few years and they are relegated away from their traditional rivals. You think the fans will appreciate that? You think Duke getting relegated away from UNC, NC State and Wake Forrest in basketball because of their mediocre football team is going to play well with the fans? With the schools?

Fifth, media deals. Take a look at the recent media deals. The Pac-12 was able to land the deal because it had the major teams in the major west coast media markets. Assume for a minute that relegation had been around the last decade. Surely the Huskies would have been close to relegation. How strong do you think the media brand would work if suddenly Seattle was out of the picture?

Sixth, scheduling. Schedules are built out years in advance for non-conference opponents. You are talking about a system that could throw that all out the window. Not the biggest problem, but not the best idea either.

Finally, one last complaint. The SEC is hardly the GREATEST conference of the last 20 years. They have had some strong teams recently, but they also have some weak teams, and some of the weakest schedules in Division 1. Seriously the non-conf slate for most schools (LSU a notable exception) is pathetic. Bottom feeding 1-A and 1-AA for the most part. Florida hasn't played a non-conf game outside their home state in 20 years. TWENTY YEARS.

John Cary said...

I agree with David and would add one more thing: under this scenario, or any others where only the conference champion is included in the playoff, the out of conference games (FSU-UF, for example) are rendered meaningless except for bragging rights. I'm not sure how to get around this problem without opening up the playoff to teams that don't win the conference, which is dumb because why should a team that isn't good enough to win its conference be the "national champion"? All proposals that seek to add a playoff are seriously flawed for these reasons.

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