Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Now is Time to Radically Change College Football

By Adam Russell

With the dawning of a major Division 1 college football playoff starting next season, it might be the perfect time to start separating the men from the boys, so to speak. Or at least begin plans to create a third tier in D1 football and give those "tweener" schools their own championship.

For years, I have been arguing with my friends, co-workers and family football fanatics (sorry about the alliteration) that the NCAA needs to completely revamp what its football conferences look like, how games are scheduled and how the post-season selections are made. And while I applaud the Association's efforts to this point in getting a long-overdue and long-awaited playoff in place, more could be done to ensure nearly total objectivity in deeming playoff worthiness.

At the heart of my grandiose plan to overhaul the college football landscape is to scrap the current conference alignments, put the largest and most prestigious schools into eight major conferences, and create a middle tier for those schools too big for FCS and too small for FBS. The NCAA would then be responsible for creating schedules that prevent power schools from padding their dockets with creampuffs. Here's how it would work.

If we look only at the conferences that have been considered previously as BCS automatic qualifiers (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, and Big East/AAC), there are 72 schools. To maintain balanced conferences, we would then add the schools with the highest average attendance from Conference USA, Mountain West Conference, and independents to get to 96 schools. That would give us eight conferences with 12 teams each. Then the conferences would be realigned geographically without regard to traditional ties and without divisions. For example, a Pacific Conference would consist of the 12 schools located in Washington, Oregon and California.

Each team's 12-game schedule would comprise eight schools from within their own conference and four schools from different conferences with similar strengths. Each conference would be split into thirds for non-conference scheduling purposes — schools would play teams from the same third in the other conferences. This would prevent schools from scheduling patsies to pad their wins and stats. It also would create some dynamic matchups all throughout the season. Imagine if Alabama had to play the likes of Michigan State, Stanford, Oklahoma, and Florida State every year.

Then, at the end of the season, the top two teams in each conference would play a championship game with the winners advancing to an eight-team playoff and the losers heading to one of the four major bowl games — Rose, Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta. The conferences would "cross-pollinate" in the bowls every year, so one year the Rose Bowl could have Oregon and Texas A&M and then Florida and Ohio State the next.

This would be done in every bowl game — not just the major ones — to get away from the mundane conference-vs.-conference matchups every year. I mean, the Sun Bowl doesn't have to be a poor man's Rose Bowl every year. Plus, the bowls would be reduced to provide a reward for those schools that do exceptionally well. The eligibility minimum would be raised to 7 wins with the stipulation that a team finished at least 4-4 within its conference. My unwavering perception has always been that teams that can't muster a winning record within their own conference should not be worthy of bowl consideration.

So what to do with the "little guys" that get dropped out of this new alignment? Create a middle tier where they have their own schedules, playoffs and championship. Granted, there would only be about 30 teams to start with, but with as many schools making the jump from FCS to FBS in the next few years, it would only be a matter of time until it had enough schools to make things really interesting.

Speaking of interesting, another outside-the-box idea would be to steal a concept from the soccer leagues in England where poor-performing teams get dumped out of the major league and dropped down to a lower tier. Imagine if that was how it worked in college football. So, for example, every five years the NCAA would take the lowest performing schools — both in record and in attendance — and drop them into this middle tier, and then promote the best performers from the middle to the major tier. I know it's a stretch, and it would cause scheduling headaches every half-decade, but it certainly would put more onus on universities to recruit and market at a high level to maintain their "major" status.

While this all sounds like a grandiose, pie-in-the-sky idea, some of it could have merit someday. One of the aspects of the new playoff format that I'm skeptical of is having a selection committee. How much will tradition, conference and margin of victory play into these people's decisions when determining who should be included in the playoff? Two quick thoughts on that: First, the playoff should be expanded to eight teams and, second, the selections should be determined by what happens on the field and not by a potentially biased committee of humans.

Nonetheless, I am excited to see what next season holds and how the playoff shakes out — and to see if the distant future holds a radical rethinking of how college football should look and work.

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