16-Team Conferences in FBS? No Problem

First, Texas and Oklahoma announced their intention to defect from the Big 12 (which actually had only 10 teams even before they left) to the SEC on July 27 of last year.

On Thursday, UCLA and USC — derided by UCLA fans as the "University of Spoiled Children" — announced that they are leaving the Pac-12 and will join the Big Ten.

So now it's the ACC's move: Notre Dame actually played in that conference (in football) in 2020 thanks to COVID, and can be accompanied by one other school — Cincinnati? — giving the ACC 16 teams, as well.

The major virtue of having a 16-team conference is that it can be split into four four-team divisions, with each team playing their three division rivals, all four teams from another division, the assignments for this rotating according to a three-year cycle, plus two games among teams that finished in the same place in their respective divisions the season before, as the NFL has been doing since 2002. Each pair of teams in the same division would thus play seven out of nine games against common opponents under this format.

(The two "extra games" that each team will play to bring their conference schedule to nine will give the networks, over-the-air and cable alike, six or eight more "marquee" games to televise every year.)

A simple tie-breaker can settle any ties between two teams in the same division, in that the result of the head-to-head game therein would always decide it; in the event of a three-way tie and the three teams went 1-1 among each other, record within the division; i.e., adding the result of each team against the remaining team in the division, would be used to break the tie, and if two teams remain tied after the third team had either a better or a worse division record than the other two, it would go back to the result of the head-to-head game between those two teams.

Even a tie among all four teams does not pose an insuperable dilemma: if two teams were 2-1 head-to-head and the other two 1-2 — and thus also within the division — the winner of the head-to-head game between the two 2-1 teams finishes first and the loser of said game second, with the winner of the head-to-head game between the two 1-2 teams finishing third and the loser fourth — and if three teams were 2-1 and the fourth team 0-3, the tie among the three 2-1 teams is broken the same way as in a three-way tie, with similar doings if one team was 3-0 and the other three 1-2.

(Of course if games were allowed to end in a tie, many division races would end up getting decided by the margin of half a game — but let's not dwell on the ridiculous).

The four division winners qualify for a new conference semifinal playoff, seeded based on conference record, with home field advantage therein given to the two highest seeds, and the 1 seed hosting the 4 seed and the 2 seed hosting the 3 seed. Any ties are broken first by head-to-head if the teams played each other during the regular season, followed by record against common opponents, strength of victory (in conference games only), strength of schedule (in conference games only), combined ranking in points scored and points allowed (in conference games only), and net points (in conference games only).

These same tie-breakers would also be invoked to break any three-way tie within a division which cannot be broken by either head-to-head or division record (and the division tie-breakers would be observed, if necessary, to determine the two "extra games" of the following year's regular-season conference schedule).

The semifinal winners would then meet in the conference championship game at a pre-determined site.

A conference consisting of two eight-team divisions would appear to be an absolute non-starter, since non-division opponents would get to play each other only once every four years. And while a three-division format with one six-team division and two five-team divisions, allowing for the three division winners plus one wild-card team to qualify for the semifinals, might be fairer, determining its regular-season schedule would be so unwieldy that inequities and complaints would be constant — and teams in the same division would play far fewer games against common opponents. A 15-team conference with three five-team divisions, by contrast, would pose no problems at all, as each team could simply play their division rivals every year and their non-division opponents every other year — but that train has already left the station.

Furthermore, traditional rivalries like Michigan/Ohio State, Texas/Oklahoma, and UCLA/USC could be easily preserved in perpetuity, with guaranteed annual meetings within such rivalries continuing. And every team in the same conference would be assured a minimum of one meeting every three years — and teams that are perennial powerhouses (or perennial doormats) might even play each other every year, or very close to it.

The teams that have been left out, at least so far, can form a new 16-team conference of their own — because at present, there are eight teams in the Big 12 remnant, and 10 teams in the Pac-12 remnant, who will be presumably looking for a new home. The two "odd teams out" figure to have to settle for joining the American Athletic Conference (which Cincinnati will presumably be vacating, reducing it to 10 teams, allowing that conference to re-expand to 12 teams and form two six-team divisions, and adding a postseason conference title game).

In summation, the "new world order" in college football is hardly the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of. Quite the contrary, it has all the potential for ushering in a golden age in the former Division I-A.

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