The Future of College Football (if Anyone With an Imagination was in Charge)
It is time to rip the band-aid of amateurism off college football and the rest of college athletics. The dominoes have begun to fall. The NCAA has either lost or refused to use its power to enforce its amateur rules, providing occasional slaps on the wrist for violations. California passing a state law allowing athletes to be paid makes amateurism a terminal condition at best. Finally, the uncertainty of COVID-19 leaves us asking whether we can have sports on campus without students on campus? This is not an amateur activity. It is a billion-dollar industry that supports entire schools and cities. Since Nick Saban set foot on the Alabama campus, enrollment has doubled, there are more new buildings than old, and downtown Tuscaloosa is hardly recognizable to a graduate of 2005.
This is the landscape facing college athletics. It is inescapable. This is also where the discussion ends. The problem is too big to comprehend a decent solution that benefits all parties (and there are so many parties involved). I laugh at those frightened to face this and will provide the Power Five’s athletic directors with the clear, nay, the only possible solution going forward. Copy the European Soccer leagues. Create regional conferences with two divisions. Allow small schools to fight for their spot in the first division and demote any who cannot compete. Promotion and Relegation is the answer.
In this essay, I will propose changes to current conference alignment, rules and regulations that should be unified among those conferences, a change in the current regular-season schedule, a vast improvement to conference championships, and a complete revamp of bowl season. Each of these sections will be more controversial than the last, but rest assured they will bring in better football from top to bottom and would assuredly guarantee more revenue for everyone involved.
Conference realignment is going to be just as ugly as it has been in every other instance. Rivalries will be lost and long travel may be required, but it’s a sacrifice I am willing to make for all of you. There are currently 130 FBS football programs, and the one thing we all know is that the Power Five will not be letting go of their leverage. So, my proposal is simple: disband any non-Power Five conference (I told you it wouldn’t benefit every part), and force the SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12, and Pac 12 to grow to 26 teams. To get to such numbers, there may be some trading of teams to ensure regional travel remains realistic. I would not recommend South Alabama join the Pac 12, but if that is what the Conference Commissioners agree to, so be it.
Now that each conference has 26 teams, it is time for them to split into two divisions of 13 teams. For the first season, this will probably be a rocky decision. The SEC, ACC, and Big 10 will have to cut one team (bye Vandy) while the Big 12 and Pac 12 will have to pick a few. I’m sure the teams not picked will be very appreciative. But take heart! This is only temporary. If you want to play in Division 1 next season, the road is open! This will just prevent them from being curb-stomped week after week. Nobody will want to be known as the first team relegated.
In the 2019 season, teams averaged 13 games during the regular season. The promotion-relegation model will allow each team to play one non-conference game, whether that will be a tune-up, rivalry, or promotional event, I leave up to the schedule makers. The rest of the season will be set aside to play each member of your Conference Division. Six home games and six road games. Five Conference Championships during the same weekend between the teams that finished first and second, with the winner going to the Championship Playoffs. That’s right, a five-team playoff of only conference champions.
This decision was the most difficult for me, but I felt it necessary to mirror the current number of contests that each team would play, and in this new setting, giving one conference an extra bid seems even more difficult to justify as there would only be a single weekend of non-conference play to judge the talent of the conferences. So, we send the top five teams to the playoffs. I recommend, in a tribute to College Football of old, to give the #1 ranked team a bye week. Congrats, you earned it. Why? Because it’s the only way to make the math work. That’s why.
If you aren’t fully sold on this system just yet, I understand. I’ve forced a most likely unpopular conference realignment just to recreate the regular season without non-conference games and a playoff that will easily be as controversial as the current setting. But now is my time to shine! Conference championship games can be fun if occasionally one-sided. They regularly outshine bowl season. So why don’t we add some games to this quiet period?
Let’s add 10 more games to help determine next season’s conference schedule. The weekend after conference championships, during the quiet before bowl season, will become the most tense and rewarding college football will have seen to date. D1 vs D2 with the right to play in D1 next season. The award for the Division 2 champ is to play against the last-place finisher of D1. Making our 10 games all be D2 #1 vs D1 #13 and D2#2 vs D1 #12 and so on. Losers, better luck next year. It is important to point out that this is different from most European soccer leagues, where the top seed promotes automatically while the next few play a small tournament to determine who goes up.
However, I feel my change of inter-divisional battle will not only be more fun (come on, you don’t want to watch Illinois give everything it has against Toledo or face eternal embarrassment?) but will be needed to convince the current crop of tier 1 schools to agree to join such a system. Oregon St isn’t going to sign up for a league that allows them to be kicked out of the conference in which they rarely ever win a game.
The Bowl season for casual fans is brutal. About 75% of bowl games are unwatchable to anyone not going through football withdrawal. I have rectified the situation. Bowl games now become 4 team bowl tournaments. There are currently 40 regular bowl games with about 78 participating teams (as the two finalists will have played in two bowl games). How often must we see teams with losing records take the field against a nine-win team and get shellacked? Well, no longer!
I propose 13 tournaments, independently run as bowl games are today, that will see qualifying teams fight for victory. Each round could represent a specific bowl game as we currently know them, and maybe we should just do away with the tacky corporate branded ones like the Burt’s Bees Goo Goo Car Wash Tax Slayer Gator Bowl. These tournaments would contain a minimum of four teams, meaning 52 teams get an attempt to play in a total of 39 games. Each bowl tournament would have the ability to add a 5th or 6th team should they choose, ensuring all teams who have earned the right will have a bowl spot.
My favorite part of this will not only be to see non-conference competition for the first time since early in the season, but also to see the possibilities of inter-divisional battles. 4 teams allow tournaments to be played evenly, but also will make some contain members of the same conference. What if Ole Miss, who placed 5th in the SEC D1 with an 8-5 record, matches up against Memphis, who finished 3rd in SEC D2 at 9-4? As you can see, the possibilities are limitless, and competing for another game should keep these first-round games exciting as well as limiting the tournament championships from being too lopsided as so many bowls are today.
This final section is reserved for the rule changes I would prefer to see in the world of college football. These are not required to instill the promotion-relegation system I have laid out and could also be made to the current system as it stands. First and foremost, I would ask that football teams become separate entities from the schools they represent. The easiest way to remove the band-aid of amateurism is to make these teams professional, even if a minor league. The teams would be required to maintain a working relationship with the school, purchasing the rights to images and branding and allowing the athletes to attend classes should they choose. I would also like to add a predetermined percentage of profits to also be reserved for the schools.
This setting will allow us to extend player eligibility and also allow players with a year or two of professional experience to drop back down and work their way back up to the big leagues. How many young NFL careers get cut short due to injuries and limited rosters? Now a 7th round pick with a nagging hamstring can drop back down and play a season should they need. Which brings me to the one piece I cannot foresee. The free agency of high school athletes and the new role of the NFL draft.
I urge the Commissioners to allow for free agency and recruiting to continue to take place as is. Protect the amateurism of athletes 17 years and younger with strict salary caps and tough recruiting regulations. These are businesses, they should be punished for not acting within regulations (unlike Mark Emmert’s useless organization). I also would suggest that any player returning from the NFL must return to the team they were last a member of, otherwise, you will see the richer continue to get richer, and the hope of this whole project is to see teams play fair competition throughout the season and improve the sport from top to bottom. If you have any thoughts that would improve this proposal, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you think college football is fine the way it is, get your head checked.