The recent moves to the Big 10 by USC and UCLA only furthered the trend of upheaval across the college football landscape. And they also continued the trend of schools moving in their own self-interest at the expense of the overall health of college football. You can’t blame each institution (okay, maybe you can) but you’ll be hard pressed to find someone other than the people set to make more money at USC and UCLA who were happy about the L.A schools bolting to the Big 10.
That move is possible because there’s no one outside of those individual schools with the power to stop it. The NCAA is nominally in charge of college football but they have been rendered essentially powerless by repeated losses in court challenging their outdated views. Even then, the NCAA was never intended to dictate conference affiliation. Only to put forth a basic structure of competition and try to enforce something resembling a guiding set of rules the participants are supposed to follow.
What we need in this circumstance is something much stronger. What would happen if there were a supreme leader in charge of college football with the unilateral power to dictate everything except the games themselves? And more specifically, what would happen if that person was me?
I am going to go ahead and indulge in the ultimate college football power trip fantasy. Detailing how I would change the structure of college football to save it from itself and preserve the continued elements of the game the vast majority of us love. Regionality, rivalries, occasional fun non-conference matchups, and a chance at a national title. This is for college football only in the scenario where I had complete autonomy to dictate the everything related to college football conferences and scheduling.
Conference, Scheduling, and Postseason Structure
The Power 5 (rapidly turning to Power 2 in real life) all get to turn into the super conferences they have dreamed of becoming. Each will have 16 members. So too will the so called G5. We are promoting the top ranks of FCS to create a 160-team top level of college football set up across 10 conferences that are geographically sensible.
Each P5 conference will have its own corresponding G5 conference. The Pac-16 in this model is paired with what most closely resembles the current Mountain West. Because of this it allows us to adopt the European soccer model of relegation. Every 2 years the bottom 4 teams in the Pac-16 would switch conferences with the top-4 teams in the Mountain West. Tiebreakers would be based on an SP+ type of overall team quality metric that includes both of the prior years since the last relegation so one bad season doesn’t necessarily doom a team to a lower level.
Within this framework no schools that are within the same state are allowed to be in a separate set of P5/G5 conferences. The new-look SEC/Sun Belt contains all of the Florida schools. Texas A&M is back in the Big 12 (new name needed) along with every other Texas school. The Texas/Oklahoma and USC/UCLA defections are disallowed as they are forced to return to their regional brethren.
Now we get to scheduling. Each team plays an 8-game conference schedule with an even home/road split. That split also applies to the standings as every team would play 2 home/away against teams that finished last year in the top half of the conference as well as in the bottom half of the conference. And top versus bottom half designations are dictated by the SP+ metric rather than strictly conference record. This creates as much as possible a balanced conference schedule despite having such a large conference structure.
Non-conference games as they’re currently scheduled are wiped off the slate. We’re going to make up some of the lost TV revenue by having an all-out schedule release extravaganza like the NFL has. Every team plays 2 non-con games against their corresponding sister conference with once again 1 against a top-half and 1 against a bottom-half team with a home and away. So a Pac-12 school would have 1 home game and 1 road game against the Mountain West/Big Sky amalgamation that is the new MWC. After the first 2 years though those games could mean playing current Pac-12 schools that have been relegated. If for instance Washington State ever got relegated then scheduling preference would be given to keep the Apple Cup going as a non-conference matchup.
The other 2 non-conference games are against teams from 2 separate other conferences. The P5 would play 2 other P5 teams while the G5 would play 2 other G5 teams. Again the matchups have to include a split between a top-half and bottom-half conference team and one of those games have to come against a team that finished within 1 spot of your own conference finish. So if you win the Pac-16 it means the following year you’re guaranteed a game against either a 1st or 2nd place finisher from one of the other power conferences.
Finally, we come to the postseason which will go with an 8-team playoff and conference championships. The top-2 teams in conference record play in the title game for each league. When it comes to the playoff, each of the P5 champions gets an auto-bid and the remaining 3 spots go to the best automatic qualifiers. We don’t give an auto-bid to the top G5 school because if they are good enough to compete for a national title then they should probably have already been promoted up to the P5.
The quarterfinals take place on home campuses. Let’s say like last year Georgia is the #1 team at the end of the regular season but they lose in the SEC title game to Alabama. They could still be as highly seeded as #2 in the bracket but at large qualifiers can’t get a home game. They’re going on the road to #7. Obviously the schedules would’ve been different in this system so we can’t take the results exactly but an alternate universe version of the playoff using last year’s general results might’ve resulted in:
#8 Utah (Pac-12 champ) at #1 Alabama (SEC champ)
#2 Georgia (SEC at large) at #7 Pittsburgh (ACC champ)
#6 Cincinnati (Big 10 at large) at #3 Michigan (Big 10 champ)
#4 Ohio State (Big 10 at large) at 5# Texas A&M (Big 12 champ)
The worst conference champion is going to have to get sacrificed to the #1 overall team but even finish as the second worst conference champ and you get a home game. Plus imagine Georgia traveling to an outdoor stadium in late December somewhere in the Midwest. Beautiful.
Okay so let’s take a gander at these new look conferences.
The current Pac-12/MWC incorporate any schools in: Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Hawaii.
The current Big 10/MAC include any schools in: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.
The current Big 12/CUSA get any schools in: Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Louisiana.
The current SEC/Sun Belt have any schools in: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Finally, the current ACC/American claim any schools in: North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.
Team names listed in red have moved up from G5/FCS to P5. Team names in blue switched which P5 conference they were in but remained the same level. SP+ numbers in red are current FCS teams and I arrived at their rank by taking the FCS SP+ rank and starting after the last FBS team. In reality North Dakota State is way, way better than Massachusetts but this is what we’re doing for now. The numbers in bold at the bottom of each conference are the average SP+ totals.
I’ll admit that I don’t have a ton of opinions about the last FCS teams called up to finish populating the G5 and would take input from people that know those regions best. For now I used Bill Connelly’s FCS SP+ totals from last year to make decisions for the last few spots.
The Pac-16 based on last year’s numbers is still the worst of the P5 but getting reinforcements from Boise State, San Diego State, and BYU (plus DeBoer’s Fresno State) gives the middle a much more solid core. The new Mountain West is the 2nd best G5 conference which means the Pac-16 block would tie the ACC block with the most overall top-90 teams even though the top end is still lacking. You also could reasonably argue that UW and USC won’t finish as poorly as they did last year for quite a while if they didn’t completely mess up their offseason hires.
The SEC loses Texas A&M, LSU, and Arkansas as really good teams and replaces them with Miami and Florida State which may be better long-term but not based on last year. The Big 10 loses Penn State to the ACC but get reinforcements with Cincinnati and Notre Dame. The ACC takes some hits with the Florida schools leaving but they get the previously noted PSU add plus get Maryland, South Carolina, and West Virginia who are all at least solid programs.
This system doesn’t suddenly bring the SEC or the Big 10 back to the middle of the pack but it does elevate the Big 12 at the expense of the SEC and makes the ACC feel like a somewhat cohesive league again.
Now we’ll take a look at a sample schedule for the Huskies. The good thing about having a single person in charge of the scheduling rules is we don’t have to have a uniform “pod” system set up. Once relegation happens those pods are going to get disrupted. Some schools have 0, 1, 2, or 3 true rivals. Washington obviously would fight to play both Washington State and Oregon every year. Great, we can make that happen. Arizona only cares about playing Arizona State and not a 2nd rival? Great, we can make that happen. If the Wildcats got relegated then we could guarantee the Territorial Cup as a non-con to keep it alive.
The first number below is the team’s SP+ finish and the second is where that would’ve ranked in the new version of their conference last year to distinguish between top/bottom half finishers.
Non-Con G5 Home: Wyoming (77, 3rd)
Non-Con G5 Away: Eastern Washington ( 142, 13th)
Non-Con P5 Home: TCU (81, 15th)
Non-Con P5 Away: Tennessee (10, 3rd)
This is the first non-conference schedule for the Huskies. They get 2 home/away games and in each location they play a team that finished in the top half and bottom half of their conference. We get the ultimate trap game as UW has to bus to play on the red field against Eastern Washington in what assuredly would be the most raucous atmosphere in their program history. The current power imbalance between the haves/have nots means that you never see a major team play on the road at a small school. With me in charge it means that those FBS dregs or former FCS programs get to host a regional power every other year which I think would be great for upsets and intrigue.
The Washington/Tennessee game that is on the books in 2029 still gets to happen, it’s just moved up a few years while UW also hosts Wyoming and TCU. Compared to a normal Husky non-conference schedule the biggest difference is an opponent like TCU is probably replacing one of the current conference games. I’m fine with that trade to add variety to the non-conference slate as long as it doesn’t replace a rivalry game. And every year you are guaranteed a home game against a power conference opponent which isn’t currently the case (granted that’s a larger pool of possible teams in this system than at present).
Now for the new Pac-16 conference lineup:
Top Half Pac-16 Home: Fresno State (33, 3rd)
Top Half Pac-16 Home: Oregon State (45, 7th)
Bottom Half Pac-16 Home: Colorado (104, 14th)
Bottom Half Pac-16 Home: Stanford (105, 15th)
Top Half Pac-16 Away: Arizona State (26, 2nd)
Top Half Pac-16 Away: Oregon (38, 4th)
Bottom Half Pac-16 Away: USC (82, 12th)
Bottom Half Pac-16 Away: Washington State (57, 10th)
In this version of events we lose the Pac-12 North games against California but instead get the juicy matchup of Kalen DeBoer playing his old team in Fresno State. (Side note, given that I would have autonomy I would prioritize scheduling games against old coaches. LSU definitely plays at Notre Dame this year and USC is traveling to Oklahoma as part of their non-conference slate).
Instead of skipping 2 teams from the current Pac-12 South as happens under the current arrangement this year we would skip 3 (Utah, UCLA, and Arizona). Otherwise we’ve preserved the games among the Northwest teams which is the biggest priority. That isn’t guaranteed to happen in my model but as mentioned previously I would have Oregon/WSU as tier-1 “must play” for UW and I would put the Beavers in the tier-2 “it’s nice if it works out” category.
Imagine it’s Thanksgiving 2023. The Jake Dickert hire hasn’t really worked out for Washington State. They’re just 8-15 over the past 2 seasons entering the Apple Cup. That puts them tied for 12th in the Pac-16 conference over that 2-year period along with California although with a lower cumulative SP+. If the Cougars fall against the Huskies it means they are going to get relegated to the Mountain West for at least the next 2 seasons while a win keeps their hopes alive. And the more impressive the win the better their chances of winning the tiebreaker.
How is that game not appointment viewing for a national audience? Even if Washington were 6th in the Pac-16 and had it was the difference between 7-5 and 8-4 for them. A rivalry game deciding relegation would be thrilling.
I know there is a 0% chance of anything remotely close to this system becoming the dominant model of college football. I also know that if something like this existed it would be insanely popular.
Would it change who wins the national title most years? Probably not. But there are realistically only 5-10 fanbases each year that have a shot at winning a national championship. For the next tier of teams that expect a winning season and hope for a conference title, they can fight for that. For the next tier of teams that are happy to win 8 games they still get their regional rivalries. For the next tier of teams they get the excitement involved with the fight to not get relegated. And every school in the G5 has the dream of getting promoted and working their way up into a conference title contender at a major level like TCU and Utah have done over the last 20 years.
There would be something for everyone and with someone in charge who actually cares about the well-being of college football it would stay that way. Although what’s that they say about absolute power?
[cut to 5 years later]
“No, I will not be taking a pay cut from my $15 million salary to keep Illinois State’s football program afloat. and able to compete at this level No further questions at this time.”