Roundtable: Are realignment and expansion on college football's horizon?
The College Football Playoff is expanding to 12 teams. The Group of 5 is guaranteed an opportunity to compete for a national championship for the first time in history. Gigantic paydays are on the way for the already-rich power conferences and schools across the country.
College football (and college athletics) is changing, and as revenue streams widen for schools, players are on the cusp of dipping their toes in the pool to earn money thanks to Name, Image and Likeness laws going into effect this summer and fall in nearly 20 states. College athletics might not look familiar in five years, but what exactly will the landscape look like as more money flows through programs and more opportunities open for players, coaches and administrators?
Nearly 10 years after the latest round of conference reorganization and expansion, might we see it happen again as Group of 5 schools look to strengthen their place on the national stage? Might the SEC and ACC look to the west in an effort to create super conferences and earn more money through the playoff and other ventures?
When there is more money available, that usually leads to more business opportunities. For college athletics, particularly college football, more opportunities usually leads to realignment among conferences and, sometimes, expansion. What's good today in the Big 12 might be great tomorrow in the Pac-12. It may seem like a long time ago, but we were once this close to seeing Texas and/or Oklahoma join the Pac-10. Imagine what the national landscape would look like today had that happened. Would the Big 12 have folded or invited more programs into the conference that would have led to more Group of 5 programs making the jump to the Power 5?
The 247Sports college football crew gathered for a roundtable to discuss the future of college sports as we embark through a new era that will be paved by the expansion of the College Football Playoff. Let's start with realignment, and whether the expanded playoff will influence conferences and schools to reevaluate their position in college athletics.
Brandon Marcello: I’m not sure we will see expansion immediately across college football, especially if the playoff does not expand until 2026, but at some point a domino will fall. If that domino is big enough, others will follow. I’m just not certain that, say, Boise State jumping to the AAC would drastically change the landscape. The spark to this fire would obviously be Notre Dame, but will the Irish be willing to jump to the ACC in the early years of the expanded playoff? I think, at best, Notre Dame would only shed tradition (look at us, we’re independent!) the day it is a legitimate top 4 team and is blocked from a first-round bye in the playoff because it doesn’t have a conference affiliation. It’s easy to say that will not happen, but emotions are powerful and when that reality finally hits Notre Dame square in the jaw, you can bet the power brokers behind the scenes are going to raise hell (and open the doors to finally jumping to the ACC) the year the Irish lose in the first round.
As for the bigger picture, the mid-2020s through the 2030s is going to be wild in college athletics. It will look nothing like it does today. Reorganization and further expansion is inevitable. It’s just how we work in this country, in sports, entertainment (hi, Disney!) and business. College football has its fingers in all three, and with players grabbing some of that power, you can bet there are developments coming none of us could predict.
Brad Crawford: The lack of parity at the top of college football will not be altered by the inclusion of eight additional teams in an expanded Playoff. However, with more teams in the dance, we’re going to see a few desired matchups from the first-timers that will heighten the hype a bit in the postseason. Realignment, to me, is the bigger story. Super conferences? The chance Group of 5 “powers” break into one of these bigger leagues? That’s where we could see actual change among the elites. I like the idea of doing away with divisions within conferences as well. Try to play as many conference games annually as possible and take the top two teams at the standings to play in the league final. Too easy.
Josh Pate: It seems to me the super conference conversation (for many) tends to work off the premise of an existing P5 conference absorbing parts of an existing G5. What if the Great Pac-12 Reset doesn’t produce results though? What if Texas isn’t back in the Big-12? If those conferences haven’t closed the revenue gap with the SEC & Big Ten in a few years AND they watch the AAC start cashing bigger checks of their own with programs parked in far more favorable recruiting territories, I’d say a potential Pac-12/Big-12 merger could become the story to keep an eye on.
Trey Scott: Such a merger nearly happened during the last bout of realignment and I think Texas, even if it hasn’t won a Big 12 title in that time, is glad it didn’t — the Pac-12’s entire existence has been an even bigger joke than ‘Texas is back.’
What’s better for college football: The AAC rising to the ranks of the Power 5, or parts of the Big 12 and Pac-12 dissolving to in turn merge and make it four “Super Conferences.” In this instance, are Texas and Oklahoma even in the same conference any more? Does Kansas State become a G5 team? Colorado? Maybe they’d be more competitive in the smaller conferences but I can’t imagine it’s healthier for the sport for that to happen. It’s all so political … there’s also something weird about Texas being at the epicenter of all this, even though it’s true.
I’m not a huge fan of 16-team conferences in which you might go eight years without playing a cross-divisional opponent.
Chris Hummer: Agree with Trey on this one. I hate the idea of super conferences because some matchups will almost never happen. Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012 and won’t host Georgia until 2024. That’s 13 years (!!!) before fans in College Station can see the Bulldogs at Kyle Field. Johnny Manziel is going to be in his 30s before that happens. Obviously, the SEC’s antiquated anchor scheduling plays a part in that. But a 16-team conference would suffer from a similar fate.
Regardless, the Big 12 will be a team to watch as the next realignment cycle picks up. Not only is the league primed to add teams – I can think of half-a-dozen G-5 programs that have long looked to position themselves for inclusion – but Texas remains a source of tension with the Longhorn Network. That entity keeps Texas rich and prevents the Big 12 from truly creating a TV Network that has made leagues like the SEC and the Big Ten wealthy. (Spare me any mention of Big 12 Now on ESPN+)
Crawford: I love the idea of fluid conference schedules and not setting a rotation years in advance. Maybe a Tennessee player would love to experience Tiger Stadium at LSU, but it’s not going to happen under the current format within the SEC and other leagues with the divisional and permanent rival format. Alabama has played at Florida twice since 2006! This season marks Nick Saban’s second trip to Gainesville as coach of the Crimson Tide and he is the SEC’s longest-tenured coach. That ain’t right.
Marcello: If the Group of 5 conferences want to strengthen their chances of reaching the playoff, and I think we all agree the AAC is in the best position, might we see more reorganization on that level than the Power 5? The first possibility that pops up in my mind is Conference USA and the Sun Belt. Wouldn’t a merger work best for both parties, especially with CUSA taking so many hits over the last 10 years?
Scott: I have to be honest, I didn’t know that was a thing that’s been talked about before until you suggested it. It doesn’t quite get me running hot, but it would make sense from a geographic and budgetary standpoint.
I’d be interested in how you all feel about the likelihood Notre Dame remains independent? I have my thoughts on if it’s even worth it for NBC to extend that contract (through 2025) instead of chasing an entire conference … do you think it would be good for college football for the Fighting Irish to finally, officially, join the ACC? If they do that, what does fellow independent BYU do? Is any of this realistic??
Bud Elliott: I saw a lot of discussion about the new 12-teamer making it more likely that Notre Dame would need to join a conference. But I see it the other way. Notre Dame always marches to the beat of its own drummer and I believe that while the Irish are sacrificing a chance at a bye, it drastically increases their chance of making it in on a yearly basis. Under the 4-team model, when the Irish made it it took the spot of another conference. Now the committee won't feel the anti-Irish pressure some would have argued it had under the prior model.
Marcello: One item that will need to be discussed when playoff expansion reaches the TV partners is how ESPN and NBC will handle broadcast rights for Notre Dame if the Irish host a home playoff game in the first round. Does NBC’s deal supersede ESPN’s playoff rights? If so, how much more money could Notre Dame earn than other playoff participants as a result? Just a thought and, I’m sure, something NBC wants to discuss.
Scott: That’d be all ESPN. It’s a playoff game and all.
Marcello: Not necessarily. Well, unlikely, I should say, but it's possible if Notre Dame and NBC want to fight the playoff and ESPN for money. The ESPN contract currently does not cover a 12-team field, as far as we know. It might also depend on how you interpret the contract (attorneys reading this would probably love to get a look at that contract, and so would I) and whether NBC and Notre Dame would want to get into the legal weeds. No contract exists for a playoff that includes home games but there is a contract for all Notre Dame home games and NBC owns those rights. Again, I’m with you, ESPN wins in the end but NBC is gonna push back. Why wouldn’t they? There is money involved and that’s a potential Notre Dame home game.
Hummer: On the subject of home playoff games, does anyone think that will be the thing that ultimately breaks the bowl system? I like bowl games. I have vivid memories of them really feeling special when I was younger. But the playoff system has already severely damaged the importance of the non-playoff postseason. Players are skipping bowls more often than ever and even New Year’s Six games suffer from conversations like, ‘Auburn or Georgia doesn’t want to be here.’
The proposed 12-team format protects the bowls by giving them hosting duties for the quarter and semifinal games. But if the home playoff model of the opening round takes off, how long will the bowls be able to hold on before those higher-seeded teams start clamoring to host, too? Hell, the drumbeat of that conversion started before the 12-team system has even been rubber-stamped.
I realize bowl officials still hold a lot of power in college football, and things like the Rose Bowl are woven into the fabric of the sport. But as the College Football Playoff expands, I feel like the bowl system is going to get left in the dust.
Marcello: I wonder if the perception that the bowl system will collapse is all for naught. Too much money being made by bowl executives and conferences to allow it to fail. Sure, it’s non-profit, but not for the executives and even the companies in the playoff’s bed. Also, ESPN thrives on live events. That’s how they make their money and that’s why they operate so many of these bowl events, too. If there is money to be made, they will find a way to keep the bowl system healthy. I think the system shrinks by a handful of games (it has to because of playoff expansion), but I don’t see how it collapses or takes a substantial hit. As long as people watch mid-December bowl games on TV, they will continue to be scheduled and bowl execs will continue to earn big bucks. That’s why the bowl system expanded over the last decade -- people love watching live sports. It will shrink, sure, but they will continue to play these games, even when five to 10 players opt out of the game because the season, in their eyes, was a disappointment after falling short of the playoff.
ESPN execs said publicly this summer they are exploring avenues to properly focus more on teams outside the playoff race. They know they’ve hurt the sport by not celebrating the tradition and pageantry of other schools outside the elite. I bet that changes considerably because, well, it’s just good business as the game expands and more eyes are on the sport. Gotta sell those mid-level bowl games ESPN owns, right?
Crawford: Bowl games still matter, even the litany of matchups outside of the New Year’s Six. For the fringe top 25 programs, a trip to Florida in the postseason is a reward for a job well done in, say, the SEC and for those fanbases who will not routinely experience Playoff trips, they’re meaningful. Nick Saban mentioned last season the importance of bowl season and rewarding players and I have the same sentiment. I’m in the group that would not want to see bowl season cut any games.
Last edited by a moderator: