MORGANTOWN — Big time college football moves into its playoff era, complete with its five power conferences in charge of themselves, leaving the structure of college sports in a time of massive transition that is still in its infancy.
Conferences have realigned, historical rivalries such as West Virginia and Pitt’s Backyard Brawl and the annual Texas and Texas A&M shootout have become extinct.
At the same time the NCAA has been under siege from lawsuits, forcing it to extend scholarships to cover the full cost of attendance while courts have ruled there is a monetary value to amateurism, forcing the NCAA to pay for the use of the likenesses of their players in such venture as video games and jersey sales.
One suspects that where we stand today, especially with a four-team playoff coming out of a five-conference setup, is only the first step and that this will grow into something far larger, leaving the question of where we are going and how we will get there.
That led this little corner of the sporting world to sit down and devise its own plan, which grew out of a suggestion from Mountaineer fan Jeff Starkey, once of Morgantown, now in Boulder, Colo.
The plan, simply put, completely redesigns the conference structure so that you have eight 10-team conferences, all put together on a regional basis as much as possible to cut costs while retaining or reviving traditional rivalries.
These leagues would play nine-game, round-robin conference schedules, as the Big 12 currently does, leading to one conference champion which advances to an eight-team playoff.
This does away with the possibility of a conference putting two teams into the playoffs, which is especially noticeable in that four-team, five-conference setup where always one and as many as three conferences would go without a representative and a chance to win the national title.
Example: The committee selecting the teams decides upon Alabama, Florida, Michigan and USC to play, leaving the Big 12 and the ACC without a representative.
True, the eight conference-champion playoff might not get the eight best teams — but winning the conference championship will mean far more than it does now. This also means the regular season will mean more than it does now.
Would this setup be an improvement? Could it work? What works against it?
We took that to West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck, a member of the 13-person selection being used in the current format, to get his views on our idea as opposed to what is now in place in college football.
The conversation took us from Iowa to Mars — literally — and other unexpected places thrown in.
We first asked if it was fair to say the four-team playoff did not seem to be the final solution for college football.
“It’s a fair question,” Luck admitted.
But he doesn’t see change in the near future.
“I do think this is the system for the next 12 years. I really believe that,” he said. “Twelve years from now what will happen, I don’t know. Remember the old 1-AA playoffs. They still do them as the FCS. They started off with four teams in the playoffs. I think three or four years later they went to eight and now they are at 16.”
Will the bigger schools, the powerful money schools, also change their format?
“I’m sure they will. It always changes,” he said. “Remember, AP and UPI did their mythical champion before the bowl games in the old day. The bowl games were exhibitions, just for fun.”
That was wrong, yes, but it caused a lot of controversy and that creates talk and talk creates interest.
It was put to Luck that there seems to be a clamor for more than a four-team playoff, however they eventually get there. Six teams? Eight teams? 16?
“I’m sure people will talk about that,” Luck said, but he wasn’t necessarily going to buy into it. Remember, he was part of the process that came up with what we have now.
“I don’t know if it makes sense,” Luck said of expanding the playoffs to eight teams. “There’s two things I would say. One, the system is what it is and I’m going to defend it because I think it’s the right one.
“Having said that, there will be lots of talk about the system. I think if you look back in 10 years and do a study, there always seems to be three, four, five teams that are a notch ahead of everyone else. I’m not sure there are eight in any one years.”
His point is a solid one, that in any given year you might have only two unbeaten teams and maybe only a couple of dominant one-loss teams, they being the teams that would seem to belong in the playoffs.
The charm of any playoff system, however, is that it creates a second season.
A playoff comes with a Cinderella aspect to it. While the top teams seem to usually make their way through the 64-team NCAA basketball tournament, there are so many upsets and side stories along the way that it has become the nation’s premier tournament — even more so than the NFL playoffs.
With eight leagues providing eight champions, you will always have a Cinderella in shoulder pads, the eighth seed, maybe the seventh.
Say BYU or Boise State comes out of the Plains, as we have set up the conferences, or WVU wins the Big 12 instead of Oklahoma or Texas? Think much of the nation wasn’t rooting for WVU when it lost in the NCAA Final Four to Duke?
Luck admits he likes each of the conferences playing a round-robin schedule and can’t find much fault with the concept as it is being presented.
“The interesting thing is that it makes logical sense,” he said of the proposal. “You could argue 80 schools (in the power conferences) is too many, maybe not. Then the question really becomes in my mind, if a Martian came in he would look at this and say ‘This makes sense, do it this way. It seems to be fair.’ Right?”
There, we got to Mars.
Or does it? Luck notes that things can happen to throw things out of whack and points to Iowa and its schedule this year as a potential pitfall.
“The Hawkeyes play Northern Iowa, Ball State, Iowa State — all at home — Pitt, Purdue, Maryland, Northwestern, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Nebraska. No Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan State in their own conference,” Luck said, adding, “That’s going to happen in the Big Ten every year.”
Say Iowa goes 11-1 against such a weak schedule, it would be up to the committee to see that they don’t advance over a team that has played much harder schedule rather than advancing automatically to the playoffs because they were conference champion.
Luck also says that while the proposal makes sense to our Martian friend there is another aspect to it.
“The real question is, is that system realistic at all? Could it ever conceivably come to pass given the history of college football?”
The history is that the Notre Dames, the Michigans, the Ohio States, the Penn States … they are king and rule the world, co-rulers now with ESPN, of course.
To make this work, Luck notes, “you would have to start from scratch.”
That’s not really as difficult as it seems for much of it is restoring conferences as they once were to re-create regional aspect of the game and the rivalries fans clamor to be played.
Of course, it makes no sense to talk about this concept without thinking of television and how that works. At present ESPN, Fox, the networks and now leagues such as the Big Ten and SEC carry the sporting events and it is spectacularly profitable.
What happens if you go from the current 65 teams and five conferences to 80 teams in eight conferences?
“Now the question is, in terms of 80 teams, what schools would the networks really want?” Luck said, noting you are adding 15 schools not considered part of the college football power structure at present.
Certainly that’s true, but it is also a problem we have now, television networks wanting to television an Alabama more than a Wake Forest.
“No matter where you cut it, you have that problem but the networks would surely weigh in and say do you need Northern Illinois for the Chicago market? No, we have Notre Dame and Illinois and Wisconsin … Chicago is taken care of,” Luck said. “They would look at it in a very utilitarian fashion.”
Then there is the matter of the revenue generated through television. How do you split that between 80 teams?
Luck does not see that as a problem. It could all be pooled and split equally, although Alabama might balk at getting the same share Tulsa gets and Notre Dame … well, forget it.
Yet, it’s a proven method that works.
“That’s exactly what the NFL has done, even though the Dallas Cowboys are much more popular than the Oakland Raiders. The NFL has shared equally,” Luck said. “What’s more, the conferences all do that now. In the past, before this new TV deal, USC got more money than Washington State … it wasn’t equal. It changed just three or four years ago. We are all used to that now. The acceptance of that would come very easily.”
So Luck believes the TV money could all be thrown into a pot and split 80 ways equally, keeping everyone as happy — and rich — as they are in the NFL.
But it is dangerous to compare college football with the NFL because they are different animals.
“Think of the NFL or any professional sport. They are much more rational and transparent in that they go to where people are,” Luck said. “They aren’t in Ames, Iowa, or Auburn, Alabama. If you look at where they are it’s where the markets are and colleges don’t. Otherwise, we’d have teams in New York City, Philadelphia.”
Indeed, Morgantown’s population literally doubles on football game days, which gives each college its own unique situation, especially since it is first charged with educating its students, not with making money off college sports.
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