Two conferences get stronger, and the professional status of college football has never been clearer
This country has always had an issue with monopolies, but it has seemed relatively okay with duopolies. In the cell phone space, Apple and Samsung dominate the landscape. In soft drinks, it is Coca-Cola and Pepsi. And so it seems, the college football duopoly of the SEC and Big Ten has fully manifested. These two conferences were the dominant draws already. Still, that position of power has been thoroughly reinforced with the inclusion of Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC and UCLA and USC in the Big 10. For the last decade, college football has been a top-heavy sport, but the stacking of these two conferences makes you wonder what the end game is.
The Rise of the Super Conference
With this next round of conference realignment, the Big 10 and SEC account for 16 of the 25 teams in ESPN’s preseason top 25 rankings. The balance of power is now firmly in the hands of the two conferences that have dominated the college football landscape for the last couple of decades (save for moments of brilliance from Clemson). This means that these conferences generate more revenue than conferences like the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12. ESPN and FOX have put their money into these two conferences, and as a result, high-profile schools want a piece of that pie.
With those revenue-generating TV deals, comes the potential for more name, image, and likeness (NIL) endorsements. College football is fast becoming a professional game with the advent of NIL and these schools have realized that they will be more enticing for high school recruits if they are playing in conferences that air the games that are featured on College Gameday. The decision is easy to understand from the perspective of a school like Texas. They can easily sell the Texas brand going head to head with the likes of Alabama, Georgia, and Florida as opposed to playing Kansas State or Iowa State in the Big 12.
This simple economic equation lends itself to the reality of the super conference. A collection of schools where geography is now irrelevant. The Big 10 will now span coast to coast with the inclusion of the two California schools to their already increasing east coast footprint of Rutgers, Penn State, and Maryland. The SEC has now spread from the southeast to the middle of the country and would not be surprising to see the conference targeting west coast schools in the future. These decisions are driven by reach, the Big 10 now reaches audiences across every time zone allowing the conference to dominate virtually every time slot. In effect, these moves have made the Pac-12 and Big 12 even more irrelevant than they already were, leaving many to wonder how the college football playoff will be impacted.
There have been few things as often debated in American sports as the way that Division 1 college football crowns a champion. The sport shifted to a 4-team playoff to crown its champion in 2014 and nearly every year has featured controversy at the exclusion of teams and the cries for an expanded 8 or 16-team playoff. As the two super conferences become closer to reality, the future of the playoff format becomes a concern.
With the perennial powers of the sport concentrated in two conferences, there is a concern about how this will impact the strength of the schedule for the other conferences. This is important as most teams in the playoff era have gotten into the tournament with a top 25 strength of schedule rating. This immediately puts a school like Oregon at a disadvantage since it will be much harder to have a tough schedule with conference games against Washington State, Colorado, and Arizona. Whereas USC, its former Pac-12 rival, will be playing games against Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.
If the sport stays with a 4-team layout, there could be a lot of protests from teams in these super conferences and teams from other conferences for the same reason: the selection is too narrow. The pressure would then increase to have an expanded of 8 teams or perhaps 12 with a wild card system, just as the NFL has had for many years. The potential fallout of this could be that all of these slots could become occupied by teams from the two superconferences (especially in an 8-team format), which will create a deeper divide between them and the other three “major” conferences (ACC, Big 12, Pac-12).
The Potential of a Counter
The ripple effect of this realignment is that there are respectable programs in the three left-out conferences, that will create decisions to be made. Utah, Oregon, Cincinnati, and Clemson to name a few are schools that have flirted with the top 5 rankings of the College Football Playoff in recent years. What will the next move of these schools be now that the Big 10 and SEC have stacked the deck and show no signs of slowing down?
A potential answer to this question is for these three conferences to form a sort of alliance to join their top teams as a third superconference. A conference with Clemson playing the elite from the remnants of the Big 12 and Pac-12 could bolster its strength of schedule resume to be able to compete with the giants of the Big 10 and SEC. At this point, this feels like a necessary measure if not now, then soon in the future.
College football has always been a sport of haves vs have-nots, the question was always the gap between the two. With the stacking of the two primary conferences, that gap has never been wider. In a sense, there is a feeling that the SEC and Big 10 are operating in a different sport than the other conferences in the country. These are the schools that will be signing players to the most lucrative NIL deals in vast numbers. Look no further than Texas A&M leveraging wealthy boosters and the money it has accrued as an SEC team to get top recruits to play for them. There has always been an aura of suspicion around the integrity of college football, but now the status of the top two conferences as a semi-pro league has never been more clear.
The Semi-Pro Super League
For years, many have characterized big-time college football as a feeder league into the NFL. Every year in the NFL Draft, it is inevitable to see multiple players drafted from schools like Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia. These schools are factories for talent at the next level. With that in mind, the consolidation of the top schools into two conferences has created a sort of developmental league that feeds into the NFL. Players attend these schools because of the exposure and the resources that will help get them to the next level, thinking there are any other reasons seems highly naive at this point.
The question now becomes, what is the endgame of college football? In my estimation, the full-on status as a professional developmental league for the NFL is the ultimate goal. The reason why this works as a feeder concept for the league as opposed to one of the spring leagues like the USFL or XFL is brand recognition. People tune in every Saturday to watch the Michigan Wolverines play, the same cannot be said of the number of people that will watch the Michigan Panthers play. There is cachet with these prestigious college brands that a start-up league simply cannot match.
So as the sport creates a deeper divide between the professionals and the student-athletes, there will be a loss of tradition. Rivalries that were once the lifeblood of the sport will start to erode. We saw it when Nebraska left the Big 12 and when Pittsburgh joined the ACC. When USC completes its move to the BIg 10, their in-conference rivalries with Oregon and Stanford will fade into history and due to the schedule requirements of the Big 10, their rivalry with Notre Dame may cease to exist (unless Notre Dame decides to join the Big 10).
Big-time college football is now professional football. The concepts have become the same, the pipelines between the two entities might as well be engraved in stone. This realignment and stacking of two conferences is further proof of the fact that “amateurism” was always a myth. We are talking about gigantic brands that demand respect just as their NFL counterparts do. College football is now professional football, and the sooner we come to grips with that reality and stop clutching our proverbial pearls worrying about academic integrity the sooner we can move on and enjoy our Saturdays.