MAYBE IT’S TIME TO RE-THINK DIVISION I COLLEGE FOOTBALL
“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster.” – Oscar Goldman at the opening of every episode of the TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
If you were alive in the 1970s, then you remember the show which starred former University of Indiana football player (and Farrah Fawcett’s husband at one time) Lee Majors. The show was an adaptation of the novel Cyborg written by former Gainesville resident Martin Caiden. Majors is an astronaut who almost dies in the crash back to earth of a spacecraft. Barely alive, he is rebuilt better, faster and stronger.
So fast forward to 2020. That show is a distant memory, but maybe it’s time to apply Oscar Goldman’s quote to Division I college football. When the corona virus is over, college sports will be on life support unless football is played again. It is entirely possible entire athletic programs will have to be scrapped not just because of the virus, but because they’re based on a rather unhealthy economic model. Not enough teams operate in the black and way too many are living on borrowed time, so maybe it’s a good time to re-think what we’re doing.
Since college football is the engine that drives the economics of college sports as we know them, maybe it can be rebuilt. Maybe it can be made better than it was and perhaps this is the ideal time to do it. Since football and every other sport is on sabbatical, this is the perfect time for the best and brightest minds in college sports to begin thinking things through to come up with a model that is far more sustainable. Maybe what they come up with won’t be bigger than what we have now in Division I, but bigger isn’t always better. A more streamlined approach seems like a far superior idea.
When football does come back – whether that’s in the fall or next spring – it will be with modifications starting with a shortened schedule. Whether fall or spring there will be college football because the football-derived money makes it possible to have women’s athletic programs and non-profit sports, which, in most cases, is everything but football. It seems unlikely that there will be time to play the full 12-game schedules that are currently in place so the season will have to be shortened.
A conference-only schedule has been mentioned, but if that were to happen Notre Dame, BYU and Army would be left out since they don’t have a league affiliation. Try playing a college football season without Notre Dame. That won’t happen and that’s a check you can cash at any bank. Navy is a member of the American Athletic Conference; Army is an independent. Try playing college football without the Army-Navy game. Then you have traditional inter-conference rivalries such as Southern Cal-Notre Dame, Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Clemson-South Carolina, games that would be eliminated in a conference-only schedule. The SEC and ACC play eight game conference schedules. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine game schedules.
The answer to the scheduling disparity seems to be a 10-game schedule, which would eliminate the paycheck games. Those paycheck games get more TV money for the Power Five conference teams and they help balance the books for Division I bottom feeders and D1AA teams that stand on the street corners of the coaches conventions with signs “Will take a brutal beating for a rather large paycheck.”
A corona-induced scheduling model might serve as a ventilator that breathes clean air into the lungs of college football since the paycheck games would be eliminated. For years, I’ve been hearing fans complain about sitting in the hot sun at noon to watch the Gators play Western Walla Walla or some other directional school. Scott Stricklin hears the complaints. He knows the fans want competitive games against decent teams, not 84-7 blowout wins against teams that have perhaps one or two players who could actually make the Florida roster.
If we stick much longer with the current system in which 130 teams are part of Division I, it will be death by a thousand cuts. It could continue to work for awhile, but Stricklin and the other ADs around the country know the effect empty seats have on the bottom line. Plus, pressure continues to mount to upgrade scheduling for both television and playoff purposes. Strength of schedule does indeed matter, which means those games with the bottom feeders and D1AA teams are going to be squeezed out of the regular season. As Jeremy Foley used to say, “What should be done eventually must be done immediately.” In the case of college football, it would seem that lopping off 30 or more teams from Division I is going to be done eventually, so why not now?
Half of Division I is made up of the 65 teams that make up the Power Five Conferences – 14 from the SEC, ACC and Big 10, 12 from the Pac-12 and 10 from the Big 12, and Notre Dame. Call these 65 teams The Haves. The Haves could split off and have their own exclusive division. That has been suggested more than once. After all The Haves have a playoff system that makes it virtually impossible for teams outside of their exclusive club to crash the College Football Playoff party.
In recent years it has been suggested that the other half of Division I – the Group of Five they are called but The Have Nots is a better name – should have their own playoff to determine a real national champion. That would eliminate the embarrassment of a dreamed up national championship like the one claimed by UCF. Give The Have Nots a shot at their own national championship and it might generate enough interest in their games to make up for the beatings they don’t have to take at the hands of The Haves. Give those teams in Conference USA and the Sun Belt incentive to play for a championship and maybe their smaller stadiums become a Saturday zoo where the tickets are a hot item and sellouts, not empty seats, are the norm.
Since we already have a national championship crowned in divisions IAA, II and III, who’s to say we can’t have one more? Nobody ever says all those D1AA titles won by North Dakota State aren’t legitimate national championships worthy of banners and signs proclaiming the accomplishment. The Group of Five national champion? Not a bad idea but does it make for a better Division I product? Maybe on paper, but we still have the same old problem – too many teams in Division I.
The only way to actually improve Division I for the better is to come up with a model that adds maybe 35 teams to the 65 from the power conferences. I advocated years ago for eight 12-team conferences with the conference championship game serving as the first round of the playoff followed by four quarter-final games that pit eight conference champions against each other. I like that idea a whole lot better than the current four-team model that guarantees at least one champ from a power conference sits out the playoff but when I came up with an 8X12 model there was no such thing as a 14-team league like we have now in the SEC, ACC and Big Ten. Still, even though an 8X12 model won’t work, you could come up with an eight-conference model that would if Division I shrunk to 100 members. To do it, Notre Dame would have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a conference. Think of this juicy possibility. If Notre Dame and BYU joined the Big 12 you could have games between the Catholics, Mormons, Baptists and whatever Protestant denomination TCU is.
The Mountain West could remain at its current 12 teams and the American could expand to 12 by adding Army since Navy is already in the league. That would leave room for one 12-team league made up of teams from Conference USA, the Sun Belt, the MAC and leftover independents such as Liberty. I think the teams in that final 12-team league would all have to have a stadium that seats at least 30,000 or an average attendance of 25,000. I’ve always believed that if you can’t meet those kind of minimums you shouldn’t be playing Division I football anyway.
Paycheck games would be eliminated in the fall, but you could still have them in the spring. Instead of four 12-minute quarters with a running clock, half of which is played by walk-ons who will maybe see a combined four minutes on the field in the regular season, you could play a real game against that bottom feeder or a team from D1AA. You’d have a better chance of filling Florida Field for The Citadel in April than you would at 12 noon in September. Plus, playing in the spring would be ideal since the game wouldn’t count. You wouldn’t have Appalachian State over Michigan (2007) or Georgia Southern over Florida (2013) or Northern Iowa over Iowa State (2019). For the D1AA teams, they wouldn’t have to take a road trip for what is typically a serious beating that might affect their chances to compete in their own conference.
I do believe college football is in need of some changes and what better time to begin the process of change than now when there is no football due to the corona virus. At least start giving serious thought to how change can be implemented in a way that will make sense for everyone. Another championship layer isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it seems to be putting a band-aid on an open sore. Trimming the number of teams that compete in Division I seems to me a much better idea even if it means calling Notre Dame’s bluff on conference membership. There are some very smart athletic directors who understand the bottom line all too well. The current model with 130 Division I teams isn’t sustainable over the long haul so it’s time to start finding a creative solution that can strengthen both Division I and Division IAA.