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The Future of College Football: Reviewing Pat Forde’s Realignment

Forde did a good thing by expanding the playoffs. This is long overdue. But he completely missed the mark by capping it at 12 teams, and allowing a selection committee to select the two at-large teams. This presents a myriad of problems.

Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde kicked off a blitzing debate when he launched his Hail Mary proposal for college football realignment this week. Whether he fielded a winner or just punted a new set of challenges depends on where you line up on the state of the game’s competitive gridiron. At least he tackled the issue head on, with the goal of flagging the shortcomings of the conference structure and moving the ball toward a product that both fans and schools can back.

Football metaphors exhausted – much like anyone who read that first paragraph – let’s take an honest look at Forde’s plan.

First and foremost, Forde addresses the issue of geographic sprawl in the current conference structure. This is a glaring problem in college athletics, particularly football with the number of people and amount of equipment they must transport such long distances.

Big 12 Conference opponents West Virginia and Texas Tech are separated by 1500 miles, as are Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) opponents Miami and Boston College. Conference USA’s Marshall must travel over 1600 miles to battle the University of Texas – El Paso (UTEP). The American Athletic Conference (AAC) spans ten states, and features one of the longest of long distance “rivalries,” (excluding Hawaii playing anyone) with UCONN and Houston being 1800 miles apart.

The Power Five conferences (ACC, Southeastern Conference [SEC)], Big 12, Big 10, Pac 10) made money grabs years ago, conglomerating virtually all the major football power programs into just five leagues. That left the remaining pieces for the AAC, C-USA and Mountain West conferences. The purely mid-major leagues, Mid-American and Sunbelt Conferences have done the best job maintaining their traditional geographic ties, even while seeing some schools leave or join their ranks.

So Forde is right on the money with his sentiment to consolidate within geographic, largely drivable boundaries. His suggestions can be found in the following tweet, with full school names listed in the SI story linked above, for the logo-challenged reader.

Forde’s sentiment is on the money, but plenty of his selections leave a lot to be desired. Take his new Sun Belt Conference, for example. This conference includes Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Arkansas – basically the current SEC West minus Texas A&M. This group (really Alabama, Auburn and LSU) accounts for nine of the last 17 national championships. The other three essentially take turns being competitive in the SEC and could consistently win several other conferences if not for the first three. The red meat that Forde throws to these carnivores includes Tulane, Memphis, Arkansas State, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss and Louisiana-Lafayette. You read that correctly.

Would the lesser teams gradually improve as a result of just being in a league with these giants, and playing them annually? Perhaps. There are examples in current leagues (in football and basketball) where this has worked and examples where it hasn’t. But it would take years, and might have the opposite effect on Alabama, LSU and the like – watering down their programs until they meet Arkansas State and Tulane in a happy, completely average middle. If parity is one of Forde’s goals, having the SEC West largely intact in one conference would perpetuate the claims of “SEC bias,” as three of these teams could conceivably make his playoff each year, given the “at large” voting.

The “Great Mideast” Conference would similarly pit an upper-half powerhouse group against six punching bags from current mid-major leagues. Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Cincinnati (okay, maybe not Indiana) would largely own the remaining Ohio schools – Miami (OH), Ohio, Toledo, Akron and Kent State, and the other Indiana school, Ball State.

Forde’s Mid-Atlantic league would become the Clemson Invitational, much like the current ACC Atlantic Division. At least Clemson’s current division has former perennial powerhouse, Florida State and occasionally competitive Louisville to help keep the Tigers in check. Their new, Forde conference would feature more parity than some others, but would usually look like this: Clemson at the top, a bunch of schools competing for second place and two consistent bottom dwellers. The non-Clemson pack would be led by Virginia Tech and Virginia, two teams who sometimes threaten to field nationally competitive teams. It would also include North Carolina, a team that has always seemed to underachieve, but could be on the verge of something with Mack Brown’s second stint as head coach. Other current ACC teams Duke, Wake Forest and NC State put together winning seasons on occasion. Then there’s East Carolina, a team that spent considerable time in the rankings in the ’90s, but whose last winning season was six years and three coaches ago. The Pirates have fared pretty well against others on this list in recent years (UNC, NC State, Va Tech). Likewise, Appalachian State is an up and coming power with recent wins over better known ACC programs. South Carolina is competitive most years, though is generally in the second tier of SEC programs. Charlotte and Old Dominion would be the doormats of this league.

Where Forde might achieve parity and good competition are in his Deep South and Southwest Conferences. The Deep South (which would likely be protested as having a racially insensitive name) is essentially the Florida-Georgia league, with University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) thrown in for the sake of diversity. This league includes five former national champions – Florida, Florida State, Miami, Georgia and Georgia Tech – and one school who claimed to have won one a couple years ago – Central Florida. The other Florida Schools – South Florida, Florida Atlantic and Florida International – have each had multiple famous names among their head coaches. USF had a Holtz (Skip, not Lou), Willie Taggart and Charlie Strong. FIU employed long-time NFL QB Don Strock and now Butch Davis. FAU launched their program with the legendary Howard Schnellenberger, later employed Lane Kiffin and now Taggart. In fact, this league could also be known as the Six Degrees of Willie Taggart League, with his tenure at USF, FAU and Florida State. Georgia State occupies the cellar of this league.

The Southwest Conference could also have a revolving door of champions. With Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State (who looks like they will now field a team this season), Baylor, Texas Tech, Houston, SMU and Rice all having storied (to varying degrees) football histories. Likely doormats Tulsa and North Texas make up a small and slightly more competitive cellar than most of Forde’s other leagues.

The Great Midwest Conference has some strength at the top – Wisconsin and Nebraska (they will be good again at some point). There are respectable programs from Power Five leagues – Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State, Missouri, Kansas State. Then there’s the one team Forde elevated from the Football Championship Series (FCS) level – North Dakota State. The Bison have won eight of the last nine FCS national championships and might just dominate their new league. Kansas (also Power Five, but not usually competitive), and every directional Michigan school (Western, Eastern, Central) complete the Great Midwest roster.

Where Forde really falls short – and who can blame him – is when trying to create strong conferences comprised of West Coast teams. His Pac-12 and Rocky leagues would largely stink. That’s just a product of football geography. Yes, the Pac-12 would have some teams who sound like they should be good – Oregon, USC, UCLA, Washington. But in six years of the College Football Playoff system, and 24 chances to put a team among the final four, only twice have any of those teams made it (Oregon in 2014-15 and Washington in 2016-17). The rest of this league includes Washington State, San Diego State, Oregon State, Hawaii, Fresno State and Nevada. All in all, not a terribly weak bunch. Also, not a terribly strong bunch. The fact that this league would be guaranteed to put a team in the playoffs each year is surpassed in its ludicrousy only by the fact that the Rocky League would have the same honor.

That league’s closest teams to a championship in recent years are BYU, Utah and Boise State – solid teams, but not ones you want headlining your conference. Arizona State, Air Force, Colorado, Arizona, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah State, Wyoming and UNLV round out the list. This group might be the most competitive of any league, but their champion would almost assuredly make a hasty exit in round one of the playoffs each season.

I didn’t touch on the Yankee Conference, as there’s not much need. There’s Penn State and eleven other teams, some of whom you might not realize have football teams. Enough said.

Each school playing a full round-robin conference schedule is a plus, but allowing just one non-conference game and locking teams into playing the same one four years in a row is too restrictive. This plan would likely eliminate, or at best rarefy such great matchups as Tennessee-Florida, Georgia-Auburn, Georgia-Alabama and others. On the flip side, it would re-engage some great rivalries into annual clashes like Texas-Texas A&M and would build some in-state rivalries where they should have existed already in places like Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.

Forde did a good thing by expanding the playoffs. This is long overdue. But he completely missed the mark by capping it at 12 teams, and allowing a selection committee to select the two at-large teams. This presents a myriad of problems.

First, why not just make it 16 teams, eliminate byes and broaden the field of teams that get voted in? A 16-team playoff would take the same number of weeks as a 12-team playoff with byes for the top four seeds. Although it would not eliminate complaints of bias or erroneous choices, it would limit them with six teams getting at-large bids instead of just two.

Another option: instead of having ten leagues of 12 teams each, create eight leagues of 15 teams and put the top two from each league in the playoffs. I’ll admit that I prefer smaller leagues, but if it resulted in a nice, neat 16-team playoff with very little room for whining about not getting selected, this approach could work. You could also cut 24 teams from this level of play and have eight conferences of 12 teams (or 12 conferences of eight teams) and still have a 16-team playoff with some variation of conference champion bids and four or eight selected teams. There are teams here that will never, ever win a college football national championship. While the same may be true for Kent State or North Texas in college football as in college basketball, the “Cinderella” factor is much more at play in college hoops and it makes sense to include them in the pool of contenders. Not so much in football.

All in all, this is an intriguing exercise Forde embarked upon, and is great fodder for discussion of how the sport could proceed, even with Covid-19 notwithstanding. There are a lot of things right about college football. It’s by no means broken. But there is a list of problems, headlined by conference geography and the bowl/playoff system. The NCAA has made great strides on the latter in recent years and still has a ways to go. As the sport gets potentially redesigned because of pandemics, racial issues, player compensation and other factors, a model like Forde’s could become one of many that help shape the future of the game.

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