Now that the last of the college football games of the season is over, it's time to revisit some of the popular off-season topics. Chief among them is the expansion storyline that dominated the 2010 off-season. After all the craziness, it doesn't seem likely that it's going to suddenly halt, but what could happen next?
The first thing up for discussion is the Mountain West's continuing quest for automatic qualifying status. Unfortunately for them, after the departure of TCU, Utah and BYU (TCU will depart in 2012), there's very little chance that they can qualify under all three prongs that the BCS has presented to them (their computer average is getting dragged down enormously by the multiple bottom-feeders in their league, and swapping TCU/Utah/BYU for Boise/Fresno/Nevada isn't really going to solve that problem).
And whatever chance they had to somehow shoe-horn the BCS powers into inviting them anyway through applying for an exception almost certainly fell through as well when TCU, Utah and BYU announced their departures; with the three most prestigious programs of the old Mountain West gone, and only Boise remaining as a program with any meaningful level of prestige, they simply aren't going to be able to either convince or force the powers that be to let them into the club.
So presuming that nothing changes in terms of automatic-qualifying status, could it be that the era of expansion and status quo shifts is over? It's certainly possible, but I think it's fairly unlikely.
The main reason shows itself pretty well with TCU and Utah's recent inclusion into the big-boy club. Both of these programs turned about a five-year period of sustained success (Utah a bit longer, TCU a bit shorter) into an AQ invite, even though just five years ago both would have seemed extreme long-shots to get such an invite, as neither program had experienced nearly enough success over any kind of long term to suggest that they were reasonable candidates to join an AQ league (yes, TCU had sporadic periods… but in the aggregate, they were pretty clearly a have-not).
So why does that matter? It's simple: there will ALWAYS be another TCU, another Utah. Boise is in the middle of a very good run, and would seem a reasonable possibility (as long as you ignore market, other sports and academics)… but even if you bring them to the party, then someone else will go on a big run. It could be Hawaii, Nevada, Fresno, Houston, or someone out of left field. It doesn't matter who it is, the point is that, eventually, there will be someone who gets hot for whatever number of years and then demands AQ access (a long-term commitment) in exchange for their short-term success. As long as there's a 120+ team 1-A (currently 120, but more are on their way), this will never go away.
Neither will the political agitations by the have-nots to cut down the advantages the haves enjoy. To some degree, this is legitimate. Right now, 1-A is set up in such a way that the have-nots don't really have a chance at a national title or much in the way of BCS cash. If they're supposed to be competing on a "fair" playing field as the haves (and by putting everyone into one division, the haves essentially concede that they should be), then they have a legitimate gripe. Of course, none of them would actually want to drop down to 1-AA, where they would have a real shot at a "national title", but nevertheless, given the fact that we're all sort of pretending this is a level playing field, it's another issue that will never go away.
And finally, with over 10 conferences and 120+ teams, it's completely impossible to put together a sensible playoff structure that gives everyone "fair" access. You absolutely, positively can't do it with eight teams: you already have six spots accounted for by the AQ's, they're going to want as many at-larges as they can get (unless you really think the SEC and Big Ten will be okay with turning two annual BCS tickets into on and off two teams in a playoff), and the non-AQ's will push hard against not having at least one auto spot of their own. You can maybe do it with 12, but only if everyone is willing to make substantial access sacrifices… and that's none too likely. Which means it's going to be 16 teams.
Why is this a problem? Well, anyone paying attention to the NFL labor situation has noticed the extreme push-back from the players on the idea of adding two games to the NFL season, and that's a situation where the players are actually paid, and where their salaries would go up with any increase in season length. If a four-round, 16-team playoff happened in college football (and there's just no functional way to do less given 120+ teams and all of the 1-A leagues), the push-back would be even more extreme. As it is, college football is under a fair amount of criticism for how it (mis)treats its players; creating three extra games for teams (they already have one postseason game) would lead to substantial criticism even before it happened, and if ever there was a serious, long-term, crippling injury to a player in one of the playoff rounds, the firestorm would probably be truly extreme. And since the decision-makers in college football are smart enough to see those consequences coming a mile away, going to four rounds and sixteen teams is simply a non-starter, no matter how much playoff proponents would love to see it happen.
The obvious solution, of course, is to make sure that there aren't 120+ teams in 1-A. And I think that the powers that be are slowly moving towards that realization. When Jim Delaney talks publicly about "BCS defense fatigue", it means that the haves aren't going to simply stand by and watch as the advantages that they built up over the long term (many of which are legitimate, built up through long-term investments in programs, facilities, bowls, etc.) get slowly chipped away by the latest flavor of the year and/or the political machinations of the have-nots.
And the only way to really do something about it is to make drastic structural changes to 1-A, essentially one of three possibilities:
First, they could simply create a super-1-A, that consists only of the AQ leagues, a couple of independents (Notre Dame certainly, maybe a couple others), and then permanently slam the door shut on new additions. No applications to join, no exceptions, you're in or you're out.
Second, they could semi-secede from the NCAA, forming their own football-only association and keeping all other sports inside the NCAA. Football makes and enforces its own rules, and is permanently outside the jurisdiction of the NCAA. For the majority of the NCAA, this has the advantage of permanently keeping the haves happy while not destroying the main cash cow of the NCAA, the annual NCAA basketball tournament. And for the haves, this has the advantage of permanently keeping the have-nots away from the cash cow that is football. The remaining 1-A programs left behind can put together their own "national title" playoff, and they can keep whatever cash that generates… but I think we all know that it won't be much of a success. The real money comes from the power programs and whatever they end up doing and wherever they end up going.
Third, they could totally secede from the NCAA. Not just football, but basketball, baseball, everything. This would truly be the nuclear option, as despite the idea that it's the underdogs who drive the interest in the NCAA tournaments, it's really the favorites and the power programs who drive the interest (and the resulting cash). Without Duke as an opponent, how many would really care about watching Butler basketball? And of that relatively small number who'd watch them today, how many would 10 years later, if they spent all 10 years without any of the big programs to compete against? I think we all know the answer to that question. Like I said, this would truly be the nuclear option.
Ultimately, I think the power programs would prefer to get what they want (permanent exclusion of the have-nots, total control of postseason cash, and the ability to put together a postseason that is not ridiculous) with as little political push-back as possible. That means that their preference is going to be the first option, provided that they can get absolute assurance that no one else can force their way into "Super-1-A."
Since I doubt that they'll ever get that, I think they'll end up doing option 2, moving football away from the NCAA but keeping the other sports there. And as a peace offering (and to avoid having to deal with political pushback and/or lawsuits), I would guess they end up promising something like 5% to 10% of the postseason revenues to the NCAA. Only if the NCAA is majorly resistant would the third option make any real sense.
So how would the logistics of such a move work? I think the framework is already largely in place. The events of this past summer have pretty clearly indicated that, whatever its merits and demerits, the 16-team superconference is probably not the wave of the future.
The SEC clearly doesn't want it, and it's becoming pretty clear (unless they're being really sneaky) that the Big Ten isn't much interested, unless Notre Dame and/or Texas come calling (neither of which seem likely, Notre Dame because they like being independent and Texas because they're largely politically tied to their neighbors [most of the whom the Big Ten would reject] and because the logistics of joining the Big Ten would be unpleasant). The ACC is highly unlikely to sign off on a sea change that would probably result in their league getting poached by the SEC and/or Big Ten. The Big East is unlikely to go to 16, since everyone else would ignore them and then what's the point. The Pac-12 is still interested, but they'll never agree on two or four more teams unless one of them is Texas (and it's hard to see why Texas would be interested, especially since by adding Utah the Pac has one less spot that Texas can fill with a school of their choosing). And it's hard enough to see two more available schools the Big 12 could agree on, much less four or six.
So what does that mean? If the haves are going to go down that route, that probably would then mean that all six AQ leagues would (one way or another) walk, most likely after filling up to 12 each for a total of 72 (for the sake of a unified structure, especially since all of the politically powerful leagues are at 12 and could force the issue), with maybe one or two independents joining the party. As part of that process, they'd probably go to a playoff with six auto-bids and probably two at-large spots (the simplest solution given that breakdown of programs). With the Big 12 at 10 teams, and the Big East at nine (including TCU), that makes five spots available to the current non-AQ's, which would basically mean that almost everyone who'd currently have a legitimate gripe at exclusion would make the cut.
For the Big 12, one spot would almost certainly have to go to BYU. Of all the non-AQ programs, they're by far the most desirable. They have a huge (and growing) fanbase (national and international), they have a great program history for a non-AQ, they're outside the current Big 12 footprint (which has been stated to be important), and they're in one of the faster growing states in the country (even if the market isn't fantastic right now). Presuming the Big 12 can't poach Notre Dame or Arkansas (either would really surprise me), they'd then have to pick one more from: Air Force; Boise; Hawaii (would be a stunner); Memphis; Nevada or UNLV (either would be a big surprise); one of the Texas schools (doubtful); or someone out of left field (UCF, Fresno, etc.). My guess is that they'd end up taking Air Force or Boise, though honestly it's just a guess.
For the Big East, there are three spots available. One might go to Villanova (pending their answer), which means that there might only be two. The league would try to invite Notre Dame (and given a postseason structure that sucks for an independent, they might get a yes), they could do something like an Army/Navy combo, or they could could pull something surprising like UMass, something really surprising like Boise, or could invite some of the Southeastern non-AQ's, such as Memphis, UCF, etc. Since I'd guess Villanova and Notre Dame would say yes (it seems like the obvious move given the over-arching scenario), I'd guess they take UCF with the final spot, though again, it's just a guess.
So who'd get shut out? Hawaii (though they might get offered a spot at the table as an independent), Boise (possibly ditto), Nevada and Fresno (less likely to get independent invites, though Nevada might get one just to get one from that state into the group), Houston, Memphis and the other Southeastern non-AQ's (very unlikely to get an independent invite), and I can't really think of anyone else. Of that list, only Hawaii and Boise stand out as meaningful potential exclusions… and neither one has the prestige, the fan base, or the political clout to force their way in or halt the whole process.
So is this really inevitable? I think that it's almost certain to eventually see a meaningful and final split between the haves and all or almost all of the have-nots, and think it's very likely to happen within the next 10 years. And I think that given the current setup, this sort of structure is what we seem to be moving towards. However, I don't think that the specifics are at all inevitable. While it's hard to imagine any other setup given the current structure and alignment of 1-A, there are a few wildcards that could create meaningful changes to that structure. Obviously Texas is one (they could bring either the Pac-12 or Big Ten to move to 16 and torpedo the Big 12 in the process, and that's just some of their options), but that's been pretty well addressed by many people over the last year, and depends on a number of variables, including how well the Longhorn Sports Network does (and we won't know that for a while). But there are a couple of other interesting variables that could throw a major wrench into the status quo: the Big East and USC. I'll be discussing those two possibilities in the next couple articles.
Mr Pac-10's 2010 Blog
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