Mitchell: The Last Days of Independence
Notre Dame better find a chair, and quickly
The era of the Superconference is upon us, and it's gravity will change many aspects of our sport, not the least of them our current acceptance of Independent programs. CFN's Russ Mitchell breaks down how we arrived here, how the Longhorn Network was doomed from the start, why Independence is dead, and why that's actually a good thing for college football.
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me on Twitter @russmitchellcfb
How did we get here?
For years, those of us at Collegefootballnews.com have been arguing that the era of the Superconference was inevitable. With the constant creeping up of the FBS, now at a staggering 120 teams, we questioned how such a system could survive where programs like Buffalo and San Jose State were “on par” with Alabama and USC. It seemed farcical, yet there it was.
Teams kept moving up to "Division 1” given the lure of money and the glory of big time college football (and the associated money such glory could engender in the form of more student applications and publicity). Noble expectations, perhaps...yet much like a mirage, the vast majority of these programs lose money.
Over those years, there have been other suggestions beside the four, sixteen team Superconference model we are heading to today, but all had one thing in common: at some point we would need to acknowledge the Have’s and the Have Not’s, cull the herd, and simplify what has become a corrupt and inefficient (not to mention less profitable) business model.
However, old habits die hard. Traditions are difficult to uproot, no matter how wasteful or counter-intuitive to the health of the game they might be. Moreover, some "leaders" intent on protecting their Big fiefdoms at the expense of the rest of the teams – indeed the sport – were sworn to forever stand in the way of change.
As if that weren't enough of an anchor, the private promoters – the private businesses – that have co-opted our sport with the corrupt and antiquated bowl system would continue to ply their mis-truths and graft, and embed themselves incestuously into the fabric of our university sports infrastructures in the form of bonuses to coaches and Athletic Directors for participating in bowls, even as schools lose money for doing so.
However, ours is a great sport – and in spite of the interference and back door deals, it has continued to blossom. So much so that the television contracts to broadcast it are now so outrageously lucrative that the interference and back door deals can no longer block, let alone match, the promise of the sport itself. That day is upon us, and with this change we will get the playoff our sport so truly deserves.
How does that affect Independence?
It’s ironic that Texas, a school that for the past few years has thirsted for the “riches” of football Independence, has unwittingly pushed us past the tipping point of the Superconference era, and with it, the death of Independence as we know it for CFB.
There could always be a lower tier FBS or FCS school that might angle for Independence, but in its Notre Dame, BYU, Army, Navy form, Independence is going the way of the dodo. At least for those schools that want to play big time college football. Why?
First, for the Superconference model to work, it requires four leagues of 16 teams. The Big East lacks both stature and more importantly, girth; it was never going to make the jump from eight to 16 teams. Still, one of the remaining five conferences had to bow out, and Texas unwittingly made that possible by imploding the Big 12.
The Big 12 conference is in its death throes. Commissioner Dan Beebe can mention SMU, BYU, or any other U, but it doesn’t matter. Texas has made it clear it wants to make more money than the conference itself can provide, and for years has demanded more flesh for postponing a move towards Independence – even going so far as to demand the right to operate its own singular broadcasting network within the construct of a conference of teams. A concept that borders on asinine.
Still, here we are…the dominoes have fallen and there’s no going back. Nebraska and Colorado are already gone. A&M and Missouri will likely join the SEC, while Oklahoma and OSU the Pac-12. Now, suddenly there's talk of Texas perhaps joining the Pac-12 as well, even though it's clear that would mean the end of the Longhorn Network as we’ve known it (even briefly).
If you were surprised to hear Texas’ name thrown around this weekend as possibly Pac-12 bound, you shouldn’t have been. They have come to realize that the Superconference model means the death of Independence, and Texas wants to grab a chair before they run dry.
When we move to four conferences of 16 teams (64 teams total, for you basketball fans playing along at home), the elite of the elite will be represented. That’s important to remember, and making those cuts is not going to be easy.
(Don’t be surprised if some schools play football in a smaller, mid-major conference, but all other sports compete in an expanded Superconference, not unlike how the Big East operates today. Kansas and Kansas State might be two such schools.)
With 64 elite teams, there will clearly be no disguising where the power of FBS football resides. Moreover, these Superconferences will begin playing a de facto playoff of their own. The two divisions of eight teams will square off throughout the season, after which two teams will emerge at the top. These eight teams will square off in four conference championship games, crowning one victor each (as they have in the past for the SEC/ACC).
The obvious difference is we will have now played an entire season with the 64 powerhouse teams whittling their way down to four. A literal, clearly defined and plainly visible playoff has already occurred, without the need for error-prone polls or suspect, obscure BCS "formulas". There will be no doubt whatsoever who the best teams are – they will have already proven it on the field. (NOTE: Team two from the SEC might in fact be better than team one from another conference, but it doesn’t matter – they failed to beat team one from the SEC; so in its pure form they don’t deserve to advance and represent that conference.)
The pressure (and money) will be overwhelming for these four Superconference winners to play head-to-head to settle which team (and by extension, which Superconference (i.e., region of the country)) is the best.
When that day comes, and it’s almost here, where’s the room for Notre Dame?
Where’s the room for an Independent Texas? What, you think just because you have a cute little logo the other 64 elite teams are going to give you some special one-off invite to jump the line?
That sort of crap only flies in the current fractured, easy to manipulate, less profitable (not to mention less rewarding) excuse for a postseason we currently have.
No, this is a wake-up call for the Domers as well. Time to grab that Big Ten chair full-on, Father, before the music stops and you and your rapidly less important football “brand” are left standing without an invite. That goes for you too BYU – we hardly knew U as an Independent.
That’s why you’re suddenly finding Texas’ name connected to the Pac-12 by Texas sources. It’s also why the Longhorn Network is a dead man walking. Like a man drowning, Texas may flail at an unlikely ACC “life preserver” with the hope of keeping its “golden goose”, but their greed-fueled visions of $5 mln a year from the Athletic Dept. to the University are dead, even if the Texas Board of Regents is still struggling with acceptance/denial.
They have to be dead, if Texas wants a seat in the new Superconference-driven postseason.
Another reason this is good for College Football going forward
First, in the current BCS model we have never had a champion that hasn’t won its conference, and as described above, that won’t change under the new Superconference model.
Every game still matters with the Superconference model – in fact, perhaps more so. But before we even go there, remember that only six of the last ten national champions were undefeated. In fact, LSU dominated OSU in the 2007 title game with two losses. So please stop with the “every Saturday is a playoff” nonsense, because it’s clearly not. Unless in your play-off you can lose and keep playing-on.
I would argue this new structure adds more weight to “each game matters”, but not in the way you might think. Today, you’re kidding yourself if you think your school’s 2-4 games against the Regional University for the Football Impaired matter. Florida fan, how much does that Furman game really matter? You geeked up for that? Don’t laugh Bucknut – we’re sure you lost a ton of sleep over Akron. That really mattered. And the list goes on.
In this new world of the Superconferences, LSU and Oregon can play every September, make a boat load of money, defend conference pride, really see where they’re at versus the other big boys…and a loss won't kill either’s chance of playing for the national championship; certainly not the way it can now. In fact, it will INCREASE their chance, if you believe like me the hardest steel is forged by the toughest fire.
For those that argue teams may choose to sit their starters, I argue you’ve never played college football. In September? With no fear of being completely eliminated from a championship shot and a chance to schedule one if not two cream puffs after it, coaches will want to butt heads with the best from other conferences, players will want to see where they stand, teams will want to try new strategies, coaches will want to go to different parts of the country for recruiting purposes, and fans… Fans will LOVE it!
There’s a reason that before LSU vs. Oregon last Saturday we had gone decades since the last Week One match-up of top five teams: it simply doesn’t benefit schools to play those games under the current system. Now ask yourself – how messed up is that? That we support a system that discourages good teams from playing each other?
Even with the very real potential to be knocked out, it still happens today. Witness Oregon playing LSU, Oklahoma vs. FSU, Miami vs. OSU, Alabama vs. Penn State (well, PSU was better when it was scheduled, anyway). With a little more cover provided by the Superconference model, can you imagine how many more teams will schedule a tough non-conference match-up vs. a third or fourth powderpuff?
How much more thrilling would the first two weeks of September be leading into conference play? Hell yeah, bring on the Trojans! How about a September Saturday afternoon in the Horseshoe, Sooner fans? Gators, how’d you like a shot to whip those Yankees up in Wisconsin?
Again, keep your two cream puffs to warm up, cool off, heal or build the sport in your state. But if every team could schedule one extra non-conference game in September and not have it crush (or virtually crush) their championship quest, just imagine how exciting our sport would be out of the gate?
Would you rather watch your team play another directional FCS team or a powerhouse from a different conference – particularly if, again, in the new model you can lose that one game, get tougher, make more money, have a better game day experience, and still advance to the championship. Remember, you still have to win your conference to advance; we’re simply talking about replacing one cakewalk, meaningless non-conference game with one that just might be compelling and add value to boot.
Remember, we’ll still have polls – for when the regular season is over, when conference foes have finished beating up on each other and one has emerged victorious, those remaining four teams will likely be paired based on their final ranking. There will still be controversy. We’ll still have the corrupt bowl system to enrich those private promoters – a portion of the remaining 60 teams (and their fans) will still have somewhere warm to go in December.
We’ll just have played a 64 team round robin tournament throughout a 12 game season that will culminate in an eight team playoff to more accurately determine the national champion of our sport. And in the process, generate three to four times the revenue our sport does today – only with that money staying with the universities, not the private bowl promoters.
It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t matter what I think. It’s coming, regardless – there’s too much money to stop it. Fortunately, it'll be one of those rare instances where a money-driven change will actually be good for the end product.
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