Zemek: 10 Ways to Improve College Football

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 12, 2009

The bowls, all 34 of them, are finally over. Sounds like a perfect time to forcefully register a final few opinions on a sport that greatly needs ample reforms and readjustments.

Mr. Zemek's e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com

Okay, college football fans. The fastest four months of the year are done, and the slow eight-month wait until Labor Day weekend is just beginning. Before the 2008 campaign fades into memory, here are 10 recommended actions you need to think about as you contemplate ways in which you can improve this sport. Find the e-mails, fax numbers, and phone numbers of your conference commissioner, your university president, your athletic director, your favorite TV executive, and other relevant administrators. Then apply group pressure. Repeat, wash, rinse…

The following recommendations—formulated during the bowl season—can be tweaked and tinkered with to suit your own views. What matters, though, is that college football reforms itself in a positive manner. Off-field concerns are hugely important—more so, in fact, than any on-field considerations—but since we're primarily here to talk about the product we see on Saturdays and in the bowl games, we might as well try to improve the ways in which this sport is structured. Here we go, then…

1) College football needs parity in 13th games, if seasons are to continue in their current form. The Big 12, SEC, and ACC have conference championship games. The Pac-10, Big East, and Big Ten do not. Is it any surprise that the SEC and Big 12 have won the past four national titles, and that the Pac-10 has had an at-large BCS bowl team just two times in the 11-season BCS era? Teams need to play an equal number of games for seasons to be fairly fought. The West played the best football in the bowl games. With better TV arrangements, perhaps the West could get its foot in the national title game door a little more often.

2) If SEC schools won't use their 12th games to schedule anyone important, let's then reduce the season to 11 games, opening the door in future years for a modified bowl season with a moved-up calendar that can accommodate a plus-one in the 2014 season. If the regular season could finish up on Thanksgiving weekend, the lower-tier bowls could all be played before Christmas. The middle-tier bowls could all be played in late December. The signature bowls could all be played on New Year's Day. A plus-one could be staged on Jan. 8, the current date for two of the three BCS title games that have been contested under the current FOX television contract.

3) The head honchos of the Pac-10, Mountain West, and the WAC need to find ways to promote football in the Pacific and Mountain time zones. They should create an event called the "Western Football Classic." Credit for this idea goes to CFN reader Kelly Velayas, but I'm tweaking it. With the woefully ineffective Tom Hansen departing as Pac-10 commissioner, football fans in California and Oregon need to make their voices heard in Walnut Creek (the California town where the Pac-10's offices are located), as a new boss prepares to run the league.

Mr. Velayas proposed that on the first weekend of December, the Mountain West Conference champion should play the Western Athletic Conference champion on a neutral field, with the winner going to the Rose Bowl against the Pac-10 champion. When the Rose Bowl's TV contract with ABC expires, that idea might have legs, but the longstanding tie with the Big Ten could very definitely stand in the way of such a plan.

My recommended solution? Make the Western Football Classic a two-game event on the first weekend of December involving four seeded teams with a provision for no rematches of regular-season games. Have the champions of all three leagues—the Pac, the MWC, and the WAC—participate. Then invite the best second-place team in the three leagues (based on a certain set of criteria and/or rankings) as a wild-card entry. Play one game in Denver every year—for the Mountain time zone fans—and one game in a rotation of suburban Phoenix (Glendale or Tempe), Los Angeles and San Francisco for Pacific time zone fans. If the Western Football Classic had made its hypothetical debut this season, what would the landscape have looked like on the first weekend of December?

Game 1, Phoenix, Friday, 8 p.m. Eastern: No. 1 seed USC (Pac-10 champion) vs. No. 4 seed TCU (at-large).

Game 2, Denver, Saturday, 4:30 p.m. Eastern: No. 3 seed Boise State vs. No. 2 seed Utah.

ABC, CBS, Fox Sports Net, and ESPN would have all loved to broadcast one or both of those games. Tell me that kind of event wouldn't match the Big 12 and SEC title games in terms of popularity… It makes too much sense. Pick up the phone and dash off a fax or e-mail, and see what might happen five years down the line.

4) In the absence of really big reforms such as the Western Football Classic, the western U.S. football conferences need to negotiate a legitimate and responsible TV deal. Many of the Pac-10's biggest games, the ones that centrally affected the Rose Bowl race (Oregon-Oregon State on Nov. 29, in particular) were carried on Versus, a niche cable network with distribution problems similar to those faced by NFL Network. Pac-10 games get relegated to small regional cable outlets in time slots that do not give the conference maximum national visibility. Unless or until this changes, it's hard to expect the league to get the same respect enjoyed by the SEC or Big 12. It's no wonder that the Pac has had just two at-large teams (Oregon State, 2000 season; USC, 2002 season) in BCS bowl games over the past 11 years.

5) Moving beyond the West, it's necessary for all of college football, beginning with the ESPN deal starting in the 2010 season, to rework the bowl schedule. This need exists independently of any playoff or plus-one issues that simply won't be on the table until 2014. Even without a reduced bowl lineup (which should be pursued), and even without a ban on 6-6 teams (which should be enacted despite a 6-3 record from .500 teams in bowl games), the bowl season can be reworked in one sensible way: Make New Year's Day matter again.

The sport used to gain so much of its excitement and stature from the January 1 crescendo of really significant top-shelf matchups, one after the other. The spreading out of bowls has taken the magic out of the kinds of experiences that made me a college football diehard as a little boy. New Year's used to be a college football fan's Christmas. Now, it's just another day with bowl games. Even without other reforms, it's a worthwhile goal to make January 1 sing with significance. The plan is as follows for the arrangement of the five BCS bowls:

Step One: On the final Saturday of December, play the BCS bowl game (Fiesta, Orange, Sugar, Rose) that's being staged in the same stadium as the BCS Championship Game. The Rose Bowl gets an exemption because of its contract exclusivity and its rightful place as the sport's most traditional bowl game.

Step Two: On New Year's Day, play the other three BCS bowls with no other college football competition. Game 1 is at 1 p.m. Eastern, Game 2 at 5 p.m., and Game 3 at 9 p.m. This would be the closest one could come to matching NBC's old New Year's Day trio of the Fiesta Bowl (Charlie Jones doing the play-by-play with one of multiple analysts), followed by the Rose Bowl (Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen), and then the Orange Bowl (Don Criqui and Bob Trumpy). Once again, the Rose Bowl would always get the 5 p.m. slot in a bow to tradition.

Step Three: On Jan. 3, play the BCS Championship Game. With the host city's regular bowl game having been played on the final Saturday of December, the turnaround would normally be quite workable from a logistical standpoint. Teams wouldn't have to suffer the especially long layoffs that plagued Big 12 offenses this past bowl season. Fans wouldn't lose touch with the sport (read: NFL wild card weekend) in the week between New Year's Day and the BCS title game on Jan. 7 or 8. This plan would be revised only if the Rose Bowl stadium is the site of the BCS title game. In that case, the one-week break between the flagship bowl and the title tilt would be justified.

6) Have in-division point differential become the tiebreaker for three-way ties in divisions of BCS conferences. Let's make sure this loophole gets closed up, in case you might have forgotten about the Big 12 South's train wreck. At the time this piece was written, no official changes have been announced by the Big 12 office. Give the commish (Dan Beebe) a buzz or an e-mail.

7) The Big Ten needs to play its rivalry games on the first Saturday of December, as long as we have a 12-game season and not an 11-game campaign. The Big Ten doesn't have slow teams (ask Penn State quarterback Darryl Clark or Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor), but it does have flat teams in bowl games. Why? It's not surprising: When conference teams all play their last league games (usually the last games of the entire regular season, barring a 13th game in Hawaii or something similar) before Thanksgiving, they wind up having 45- or 50-day breaks between the season finale and the bowl game. That's not conducive to good football. It also leaves the Big Ten starved of publicity on a weekend when the Big 12 and SEC gain maximum exposure because of their conference championship extravaganzas. It's time for the stodgy Big Ten to enter the 21st century.

8) If the Western Football Classic doesn't become reality, other BCS conferences should seriously consider using Thanksgiving Friday and/or the first Friday of December to stage their most significant late-season contests. The ACC might get a bigger crowd and a better party scene if the league moves its title game from midday on Saturday to Friday night in prime time. The Big East and Pac-10 could also benefit from a blockbuster on the night before the SEC and Big 12 take ownership of the first Saturday of December.

9) In addition to tabulating strength of schedule as a core BCS measurement, the system needs to account for the many variables attached to scheduling itself. It's not entirely fair to penalize a school for scheduling a hard game that, in three or four years, turns out to be relatively easy. In a similar vein, it isn't completely just to reward a school that schedules a seemingly easy game which, in the course of a few seasons, turns out to be hard. Moreover, teams like Boise State are never able to secure home-and-homes with teams from big-boy conferences. If teams in the BCS conferences do want to protect their standing in the sport, they also need to acknowledge when they duck certain invitations and challenges. Part of the BCS's schedule component, then, should acknowledge any notable examples of teams who either avoided scheduling a big-name opponent, or wanted to schedule a big-name opponent, but were rebuffed in the process. Adding these elastic, due-process elements to the BCS schedule formula would greatly democratize the whole derby, which—like it or not—will be around for at least five more seasons.

10) If greater scheduling parity isn't brought about by member schools who are left to their own devices, start instituting the conference challenges that college basketball implements. It's embarrassing that the roundball realm—whose wildly successful March tournament creates an enticing set of cross-pollinated matchups that settle arguments and resolve debates—pits power conferences against each other in early December, in the early stages of the regular season. The Big Ten plays the ACC, the Pac-10 plays the Big 12, and the Big East goes up against the SEC. There's absolutely no reason this can't happen in the non-conference part of each college football season. None.

What should be thought about is the timing of the three or four non-conference games each college football team plays. It's fair to allow one cupcake for each power conference team, on opening day or very early in September. Fine—in a sport with no preseason games, it's reasonable to expect a team to use one game as a glorified practice. But in the other two or three out-of-conference games, America's super six (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12, Pac-10) need to lock horns, and at a level of appreciable (not identical, but appreciable) competitiveness. By taking the guesswork and the intentionality away from the schools and coaches themselves, college football's power brokers can enhance the sanctity of the regular season and ensure that BCS debates will be based more on raw merit and less on beauty contest principles.