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What is the future of College Football

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Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
College football is big and it just keeps getting bigger.  No longer is baseball is the number two sport---watched sport---in the country these days.  College football has become a powerhouse, so flush with cash, that the thought of paying athletes, unheard of ten years ago, is now receiving serious consideration.  Today, you have the NFL, which is so popular and so arrogant that it can do nothing wrong.  When you get 22,000 people to attend a practice, what else can you say?

There has been talk of the Big Five conferences, currently the ACC, SEC, Pac 12, Big Ten, and Big 12, actually breaking away and forming their own division, not only for football, but for all sports.  Some have labeled this Division IV, and if it did occur, it would surprise no one given the girth of money that they have.  Right now, you have 65 schools that comprise the Big Five.   That includes Notre Dame, but does not include Connecticut and BYU.

If I’m not one of these 65, I’d be worried.  Think about the college basketball tournament?  If a breakaway occurred, there would be two "Division I tournaments; one with the Dukes, Kentuckies and Syracuses; the other with the Boise States, Buffaloes and Connecticuts.  What would that do to your office pool? Your interest level?

The NCAA has to get their hands on this before all is lost.  For those burying their heads in the sand, thinking all is well; you better take notice before it really is too late.  Fortunately, the solution is not that difficult; in fact, this savvy writer has it pretty much figured it out.   Let’s take a look.

The first step is to allow the Big 5 or 65 to break away and form their own association for football only.  For discussion purposes, we’ll refer to it as the College Football Alliance, or CFA.  If you’re in your mid-forties, you might recall this moniker when ABC used to show scores under the CFA Football banner when Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles were calling the action.

The CFA can operate as they see fit; they can devise their own rules for scholarships, stipends, and the like, but the hope is that they would stay pretty close to what is currently being done in the NCAA.  We have to face reality and that reality is that football at LSU, Notre Dame and Alabama is not the same as it is at Eastern Michigan, Boise State and Western Kentucky.  And, is it fair to divide the money on a somewhat equitable basis?  Of course not.   In fact, we know that football at Alabama is much different than Boston College, but if you’re in, you stay in. Even the billionaires need the common man for some things.

The next step is to eliminate the FCS, or Division 1-AA.  The classification of 1-AA football made good sense in 1979 when it came about, but today, it’s outdated.  How can Villanova have a Division I basketball program, but a Division 1-AA football program?  What 1-AA did was to keep the Delawares, William and Marys and Villanovas from becoming Division II in all sports.  At the time, the NCAA didn’t want some sports at schools to be Division I and others Division II, so they created this hybrid division to prevent that.  By eliminating it today, you’re improving the product.

This actually reduces the levels that currently make up Division I football.  In essence, there are three levels of college football:  the Alabama level, the Buffalo level and the Villanova level.  Sure, on paper, Buffalo and Alabama are at the same level, but those who know the sport know better.   Now, Buffalo and Villanova are at the same level, and for those FCS schools that play in glorified high school stadiums, they may have to make the painful choice of upgrading or dropping, because under this plan the FCS schools are being forced up, or ordered to comply for lack of a better term.

Now, there would be two tiers of Division I football; the CFA and the NCAA.  They can still schedule each other and now, the Duquesne-Buffalo game becomes a same level game.   In order for a current FCS school to stay in the NCAA, they would have to "scholarship up" to do so.  In the FCS, some schools give zero athletic scholarships, some 36, others 40 and most max out at 63.   FBS schools have 85 scholarships to dole out and once again, the CFA and the NCAA can set their own requirements.  Hopefully, both levels would agree on the same number.   That number could 85, 75 or something else that can be easily negotiated.

This could pose a problem for the Pioneer Football League and teams like Dayton and Butler.  In theory, it's Division 1-AA football, but they don't offer athletic scholarships.   Don't kid yourselves, they find money for special talents, but when you're offering zero scholarships and you're playing at Boise State, or Georgia, best of luck to you.   There was a time when the Northeast Conference and Patriot Leagues didn't give athletic scholarships; now they give 36 and 40 respectively.  For comparison, Division II allows 36 scholarships.  But, because Butler and Dayton are Division I in their other sports, football has to remain there, too.  That's why 1-AA was created; before, Dayton played Division III football, and the powers that be wanted that to stop.

The third step is to have the CFA run a 12 team playoff, yes, a 12 team playoff.   This would reward the regular season because the top four teams would receive byes, and the first round would have the classic 5/12, 6/11, 7/10, 8/9 matchups.

The CFA should guarantee at least one spot to an NCAA school (two in a perfect world), meaning that the NCAA schools could dream of winning a true national championship.  Because only 12 teams would make it, the bowl games would stay intact and could pit NCAA schools versus CFA schools.

You could still have Iowa State play Toledo in the Detroit Bowl, but you could also have Villanova play North Dakota State in another and Notre Dame-UCLA as well.  Surely, greed would expand the playoff to 16 schools or more, and perhaps giving a second spot to an NCAA member, but to me, 12 is the right number.

The playoff would make the sport billions upon billions of dollars.   Most importantly, it would keep the brand of Division I football in place.   Life for MAC, Sun Belt, Mountain West, Conference USA and American Athletic schools wouldn’t change that much.  Life for the Big Five conferences also would see little change.  The FCS schools would see some change, and some attrition but that’s okay. 

As mentioned, it would be tough for those schools in the Pioneer, like Marist and the Northeast, like Duquesne to keep moving forward.  Would the NCAA let them drop to Division II for football only and remain in Division I for basketball?  If not, then Marist would have a choice: award scholarships for football or drop to Division II in all sports, and you know they won't do that.  if I were the czar, I'd let them play Division II in football and stay in Division I for everything else, a little grandfather clause if you will, but let the school make the decision.

The CFA gives the Big Five conferences what they want:  autonomy and even more money, but it also keeps them in the NCAA for basketball, and that keeps March Madness intact.  Basketball is much different.  The regular season is nothing more than inventory for the cable networks, but it allows for a Connecticut or a Butler to play for the national title.  Connecticut has been a basketball power, but they did capture the 2014 title playing out of the American Athletic Conference, which is not part of the Big Five.  If Division I breaks into a CFA-NCAA divide, what happens to Connecticut if they can’t secure a spot in a Big Five conference?

The public would adapt quickly.  Truth be told, most wouldn’t even notice.  All they know is that Florida would still play Tennessee and Notre Dame would still play USC.  Notre Dame might also play Delaware, too, but in the end, Saturday afternoon would look and feel the same as it does now.  And right now, Saturday is hot, only NFL Sunday is hotter.

College football is enormous and football, because of its weekly schedule, has become appointment television, something that is becoming rarer by the day in America.  This nation now fancies itself as an event nation.  Baseball, once revered for its day-to-day reliability has been replaced by watching the big event, recapping it, breaking it down, and then building up for the next big event a few days later.   As soon as Notre Dame beats Michigan, discussion begins in earnest as to whether the Irish can beat their next opponent.

Americans, pressed for time at an alarming rate are watching events, not 82 Knick games, 82 Bruins games and 162 Yankee games.   They want football and they want the NFL, the CFA and the NCAA, and those that run college football know it and they also know that they have to get this organized properly sooner rather than later.  And, because of all the money that’s there---just sitting there---the conventional wisdom is that they have a plan in place.

Heck, if I’m smart enough to know what to do, certainly they are as well.