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Not Your Grandpa's College Football


Alec Smith
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            The year was 2012. PSY’s “Gangnam Style” had taken over the country and the first Marvel Avengers movie just released. Georgia was coming off a disappointing 10-4 season where the Dawgs got smacked around by #1 LSU in the SEC Championship Game and then lost a close one to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. What else happened in 2012? Conference commissioners and school presidents began meetings to discuss what would follow the BCS Championship system which started in 1998 and sought to replace it with a new system that expanded the college football postseason. In June of 2012, the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee met in Washington D.C. and unanimously voted to send legislation to the NCAA Board of Directors that allowed for a team to play in two postseason games, paving the way for what is now known as the College Football Playoff.

            The birth of the CFP was not the only significant event to happen in the early 2010’s as former powerhouse Nebraska opted to leave the Big 12 in 2011 to join the Big 10. The Pac 10, smelling blood in the water, attempted to scavenge the Texas and Oklahoma teams from the Big 12 to form a super conference that would be known as the Pac 16. Texas used that as leverage for a better deal with the Big 12 and thus the others decided to stay with the Longhorns. Colorado was the only school that bit on the Pac 10’s offer and they later added Utah from the Mountain West to create today’s Pac 12.

            Amidst all the realignment talk, the SEC felt confident with the 12 teams that it already had. That changed when Texas A&M sought to get away from Texas and the Big 12, giving the SEC a prime opportunity to tap into the Texas market. Missouri, also looking to jump ship, was seeking to join the Big 10, but they changed their course when it came to the SEC looking for its 14th member.

            To summarize the remainder of conference flip-flopping in the 2010’s:

2012 – TCU and West Virginia join Big 12

2013 – Syracuse and Pittsburgh join ACC

2013 – Big East dissolves, forms AAC

2014 – Louisville joins ACC

2014 – Maryland and Rutgers join Big 10

 

            By 2014, the conferences were essentially set, the new postseason had been named the College Football Playoff, a massive deal had been struck with ESPN to exclusively carry the playoff games, a trophy had been created, and the new look of college football was ready to be debuted in the fall of that year. A team from the SEC had appeared in or won the national championship every year from 2006-2013, and Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Georgia were among the top ten in preseason odds to win the inaugural CFP. As we know, Ohio State (+4000 preseason odds) would go on to win the first four team playoff and college football was forever changed.

            College football had seemed to reach a plateau in terms of massive alterations until 2019 when California became the 1st state to pass a law allowing collegiate athletes to be paid for their name, image, and likeness. The debate about college athletes earning money was initially sparked in the early 2000’s when a handful of college players came forward seeking payment for their name and likeness being used in video games. A later lawsuit of the same variety is what led to the downfall of the ever-popular game NCAA Football, with the last edition of the game being NCAA 2014. Since California paved the way for NIL compensation for collegiate athletes, over 30 states have followed suit, and at least 5 more have proposed NIL legislation to be passed soon. This entire premise has had a massive effect on recruiting, as colleges could now essentially offer payment to high school seniors to attend their school for sports. Your opinion may be that major programs have been paying players for years, and in some instances, you might be right. Regardless, NIL deals are now a considerable factor in many recruitments for all collegiate sports.

            I am in full support of name, image, and likeness deals and believe that athletes should be able to capitalize on any earning opportunity presented to them. Around 6% of high school football players go on to play in college, and only 2% end up in the NFL, therefore college football players should cash in on their popularity and advantages while they have them. On the flip side, there must be some drawbacks, right? One of those cons is that high school seniors may cease to pursue which college offers them the best opportunity for academics, career, development, playing time, or other notable benefits and instead seek out the highest bidder. This skews the power dynamic in college football even more to major programs than it has in the past. “The rich just got richer” is a fair point to make and the evidence is all around us in modern recruiting. I believe that an intended benefit of NIL was to create a sense of parity in recruiting, but it has had the opposite effect. From 2015-2019, the list of teams that had a top ten recruiting class in that window is nearly identical to the list of teams that have landed a top ten class from 2020-2023, the only outliers being Ole Miss and Florida State who failed to crack the top ten from 2020 to 2023. To simplify that statement, not much has changed between recruiting now and 8 years ago.

            There are other drawbacks to NIL including rifts between players over earnings, tampering with players via the transfer portal, and imbalance between NIL earnings in different sports. In summary, the toothpaste is out of the tube in terms of college players earning money. I am sure that there will be more guidelines in place five years from now to help balance things out, but as of now, college sports have taken a large step away from amateurism towards the ideologies of professional sports.

            Thought we were done with the changes? No sir, we have just gotten started. In April of 2021, the NCAA eliminated the rule of players having to sit out a year after transferring to a new school. College athletes could now transfer anywhere during the designated transfer windows without penalty. 1,695 FBS players went into the portal in the 2019-2020 cycle. After the rule changed, 3,085 jumped in the portal in the 2020-2021 cycle, almost doubling the previous year’s total. This completely changed how coaches manage their roster, handle recruiting, and approach personnel decisions. The transfer portal is the definition of a double-edged sword and has greatly helped and harmed various programs across the country in the last several years. Just one year after USC went 4-8 in 2021, Lincoln Riley brought in the #1 transfer portal class and turned them around into a playoff contender. Michael Penix went from a below average QB in the Big 10 at Indiana to a borderline Heisman candidate at Washington. Head Coach Deion Sanders has completely restructured Colorado’s roster in one transfer portal cycle. For others, the portal has not been so kind. Texas A&M lost an entire recruiting class worth of players following their lackluster 5-7 performance in 2022. Dozens of teams in college football now have middling at best QB depth because backups are liable to transfer out seeking playing time. Star players for Group of Five teams are being poached by bigger schools for better NIL deals, more exposure, better paths to the NFL, etc. Can programs have sustained success building through the transfer portal rather than the traditional methods of high school recruiting? Only time will tell. I believe the tactics employed by Riley at USC and Sanders at Colorado have a direct comparison to what a few NFL teams have recently done such as the Rams and Buccaneers. The strategy for those teams was to go all in for a two-to-three-year window, spend a lot of money in free agency, target veteran QB’s, and sell early draft picks for proven talent. Both teams acquired a Super Bowl in their respective windows, and both teams are now among the bottom half of the league. I still feel confident in Kirby Smart’s model of building through recruiting and development, while supplementing team needs via the portal.

            These have all been changes that we have seen implemented in the last decade and have gotten a decent sample size to see how they have affected our favorite sport, but don’t worry, there is plenty more to cover for the next several years. A new wave of conference realignment hit when the SEC decided to add Texas and Oklahoma in July of 2021. The two prestigious programs bring a combined 1,766 wins, 11 national championships, and 9 Heisman’s and both will join the SEC in 2024. The new conference format for 16 teams is still up in the air, but the most likely scenario is a division-less structure where the top two teams in the league play for the conference championship. This move by the SEC sparked an arms race of sorts and was almost immediately followed by:

·         USC and UCLA leaving the Pac 12 for the Big 10

·         The Big 12 replacing OU and Texas with BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston

·         The AAC adding Charlotte, FAU, North Texas, Rice, UAB, and UTSA

·         James Madison, Marshall, Old Dominion, and Southern Miss joining The Sunbelt

·         C-USA adding Jacksonville State, Kennesaw State, Liberty, NMSU, and Sam Houston

The ACC and the Pac 12 are the only two major conferences that have yet to announce any additions thus far, but the situation remains fluid.

           Last and certainly not least, the CFP Board of Managers voted on September 2nd of 2022 to expand the College Football Playoffs from four teams to twelve. The four-team format was set to run up until 2026, but the board met again in December of ’22 and decided that the 12-team system would be implemented in 2024, meaning this upcoming season is the last year of the four-team playoff. I have seen opinions on the 12-team range anywhere from overwhelming enthusiasm to literal hatred. For those of you that have not seen the format, all P5 conference champs + the highest ranked G5 champ are guaranteed playoff spots, with the top four seeds getting first round byes. 5-12 play first round games on campus and then are matched up against the top four in the traditional NY6 bowls. If the 12-team playoff were in effect last year, it would have looked something like:

·         #1 Georgia (SEC Champ) Plays winner of 8/9

·         #2 Michigan (B10 Champ) Plays winner of 7/10

·         #3 Clemson (ACC Champ) Plays winner of 6/11

·         #4 Utah (P12 Champ) Plays winner of 5/12

·         #5 TCU (B12 Runner-Up) vs #12 Tulane (AAC Champ)

·         #6 Ohio State vs #11 Penn State

·         #7 Alabama vs #10 USC (P12 Runner-Up)

·         #8 Tennessee vs #9 Kansas State (B12 Champ)

Below I have added some popular pros and cons that I have seen pop up often that could put some things into perspective.

Pros:

·         More teams have a chance at a playoff birth

·         Playoff games on campus

·         More money dispersed to playoff participants

·         At least one G5 team makes it every year

·         Georgia would have made the playoffs every year under Kirby except year 1

 

Cons:

·         Less meaningful regular season

·         Conference championships become less attractive

·         More games, more injuries

·         Alabama will make the playoffs almost every year under Saban

·         Conflicts with NFL in January

·         More conflict with December early signing period

 

            My main argument against the expansion is that it diminishes what makes college football so special, which is the regular season. There is not another sport, professional or college, where one loss in the regular season can completely derail a team for the year. Conference games in November and conference championship games will not carry the weight that they used to. I believe that too many fans draw comparisons to March Madness with hopes that a 12-0 San Diego State will be a Cinderella team who wins a national championship. The odds of a 9-3 Alabama getting the 12 seed and winning it all are astronomically higher than the Cinderella option. Don’t get me wrong, it will be an awesome product for fans, and I will watch every second of it; however, I do not like the idea of rewarding anything other than excellence in the regular season.

          I recently ran a poll on Twitter asking how the public felt about the direction of college football. The results were 24% felt positive, 56% felt negative, and 20% felt indifferent. I think that the sport is experiencing several forms of rapid change all at once, and in five years all of this will feel normal. Conferences may be shifted again, the playoffs may expand more, but we will all embrace the change and keep supporting our Dawgs.

          Picture this: it is 3rd and 4 in the 4th quarter of the Georgia/Florida game. Georgia has the ball and needs a first down to stay alive. Your blood is pumping. The stadium is loud. Kirby is being pulled back by his belt. Quick! What do you think of the portal? Of USC joining the Big 10? What NIL deal did that kid just sign? All that fades away in that moment. When college football no longer offers THAT, then I think it will have changed too much.

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