Plenty of people have ranted about playoffs and bowl games and college football’s musical-chair conference realignment. Hell, I’ve ranted plenty about the subject, here and elsewhere around cyberspace. This isn’t a rant decrying the state of the game, nor is it a thinly-veiled diatribe. I come not to bicker about the system, but to offer a solution that has been welling up in my brain for some time and finally needs to pop out lest it atrophy.
What, exactly, is it that draws folks from all corners of the country to root for their local football team on Saturdays? What unites the vast American population — Midwesterners and Southerners, the hardy mountaineers of Appalachia and the Rockies and the folks on divergent coasts, lands of sun and lands of ice — in its common fanaticism?
At an early age, I was brought up to root for Wisconsin. I was born in Wisconsin, all my family was from Wisconsin, and it was a natural progression from father to son to continue the family’s rooting interest. Except my father wasn’t an alumnus of the campus in Madison, nor of any of the state system’s satellite campuses, and my mother was absent a sheepskin from the university as well. Nobody in my family had any real tie to the university, for that matter, yet for several generations the Badgers have been a team of choice.
When we moved to Wyoming, I an impressionable five-year-old ready to matriculate in kindergarten, the Cowboys of Laramie started to ingrain themselves into this budding fan’s proclivities. And when I started working for the University of Oregon, two decades later, the Ducks became another favorite for which I regularly root.
The reason college sports emanate throughout our culture is not the alumni, but because of the “subway alumni” that latch on and identify with their home state’s institution of higher learning. It is an easily-identifiable, heavily-resonant flag bearer for the state’s hopes and dreams, showcasing the best its flagship universities can offer. We latch on in a sense of regional pride, whether raised within the shadow of a campus’s old brick edifices or merely keeping touch with old roots among the diaspora.
But it is first and foremost that regional pride that has fueled the sport’s growth. More than professional sports, the lands of academia are also the battlefields where we get to pit the representatives for our state against our neighbors, or in some cases (such as here in Oregon, with the Ducks and the Beavers providing an either/or decision for its residents early and often throughout life) within those intrastate borders.
So, that said…
WHY ARE WE THROWING THIS ALL AWAY?!
No longer is a conference an identifier of a regional band of fairly-matched collegiate opponents. The Southeast Conference pushes beyond the Mississippi, the Mountain West repeats the WAC mistakes that led to the conference’s birth in the first place as it reaches beyond the Rocky Mountain foothills toward Hawaii, the Pac-12 leapt in the opposite direction into those mountains after losing out on the Longhorn/Sooner prize, and the Big East stretches from sea to shining sea in an ambitious if ludicrous attempt at maintaining relevance.
There are plenty of reports out there showing just how little schools have gained from the blowing up of football in the day-to-day consciousness of the greater society. The real winners in the realignment shuffle are athletic departments stretched just a little less, TV networks that have even bigger broadcasts to offer advertisers, and the bowl executives that strike deals with the conferences. How, though, has this really benefited the fans who buy tickets and merchandise and show up early every weekend to tailgate before and after gametime?
When rivals stop playing one another, it diminishes the potency of those classic contests. When we must relearn our favorite conference’s cast of characters every year, it weakens the bonds that have been passed down from generation to generation. When we allow our regional identity to be sold to the highest bidder for a one-time cash grab that leaves us later reeling from the realities of unfamiliar surroundings, we cede control to interests that have nothing to do with the fan, the student, the university or the history of the sport.
We cannot turn back to the past… in an age when information is instantaneous, and the desire for resolution on the field has rendered the decades-old bowl system antiquated for the purposes, we must look forward with our solutions. As the system is currently constituted, power concentrates in the hands of a select few and renders any real bracketology moot. But there is a way to rethink our conferences to provide a home for everyone and a substantive blueprint for selecting the field for a legitimate, 16-team playoff…
Look at the map a moment. Ten zones. 12-14 teams per conference, with room for expansion to 16 if necessitated by the growth of institutions within any of the regions. We’re about to see college football contract from 11 to 10 conferences as it is, with the mid-majors poaching every last viable asset of the WAC in a fire sale that will render the league obsolete within the next year. So ten seems a logical point to start.
A ten-conference league, with all of the member schools affiliated based on their geography, provides enough marketable programs within each region to remain viable as TV commodities. And it provides ten legitimate conference champions to provide the backbone of a 16-team tournament, with six at-large slots available to placate the disparities of conference strength in any given season.
Too often we try to overthink things; yet simplicity provides a template by which we can return to the essence of what makes college football great. In doing so, we can also move forward beyond the uncertainty of polls and bowls to a world where a champion is truly a champion.
So let’s break down each conference individually, looking at member composition and the logic behind the boundary lines of each league.