2013 will be a significant year in college football. It will be the last year before the sport moves to a full blown playoff structure in the postseason. We’ve been discussing the BCS and the potential for a playoff for so many years now, that we forget just how different this is from college football in the past. Truly, many of the traditions that older college football fans grew up embracing are being tossed aside as the powers that be in the game of college football work to maximize revenues and become more NFL-like.
The sports media has long held up the NFL as the ideal sports model. It’s difficult to argue with it as its popularity and revenue surpass any other American sports league by a long shot. In the decade long crusade against the BCS, the NFL playoff system was often heralded as the perfect postseason structure. The fact that the structures of the NFL and college football are very, very different was often ignored. Moreover, what few understand is that to mimic the NFL, college football tradition would have to be sacrificed.
My father’s generation of college football emphasized two things: rivalries and bowl games. In the past, fans would absolutely accept losing ten games if it meant crushing their hated rival. Additionally, the bowl season was much, much bigger in the past. The pageantry, the matchups, bowls themselves were all emphasized in the previous era.
Do rivalries and bowl games still matter? Of course, but many rivalry games are changing and bowl game attendance and relevance is in a permanent decline.
How did we get here? It all comes down to the structure of the game. The way conferences are structured and the way the postseason is structured. The more the conferences and the postseason continue to morph into their NFL equivalents, the traditions of old get tossed aside. Let’s look a bit deeper…
Conference Realignment & Scheduling
As I’ve discussed several times, conference realignment is not about expansion. It has been about contraction – cutting down on the number of teams that play in the “big league” whether it is officially recognized or not. With shifting conferences, schedules have been impacted greatly.
Schedule adjustments are currently front and center in the SEC as a result of the SEC expanding to 14 teams and as a result of the postseason structure changing. SEC leadership is talking both about increasing the number of conference games and changing the current structure of inter-divisional opponents which could have serious implications for a few very historic rivalries within the SEC.
The College Football Playoff
Nothing changes college football more than changing the postseason. Before the BCS, the #1 vs #2 team didn’t even play at the end of the season – the bowl system operated regardless of how silly it was to crown a champion without the final two teams actually playing in a sort of “championship” game. We’re approaching the start of the next iteration of this process where we will increase from a two-team playoff to a four-team playoff.
With each iteration, the bowl system suffers. In fact, with each iteration, the damage done to the bowls is more than the previous damage done in the previous iteration. Going from no playoff to a two-team playoff (the BCS) resulted in a diminished role for many bowls (consider the reduced relevance of the Orange Bowl compared to the past), but it’s really only showed itself recently via struggling attendance. It will be much more evident in the years ahead as a result of the four-team playoff (three games) taking more of our attention. Should the playoff increase to eight teams, it’ll likely kill off any remaining aspect of the old bowl system.
College Football: a mini NFL?
There’s nothing wrong with a postseason structure, and honestly, I don’t hold on to traditional rivalries as much as some fans. I’m ok with the game evolving, but I believe most fans wish to preserve some of the traditions of the game even as it evolves. We don’t need an NFL on Saturdays. We don’t need to pay players. We don’t need to compromise the greatness of the regular season by continuous expansion of the playoff field.
The current structure of five major conferences and a four-team playoff is a good place for college football. Some rivalries have been compromised, but overall, most of what we love about college football remains in tact. These changes will likely result in a more profitable sport and more power in the hands of the programs making up the five major conferences (the other conferences won’t fare as well). Ideally, the leaders of the sport become content in this sweet spot of higher profitability while still maintaining many of the things we love about college football. Realistically, the leaders will eventually continue the process toward mimicking the NFL structure in a number of areas.