Like it or not, college football is heading toward the super conference model.
The only question is how many there will be when this round of realignment is finished. The Big Ten added USC and UCLA on June 30, which matched the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma in 2021. These power moves have led to speculation about how far those conferences will push realignment, and what might happen when the last move is made in the immediate future. If college football has taught us anything over the last 30 years, realignment is never over.
BENDER: Greed is good. Why I’m excited about super conferences
Here are some options that may be approaching the sport in the coming years.
Option 1: Super League
super conferences: One
Setup: SN sketched out what a College Football Super League might look like in 2021 when rumors of a 15-team European Super League broke out. The World Cup, Champions League group stage and NFL all have 32 teams. Perhaps college football goes to a similar model that blends those events and puts the top 32 teams in the same conference. They could even legislate a review period for relegation every four years.
Pros: The regular-season matchups would be off the charts. Imagine a pod that featured Alabama, Texas, Penn State and USC. This would guarantee the very-best competition on the field with the programs that are built to compete in the NIL era. This would be the league that supports the top revenue-producing schools in the sport.
MORE: Sorting through Notre Dame’s realignment options
Cons: The tradition of regional rivalries is gone. This would mean the Power 5 conferences would go away and over half the schools that are considered P5 now would be, too, and that’s not going to happen any time soon. It also means that only 24.4% of the 131 FBS teams are competing for a national championship. It’s hard to sell that to the entire country.
Will this happen? Probably not. You’re simply asking the conferences to give up too much power.
Option 2: The AFC-NFC model
super conferences: two
Setup: ESPN analyst Paul Finebaum’s reaction to the Big Ten adding UCLA and USC says it all: “Something that we have been talking about here for some time seems to be coming to fruition and that is the likelihood of two super conferences: the SEC and the Big Ten and quite frankly, nobody else really matters.” The SEC and Big Ten, the only 16-team conferences, raid the ACC next and push their conferences to 20 to 24 teams. It almost divides the FBS into three segments. The SEC and Big Ten, the leftovers from the former Power 5 conferences and the rest of the Group of 5.
Pros: This could pull Notre Dame into the Big Ten, and the next domino after that would be the ACC. Does it hold together or do the Triangle schools of Duke, North Carolina and NC State go next? That would be an interesting play for either the Big Ten or SEC. The Big Ten also has the option to add more Pac-12 schools to create more natural travel partners for UCLA and USC. Finebaum is right. The SEC and the Big Ten have the power. It’s just a question of how much they want to press that down. Here is one hypothetical look at what those 24-teams would look like:
|Alabama||Georgia Tech||NC State|
|Florida||mississippi state||Texas A&M|
|Florida State||Missouri||South Carolina|
Cons: That’s too many stretch moves by the conference. That’s 48 out of 130 teams this time – which is 36.6% of the FBS. The schools that will be left out will be the tough part because in-state rivalries will die. No more Oregon-Oregon State. What happens to Virginia and Virginia Tech? Would the SEC really take Duke and NC State over Louisville? It would require some new geography lessons. Schools would be left out, and that means programs ranging from West Virginia and Syracuse on the East Coast to Washington State and Cal on the West Coast would be scrambling to find a conference partner. All the gains Cincinnati, UCF and Houston made to become Power 5 schools would be lost, too.
DECOURCY: What are the most attractive schools to the Big Ten?
Will this happen? It could, but the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 aren’t going out of business. The SEC and Big Ten have separated themselves into a Power 2 of sorts, and the more teams they pluck from the other Power 5 conferences the more likely this will happen.
Option 3: Reshuffling the deck
super conferences: 3 or 4
Setup: There isn’t a scenario that supports three super conferences at this point. Four could still be doable. Notre Dame sticks with the ACC as a full member, and the Irish convince Clemson, Florida State and Miami to resist any invitations from the SEC or Big Ten. The ACC takes West Virginia from the Big 12 just to be sure.
ACC, Big Ten and SEC
|North Carolina||Nebraska||ole miss|
|NC State||north western||mississippi state|
|Virginia Tech||UCLA||Texas A&M|
|West Virginia*||Wisconsin||South Carolina|
That leaves 21 schools between the Big 12 and Pac-12. The leagues would have three options at that point.
Try to expand on their own and water down the conference. Merge and cut five teams, which would be messy. Or option three, which would be to make a 24-team super conference with three divisions. This is basically “everyone else” in college football outside the Group of 5. At that point, perhaps they would add Boise State, Memphis and USF. Detractors would dismiss this as the “Island of Misfit Toys,” but they would have a better case for an automatic spot in an expanded playoff with this group.
Pac-12-Big 12 merger
|Texas Tech||washington state|
Pros: Nobody in the Power 5 is left out. This keeps 72 teams, or 55% of the FBS, involved in the national championship chase and likely makes it easier to expand the playoff. It also maintains some sense of regionalism within the sport.
Cons: This is just a repackaged Power 5. The ACC needs Notre Dame to come through and for Clemson, Florida State and Miami to resist the SEC and Big Ten. The Pac-12/Big 12 has three teams in it that have made the playoffs in Oregon, Washington and Cincinnati. Can they carry a 24-team power conference? The gap between the Big Ten, SEC and everyone else will continue to increase.
Will this happen? Four conferences make it easier to figure out playoff expansion, and that could push this model in the right direction. It’s either going to be two of four at this point, and this allows for incremental change instead of more drastic moves.