America, Realigned: A Radical Reimagining of the NCAA Landscape

As COVID-19 threatens the 2020 college football season, what if we blew up the system entirely? Welcome to the Forde Bowl Subdivision.
By Pat Forde ,

Ten years ago this month, the last great spasm of realignment began shaking the college sports world. When it finally subsided in 2014, the landscape had changed dramatically. For the richer, but not necessarily for the better.

The Big Ten wound up with 14 teams, stretching from Nebraska to New Jersey. The Southeastern Conference expanded into Texas and Missouri. The Atlantic Coast Conference wandered nearly 1,000 miles inland. The Pac-12 annexed the Rocky Mountains. The Big 12, pushed to the brink of collapse, steadied itself by adding a school 1,200 miles to the northeast of the league office. Lesser conferences followed suit, scrambling for financial viability.

Illustration by Andrew DeGraff

A decade later, it’s time to blow up what was done and start over. The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects have been profoundly felt in a realm where, for 10 years, money was no object and the map made no sense. Slapped in the face by a new fiscal reality, maybe we’re due to both rein in and reach out—to contract geographically into more regional conferences, while expanding the scope of the revenue gusher that is the College Football Playoff.

Q&A: 10 Key Questions for Pat Forde's Realignment Proposal

The radical realignment highlights:

  • A 120-school ecosystem, with 11 current FBS members relegated to FCS and one elevated from that level. Congratulations to North Dakota State; condolences to UTEP, Texas State, UTSA, South Alabama, Louisiana-Monroe, Bowling Green, New Mexico State, San Jose State, Coastal Carolina, Troy and Liberty. (Relegation/elevation can be revisited every three seasons.)
  • Ten leagues, each with 12 members, each designed to maximize proximity and reduce travel demands and costs. All current conference structures are broken and reassembled. There are no more than eight Power 5 programs in a single new conference, and no fewer than four. And there are no independents—yes, Notre Dame is in a conference.
  • In football, each school will play a full round-robin schedule plus one nonconference game (no FCS opponents). The nonconference opponent will be locked in for a minimum of four seasons before there is an opt-out to schedule someone different. There will be no conference championship games.
  • All 10 conference champions, plus two at-large teams chosen by a selection committee, advance to the expanded College Football Playoff. The teams are seeded by the committee. The top four receive a first-round bye, while seeds 5–8 host seeds 9–12 at their home stadiums the first weekend of December. Quarterfinals are played the next week at the home stadiums of seeds 1–4. The semifinals and championship game are conducted under the current CFP format.
  • There still will be bowl games for the teams that don’t make the CFP. Just fewer of them, which nobody should mind.
  • The conferences will work for basketball and other sports as well—in fact, it will be better for nonrevenue sports in terms of travel cost savings. The 230-odd non-FBS programs that are part of NCAA Division I will remain aligned pretty much where they already are, with a few exceptions.

For full-sized image, click here.

Sports Illustrated

If only this could be pitched to centralized leadership of college football that was interested in the good of the entire enterprise. But that doesn’t exist, and that’s another column for another day.

What college football would gain from this realignment: uniformity; conference championships that truly matter; increased access to a more lucrative playoff; a more level playing field for the little guys; renewed regional identity; cherished rivalries preserved, restored—and, in some cases, forced into permanent existence. The advantages are abundant.

America, Realigned: How Would a 12-Team Playoff Look?

The complaints about conference schedules would disappear. Everyone would play 11 league games, taking on every opponent within the conference every season. There would be no unbalanced scheduling, beyond six home games vs. five, and that would be flipped every season. Without divisions, there is no luck of the draw in cross-divisional opponents. And the endless carping from conferences that play more league games than others would be silenced.

Having automatic playoff bids tied to conference championships—and having enough room in the playoff for every conference champion—would remove another chronic complaint. Win your league, get a shot at the national title. It’s just that simple. It works for the NCAA basketball tournament, and it would work for the new FBS.

And there would be triple the access to the playoff, from four to 12 teams. Instead of having to fight its way through eternal Big Ten roadblock Ohio State for a playoff bid, Penn State has a clearer path. Same with Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and others. Schools out west would no longer have to worry whether their league was strong enough to compete for a playoff spot. Spreading around the heavyweight teams to more conferences increases playoff access, which should help with recruiting.

The alignment also would theoretically provide the have-nots of college football with a chance to stand toe-to-toe with the haves. League membership for the likes of Ohio alongside Ohio State, Georgia Southern alongside Georgia and Louisiana Tech alongside LSU is a step toward competitive equality. It might also include a lot of beatdowns—but at least they’d get to play the in-state powers that often refuse to schedule them, and every other year they’d get them at home. Those games would be huge for the host underdogs, from a monetary and prestige standpoint and for the chance at a memorable upset.

(If you’re concerned about a proliferation of mismatches in this conference alignment, you haven’t been paying attention. There already are plenty of blowouts on a weekly basis. Some 2019 numbers: 37 games involving SEC teams decided by 30 points or more; 36 involving ACC teams; 35 involving the Big Ten; 19 involving the Big 12; and 16 involving the Pac-12. Removing FCS opponents from the schedule will reduce the number of hide-your-eyes massacres.)

As for regional identity: This isn’t solely about making travel easier and safer for athletes and more affordable for athletic directors, although both factors are more significant now than at any time this century. It’s also an opportunity to rebuild a neighborhood with sensible boundaries that create common ground among people who already live and work together. There is not a lot of office or barber shop banter in, say, Orlando between Florida and Missouri fans when the Gators and Tigers play; there sure would be when the Gators play Central Florida. And the fans can pretty easily drive to many of these games.

Along those lines, think of the instant rivalries that would materialize: UCF and South Florida would get their shots at Florida, Florida State and Miami. Marshall would finally get West Virginia on an annual basis, and Cincinnati would get Ohio State. Fresno State, which has never played USC, UCLA or California at home and rarely played them anywhere, would meet them on a regular basis.

Then there are the rivalries torn asunder by realignment but put back together here: Texas–Texas A&M, Missouri-Kansas, Utah–Utah State. And how about these regular nonconference meetings: Oklahoma-Nebraska, Texas-Arkansas and Pittsburgh–West Virginia. Rivalries preserved by nonconference games: Alabama-Tennessee, USC–Notre Dame, Georgia-Auburn, Clemson–Florida State, Penn State–Ohio State, Nevada-UNLV. Dormant, across-the-river rivalries renewed via nonconference matchups: Louisville-Cincinnati, Kentucky-Indiana, Missouri-Illinois.

Jeff Haynes/Sports Illustrated

Now, the downside of the new FBS.

The flaws in this system are obvious. The consideration would have to be that the good outweighs the bad, and I believe it does.

This would require the fracturing of ancient conference bonds. Some Big Ten schools that had been aligned since the start of the 20th century would be splintered off into different leagues. Same with the rest of the Power 5—no conference would remain the same. Change isn’t easy, especially in college football. But they went ahead and broke the mold a decade ago, so this isn’t exactly sacrilege.

The biggest sticking point of the conference breakup is this: The Power 5 schools would have to share with the non-P5 schools, and that goes against every money-grubbing, power-consolidating principle they have come to espouse. When you have every advantage, giving some of them up is counterintuitive. The schools with clout would use that clout to stop it from happening. Staggering revenue shares based on competitive success is one option that could make the deal more palatable to the establishment schools.

(That list of schools would include Notre Dame. There’s no way the Fighting Irish will willingly give up independence to join a conference alongside Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Marshall. But in this model, they have to go somewhere to maintain FBS membership. They are a better overall profile fit with the Mid-Atlantic or Yankee Conference, but for geography’s sake, they are where they are. At least they have Northwestern and Vanderbilt for academically elite, private-school company.)

The TV networks wouldn’t much like it, either. (For one thing, some of them would have to change their names.) There is a reason why so many Sun Belt and Mid-American Conference games are played midweek, and why other leagues are fighting for airtime on off-brand networks—those programs don’t do big ratings. So the idea of liberally sprinkling them in with the glam schools from the glam leagues, instead of keeping them in their corner of the FBS universe, would not be well received.

But let’s consider the possible implications of cord cutting, alternative broadcast platforms and a more diffuse media landscape. If there are more outlets, why not give them more conferences with headline acts? Why not 10 conferences that all have programs that are viable ratings draws, as opposed to five conferences with viewer appeal and five without?

There are academic incompatibilities that relate directly to the schools’ missions. There are athletic incompatibilities that relate directly to budget, scope and fan following. But what better incentive to improve than being able to play in the same leagues together—with the same access to the playoff? The biggest lament most schools in the Group of Five have is lack of regular opportunity to compete on the same level with the big boys. This plan presents exactly that opportunity.

Will it happen? Nah. But it’s fun to think about and argue about. The Great College Sports Realignment that began in 2010 can be improved upon, by simultaneously contracting and expanding.

Got a better idea? We'd love to hear it. Email your own proposed realignment to me at Pat.Forde@si.com. Your ideas could be used (with full credit) in a subsequent column.

Here’s the Forde Bowl Subdivision lineup (FBS Profile Rank is a 1–120 metric that combines a school’s five-year average Sagarin football ranking; its 2020 U.S. News & World Report National University ranking; and its 2018–19 Learfield Cup all-sports ranking): 

THE PAC-12 CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Stanford

FBS PROFILE RANK

2

NON-CON OPPONENT

Northwestern

SCHOOL

USC

FBS PROFILE RANK

3

NON-CON OPPONENT

Notre Dame

SCHOOL

Washington

FBS PROFILE RANK

12

NON-CON OPPONENT

Utah

SCHOOL

Cal

FBS PROFILE RANK

14

NON-CON OPPONENT

BYU

SCHOOL

UCLA

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-15

NON-CON OPPONENT

Arizona

SCHOOL

Oregon

FBS PROFILE RANK

26

NON-CON OPPONENT

Boise State

SCHOOL

Washington State

FBS PROFILE RANK

65

NON-CON OPPONENT

Wyoming

SCHOOL

San Diego State

FBS PROFILE RANK

72

NON-CON OPPONENT

New Mexico

SCHOOL

Oregon State

FBS PROFILE RANK

77

NON-CON OPPONENT

Arizona State

SCHOOL

Hawaii

FBS PROFILE RANK

84

NON-CON OPPONENT

Army

SCHOOL

Fresno State

FBS PROFILE RANK

87

NON-CON OPPONENT

Utah State

SCHOOL

Nevada

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-103

NON-CON OPPONENT

UNLV

THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Arizona State

FBS PROFILE RANK

37

NON-CON OPPONENT

Oregon State

SCHOOL

BYU

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-42

NON-CON OPPONENT

California

SCHOOL

Utah

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-44

NON-CON OPPONENT

Washington

SCHOOL

Air Force

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-49

NON-CON OPPONENT

Navy

SCHOOL

Colorado

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-58

NON-CON OPPONENT

Kansas

SCHOOL

Arizona

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-60

NON-CON OPPONENT

UCLA

SCHOOL

Boise State

FBS PROFILE RANK

70

NON-CON OPPONENT

Oregon

SCHOOL

Colorado State

FBS PROFILE RANK

85

NON-CON OPPONENT

North Dakota State

SCHOOL

New Mexico

FBS PROFILE RANK

91

NON-CON OPPONENT

San Diego State

SCHOOL

Utah State

FBS PROFILE RANK

92

NON-CON OPPONENT

Fresno State

SCHOOL

Wyoming

FBS PROFILE RANK

95

NON-CON OPPONENT

Washington State

SCHOOL

UNLV

FBS PROFILE RANK

107

NON-CON OPPONENT

Nevada

THE GREAT MIDWEST CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Wisconsin

FBS PROFILE RANK

7

NON-CON OPPONENT

Michigan State

SCHOOL

Minnesota

FBS PROFILE RANK

21

NON-CON OPPONENT

Michigan

SCHOOL

Iowa

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-22

NON-CON OPPONENT

Purdue

SCHOOL

Iowa State

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-49

NON-CON OPPONENT

Oklahoma State

SCHOOL

Nebraska

FBS PROFILE RANK

56

NON-CON OPPONENT

Oklahoma

SCHOOL

Missouri

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-58

NON-CON OPPONENT

Illinois

SCHOOL

Kansas State

FBS PROFILE RANK

66

NON-CON OPPONENT

TCU

SCHOOL

North Dakota State

FBS PROFILE RANK

68

NON-CON OPPONENT

Colorado State

SCHOOL

Kansas

FBS PROFILE RANK

82

NON-CON OPPONENT

Colorado

SCHOOL

Western Michigan

FBS PROFILE RANK

93

NON-CON OPPONENT

Toledo

SCHOOL

Central Michigan

FBS PROFILE RANK

98

NON-CON OPPONENT

Northern Illinois

SCHOOL

Eastern Michigan

FBS PROFILE RANK

112

NON-CON OPPONENT

Ball State

THE GREAT MIDEAST CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Michigan

FBS PROFILE RANK

1

NON-CON OPPONENT

Minnesota

SCHOOL

Ohio State

FBS PROFILE RANK

5

NON-CON OPPONENT

Penn State

SCHOOL

Michigan State

FBS PROFILE RANK

36

NON-CON OPPONENT

Wisconsin

SCHOOL

Indiana

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-42

NON-CON OPPONENT

Kentucky

SCHOOL

Purdue

FBS PROFILE RANK

52

NON-CON OPPONENT

Iowa

SCHOOL

Cincinnati

FBS PROFILE RANK

75

NON-CON OPPONENT

Louisville

SCHOOL

Miami (Ohio)

FBS PROFILE RANK

89

NON-CON OPPONENT

Western Kentucky

SCHOOL

Ohio

FBS PROFILE RANK

94

NON-CON OPPONENT

Marshall

SCHOOL

Toledo

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-103

NON-CON OPPONENT

Western Michigan

SCHOOL

Akron

FBS PROFILE RANK

108

NON-CON OPPONENT

Middle Tennessee

SCHOOL

Kent State

FBS PROFILE RANK

110

NON-CON OPPONENT

Buffalo

SCHOOL

Ball State

FBS PROFILE RANK

118

NON-CON OPPONENT

Eastern Michigan

THE MID-AMERICAN CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Notre Dame

FBS PROFILE RANK

4

NON-CON OPPONENT

USC

SCHOOL

Northwestern

FBS PROFILE RANK

18

NON-CON OPPONENT

Stanford

SCHOOL

Tennessee

FBS PROFILE RANK

33

NON-CON OPPONENT

Alabama

SCHOOL

Kentucky

FBS PROFILE RANK

39

NON-CON OPPONENT

Indiana

SCHOOL

Vanderbilt

FBS PROFILE RANK

40

NON-CON OPPONENT

Mississippi

SCHOOL

Louisville

FBS PROFILE RANK

53

NON-CON OPPONENT

Cincinnati

SCHOOL

Illinois

FBS PROFILE RANK

55

NON-CON OPPONENT

Missouri

SCHOOL

West Virginia

FBS PROFILE RANK

63

NON-CON OPPONENT

Pittsburgh

SCHOOL

Western Kentucky

FBS PROFILE RANK

88

NON-CON OPPONENT

Miami (Ohio)

SCHOOL

Middle Tennessee

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-103

NON-CON OPPONENT

Akron

SCHOOL

Marshall

FBS PROFILE RANK

115

NON-CON OPPONENT

Ohio

SCHOOL

Northern Illinois

FBS PROFILE RANK

117

NON-CON OPPONENT

Central Michigan

THE SOUTHWEST CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Texas

FBS PROFILE RANK

8

NON-CON OPPONENT

Arkansas

SCHOOL

Texas A&M

FBS PROFILE RANK

13

NON-CON OPPONENT

Mississippi State

SCHOOL

Oklahoma

FBS PROFILE RANK

24

NON-CON OPPONENT

Nebraska

SCHOOL

TCU

FBS PROFILE RANK

30

NON-CON OPPONENT

Kansas State

SCHOOL

Oklahoma State

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-31

NON-CON OPPONENT

Iowa State

SCHOOL

Baylor

FBS PROFILE RANK

34

NON-CON OPPONENT

Louisiana Tech

SCHOOL

Texas Tech

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-60

NON-CON OPPONENT

Louisiana-Lafayette

SCHOOL

Houston

FBS PROFILE RANK

69

NON-CON OPPONENT

East Carolina

SCHOOL

SMU

FBS PROFILE RANK

78

NON-CON OPPONENT

Temple

SCHOOL

Rice

FBS PROFILE RANK

79

NON-CON OPPONENT

Tulane

SCHOOL

Tulsa

FBS PROFILE RANK

86

NON-CON OPPONENT

Arkansas State

SCHOOL

North Texas

FBS PROFILE RANK

119

NON-CON OPPONENT

Southern Miss

THE MID-ATLANTIC CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

North Carolina

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-15

NON-CON OPPONENT

Georgia Tech

SCHOOL

Duke

FBS PROFILE RANK

17

NON-CON OPPONENT

Rutgers

SCHOOL

Virginia

FBS PROFILE RANK

20

NON-CON OPPONENT

Maryland

SCHOOL

Wake Forest

FBS PROFILE RANK

27

NON-CON OPPONENT

Boston College

SCHOOL

Clemson

FBS PROFILE RANK

28

NON-CON OPPONENT

Florida State

SCHOOL

NC State

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-31

NON-CON OPPONENT

Syracuse

SCHOOL

Virginia Tech

FBS PROFILE RANK

35

NON-CON OPPONENT

Miami

SCHOOL

South Carolina

FBS PROFILE RANK

38

NON-CON OPPONENT

South Florida

SCHOOL

Appalachian State

FBS PROFILE RANK

97

NON-CON OPPONENT

Georgia Southern

SCHOOL

East Carolina

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-101

NON-CON OPPONENT

Houston

SCHOOL

Old Dominion

FBS PROFILE RANK

111

NON-CON OPPONENT

FIU

SCHOOL

Charlotte

FBS PROFILE RANK

120

NON-CON OPPONENT

UAB

THE DEEP SOUTH CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Florida

FBS PROFILE RANK

6

NON-CON OPPONENT

LSU

SCHOOL

Georgia

FBS PROFILE RANK

10

NON-CON OPPONENT

Auburn

SCHOOL

Florida State

FBS PROFILE RANK

11

NON-CON OPPONENT

Clemson

SCHOOL

Miami

FBS PROFILE RANK

29

NON-CON OPPONENT

Virginia Tech

SCHOOL

Georgia Tech

FBS PROFILE RANK

41

NON-CON OPPONENT

North Carolina

SCHOOL

UCF

FBS PROFILE RANK

67

NON-CON OPPONENT

Memphis

SCHOOL

South Florida

FBS PROFILE RANK

71

NON-CON OPPONENT

South Carolina

SCHOOL

Georgia Southern

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-101

NON-CON OPPONENT

Appalachian State

SCHOOL

UAB

FBS PROFILE RANK

106

NON-CON OPPONENT

Charlotte

SCHOOL

Florida International

FBS PROFILE RANK

109

NON-CON OPPONENT

Old Dominion

SCHOOL

Georgia State

FBS PROFILE RANK

114

NON-CON OPPONENT

UConn

SCHOOL

Florida Atlantic

FBS PROFILE RANK

116

NON-CON OPPONENT

UMass

THE SUN BELT CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

LSU

FBS PROFILE RANk

19

NON-CON OPPONENT

Florida

SCHOOL

Auburn

FBS PROFILE RANk

T-22

NON-CON OPPONENT

Georgia

SCHOOL

Alabama

FBS PROFILE RANk

25

NON-CON OPPONENT

Tennessee

SCHOOL

Mississippi State

FBS PROFILE RANk

47

NON-CON OPPONENT

Texas A&M

SCHOOL

Arkansas

FBS PROFILE RANk

57

NON-CON OPPONENT

Texas

SCHOOL

Mississippi

FBS PROFILE RANk

62

NON-CON OPPONENT

Vanderbilt

SCHOOL

Tulane

FBS PROFILE RANk

80

NON-CON OPPONENT

Rice

SCHOOL

Memphis

FBS PROFILE RANk

83

NON-CON OPPONENT

UCF

SCHOOL

Arkansas State

FBS PROFILE RANk

96

NON-CON OPPONENT

Tulsa

SCHOOL

Louisiana Tech

FBS PROFILE RANk

T-99

NON-CON OPPONENT

Baylor

SCHOOL

Southern Miss

FBS PROFILE RANk

T-99

NON-CON OPPONENT

North Texas

SCHOOL

Louisiana-Lafayette

FBS PROFILE RANk

113

NON-CON OPPONENT

Texas Tech

THE YANKEE CONFERENCE

SCHOOL

Penn State

FBS PROFILE RANK

9

NON-CON OPPONENT

Ohio State

SCHOOL

Navy

FBS PROFILE RANK

T-44

NON-CON OPPONENT

Air Force

SCHOOL

Syracuse

FBS PROFILE RANK

46

NON-CON OPPONENT

NC State

SCHOOL

Boston College

FBS PROFILE RANK

48

NON-CON OPPONENT

Wake Forest

SCHOOL

Maryland

FBS PROFILE RANK

51

NON-CON OPPONENT

Virginia

SCHOOL

Pittsburgh

FBS PROFILE RANK

54

NON-CON OPPONENT

West Virginia

SCHOOL

Army

FBS PROFILE RANK

64

NON-CON OPPONENT

Hawaii

SCHOOL

Temple

FBS PROFILE RANK

73

NON-CON OPPONENT

SMU

SCHOOL

Rutgers

FBS PROFILE RANK

74

NON-CON OPPONENT

Duke

SCHOOL

Buffalo

FBS PROFILE RANK

76

NON-CON OPPONENT

Kent State

SCHOOL

Connecticut

FBS PROFILE RANK

81

NON-CON OPPONENT

Georgia State

SCHOOL

Massachusetts

FBS PROFILE RANK

90

NON-CON OPPONENT

FAU

RELEGATED

San Jose State
New Mexico State
UTEP
UTSA
Texas State
Louisiana-Monroe
Troy
Bowling Green
Coastal Carolina
South Alabama
Liberty

PROMOTED

North Dakota State

More Coverage From SI.com Team Sites:

Roundtable: Breaking Down SI's Reimagining of College Sports
Hypothetical Conference Realignment Finds Maryland in Familiar Territory
A Look at Duke's New Home in Pat Forde's Realignment
What Would SI's Hypothetical Realignment Mean for LSU?

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