What will the college sports landscape look like once media rights deals expire? Here's one possible—and radical—realignment scenario
I'm giving up today. The off-season is going to win.
For months, I've tried to explain why it won't make much of a difference in the grand scheme if the Big 12 decides to expand. In fact, the conference probably stands a better chance of surviving past its current media rights contract if it stays at 10 members, wins a few national championships and then tries to swipe from the Pac-12 when all of the schools are on the verge of free agency. No one wants to hear this. People want expansion. They want realignment. More than likely, they simply want something to talk about until the actual football content begins flowing again.
So, I'm going to stop fighting them. I'm going whole-hog on realignment. But first, a disclaimer.
I still don't believe the Big 12 should expand. (And if you read my No. 2 item in the "First-and-10" section, you'll see why it isn't likely to right now.) I would prefer the leagues remain different. I like that the Big 12 has 10 teams, nine conference football games and no championship game. I like that the Pac-12 has 12 teams, nine conference games and a conference title game. I like that the Big Ten is going to have nine conference games. I like that the ACC and SEC each have 14 teams, eight conference games and title games. I love when everyone else complains about the ACC and SEC playing only eight conference games.
College football is great because it's different across the country. It refuses to be a homogenous product. But the pieces are moving around the board in a way that suggests it will become more homogenous and less interesting when this round of media rights deals expires. So, like those of you who have tweeted your crackpot realignment fantasies at me through the years, I'm coming up with my own radical realignment scheme. It's also a crackpot plan, but I think you'll agree it would be much more fun than the 16-team superconference format that seem inevitable in about eight years.
When I proposed the Collegiate Athletics Select Hegemony in February 2010, I was (mostly) kidding. Then, during that summer, Larry Scott and the (then) Pac-10 almost made it happen. If things continue the way they are going, realignment will probably shatter one more conference when existing Power 5 media rights deals expire between 2023 and '27. The age of four 16-team superconferences still seems inevitable, and that stinks. Are programs really in the same conference if they don't play in football for five years at a time?
So, here's my scheme. It is slightly different than the one I unveiled on my SiriusXM radio show Sunday night, as I would like to be a little more inclusive and realistic. My original plan involved 17 schools getting jettisoned from football's top tier. The people who still feel beholden to bowl games that only drain from their bottom line likely wouldn't do that to their cronies. So we'll include almost every school currently in a Power 5 conference. This is a scheme that could work when the college sports landscape realigns again—especially if leagues want to sell their rights as one to set a premium price.
There would be four 16-team superconferences, and they wouldn't leave the NCAA but would decide to have their football operations governed by a federation. The College Football Playoff is a consortium of leagues that runs the sport's postseason; this would be a consortium of leagues that runs the entire sport for these schools. This federation would set its own rules, and if it wanted to head off any pesky federal lawsuits by collectively bargaining with players for an agreed-upon compensation plan, it could. All of the other sports would still be governed by NCAA rules. The federation would sell the first- and second-tier media rights for these 64 teams as a bloc. Like the NFL or the NBA, it could sell packages to different networks. By leaving the networks without the option of going to one of the other leagues that offers premium college football, this would raise the asking price even at a time when the rights-fee bubble may have popped. Would it inspire an antitrust suit from the schools left off the gravy train? Maybe. But that suit might also result in an NFL-USFL situation in which the dominant league loses the case and is ordered to pay $1 in damages. Third-tier rights would remain with the conferences, which could use them to program conference networks. Of these, only the ACC lacks one at the moment.
While the federation would feature four 16-team leagues, those conferences would not act in the way they do now. Their divisions would function independently for football purposes. Each would serve as its own conference, and the only required games would be between divisional opponents. Every team would play a full round-robin schedule within its division to decide a champion. Only division games would count toward a title, so teams could schedule their other five games—or four, because there may not need to be 12 regular-season games—as they wish as long as three of those games come against other schools in the federation. This last part would be to drive up the prices of the media rights deals. The networks want more killer than filler. The division champs would then face off in a conference title game. This, essentially, would be the first round of the playoff. The four conference champions would then face off in a bracket.
Having seven divisional games that count every year would deepen existing rivalries or create some great new ones. For the most part, the divisions would be based on geography. This would also help strengthen rivalries. Having the ability to schedule four or five nonconference games would allow flexibility to rekindle old rivalries or play tough opponents to prepare for the best of the divisional games. Having most of the games between the biggest brands in college football would be great for TV and for fans at the stadiums.
So, how would it work? For the purposes of this exercise, we're assuming the Big 12 is the league that gets torn apart. Depending on how successful the conferences are at placing teams into the playoff, we can also imagine a scenario in which the Big 12 survives and the Pac-12 is absorbed. However, since the Big 12 continues to put the "func" in "dysfunctional," we'll keep the Pac-12 together in this hypothetical.
Not every current Big 12 school would make the cut, of course. We have to find a way to fit Notre Dame into the new structure. It's also possible some other programs could get left behind* in favor of a school from a bigger TV market—perhaps Central Florida, Cincinnati, Connecticut or South Florida would get a call up—but for now we'll mostly go with the brands we know. I left out Iowa State when I came up with the CASH scenario; I hate to do it again, Cyclones, but this time you are joined by Kansas State. I couldn't figure out how to shoehorn either into the remaining leagues. There had to be a spot for Notre Dame, and I gave the remaining Pac-16 spot to Houston for geographic and television market-size reasons.
Here is how I would realign the top schools:
*My original plan featured six eight-team divisions with no conference championship games and an eight-team playoff (division champs and two wild cards selected by a committee). I couldn't figure out how that would possibly work if the conferences wanted to remain intact otherwise. This is a crackpot idea, but even the nuttiest plans require some basis in reality.
*Because the seven divisional games are the only ones required on a schedule, rivals could play more often. One of the sillier aspects of the current ACC divisional structure is that NC State doesn't play nearby Duke every season. Because of proximity, Duke, NC State, North Carolina and Wake Forest should all play one another every year. With this format in place, they would be able to do that.
**Why don't I have Notre Dame joining the Big Ten? The TV money gap wouldn't be as big with the first- and second-tier rights being sold by the federation, and the Fighting Irish are in the ACC for their other sports.
*Texas would have to give up the Longhorn Network wherever it goes, but the Big Ten and its more lucrative network would win the bidding war against the Pac-12. And, yes, I realize I have separated Oklahoma and Texas. They didn't belong to the same conference until 1996, and they still found a way to play every year.
*I kept the Iron Bowl as a division game, kept Auburn-Georgia, kept Alabama-Tennessee, restored Auburn-Florida and made the divisions geographically correct. Hooray. If Florida and LSU want to keep playing every year, no one would stop them.
These divisions aren't perfect, of course. The federation, which could do pretty much whatever it wanted, might want to mix things up for competitive balance purposes. But if the conferences plan on eventually super-sizing anyway, here's hoping they will choose an alignment that allows college football to remain our nation's freakiest sport.
A random ranking
Sunday's Rangers-Blue Jays brawl(s) got me thinking about one-sided baseball fights. This fight began when Toronto's Jose Bautista slid hard into Texas second baseman Rougned Odor during a double-play turn. (Well, really, it began when Bautista bat-flipped his way into the 2015 ALCS.) Odor took issue, and the players shoved each other. Presumably Bautista thought this would make him look tough and he would be rescued by his teammates. Before that could happen, though, Odor blasted Bautista with a right hand. This reminded me of another time a player approached a member of the Rangers without a sound plan for the fight. It also inspired me to rank the most one-sided baseball fights.
1. Nolan Ryan vs. Robin Ventura
Ventura acts too impulsively. Just before he reaches Ryan, he realizes he has made a critical mistake. Too late. Time for a ride on the Noogie Express.
2. Rougned Odor vs. Jose Bautista
If you shove someone, don't act surprised when you get punched.
3. Tim Belcher vs. Chan Ho Park
Pitcher-on-pitcher fights are the best. However, if you're going to try a Patrick Swayze-in-Road House roundhouse kick, don't miss. Otherwise, everyone in the opposing dugout will bury you.
4. Mike Williams vs. Pedro Martinez
Take everything I said in No. 3 and replace "a Patrick Swayze-in-Road House roundhouse kick" with "throwing your helmet."
5. Dave Winfield vs. Nolan Ryan
Ryan wasn't always the best fighter. Unfortunately for Ventura, this incident taught Ryan to be ready.
1. SI legal analyst Michael McCann explained the Oklahoma Supreme Court's decision to rule that a video of Oklahoma tailback Joe Mixon punching a woman is a public record. The video should have been a public record all along, but an Oklahoma judge used some specious legal reasoning to protect Mixon, who deserves no such protection because he is a man who punched a woman.
If the video gets released and impacts Mixon going forward, oh well. Men who punch women deserve the bad things that happen to them as a result of that choice. The school, however, cannot punish Mixon further without appearing incredibly stupid. Mixon entered a plea in court that allows him to maintain his innocence while still being sentenced to community service and counseling. University president David Boren, athletic director Joe Castiglione and Sooners coach Bob Stoops all saw the video before they decided to suspend Mixon for the 2014 season. Even if the video is released and sparks a huge public outcry, Oklahoma can't pull a Roger Goodell and claim it didn't know. It also made a choice, and now it may have to defend it.
2. Speaking of Boren, he recently backpedaled about as well as the Sooners' best cornerbacks when discussing Big 12 expansion. Boren has been driving the pro-expansion train for a while, but he took a far more measured tone last week after a Board of Regents meeting.
It sounds as if one of two things happened. Either someone went to Texas and asked about the possibility of the school giving up the Longhorn Network to create a Big 12 Network—the response to this would likely be laughter—or Boren realized none of the schools available to the Big 12 would bring enough brand power to save the conference once the current Grant of Rights agreement expires alongside the media rights deal.
If the Big 12 is going to blow up come 2024 or '25, it's going to blow up regardless of whether it now adds two schools. It is possible that the league could remain at 10 member schools, win a few football national titles and cash in on that by swiping schools from a Power 5 league in a weaker position. That's an iffy proposition, but it's better than bringing in more mouths to feed in an uncertain environment.
3. It's impossible to blame athletic director Mark Coyle for bailing on Syracuse after 11 months to accept the Minnesota job. Coyle got more pay at a wealthier athletic department—where he had already worked for five years—in a conference that is about to open a money fire hose when its new television deals kick in. Given the same set of circumstances, most of us would have done exactly the same thing. That said, Minnesota had better not block transfers leaving the Golden Gophers from receiving scholarships elsewhere going forward. A department run by Coyle can't really preach to anyone about loyalty.
4. Attorneys for Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze have asked a Mississippi court to either prohibit or restrict a deposition of Freeze that was requested in the civil suit filed by the former stepfather of offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil. An attorney for Lindsey Miller, who seems determined to make the former Rebels standout his meal ticket one way or another, has requested to depose Freeze regarding a physical altercation between Tunsil and Miller last year. Because depositions can go in almost any direction, Freeze's attorneys want to limit what Freeze could be asked, and they want those questions in writing. The attorneys are wise to do this, since the NCAA can use depositions in its investigations. If Freeze admitted to anything involving Tunsil's recruitment or time at Ole Miss that violates NCAA rules, it would be bad for the coach and for the school. Of course, Freeze must also accept that this motion makes it look as if he has something to hide. This is the tradeoff.
5. Michigan isn't limiting its satellite camps to this continent. On June 3, Wolverines coaches will work a camp in Australia. Nick Baumgardner of MLive.com has the details. Harbaugh won't personally attend the camp, but his assistants will bring back intel on punters. Maybe they'll bring Harbaugh a pet dingo, too.
6. An Omaha man has filed a federal lawsuit in an attempt to stop Nebraska's balloon release tradition after it scores its first point in each football game.
7. Arkansas's Bret Bielema would like the NCAA to change its rules so underclassmen who declare for the draft but don't get picked would be allowed to return to school. The coach had one player, offensive lineman Denver Kirkland, declare early in 2016 but go undrafted. Bielema wishes such players could return to college and try again. Their basketball counterparts are allowed to do that this year.
"There's a whole mindset now of starting your first contract now so you can get to the second contract," Bielema told syndicated radio show Sports Talk With Bo Mattingly. "They've got to play four years of injury-free football in the NFL before that. Most guys don't make their second contract, but they all live on a hope and a prayer. I don't have a card invested except their well-being. Now, if Denver and [fifth-round tailback] Alex [Collins] were coming back, we'd probably be rated as one of the better teams in the SEC. Hunter [Henry] was hoping to be a first, but still was a second. Two or three guys could change a season."
The schools could change the NCAA rule as they did for basketball, but football players wanting to reserve the opportunity to return to campus would have to train differently than those who are definitely leaving. To keep from violating the NCAA's amateurism rules, players would have to pay for draft training themselves—a high five-figure or low six-figure cost that agents usually pay—or find a way to train for free. The latter notion isn't impossible, though. If the players had a chance to come back if they go undrafted, the strength staffs at their respective schools might be willing to train them.
This would also eliminate the need for temporary housing and transportation. Assuming the players keep attending class, they could stay on scholarship for the spring semester. (And if you don't think this would work, defensive end Kevin Dodd trained at Clemson while finishing his degree this spring and was selected with the second pick of the second round.) The schools would also probably have to write the rule so that NFL franchises could pay for players to participate in the combine and make team visits, but that is something that could be easily controlled.
The idea is quite workable if schools are willing to pursue it. Given all the lip service coaches and ADs give to academics, a chance to continue one's education should be an easy opportunity to extend.
8. The Mattingly empire had a lot of Bielema material this week. In a teaser for Mattingly's "BEING Bret Bielema" series, Bielema explains why he thinks the best tailbacks should stay away from spread offenses.
9. Former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds will be allowed to pursue a spot on the Baltimore Ravens this season. Reynolds, who will play receiver and return kicks as a pro, was given permission by the Navy to play in the NFL. Graduates of the service academies are required to serve five years of active duty unless they receive a waiver such as the one Reynolds has received. Last year, former Navy long snapper Joe Cardona was given a similar waiver to play for the New England Patriots.
10. ESPN's Chris Fowler got a once-in-a-lifetime selfie Friday.
Why were Harbaugh and Urban Meyer in the same room? They were contributing to a great cause. They came together to help ESPN basketball commentator Dick Vitale raise money for The V Foundation, which funds cancer research. Friday's gala raised $2.8 million.
What's eating Andy?
It appears my former SI colleague Stewart Mandel is also suffering from Peak Off-season. (We didn't plan this. I promise.) Read his
2026 realignment plan and see which of ours you prefer. If you're a fan of soccer-style promotion and relegation, I don't stand a chance. If you're a fan of Oklahoma State or South Carolina, you're going to love mine.
What's Andy eating?
My server pointed out the flames listed next to a few select dishes on the menu. These, she said, will make your mouth tingle. Sure, I thought. Everyone says that before plopping down a dish that falls right next to Tabasco sauce on the Scoville scale. No, she insisted. Your mouth will tingle.
Despite her warnings, I planned to try a trio of flame-notated dishes at Mission Chinese. The restaurant, which started in San Francisco and opened a New York outpost in 2012 (it briefly closed following a run-in with the Department of Health, but reopened in '15), is famous for its use of Sichuan peppers, which do not set the mouth ablaze so much as leave it quivering. I intended to try the thrice-cooked bacon and rice cakes, the Chongqing chicken wings and the kung pao pastrami. This would have been a mistake.
Had I been with a large group and sampling from each plate—the place serves dishes family-style, but I was a family of one on this particular Wednesday—ordering this trio would have been ideal. A bite of this. A bite of that. A few bites of something less numbing in between to cleanse the palate. On my own, however, this would have been a disaster. Fortunately, an item on the menu's next page rescued me from my spicy hubris.
WHOLE SMOKED HOG JOWL.Andy Staples
That's what the menu said. Underneath were words about something called Cloud Bread and some spices, but I couldn't get past the first part. I had never tried pork jowl before, but I'd heard it rivaled pork belly and bacon. I do not take such claims lightly, so I needed to taste for myself. I reduced my spicy order to just the thrice-cooked bacon and requested the pig's double—triple? quadruple?—chin. My server now had another warning. You're going to need a box for the leftovers. I chuckled. She clearly didn't understand my appetite for the best parts of the pig.
All her advice turned out to be 100% correct. The bacon was savory and smoky, but after a few seconds those peppers had my tongue and mouth jangling. While this state may sound unpleasant, it's actually quite thrilling. The peppers don't overwhelm like habaneros or ghost chiles. They effectively set off a tuning fork in the mouth, leaving it buzzing but not ablaze. It's easy to understand why continuing to eat them would leave the mouth numb, but Mission Chinese includes slippery, chewy rice cakes to absorb some of the heat. Had I dared eat all three hot dishes, my mouth would have been numb. I wouldn't have been able to enjoy most of the meal, and it would have been my fault for not ordering properly.
Fortunately, the 11th-hour switch to hog jowl eliminated that issue. It is better than pork belly or bacon. If you read this space two weeks ago, you know that I favor the uncured (pork belly) over the cured (bacon). The jowl is a silkier version of the belly. It delivers maximum savory in each bite. At Mission Chinese, a crispy crust adds just enough texture to meat that otherwise melts on the tongue. The Cloud Bread, a large, soft pillow of carbs that looks like a pita injected with helium, can be torn apart and wrapped around the thick slices for one of the world's most decadent sandwiches.
My server wasn't kidding about the need for a box. The chunks of jowl are like pork plutonium; it only takes a little to satisfy even the heartiest appetite. Jowl's humble cousin bacon can commingle with breakfast and burgers regularly. The richness of the jowl befits a once-a-year treat. Well, maybe twice a year. I still want to try that kung pao pastrami, and I'm going to need something to soothe my tingling tongue.