Bring Back Normal: A Plea For Realignment

With the NCAA crumbling and conferences at odds with member schools, it's an opportune time to re-evaluate the structure of the FBS
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As a journalist, it's not often that I editorialize.

Some individuals far greater than I thrive on persuasion and speculation, and have built careers on their respective dogmas. But I believe that with my role and platform, there's a time and place for that sort of journalism. And generally, I don't find it necessary or beneficial to insert my opinion, with the obvious exception of the SI Sooners Podcast.

But here we are in August 2020, and the landscape of college football as we know it will never be the same. The amateur model of collegiate athletics is under siege as players threaten to unionize. As a global pandemic wreaks havoc, the NCAA governing board has fallen silent, utterly neglecting its authority and responsibility. Consequentially, an undue burden has fallen on the shoulders of conference administrators, who in turn have become the target of open criticism from their member schools' coaches and athletic directors.

It's pretty clear that one way or another, drastic changes are coming. There will be a facelift across collegiate athletics, and it's not far away. With that in mind, allow me to present a case for what I believe is the obvious first step: realignment.

Realignment could (and, I submit, would) solve every one of college football's functional issues that the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed, save for the problem of the NCAA's amateur model. But to that point, it doesn't look like it'll be too much longer before the NCAA's very existence is rendered inessential, at least in its current format.

So let's dive into all the merits of realignment.

Let's consider geography first, because it's an issue that's been ignored far too long. For those who dwell in the heart of Big 12 country, the most glaring example of geographical peculiarity in conference structure is West Virginia. 

What on earth is West Virginia doing in the Big 12?

No other Big 12 campus lies within 800 miles of Morgantown. The Mountaineers quite literally travel halfway across the country every time they play a conference game on the road. And to be frank, WVU's status as a blatant geographical outlier in the Big 12 is the only thing keeping pundits and fans from engaging in the same conversations about Iowa State.

How much larger is West Virginia's travel budget than any of its peers in the Big 12? Four or five yearly road trips of 1,000-plus miles surely aren't cheap.

What about Missouri, the black sheep of the SEC? Mizzou's campus in Columbia is geographically farther north than the District of Columbia. When football fans talk about 'SEC country,' they're certainly not referring to north central Missouri.

How about Colorado? The Buffaloes, of course, play in the Pac-12. Never mind the fact that Boulder is geographically closer to the state of South Dakota than it is to the campus of their nearest conference foe (Utah).

There are a myriad of other examples, such as UTEP in Conference USA, New Mexico in the Mountain West, Texas State in the Sun Belt, and the wholesale geographical hodgepodge that is the AAC. It doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to conclude that the whole system could use a little cleaning up.

Next, let's discuss balance. The NFL has 32 teams, neatly divided into eight four-team divisions. The MLB and NBA each have 30 teams, split into six divisions of five teams apiece. There's a beautiful logic and symmetry to that type of structure. It just makes sense.

Now contrast that harmonious order with the anatomical cacophony of the ten FBS conferences.

Seven schools are independent, with no conference affiliation at all. The Big 12 has 10 teams and no divisions. The Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Conference USA each have 14 teams across two divisions. The MAC, Mountain West and Pac-12 have 12 teams apiece in two divisions. 

Meanwhile, the Sun Belt has 10 teams in two divisions, and the AAC has a motley, incongruous lineup of eleven teams after UConn decided to go independent.

There are 130 teams at the FBS level. Why not add two top teams from the FCS ranks - let's say North Dakota State and Eastern Washington - and bring that total to 132? At that point, the entire FBS field could be split into eleven conferences of 12 teams, with two geographically arranged divisions therein. To get into the specifics of organizing those eleven conferences would require significantly more space, and significantly more visual aid, than this column can provide. But it could be accomplished rather efficiently, and - circling back to geography here - it would solve a plethora of logistical and budgetary issues that long out-of-state road trips present to athletic programs.

Finally, let's unpack the emotional appeal of realignment. I'll preface this with a tweet I composed last night, in response to conjecture that Nebraska could be looking to part ways with the Big Ten.

Nebraska isn't a Big Ten team, much the same way that Pittsburgh isn't an ACC team, or Vanderbilt isn't an SEC team, or TCU isn't a Big 12 team. There's nothing quantifiably wrong with those institutions or their affiliations. It just doesn't feel right. They've never really seemed to fit in their current environment. And they're not the only ones.

Notre Dame will come to realize that it needs a permanent conference in the CFP era. Rutgers is in the Big Ten, and not even Rutgers likes that reality. Arkansas is increasingly out of place in the SEC. Boise State cleans house in the Mountain West year in and year out; they'd surely love a greater challenge.

So why not restructure, if for no other reason than to grant such programs a chance to function and compete with greater fluidity and constancy?

At the end of the day, history makes college football the leviathan of an entity that it is, and the sad reality is that the NCAA has begun to lose touch with its rich history. Bring back the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry. Get Texas and Texas A&M on opposite sidelines again. Find a way to get Miami and Florida a yearly showdown. I've said it already in this column, and I'll say it again: it just makes sense. Those historically relevant matchups are far preferable to watching Nebraska square off with Northwestern, or watching A&M do battle with Kentucky, or watching Miami take on Boston College.

But guess what? Those milquetoast games have to happen, because the perfunctory, cut-and-dried conference schedule of today doesn't take history or emotional interest into account. And that's a problem. Right now in 2020, the constraints of conference structure have far more detriments than benefits.

I want to give a closing nod to the MAC, because it is in many ways the perfect model of what a football conference should look like. It's the only conference that has ostensibly paid any mind to geography, as it consists of six Ohio schools, three Michigan schools, and one school apiece from Indiana, Illinois and New York. The twelve member institutions are tidily arranged into two divisions. One division consists of the conference's six easternmost schools, and the other consists of its six westernmost schools.

The conference boasts a throng of fantastic rivalries, such as the Battle for the Victory Cannon between Central Michigan and Western Michigan. There's Akron and Kent State in the Battle for the Blue and Gold Wagon Wheel, a rivalry that's currently deadlocked at 24-24-1. And Bowling Green and Toledo are in a dead heat of their own in the Battle of I-75; their series is tied at 40-40-4.

To those of us who look at college football from a hyperopic perspective, the goings-on of a seemingly inappreciable conference like the MAC mean very little. But go to upstate Ohio or rural Michigan, and it'll become immediately evident that MAC football is a regional juggernaut. Even though you won't see Bowling Green or Toledo playing in the New Year's Six, every single game in the conference carries weight and public interest. There's nothing remotely akin to an Oklahoma-Kansas snooze fest anywhere on the MAC schedule.

How much more, then, could Power 5 conferences morph into even greater juggernauts than they are today? With a few structural tweaks, how much more attractive could an already fantastic product be? 

What if, through realignment, we could do away with ho-hum intra-conference matinees between the likes of Michigan State and Maryland, or Utah and Washington? What if we could take long-forgotten feuds like those of Clemson and Auburn, or Tennessee and Georgia Tech, and make them regular intra-conference matchups?

Geography matters. Balance matters. History matters.

So is it sacrilege to pine for Power 5 conferences to emulate the MAC, or is it just common sense?

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