“It’s crazy how FBS football is the only sport on the planet in which one can win their conference and be denied a chance at the sport’s richest prize” – AnJuan Thomas
The epigraph was what I wrote in my Facebook sports group after the final 2019 College Football Playoff rankings were released. Oregon—the 2019 Pac-12 champion—finished with a record of 11-2 but saw their hopes of a return trip to the College Football Playoff dashed in an upset loss at Arizona State 2 weeks earlier. Having throttled Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game, they would’ve almost certainly been the 4th ranked team ahead of Big 12 champion, Oklahoma. The same could be said of Ohio State—the 2017 Big Ten champion—and their bad afternoon at Iowa City, which resulted in an 11-2 record, the #5 ranking in the final CFP rankings, and the misfortune of watching an 11-1 Alabama—who did not qualify for the SEC Championship Game—win the national championship. There have been several other examples of this: 2015 Stanford and 2016 Penn State…both examples of Power 5 champions that were punished for having bad days.
When the powers that control college football at the highest level torpedoed the Bowl Championship Series and installed the College Football Playoff, fans of the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) cheered. It was a departure from the 2-team national championship game format largely decided by poll rankings and weirdly-configured computer algorithms. In its place was a 4-team, 3-game tournament whose inclusion was decided exclusively by a committee of conference commissioners, reputable coaches, and other dignitaries of the sport. While the College Football Playoff is more forgiving than the BCS, which punished teams for having lone blemishes in November and early December, it is not without controversy. There is the drama that unfolded when Baylor and TCU—collectively the champions of the Big 12 in 2014—were left out in the cold. Of course, I didn’t feel too much hurt for them as my Ohio State Buckeyes triumphed to the national title. In 2015, Iowa was one of the most consistent teams all season…undefeated until the final 30 seconds of the Big Ten Championship Game, which resulted in them being left out. There’s also the Group of 5 schools who had unbelievable seasons, only to have nothing to show for the effort. Think 2015 Houston, 2016 Western Michigan, 2017 and 2018 Central Florida, the collective of Memphis, Boise State, and Appalachian State in 2019, and the COVID-19 versions of Cincinnati, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana-Lafayette, Liberty, and San Jose State in 2020. All of those teams were left out of the national championship conversation…seemingly because of the name on their jerseys, the emblems on their helmets, and the sports conference their schools played in. From where I stand, it’s one thing to get jobbed by Jeff Sagarin’s dumbass rankings and the other freaky computer algorithms of the BCS era that didn’t make any damn sense. It’s a completely different thing when actual humans with vested and direct interests in the sport tell you that you’re not worthy of being a national champion because you play in a disregarded conference or represent a program that has no history of success. The BCS was brutally cold to 2004 and 2008 Utah, 2006 and 2009 Boise State, 2007 Hawaii, 2009 and 2010 TCU…all undefeated champions of disregarded conferences that got a chance to play in BCS games but not the BCS National Championship Game. There was also 1998 Tulane, 1999 Marshall, 2001 Miami (Ohio), and 2004 Auburn…all undefeated teams who had empty seasons in the end. Even with the transition to the College Football Playoff, the playing field is still not level …even though the number of teams vying for the national championship after conference title games are played has doubled. There will always be the haves and have nots in major college football. The money is far too great for it not to be. Fantastic one-off seasons and unlikely conference championship runs will continue to ring hollow in favor of traditional superpowers. In a time where the United States is facing a reckoning over long, systemic segregation and prejudice against the lower-class and often disregarded demographics, this is a travesty. If there is anything in need of diversity and inclusion, it’s most certainly FBS football.
What NCAA Division I FBS football needs is an undisputed leader at the top. Think UFC President Dana White. Think David Stern, the late former Commissioner of the NBA. They were leaders that galvanized their sports through innovation and promoting better competition amongst those under their hands. They didn’t allow fighters or teams to be faced with glass ceilings in their pursuits of championships. In their sports, if you qualified on merits—usually through the winning of eliminator bouts or winning your conference—you played for the richest prize. The NCAA has Mark Emmert. He has been president of the renowned nonprofit organization that governs most student-athletes since 2010. Notice the word “most” in italics? That’s because Emmert has virtually no power or say-so when it comes to the day-to-day operations of the FBS. He’s essentially a puppet leader and the NCAA might as well be a banana republic in the eyes of those with real power in the FBS. The sport would be exponentially better with a national director or czar. For the remainder of this post, let’s imagine that Emmert established a Director of Operations for every NCAA-sponsored sport in each of its three divisional classes. Let’s imagine that the role of Director of Operations for the Football Bowl Subdivision existed and the holder of this role had full autonomy to govern the operations of college football’s highest competitive classification. Let’s imagine the person holding this role was yours truly. It’s a lot of things I would do but the most impactful may be the implementation of a true national tournament to determine the national champion of major college football.
If I were Director of Operations for the Football Bowl Subdivision, we would not be having a 4-team, 3-game College Football Playoff with the Orange Bowl and Cotton Bowl serving as semifinal games. I would scrap that in favor of my own creation: the 2021-22 NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision Tournament. Take a look at the bracket below.
I know, I know. You’re wondering how I came to arrive at this particular configuration of FBS teams. Allow me to elaborate. The features of the FBS Tournament would be as follows:
- 16 teams are selected to participate in the tournament
- 10 teams would receive automatic bids to the tournament by winning their conference championship game
- 6 teams would receive at-large bids via selection from the FBS Tournament Selection Committee
- The tournament will feature 4 regions—East, South, Midwest, West—with 4 teams in each region
- Each of the teams receives a true overall seed, which will be used to form an S-curve for bracketing purposes (see how an S-curve works here)
- The top overall seed in the tournament would receive automatic geographic preference with the other 3 #1 seeds (true seeds 2-4) receiving a geographic assignment from whatever regions remain
- Regional semifinal games would be played at the home sites of the #1 and #2 seeds in each region on Friday and Saturday
- Regional final games would be played at a major NFL venue the following Saturday
- The national semifinal and national championship games would be played at a single site with the event being named the FBS Final Four
- Those national semifinal games would take place the Saturday following the regional final games with the FBS National Championship Game being played a week later…also on a Saturday
- The regional and national sites would be: Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (South), U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis (Midwest), M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore (East), SoFi Stadium in Inglewood (West), and Lucas Oil Stadium (Final Four)
Specific to this tournament, the true seeds and their qualification are:
- Alabama: SEC champion
- Michigan: Big Ten champion
- Cincinnati: American champion
- Georgia: SEC at-large
- Notre Dame: Independent at-large
- Ohio State: Big Ten at-large
- Baylor: Big 12 champion
- Oklahoma State: Big 12 at-large
- Ole Miss: SEC at-large
- Pittsburgh: ACC champion
- BYU: Independent at-large
- Utah: Pac-12 champion
- Louisiana-Lafayette: Sun Belt champion
- Utah State: Mountain West champion
- Texas-San Antonio: Conference USA champion
- Northern Illinois: MAC champion
Notable teams left out of the field would include Michigan State, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Iowa. BYU, with a strong record vs. Pac-12 competition and head-to-head victories over two automatic qualifiers, is the last team selected into the field. Cincinnati is seeded ahead of Georgia because they are undefeated, a conference champion, and own a very attractive head-to-head win over #5 overall seed Notre Dame. In terms of bracketing, Alabama—as the top overall seed—would be placed at a regional site closest to their campus (the South in Atlanta). As the #2 overall seed, Michigan would go to the Midwest in Minneapolis on account of regional familiarity since Baltimore is actually 140 miles closer to Ann Arbor than Minneapolis. The #3 seed Cincinnati goes East to Baltimore and Georgia, as the lowest-ranked top seed, heads West to Inglewood, California.
I think this bracket concept actually accomplishes a lot that benefits FBS football. One of the things that makes the playoffs in professional North American sports so intriguing is that teams are represented from each division and each region of the country. I’d like to do the same with FBS football: every region could legitimately assert that they played a part in crowning a national champion. With every FBS conference represented, this tournament would be the ultimate mark in inclusion as every FBS team can honestly begin the season with a chance to be the national champion. There still may be some controversy with the at-large bids but that may sort itself out more times than not on the field.
What do you think about the bracket? Who would be your Final Four selections? Who would be national champion if this tournament happened? Which top seed would fall first? Which #4 seed has the best chance to make history? Which at-large team is lucky to be in the field? Which team not in the field deserved a shot?
In this hypothetical role as Director of Operations for the Football Bowl Subdivision, the implementation of a national tournament wouldn’t be the only thing I’d do. I would also explore the following:
THE REGULAR SEASON SCHEDULE. In 2006, the NCAA allowed all FBS teams to schedule 12 games over the course of the regular season. It was a pure money move as many of the traditional blue bloods of the sport have used the extra game to rake in millions of dollars in gameday revenue…often at the expense of some cupcake team from the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), as is the case for nearly every team in the Southeastern Conference. Personally, I think the regular season is too long. I would implement a 10-game regular season schedule across the board. The regular season would begin on the last Thursday in August and extend until around the middle of November. It would be 12 total weeks and each school would receive 2 bye weeks. Of special note with my 10-game, 12-week schedule is the Army-Navy Game. Currently played on the 2nd Saturday in December when most people really don’t care about college football apart from the Heisman Trophy presentation, it would be played in primetime on Veterans Day as the famed holiday that honors American military veterans will always fall in Week 12 of my regular season schedule. For example, the 2022 regular season would begin on Thursday, August 25 and would conclude on Saturday, November 12. As such, the 123rd Army-Navy Game would be played on the evening of Friday, November 11. Because Veterans Day could fall on any day in the week, I think I would mandate a bye week for both service academies the week before.
CONFERENCE IMPLICATIONS. As Director of Operations for the FBS, it would be my preference for all 10 conferences to remain mostly in their current 2021 alignment with no changes. I would strongly encourage the Big 12 Conference to add Houston and SMU, allowing the conference to return to its North and South division alignment. The American Athletic Conference would proceed with just 9 teams…though the opportunity to add Army, Liberty, and Connecticut from the independent ranks does exist. The realignments of the Big 12 and American would make it easier for me to mandate that all schools play no less and no more than 8 regular season conference games. The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences would simply drop one of their cross-divisional games. For the FBS independent programs—Notre Dame, BYU, Army, Liberty, New Mexico State, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—they will be required to schedule no less than 5 regular season games against a singular conference. For instance, Notre Dame plays 5 games against Atlantic Coast Conference teams and BYU plays 5 regular season games against Pac-12 teams. Apart from that, they would be free to schedule as they please.
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAMES. With every school playing 8 regular season conference games out of 10 total regular season games over 12 weeks, there will be 10 conference championship games played in Week 13. For 9 of the 10 FBS conferences, the division winners would meet in these conference championship games. In the case of the American Athletic Conference, the top two regular season teams would face off for the conference crown. In the 2022 season, these 10 games would be played between Thursday, November 17 and Saturday, November 19. Only conference championship game participants would compete in Week 13. There would be none of that fancy stuff like USC and California playing a meaningless game or an independent scheduling a regular season game to get more tournament selection visibility. Oh yeah, it should be noted that once the conference championship games conclude, the only teams that will continue to play would be the tournament teams. The other FBS teams can get head starts on their coaching searches and recruiting.
THE BOWL GAMES. Going back to Michigan’s 49-0 triumph over Stanford in the 1902 Tournament East-West football game (later known as the Rose Bowl Game), bowl games have been part of the identity of college football. And for good reason, really. There is a lot of money at play with the bowl games. As Director of Operations for the FBS, I’m definitely not taking away the bowl games. I will, however, change when they are played. Instead of having all of the bowls to end the season over the winter holiday break, I would have all bowl games played to start the season. Honestly, I don’t see any reason why they aren’t all played in Weeks 1 and 2 right now. The weather across the United States is universally warm in late August, very early September. The teams are pretty much fully healthy for the most part…largely unaffected by the attrition that occurs over the course of a season in a physical sport. For me, all bowl games would be played in Week 1. And here’s the kicker: the matchups would be based on a combination of (1) the previous season’s conference result and (2) traditional bowl tie-ins. By “traditional bowl tie-ins”, I mean the tie-ins that were in place prior to the emergence of the College Football Playoff in 2014…maybe even the tie-ins from back in the early years of the Bowl Championship Series. No team would be allowed to play in the same season-opening bowl game more than twice consecutively. I believe this would create some very intriguing non-conference games to start the season…all with tournament implications. For instance, using the conference results of the 2021 season, we would get some of the following matchups to start the 2022 season:
- Rose Bowl Game: Michigan (Big Ten champ) vs. Utah (Pac-12 champ)
- Sugar Bowl: Alabama (SEC champ) vs. Baylor (Big 12 champ)
- Citrus Bowl: Georgia (SEC #2) vs. Ohio State (Big Ten #2)
- Orange Bowl: Pittsburgh (ACC champ) vs. Notre Dame
- Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State (Big 12 #2) vs. Oregon (Pac-12 #2)
- Outback Bowl: Michigan State (Big Ten #3) vs. Ole Miss (SEC #3)
To qualify for participation in a season-opening bowl game, my preference would be for teams to have won 6 regular season games the previous season. Going this route may mean that there are teams that don’t qualify and bowls without participants. I don’t see a problem with that. I actually think there are too many bowl games and I also think the sport has become soft by letting .500 regular season teams play in bowl games. If you don’t qualify for a bowl game, you’re free to schedule Week 1 contests with other bowl-ineligible teams or FCS teams.
NON-CONFERENCE RIVALRY GAMES. A 10-game regular season in which 8 games are conference games and another being a potential season-opening bowl game could mean that some non-conference rivalry games may be lost…especially if you have traditionally played 2 non-conference rivalry games. But most non-conference rivalries should stay in place. Rivalries such as Iowa-Iowa State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State, USC-Notre Dame would be able to still happen in a 10-game season. A 10-game season could even see the return of the lost rivalry games such as Border War between Kansas and Missouri, the Backyard Brawl between Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the Battle of the Brothers between Utah and Utah State, or the Lone Star Showdown between Texas and Texas A&M. There would definitely be incentive to jumpstart these rivalries.
Of course, this is all me thinking out in font. Absolutely none of this will ever happen and the state of FBS football will continue to stovepipe the have nots and disregarded. Perhaps they can take solace that, in the dreams of Juan, they have an equal chance to be national champion.