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Fixing College Football

by James Joyner on 9 September 2009

Alex Massie argues that college football is America’s greatest sport.  While I’m a huge fan, I personally prefer the NFL game.  Steven Taylor points out one reason why:  absurd mismatches scheduled to give big powers an easy win.

Alabama's Robby Green (23) knocks the ball away from Virginia Tech's Davon Morgan (2) during their NCAA college football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009. Alabama won 34-24. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Alabama's Robby Green (23) knocks the ball away from Virginia Tech's Davon Morgan (2) during their NCAA college football game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta Saturday, Sept. 5, 2009. Alabama won 34-24. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Check out the Top 25 scoreboard from this weekend’s season openers:

    #1 Florida 61, Division I-AA Charleston Southern 3

    #2 Texas 59, Division I-AA Louisiana Monroe 20

    #3 Oklahoma 13, #20 Brigham Young 14

    #4 Southern California 56, unranked San Jose St. 3

    #5 Alabama 34, #7 Virginia Tech 24

    #6 Ohio State 31, unranked Navy 27

    #8 Mississippi 45,  unranked Memphis 14

    co-#9 Oklahoma State 24, #13 Georgia 10

    co-#9 Penn State 31, unranked Akron 7

    #11 LSU 31, unranked Washington 23

    #12 California 52, unranked Maryland 13

    #14 Boise State 19, #16 Oregon 8

    #15 Georgia Tech 37, Division I-AA Jacksonville State 17

    #17 Texas Christian opens Sept. 12 at Virginia

    #18 Florida State 34,  unranked Miami 38

    #19 Utah 35, unranked Utah State 17

    #21 North Carolina 40, Division I-AA Citadel 6

    #22 Iowa 17, unranked Northern Iowa 16

    #23 Notre Dame 35, unranked Nevada 0

    #24 Nebraska 49, Florida Atlantic 3

    #25 Kansas 49, Division I-AA Northern Colorado 3

Only four of the games pitted ranks teams against one another.  Now, it’s impossible to know rankings two or three years in advance, when most of these games are scheduled.  But only a handful of the games — the ones I’ve highlighted in bold — are non-embarrassing.

Steven’s right that major football powers should simply never schedule games against Division I-AA schools.  (I’m sorry, but I refuse to play along with the NCAA’s  idiotic attempt to rebrand the minor leagues as the “Football Championship Series.”)  I’d go even further, though: they shouldn’t play perennially noncompetitive teams, either.

Yes, it’s true that these also-rans sometimes give the big boys a scare.  Navy did it Saturday, nearly upsetting Ohio State.  Appalachian State beat Michigan a couple years back and upstart Troy State beat Mississippi State (although it took tornadoes and a torrential downpour) before that. Sometimes, these games showcase a rising power and every once in a while we’re treated to a wonderful Cinderella story.  But, frankly, it’s always an accident.

Mostly, these games are a joke that make a mockery of sportsmanship and competition.

As an Alabama fan, I’ve thrilled to the last two season openers, against highly ranked Clemson and Virginia Tech.  It’s been especially satisfying to win those games, getting the season off to a rousing start.  But, honestly, fans of Clemson and Virginia Tech have to be upset with their athletic directors for agreeing to these games and wrecking the season before even getting to inter-conference play.   Given the way the rules are set up, it may be cheesy but it’s very smart for the Southern Cals of the world to get their seasons off to a bang by whomping up on the San Jose States.   And it’s very much in the interest of the patsies to take half a million dollars or so as a prize for their beating.

And, while my Tide deserves kudos for scheduling marquee opponents to start the season the last two years — and for its home and away series with Penn State set for 2010 and 2011 — they’ve got plenty of cupcakes lined up, too.  Should a team with national championship aspirations really be playing Florida International, North Texas, and Chattanooga?

Why not change the rules and mandate that the big boys open up with the big boys?  And, in fact, play the big boys each and every week?   Wouldn’t that be much more exciting?

Here are the conferences that matter:  ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC.  Go ahead and throw the Big East in, too, if you want to pretend.  Those are the BCS conferences.

Let’s limit the national championship to schools playing in those conferences.  Let’s mandate that schools in those conferences schedule games only against other schools in those conferences.  And — here’s the exciting part — let’s take a page out of European soccer’s playbook a have a system where the lesser teams in those conferences get replaced by the best teams from outside.

So, obviously, Notre Dame will have to join a conference.  I vote for the Big East.  They’re already a member for everything but football and it’s too small, anyway, with only eight schools playing football.   Heck, get all the BCS conferences up to twelve schools, which should pretty much cover any decent football programs.  (I mean, really, are there more than 72 college football programs that ought to have a shot at the championship?)

Divide the conferences not already aligned that way into two, six-team divisions.  Then, play a season where each team plays, say, six games from within the conference and six games from another conference on a rotating basis.  Play  a conference championship game for all conferences, so the ones that do so aren’t at a huge disadvantage.

And the worst team in each conference each year?   They’re out.   Replaced by the top six teams not currently in a BCS conference.   If you’re among the Best of the Rest the next year, you’re back in.  If not, tough luck.

The beauty of this system is that it survives even if the college presidents finally come to their senses and agree on a playoff.  And it means every game, every week has meaning for the fans and the schools.  There will be no patsies.  And the worst teams even have something to play for: a seat at the table for next year.

About James Joyner

James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway and the managing editor of a DC think tank. He's a former Army officer, Desert Storm vet, and college professor. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama.

{ 4 trackbacks }

Fixing College Football » OTB Sports
9 September 2009 at 14:00
Manly Thoughts
12 September 2009 at 09:09
The Problem of BCS Busters | Heretical Ideas Magazine
28 September 2009 at 09:47
BCS Busters: How Good is 12-0?
28 September 2009 at 12:00

{ 10 comments }

1 Triumph 9 September 2009 at 13:09

I think the point your post can be summarized thusly: NFL is preferable to NCAA because the talent is better in the NFL.

Why waste your time watching an NCAA game when 99% of the athletes you are seeing are not the best at their sport?

I can see, for nostaliga’s sake, if you went to a school you might want to root for them. But for pure fans of the sport, nothing compares to the NFL.

Even the CFL is more interesting than the college game.

2 James Joyner 9 September 2009 at 13:14

The talent level is undoubtedly better in the NFL. (I’d argue that some of the major football factories have deeper talent than the CFL but it’s debatable.) The college game has tradition and pageantry, though, that help compensate. And because there’s no playoff, every week matters in a way that’s just not the case in the NFL.

3 Steven Taylor 9 September 2009 at 18:48

While I agree that the UT-ULM matchup is a joke, I will point out that ULM is, at least, a IA school.

4 James Joyner 10 September 2009 at 08:20

Indeed, ULM beat Alabama during the late-season collapse in 2007. Still, ULM was clearly scheduled by both schools as a patsy.

5 Trumwill 10 September 2009 at 23:15

I like promotion/relegation in theory, but it turns its back on the history of the conferences and ignores that conferences are all-sport. One school may have a lousy football team but a great basketball program or vice-versa. Do you promote/relegate based on football or only for football? Also, by doing it every season you create scheduling nightmares. Something like that is a lot more possible in a league where schedules are planned out centrally. Too many moving parts in the NCAA.

Who cares if they’re not the best in their game? I care a lot more about how entertaining the games are. Spread offenses, which depend on shallower defensive talent, are exciting! Heck, fumbles are exciting!

6 James Joyner 11 September 2009 at 07:11

Conferences have actually been rather unstable. Look at the Big East and ACC, which have been almost completely revamped in recent years. The SWC and WAC, two mainstay conferences when I was coming up, went poof. Arkansas and South Carolina joined the SEC only in 1992 and Tulane was part of SEC as recently as 1962.

And lots of schools are in one conference for football and another for basketball. Why should Duke get to play in an elite football conference just because it has a great basketball team?

Presumably, the scheduling thing is fixable, too. If, say, Vanderbilt gets booted from the SEC and replaced by, say, Louisiana Tech, then LaTech just takes Vandy’s spot in the schedule.

College can be quite exciting because of the innovation and enthusiasm. But it’s not exciting when some patsy is being whooped 72-3 and the seniors get pulled before halftime.

7 Trumwill 11 September 2009 at 12:19

The eight Big Eight teams in the Big Twelve have been playing one another since 1958, the other four have been playing one another since… 1958. A lot of MWC teams have been conference-mates since the 60′s. And the Big Ten and eight of the Pac Ten teams for much longer. Yeah, there have been some alterations, but conference membership is not something taken lightly and I’m not sure that it should be changed simply based on recent performance.

If LaTech takes Vanderbilt’s spot, then Tennessee is left playing its big pre-Thanksgiving game against… Louisiana Tech. It’s not hard to see why they would object to that. It’s unlikely (and not unreasonable) that they would object to not getting to play their big in-state rival. At the very least they might want to play one another in an OOC game (a la South Carolina and Clemson), but that would be hard to do with their other commitments. College football scheduling is meticulous. Popping teams in and out of the schedule doesn’t work well for it.

I’m with you on the 72-3 games… to a point. If there were some rule you could put in place to make all OOC games (except one, in cases of OOC rivals that are down on their luck or doing exceptionally well) take place against teams of a similar stature, I’d probably be supportive of that. The devil would be in the details (I would prefer it if the “classes” were based on five year blocks rather than season-by-season, for instance), but that would be workable and could greatly improve the game.

Your plan just goes too far for my tastes. I like teams being a part of a club where teams develop annual rivalries that aren’t chucked when they become temporarily lopsided. And I like that the football teams my alma mater plays are the same as the basketball teams and vice-versa. Or rather, I’m lookwarm to making these associations transient*, at least not for the big sports**.

* – Having schools with no football team play other sports in a conference is no problem since not every school offers every sport, though I think that Notre Dame should fish or cut bait with the Big East. I don’t like “partial memberships” except where it can’t be avoided (typically in the lower levels for football, where a lot of schools don’t have teams).

** – Having separate hockey, track, soccer, and other lower-profile sport conferences would probably make sense (and for hockey they do, I believe). But the Big Four (FB, MBB, WBB, and baseball) gives schools an opportunity to develop rivalries not just against individual teams, but against schools.

8 James Joyner 11 September 2009 at 12:56

The problem is that Tennessee is 69-27-5 overall in the series, with Vandy which is pretty doggone lopsided. Indeed, Vandy goes decades in between wins sometimes.

There’s otherwise something to be said for in-state non-conference rivalries like SC-Clemson, Florida-Miami, Georgia-GT, and the like. I suppose teams could be allowed to factor in one “rivalry” game that gets played every year regardless of conference or within-conference division.

9 Trumwill 11 September 2009 at 13:11

Here’s how I would seek to address the mismatch problem:

1. No I-A/I-AA games. Or to the extent that you allow them, make them risky. Any team that plays a I-AA team must win nine games (excluding the I-AA victory, which wouldn’t count).

2. All I-A teams must play 50% of their OOC games at home. One of the big advantages of scheduling lesser teams is that you can get extra home games. If you force Texas to go to Monroe every time ULM goes to Austin, you change the incentives. Less ticket sales and less hometown interest.

3. Neutral games are determined “home” by whichever team is closer to the neutral site provided that (a) it’s within a certain number of miles, say 500 and (b) it’s not roughly half-way between the two (if the distance split is, say, closer than 60/40%).

This wouldn’t get rid of all of the mismatches, but it would change the calculations. Even if Michigan schedules Western Michigan where they can make the drive and swamp the local fan-base, WM’s stadium only holds 30k or so. There would be a minor loophole for schools that are within close proximity to a huge stadium that they could use (say UCLA at San Jose State), but there are only so many of those situations to go around.

National rankings would still be an incentive, but I believe would become less of one. Cut down on a lot of the mismatches and those that choose to continue to engage in it will be more conspicuous as it becomes less commonplace. Right now, when every team plays at least two creampuffs, it’s harder to hold it against them. It’s easier when UCLA chooses to play San Jose State, but Florida played South Florida. It would be a more balanced situation.

And possibly add #4: Make schedule strength a much more important component of the BCS tabulations. I’m a little hesitant on that one because it puts non-BCS schools at a huge disadvantage when it comes to playing in a BCS game. Utah would love to schedule more Pac 10 teams, but just don’t have the opportunity. A lighter alternative to this would be to weigh the schedule strength more heavily on OOC games. Not entirely sure how this would work, though.

10 superdestroyer 13 September 2009 at 15:43

Do you really want to turn college football into European soccer. The teams at the bottom of their conference would have zero ability to recruit. Also, the players are mobile. If a team falls out of the SEC, most of the players would look to transfer instead of playing in the second league.

The benefit of the current system is that it is better to start at South Florida instead of play second string at Florida or Miami. Under your proposal, it would be better to be second string at Florida.

Here is way to do it. I-AA games should not be considered for ranking purposes and games against teams from conferences not in the BCS should not be counted. If Penn State wants to schedule four games against Mid-American Conference or the Sun Belt for the easy wins.

Another solution would be to require all conference to play nine conference games now that they are all playing 12 games.

If Penn State

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