The race to become the first and most powerful 16-team super conference seems to be on hold – at least for now. December comments from now-retired Ohio State president Gordon Gee (that only recently came to light) indicate any ceasefire is temporary.
Why, though, is 16 the magical number?
Look at the headaches already befalling conferences with 14 teams. The SEC can’t figure out what to do with cross-division games. Some stump for traditional rivalries – a la Georgia-Auburn and Tennessee-Alabama – to remain intact while others want to see a more random approach without annual matchups.
Three high-profile coaches have weighed in on the issue. Alabama coach Nick Saban wants to see traditional rivalries remain in place. LSU coach Les Miles and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier vehemently oppose that viewpoint, saying the schedules should be randomized if not balanced altogether.
It makes conferences such as the Big 12 look that much smarter with the simplicity of their scheduling approach.
How’s this for a novel idea? Everyone plays every team in the league. The team with the best record wins the league. Head-to-head results determine tiebreakers.
The real question is why can’t both sides be correct?
Having bigger major conferences, really, makes some sense in football. They expand media markets and, therefore, exposure for the schools involved. Remember: College athletics is nothing if not the greatest marketing arm of the institutions. As long as media contracts continue to increase and offset any additional travel expenses – and early indications suggest that is a given – it’s a sound business decision while also bringing in regular attention from new markets.
But let’s also eliminate the innate unfairness of cross-divisional play.
Instead of 16 teams per “super conference,” sizes of 18 or 20 teams seem to make far more sense. Get rid of non-divisional games while hosting round-robin eight- or nine-game conference schedules in each division.
That is not to say there’s no place for games such as Alabama-Tennessee or Auburn-Georgia. As Spurrier suggested last week (and my colleague Ryan Wooden wrote earlier), those contests could be played as non-conference games.
Eighteen teams might be the perfect number. It would allow conferences options of playing four non-conference games or – a more forward-thinking approach – three non-conference tilts and an additional revenue stream.
Conferences could, theoretically, get venues such as Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, the Superdome in New Orleans and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta involved in postseason cross-division matchups. Rather than simply host a conference championship game, leagues could pit teams from one division against the correspondingly ranked team from the other (e.g.: third-place team from SEC East plays third-place team from SEC West).
For now, though, power conferences continue to cast weary eyes toward one another, waiting to see who will strike next by poaching one of the big programs. All the while, they come up with contingency plans or “if-then” plans – likely in cloak-and-dagger-type situations of which conspiracy theorists can only dream.
The magic number is still 16. But unless leagues find a way to balance the scheduling issues additional teams create, don’t be surprised if 16 isn’t enough, either.