The looming departure of USC and UCLA for the Big 10 has simply become the latest domino to fall in the cash-driven realignment of college football. From the ability of larger markets to generate more NIL money (and in turn attract better players) to the undue influence of ESPN on the process of pulling strings and stuffing coffers, the money is, as always, making things happen.
Tuesday’s Sports Business Daily is riddled with articles regarding the enigma that college football has become. But it’s no Rubik’s cube. The path to solving it is paved with dollars and cents. The best conferences will attract the teams best positioned to generate more TV money, because they are best positioned to lure the best players in this new age of players being paid by alumni and boosters.
Notre Dame reportedly plans to stay independent, but the moment it believes it has no path to the playoff or the sport has boiled down to two conferences (SEC and Big 10) and everyone else, the Irish will whisk themselves away from football independence.
The Big 10 and the SEC will both continue to pick over the other conferences for the most attractive schools, and the other conferences will struggle to assemble the scraps. The Big XII, for example, is reportedly exploring a quartet of Pac-12 schools (Utah, Arizona, Arizona State, and Colorado).
It’s obvious that a tiered system will emerge. The Big 10 and SEC will have the top spots. Of the Big XII, the Pac-12, and the ACC, two could make up the second tier. The third tier will consist of whoever doesn’t land on the second tier plus another conference or two. Maybe Conference USA. Maybe the Mountain West. Then there will be a fourth tier. And a fifth. And so on.
College football isn’t dying; it’s too big to die. But the networks will do what the networks do. The rich will get richer. The monstrous field of FBS schools will whittle itself down to, as a practical matter, a finite universe of potential contenders.
Of course, that’s pretty much where it already is. For the Alabamas of the world, the risk is that some of the schools with greater indirect access to more NIL money will start getting better and better players, potentially knocking the Crimson Tide out of the green tsunami after Nick Saban moves on.
Yes, it’s chaos. As I’ve said before, it’s the chaos that college football deserves. For far too many years, the system exploited the players. The reckoning, however, arrived not through the front door in the form of paying players directly but through the back door of NIL payments. It will change everything. It already has. And it will continue, eventually wiping out any hope that one of 50 to 70 programs could catch lightning in a bottle in a given year, and ride it all the way to a national championship.
Those days are over. The only good news is that, once the Big 10 and the SEC have evolved into whatever they will be (and that surely will result in a few of the schools currently in these conferences getting kicked to the second tier or lower), there will be maybe 20 or 30 teams that reasonably could thread the needle to a championship. Which would be a lot better than having the sport controlled by a handful of teams.
Which is precisely why Saban has been whining so much about NIL. His team’s position at the top of the mountain is in the process of getting more crowded.
Although the end result will essentially disqualify plenty of teams from ever having even a slight chance of competing for a championship, it will hopefully lead to a greater sense of parity among the best programs.