Rethinking Division I Football: Making A Three Tiered System

As we get closer to the time where 4 of the Power 5 TV contracts are up for renegotiation, fans, media, and you can bet your behind the scenes athletic directors around college football are figuring out their potential next moves.

Due to COVID-19, these talks have been accelerated.

What will happen in fall 2020 will be a unique football season and moving forward this might be the catalyst for major change. However, when people discuss this, they usually only consider taking the status quo as currently constructed and shuffling it around a little.

Power 5 conferences invite schools from either another P5 or Group of 5, and then schools down the line fill in holes as such. You might get an FCS team mentioned, but significant moves from FCS to FBS in droves are not the norm. I think the biggest reason is the transition time it takes to get from 63 full scholarships for most FCS programs to 85 full scholarships in the FBS.

So, how do we organize these programs in a way that is enticing for them, without breaking the proverbial bank while also creating a potentially better G5 product overall as well?

For me, the answer is simple: there should be a new tier in college football that is comprised of the bulk of many current G5 schools and top FCS schools that could make the jump.

I would have this tier having their own playoff and champion.

But the main difference would be having their scholarship requirement for football be 73-75 instead of the 85 required currently by the FBS. This would not only ease the burden on some current G5 programs that are not in great places financially, but would also make it easier for elite FCS programs to make the jump and still compete for a championship.

Playoffs and Bowls

When you discuss moving up to FBS with many FCS fans, their main hold up is that they have zero shot at winning a national championship.

Many people speculate that even with an expanded FBS college football playoff to 8 teams with the highest ranked G5 getting an automatic qualifier, the 7th or 8th ranked team from a Power 5 conference would raise hell if 15th ranked Appalachian State found its way into the playoff.

We will have occasional G5 teams in the top 10 going into the decision making hour like UCF, Houston, or Boise State of recent memory, but it is more of an exception than the norm.

What would these formats look like? I’ll break them down based off of the number of conferences I have in my scenarios.

FBS “Power 5”

  • 5 conference champions with 3 at large bids or 6 conference champions with 2 at large bids
    • Quarterfinals played at the site of highest ranked teams according to college football playoff committee
    • Semifinals played at designated New Year’s 6 Bowl games
    • Final standalone game at neutral site

FBS “Group of 5” (not run by NCAA)

  • 5 conference champions with 7 at large bids or 7 conference champions with 5 at large bids
    • 1st round byes to top 4 seeds as designated by the playoff committee
      • 1st round games played at higher ranked teams stadiums based on playoff committee rankings
    • Quarterfinals played at top 4 seeds stadiums
    • Semifinals played at 2 designated bowl games
    • Final standalone game at neutral site

FCS

  • 11 current conferences that send conference champions to playoff do so as usual. Cut number of at large bids to either 5 or 9.
    • With 5 at large, top 8 teams voted by playoff committee host
    • With 9 at large, 4 play in games with the winner of each game facing a top 4 seed in round of 16
    • Semifinals at neutral sites?
    • Final standalone game at neutral site

The biggest problem for many schools, especially those in the G5, is that unless they have other worldly seasons, they have zero chance to compete for the national championship, let alone a major bowl game.

With my scenario for two separate championships, I think that would create more drama during the regular season, especially competing for at-large playoff berths.

Furthermore, you’d have meaningful games in December like the FCS playoff currently does. Players will also have one or two opportunities to play on campus again, and destination opportunities as well. You’re not going to get many players opting out for draft reasons if there’s a legitimate shot at a national title. 

What the biggest selling point is though, is money and advertising.

Bowl games are cash cows for the sponsors, corporations, and those people that run them. Other than that, they’re pretty underwhelming when it comes to viewership and attendance. Heck, the Celebration Bowl between the SWAC and MEAC champions, and the FCS Championship Game OFTEN draw more eyes to the screen than 30-40 percent of bowl games.

For this reason, I see a slightly expanded CFB playoff as currently constructed and one completely separate for the G5 schools would be a much better television product.

As much as I don’t think corporations should be making more money off of the free labor than they already do, I think the bigger picture is that players would also love this opportunity. You should get a lot more fan interest, especially if you have the opportunity to host one more home game on campus.

I can hear the biggest complaint right now, and it is certainly, “well what about bowl games?” I incorporated them into the G5 playoffs for a reason. The NCAA doesn’t have any control over who goes to what bowl games. It’s 100 percent driven by corporate sponsors and somewhat on how your season went.

Bowl games are older than any sort of playoff and as a result they can’t be completely done away with. I also don’t think they should be. Even with 20 teams plucked from the pool of FBS teams I’d have in their respective playoffs, there would still be plenty of good teams with great fan bases to select from for these bowl games. 

And there is a final scenario I’d like to broach but could get messy. There’s nothing stopping poll voters from voting any Division 1 football team into their top 25. We have seen colleges like JMU, App State, and NDSU receive AP votes in the past as FCS schools. If there were ever the off chance that a G5 school was so good that they got an invite into the Power 5 playoff or New Year’s 6 bowl game, I’d want to give that team the choice of competing or not. It is a rare scenario, but not impossible, and I think any team that has that kind of season deserves to choose on their own. Decisions would need to be made promptly, but I think it can be done. I’m not 100 percent sold on this, but thinking of recent schools like UCF, Boise State, Houston…the option should still be out there. 

Your New Conferences

Here’s what you’re all here for, I think. What are these new conferences and divisions going to look like? For me, there are two scenarios. The Power 5 schools could bulk up and have some of the conferences swell in size. I think even in this scenario we could see some interesting realignments among the schools. There’s also the possibility that the schools of the former Big East in football come together and create a 6th conference with prominent G5 and former Big East football schools as well. Once that happens, I see trickle down from the G5 and FCS to follow, and it’s the G5 where I think you’ll see the biggest changes.

Big Conferences Scenario:

Power 5 (85 scholarships)

Key:

*=move to different conference in same division

**=move from G5 to P5

***=move from FCS to G5

ACC

ACC AthleticACC Coastal
ClemsonVirginia
LouisvilleVirginia Tech
Wake ForestMiami
Florida StateMaryland*
Boston CollegeNorth Carolina
SyracuseDuke
North Carolina StateGeorgia Tech

Maryland moves back to the ACC with a straight swap with Pitt and Notre Dame is no longer slightly affiliated with conference.

Big Ten

Big Ten EastBig Ten West
Ohio StateWisconsin
Penn StateMinnesota
MichiganIowa
IndianaIllinois
Michigan StatePurdue
Pittsburgh*Notre Dame*
RutgersNorthwestern

Pitt completes the straight swap for Maryland and Nebraska are out. Notre Dame finally joins the Big Ten. TV deals to be worked out I suppose.

SEC

SEC EastSEC West
GeorgiaLSU
FloridaAlabama
TennesseeAuburn
KentuckyTexas A&M
MissouriMississippi State
South CarolinaOle Miss
VanderbiltArkansas

No changes for SEC in big conference scenario.

Big 12

Big 12 North Big 12 South
Iowa StateTexas
KansasTexas Christian
Kansas StateTexas Tech
West VirginiaOklahoma State
Nebraska*Baylor
OklahomaMemphis**

Our first G5 promotion comes in the form of Memphis and Nebraska moves back to Big 12. Why Memphis and not Houston? I think, and many people say out loud, Texas would rather leave conference than share one with Houston again. I think it’s the perfect fit, but big time programs speak in states down south like you wouldn’t believe. Ever heard the story of how Jimbo Fisher almost became the coach at UAB until shadow games from powerful Alabama boosters clogged the pipelines? Look it up.

PAC 12

PAC 12 NorthPAC 12 South
OregonUtah
Oregon StateUSC
CalUCLA
WashingtonArizona State
Washington StateColorado
StanfordArizona
Boise State**BYU**

Boise State moving into the PAC 12 is a no brainer for me, and BYU should seriously consider this option as well. There is the Holy War to consider, after all. 

*I see no independents at this 85 scholarship threshold*

G5 (73-75 scholarships)

This is where the fun begins, and some legitimate need for conference realignment.

Mountain West

Mountain West CoastalMountain West Mountain
Fresno StateNorth Dakota State***
HawaiiMontana***
UC Davis***Colorado State
New Mexico StateWyoming
San Jose StateUtah State
San Diego StateNevada
HawaiiUNLV

Our first moves from FCS to the new tier come from two you might expect in NDSU and Montana, and a surprise for some in UC Davis. While not dripping in football pedigree, UCD is pumping a lot of money into their athletics department and has the pockets to do so. Expect them to continue to be in the playoff hunt, and perhaps jump to FBS sooner rather than later.

MAC

MAC EastMAC West
Miami (Ohio)Central Michigan
University of OhioWestern Michigan
Kent StateBall State
BuffaloNorthern Illinois
Bowling GreenToledo
AkronEastern Michigan

No changes here, and honestly some of these teams might seriously consider FCS moves. The MAC seems to produce a particularly good team once every 5 years or so, and every other year is underwhelming or very boring. 

*here comes the fun*

Sun Belt

Sun Belt Florida-GeorgiaSun Belt I-20
Florida AtlanticTroy
Florida InternationalJacksonville State***
South FloridaAlabama Birmingham
Central FloridaMiddle Tennessee State
Georgia SouthernSouth Alabama
Georgia StateSouthern Mississippi

The biggest issue with G5 conferences right now is that many of them don’t have natural rivals and are way too spread out. As a result, I completely revamped the G5 conferences focusing on natural and past rivals. Jacksonville State will make the jump for me and rekindle their heated rivalry with Troy. Most of these conference games are reasonable bus trips. It would make for great fan attendance and drum up some serious competition.

Conference USA

Conference USA EastConference USA West
Southern Methodist (SMU)Houston
Texas StateWestern Kentucky
Texas-El Paso (UTEP)Arkansas State
TulsaLouisiana Tech
North TexasTulane
Texas-San Antonio (UTSA)Louisiana
RiceLouisiana Monroe

Conference USA as currently constructed is ridiculous. Way too many games one has to fly to, and as a result, no real rivalries. I think a conference heavy in Texas and Louisiana would make for great regional rivals, and also much easier travel for fans. While Houston may gripe with this, maybe they’d feel a little better thinking year in and year out they have a legit chance to be an automatic qualifier in the G5 playoff. But their road might be tougher than they think.

AAC

AAC NorthAAC South
Delaware***James Madison***
Villanova***East Carolina
TempleOld Dominion
CincinnatiAppalachian State
MarshallUNC Charlotte
NavyCoastal Carolina

I’m not going to hide it. Out of all the conference scenarios I came up with, this one by far is my favorite and it’s not because I went to JMU. Fans of these schools live among one another in close proximity, there’s old rivalries that would be renewed, and this would be an incredibly competitive football conference. Your worst cross divisional travel scenario is Philly/Cincy to Conway. And I don’t think you’ll have a hard time convincing schools there to make a beach trip, especially later in the season. The three FCS schools moving up all have strong ties (or bad blood, whatever) with many of these schools already either from FCS days or recent smackdowns (cc: JMU vs. ECU 2017). Cincinnati, like Houston might think they’re above some of these schools. But, Ohio State will always soak up all the relevant oxygen in Ohio, so there’s no real lane for them to slide into the Big Ten. I could write about this conference for a long time, but you can bet I’d attend as many of these games as I could, whether or not my team was playing.

Independents
Liberty
UCONN
Army
New Mexico

I’ll elaborate on some of these more after my second realignment idea, but you might notice a team missing. 

Notable FCS Changes:

-The CAA loses 3 flagship football programs, and so I decided to move UMASS down to FCS back into the CAA. Look, sometimes you just have to take the pride hit. This move didn’t work for the Minutemen.

-The MVFC loses NDSU in this particular scenario, but other than that the conference remains intact. Opening for glorious days at SDSU?

-The Big Sky loses UC Davis and Montana, but they’ll be fine. They still have 3 perennially great programs, and the conference isn’t hurting for adding teams.

-The OVC loses JSU, and I think if they were desperate maybe they could snag a Central Arkansas or another school from the Southland if they wanted to. 

This is my small conference scenario, with former Big East schools resurrecting something akin to the Big East with more of a football focus.

Small Conferences Scenarios:

Power 6:

ACC

ACC AthleticACC Coastal
ClemsonVirginia
South Carolina*Virginia Tech
Wake ForestMiami
Florida StateMaryland*
Georgia TechNorth Carolina
North Carolina StateDuke

You’ll see a little more Power 5 Shake up with this scenario. Maryland returns to the ACC as does South Carolina. The Gamecocks were a founding member but left in the early 70s. This will also free up an OOC game for Clemson and South Carolina.

Big Ten

Big Ten EastBig Ten West
Ohio StateWisconsin
Penn StateMinnesota
MichiganIowa
IndianaIllinois
Michigan StatePurdue
Notre Dame*Northwestern

Rutgers, Nebraska, and Maryland all out. Notre Dame in. Again, Big Ten and the Fighting Irish have to work out that TV money.

SEC

SEC EastSEC West
GeorgiaLSU
FloridaAlabama
TennesseeAuburn
KentuckyArkansas
MissouriMississippi State
VanderbiltOle Miss

South Carolina has moved back to the ACC and Texas A&M are out as well. This could get complicated given the revenue streams the SEC generates for schools, but due to a lot of circumstances, finances may not be what these schools thought they would be.

Big 12

Big 12 North Big 12 South
Iowa StateTexas
KansasTexas Christian
Kansas StateTexas Tech
Colorado*Oklahoma State
Nebraska*Baylor
OklahomaTexas A&M*

Ah, the Big 12 as it should be. Rivalries renewed, and no weird outliers (no offense West Virginia).

PAC 12

PAC 12 NorthPAC 12 South
OregonCal
Oregon StateUSC
UtahUCLA
WashingtonArizona State
Washington StateStanford
Boise State**Arizona

I shifted their divisions around slightly, and Boise State takes the spot held by Colorado. This makes the PAC 12 a much better conference.

Eastern Athletic Conference

EAC NorthEAC South
Boston College*West Virginia*
Syracuse*Louisville*
Pitt*Navy**
Rutgers*Memphis**
Temple**UCF**
UCONN**Cincinnati**

Welcome to the new Big East? Many of these schools had prior ties to the conference. I actually do think you could get some particularly good football coming out of it as well. UCF is a bit of an outlier, but at least these locations aren’t difficult to travel to. You also renew a rivalry between WVU and Pitt that was done away with because of pesky realignment.

While I like the layout of 6 12 team conferences, I worry about the Power 5 willing to open up their doors (again) to a 6th conference that has the potential to be great, but lacks a consistent top 10-15 team over the last decade or so. 

I don’t see any independents floating around here either, although I’m sure BYU would fill their schedule with these schools if I had them as an independent. So, let’s keep moving.

Group of 7

For these conferences I took a look at what they could look like smaller. You can also have the top 2 teams still play for the title game like the Big 12 currently does. Don’t get too married to the conference names. Some of them would never actually fly.

MAC

MAC EastMAC West
Miami (Ohio)Central Michigan
University of OhioWestern Michigan
Kent StateBall State
BuffaloNorthern Illinois
Bowling GreenToledo
AkronEastern Michigan

This is the only conference in the Group of 7 with divisions, and I honestly am not sure what more I can do with the MAC. I think a legitimate case could be made for 2-3 of their schools to drop down into the MVFC, and they would be competitive. But I’m not sure pride will allow them to do so, let alone revenue from TV. 

Pacific Coast Conference

New Mexico State
Fresno State
Nevada
Hawaii
UNLV
New Mexico*
SJSU
UC Davis***
San Diego State

UC Davis is up from FCS again with New Mexico sliding into the conference as well from the independents. 

Northwest Conference

North Dakota State***
South Dakota State***
Montana***
Montana State***
Colorado State
Wyoming
Utah State
Air Force
BYU*

This would be an incredible conference with a balance of FCS powerhouses, G5 schools, and an independent in BYU that can tow the G5/P5 line better than anyone. Might take some arm twisting to get BYU on board, but Utah State, and playing a Division 1 power year in and out like NDSU could be very enticing.

Bible Belt Conference 

(remember what I said about not getting too attached to names)

Southern Mississippi
Louisiana Tech
South Alabama
Western Kentucky
Arkansas State
Louisiana 
Louisiana Monroe
Middle Tennessee State
McNeese State***

This conference isn’t perfect, but it’s better than anything the southern schools have going on right now in the G5. There wouldn’t be too much travel, and rivalries are there to be had. McNeese has the football history and pedigree to move up, but if there’s another Southland or OVC school that’s geographically amiable and better off financially, I’m not opposed.

Southwestern Conference (2.0)

Texas State
Southern Methodist (SMU)
Houston
Rice
North Texas
Texas-El Paso (UTEP)
Texas San Antonio (UTSA)
Tulsa 
Tulane

Let’s run back the Southwestern Conference! Like the SWC of old, this reincarnation would feature some of the original teams, along with being a mostly Texas based conference. Tulane and Tulsa are out of the state but are close enough to make this a worthwhile affiliation.

AAC

James Madison***
East Carolina
Old Dominion
Appalachian State
Marshall
UNC Charlotte
Villanova***
Towson***
Delaware***

I don’t like this version of the AAC as much as my previous one, but still think it’s a strong conference with a tight geographical footprint. Major add in from the previous 3 CAA schools would be Towson. 

Sun Belt

South Florida
Florida International
Florida Atlantic
Troy
Coastal Carolina
Georgia Southern
Georgia State
Jacksonville State***
Alabama Birmingham

This Sun Belt is just as tight as the last one in terms of travel but lacking in top level firepower. Losing UCF would hurt and seems inevitable.  But it would be on other members to step their games up. There’s definitely some potential here. 

Independents

Army
Liberty

I could very easily see Army slide into this version of the AAC with Navy out of the picture, in which case I would give Towson the boot, or make it a 10 team conference. But that’s not the elephant in the room here. Why doesn’t Liberty factor into conference realignment for any of these new reiterations?

In my honest opinion, it has nothing to do with their sports program. While their football team made the jump to FCS with as little FCS success as possible (save maybe ODU), they have the will and want to be a great football powerhouse. If you talk to recruits and current players, they’ll tell you that the facilities are top notch. They can buy their way into almost any conference as well. But every single football conference at the FBS level refused due to everything else going on outside the gridiron. 

If you want specifics, look elsewhere because I won’t be getting into it. That’s not the purpose of this article.  But it’s pretty easy to find. And, it has nothing to do with religion. Notre Dame and BYU are LOUD with their religious affiliations and have conferences begging them to join. Baylor, Georgetown, Boston College, Holy Cross…the list goes on and on in terms of well-known academically respected institutions with deep religious affiliations yet have awesome conference ties. Liberty is different. If the aura around the university changes soon, I can easily see them in the AAC conferences I have made, In fact, I think they would fit perfectly. I’m just not sure they’ll be able to clean up the reputation in time for the next major realignment. 

Notable FCS Changes:

-The MVFC Loses both NDSU and SDSU. I could maybe even see YSU sliding into the MAC if enough programs wanted to seriously consider where they were financially and competitively to move down. 

-The OVC has JSU plucked from its ranks but may not be out of the woods. With a lower scholarship requirement and the allure of a playoff, this second “FBS” tier might make some teams think.

-The Big Sky loses the Montana schools and UC Davis. Idaho and Cal Poly might be interested, especially since Idaho knows how FBS works, albeit in a failing effort. 

-The Southland loses out on McNeese State. Again, I think depending on how things shake out post pandemic, some of these schools could be better positions in the second tier, but this is what I see for now. A little birdie told be Abilene Christian is a sleeping giant, so we’ll see!

-The CAA has JMU, Delaware, NOVA, and Towson leaving, and UMASS dropping down back into the CAA. I would also keep a close eye on William & Mary. Yes, the nerds. They are not far from being top level contenders that long ago, and with a revamped stadium and great coaching hire, the Tribe could be a team to be considered for conference realignment in a second tier FBS system. 

-Keep an eye on Florida A&M, North Carolina A&T, and Kennesaw State if a second FBS tier were to come to fruition. The first 2 would definitely at least take a look and see what their options could be, and KSU might have enough experience under their belts to be enticing enough. The Owls would need to expand their stadium massively though.

-Overall, I think the FCS will see the cream of the crop chopped off and rise in this scenario, but I don’t think the subdivision will suffer too much. There’s still plenty of great programs out there, and perhaps this would be the time where we see a break in the Power 3 conferences we have seen in the last decade plus. 

Conclusion:

At the end of the day, this is all just fun speculation, but I like to put some logic behind mine. As I have said, there are many writers thinking seriously about what college football will look like come the next realignment. How will the pandemic effect finance at schools big and small? Are Power 5 schools finally ready to say, we’re out, but only for football? How would that even work? There’s more questions than answers to be sure. But I would like to challenge those thinking about these dilemmas to expand the realm of possibilities. Even if we don’t see a 3 tier split in Division 1, we will almost surely see some more geographically friendly conferences, especially among the G5. And if you don’t think AD’s at JMU, ODU, ECU, App. State, Temple, NOVA, and Marshall aren’t on the phone trying to see that they can work up? I’d say you’re living in a different world than we are. If COVID-19 has taught us anything in these last 5 months, it’s that you shouldn’t sit on your hands, have all of your options on the table, and plenty of contingencies.

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