The past week has been a roller coaster ride for college football fans. While the case trends on a national level have long been pointing toward major difficulties with a multitude of things, from school options to a return to work, we actually got some good news on the college football front earl on in the week.
On Wednesday, the Big Ten released its revised schedule for the 2020 season. After announcing the conference would only be playing league games for the year, any season at all came into question as lower level conferences and programs across the nation postponed or outright cancelled their years. That includes the likes of the junior college ranks, the FCS, the Ivy League and the University of Connecticut among others. Getting a season of some sort was not to be taken for granted heading into the week.
A day after getting a schedule, Iowa fans got more encouraging news. On Thursday, athletic director Gary Barta announced the University of Iowa would not only be playing five home games this year, they’d be doing so in front of as many is 15,000 fans inside Kinnick Stadium. Setting aside any opinions a fan might have about the risks involved, the fact that the AD felt it was an option in light of programs moving their seasons altogether should at least give fans hope a season is coming.
Then came the growing reports over the weekend that the Big Ten, despite its released schedule, is looking very hard at moving the season to the spring. No such moves have been made to-date, but the conference did announce on Saturday, four weeks ahead of Iowa’s first matchup of the year with Maryland (who saw three players, including their starting QB and TE, opt out of the season last week), that schools would remain limited to practicing in helmets only until further notice. Then, on Sunday evening, reports surfaced that all of the Power 5 conferences were looking at pushing the season to the spring.
News: Power 5 commissioners held an emergency meeting today to discuss football and the fall sports season, sources tell ESPN. Large majority of #B1G presidents likely would vote to postpone season.— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) August 9, 2020
Story from @CFBHeather, @Mark_Schlabach and me:https://t.co/LlsKli4et4
It was another dip and curve on the roller coaster ride of last week. It was also likely foreshadowing of the many twists, turns and loops college football fans will find themselves on throughout the fall.
What’s become clear through all the turmoil and question marks is that nothing is unchangeable and nothing is a sacred cow. Whether it be in corporate America or big time college sports, we are seeing things nobody thought possible occur and realizing that all options should be on the table. That mentality may be driven by a global pandemic, but it shouldn’t go away when case counts fall.
With each passing day, it becomes more and more clear there is a major difference between the Power 5 conferences in college football and everyone else. It was obvious before, but the idea of some sort of split between the groups of conferences was rather far-fetched. The Power 5 depends on mid-major and FCS programs to bolster their W/L record in their quest for bow eligibility and pecking order. The lower tier programs depend on the guaranteed payday to make ends meet for their athletic departments and feed on potential profile boost a win could provide.
Less than a month from kickoff, we’re seeing that may not be a true necessity. With teams, conferences and entire NCAA divisions moving or cancelling fall football seasons, it’s becoming abundantly clear the Power 5 could survive without the rest. Not all the rest could survive without those P5 paydays, but they’re certainly learning to be creative in closing that financial gap in today’s environment.
For the big conferences, the key takeaway in terms of scheduling smaller schools is that it only needs to be done in a perverse game theory sense. If every major conference agreed to stop playing games against FCS opponents, the TV product would be much better for fans. Not only that, the conferences could negotiate more lucrative TV contracts with the promise of more big time matchups. Those same matchups would sell more tickets for the individual schools, draw in more fans and further boost the local economies with those fans for more Saturdays.
The downside of fewer locked in wins at the outset of the season is negated if every team at the same level is in the same boat. If the Power 5 came together to require all matchups be played within the Power 5 or, at minimum, limit matchups to FBS opponents, there would be no race to pad the win column with lower tier opponents. To the contrary, if postseason pecking order shifted to value quality over quantity in wins, as the playoff format is designed to do, the math would shift for scheduling.
The Power 5, in the vacuum created with all the postponed and cancelled sports, has the leverage now to command more dollars for TV programming. That gets magnified if the matchups are all between big time programs.
With the lost revenue from March Madness in 2020 and the potential lost revenue from fewer games, fewer fans or no season at all, every program in the country is going to need the potentially higher TV revenue a scheduling change could bring. And with NIL rules shifting, players will soon have a vested interest in earning that higher revenue. You won’t find a single one who would rather play a warm up game against an FCS opponent in week one than another matchup with a Big 12 or Pac 12 or SEC or ACC opponent. Especially if they are sharing in the added dollars. Not one.
The adjusted schedule in 2020 shows us anything is possible when it needs to be possible. That need isn’t going away at the end of this season. The Power 5 needs to use the current catalyst to make a step shift in scheduling practices. Every P5 program should be playing 10 conference games a year. None should be playing matchups with FCS opponents. And none should be playing more than one matchup against a non-power 5 program.
Those are major changes. They require a shuffling of conference alignments. The Big 12 only has ten teams, meaning they would be unable to play ten conference matchups without adding a pair of teams from lower ranks. But the pros far outweigh the cons.
The time is now, when the wheels of change have been propelled into motion by the current situation.