How a 12-team College Football Playoff may help stop realignment
Earlier this week Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark was, again, open about his interest in expanding his conference.
“Obviously going out west is where I would like to go,” Yormark said during a visit to future Big 12 member Cincinnati. “... A program that has national recognition. One that competes at the highest level in basketball and football.”
In other words, pretty much all of the Pac-12, which Yormark has been boldly targeting since USC and UCLA jumped to the Big Ten in late June, restarting the conference realignment speculation.
The thing is, Yormark’s comments — or the probability of them coming to fruition — were a lot stronger last week than they are this week. This time, they were mostly brushed aside as wishful bluster.
The decision last Friday to expand the College Football Playoff to 12 teams, including six spots reserved for the top six conference champions, will change how the game is played, let alone how its champion is crowned.
It will also, almost everyone in college athletics hopes, tamp down on additional realignment.
“I think we need a break,” one major athletic director stated. “We need some calm.”
Nothing would adversely impact interest more than football being controlled by just two or three super conferences while entire schools, fan bases and leagues are left by the wayside. Balance is preferable. It’s part of why a 12-team playoff is coming.
Let’s use the University of Oregon as an example. Certainly, Yormark would jump at the chance to add the Ducks. However, what is Oregon’s incentive to leave the Pac-12?
If it were the Big Ten, who can offer maybe $30 million to $40 million or more in annual revenue, calls, then yes, Oregon is gone. The school is actively trying to lobby its way into that league. However, if the Big Ten doesn’t want Oregon (more on that later), then staying in the Pac-12 is far more appealing this week due to the league’s almost certain automatic bid to the playoff.
The Big 12 can offer only the promise of stability and perhaps more media rights value, although that will be limited. Maybe there's a few more million to be had, but with an automatic playoff bid available for the taking, the dynamics change.
Oregon is arguably the best situated football program to win the Pac-12. It has won six of the past 13 conference titles, including two of the past three (it lost to Utah in the title game last season). With USC gone, the path to league dominance is a little clearer.
This is true of the whole league now. There will soon be a viable path to the playoff — something no Pac-12 school has qualified for since 2016. Why crowd into a 20-22 team league in a merger when you can stay and compete against just nine other schools?
The challenge for Oregon, or anyone else, is no longer to build its program up to top-four national status (the extremely high standard to get in now). It’s to capture regional supremacy. Then once in the playoff, go see what happens. The Pac-12 under the future playoff plan offers a tremendous situation that only Big Ten or SEC riches could top.
So why would anyone listen to Yormark? And, vice versa, why would any Big 12 team — where the competitive balance will quickly flatten once Oklahoma and Texas leave for the SEC — want to jump to the Pac-12 or anywhere else?
Perhaps, for once, everything won’t be about the promise of a little more media revenue. (A lot more, we get.) Winning brings its own riches, too, in the form of ticket and merch sales, donations, sponsorships and so on.
It’s also fun. Big games, league titles, playoff bids and so on will deliver excitement, recruits, publicity and general student body applications. Put it this way: Would you rather be an Oregon fan right now or a UCLA fan? The Bruins will get rich, but who cheers for the bottom line?
Oregon’s biggest concern after USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 was that its future home was still big-time enough to lure prized recruits from across the country, such as 2023 five-star quarterback Dante Moore of Detroit.
Well, Moore and his future teammates are going to have a better chance at the coveted postseason at Oregon than almost anywhere else. Conference affiliation isn’t a weakness anymore, it can be marketed into a strength. It's the same for the other non-Big Ten/SEC leagues, including the Sun Belt or the Mountain West or the American.
There is also a flip side to this. Talk to athletic directors at middle-tier Big Ten and SEC programs and the expanded playoff is exciting because it offers a better chance at breaking through. A school such as Ole Miss has never threatened to reach the four-team playoff — it would have to get past Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and others. In a 12-team playoff, it would have made it twice since 2014 and hosted a first-round game last season.
Meanwhile Wisconsin, who also never made the four-team postseason, would have reached the playoff three times since 2014, hosting each time. Penn State would go from zero appearances to four. Michigan State from one to three.
If you are a school such as that — on the verge of postseason opportunity — what motivation is there to bring in more schools that might get in the way? Ohio State might not fear the addition of an Oregon, but to everyone else it's one more hurdle to clear.
Could the 12-team playoff stop the relentless wheels of realignment and the slow push toward two super leagues?
Not on its own. Money will always talk loudest. Opportunity, however, has its own appeals too.
Which is why the chance for a period of stability is much greater now that a real playoff, with real competitive balance, is coming.