Analyzing college football’s new landscape

Analyzing college football’s new landscape

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For years, college football has lacked parity.

The same teams are selected to the four-team College Football Playoff — 13 different programs playing for it all in the eight years of the system and just five reaching the title game in the past seven years.

Twice in the previous five seasons the final has been determined by SEC rivals Georgia and Alabama. The Pac-12 hasn’t been represented since 2017, and the Big 12 missed out the past two years. And it is only getting worse now that the SEC has added two of the top programs from the Big 12 — Oklahoma and Texas — and the Big Ten poached USC and UCLA out of the Pac-12, changes that for now will happen in 2025 and 2024, respectively.

“It’s the Power 2,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco told The Post, “and everyone else.”

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said college football is all about the "Power 2" and "everyone else."
American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said college football is all about the “Power 2” and “everyone else.”
AP

Aresco called USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten a “pretty big earthquake.” The aftershocks may not be over, either. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren envisions his league having 20 teams at some point in the future. There have been reports that Oregon is interested in joining the powerhouse conference. That would just leave major brands such as independent Notre Dame — along with Florida State, Miami and Clemson of the diminished ACC — outside of the super leagues, creating a clear demarcation between the haves and the have-nots.

“For all the money that is pouring into college football, which is evidenced by the new Big Ten deal, I still feel like the sport at some point is headed toward an iceberg,” Paul Finebaum, a college football analyst, historian and radio talk show host for ESPN, told The Post in a phone interview. “It simply is not sustainable what is happening, because you essentially now have two super-conferences within the structure, and you can try to argue that the rest of the sports matters. But I don’t think it really does.

“You have the Big Ten and the SEC and there is nobody else in that ecosystem.”

The Big Ten’s recent blockbuster television deal with FOX, CBS and NBC will pay up to $1.2 billion per year through 2030 and show its games in three different time slots on Saturdays. The SEC currently rakes in $300 million from ESPN, a figure that could rise once Oklahoma and Texas join.

By having two conferences clearly superior to the rest of the country — in on-field performance and revenue — college football risks further hurting its product, which already lacks balance. Attendance in the sport has dealt with a decline, seven years of dwindling numbers. According to the NCAA, the sport’s 130 teams averaged 39,848 fans per game, the fewest since 1981. Though part of this can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, this is a concerning trend.

regular participants in the College Football Playoff, and the SEC and Big Ten (insets) are now the clear power conferences in the sport.
Nick Saban’s Alabama teams have been regular participants in the College Football Playoff, and the SEC and Big Ten (insets) are now the clear power conferences in the sport.
AP (3)

“This is probably the most critical time we’ve had in decades,” Aresco said. “That kind of consolidation [with two power leagues] really risks having the rest of the country being irrelevant. That’s what you can’t have. In the end, there will be less interest.”

One possible solution could be an expanded playoff system that has been talked about for years, if the powers-that-be can get on the same page. The current system runs through 2025. In June 2021, a playoff working group recommended expansion to 12 teams that would include the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams determined by the selection committee’s rankings.

But the playoff’s management committee, made up of the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, failed to come up with a unanimous agreement, and the plan was tabled. At a July meeting, there was renewed optimism of an agreement on expansion, perhaps spurred on by the Big Ten’s recent additions. However, it is uncertain if the new format — provided one can be agreed upon in the near future — would be able to be implemented immediately.

“I don’t think college football can wait until 2026 to have an expanded playoff for the reason we are watching play out every day in the media,” Finebaum said. “It’s a shrinking sport. Look at the ACC right now. This was until not long ago considered one of the top football conferences around. Now they’re at an extreme disadvantage.”

Automatic qualifiers could be a sticking point. The Big Ten and SEC obviously don’t need them. The other leagues certainly would like them, if nothing more than as a selling point to recruits that they can still reach the sport’s biggest stage without playing in one of the two super leagues. Otherwise, the likes of the Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and AAC risk fighting an uphill battle on a steep incline.

“This is why Mike Aresco is banging the table. You have to have some automatic qualifiers,” former Washington and UCLA coach and SiriusXM college football analyst Rick Neuheisel said. “You can’t have [conference champions] being judged against the fourth- and fifth-place teams in the super two conferences. You have to have some automatic qualifiers just like we do in the basketball tournament.”

It is clearly a seminal moment in the sport. Super leagues are being created, and more movement may be on the way. Big money is being poured in, as Name, Image and Likeness deals have shown no signs of slowing down. The transfer portal, and the new rule that allows players to switch schools once without sitting out a year, have created even more chaos. The money and top players could all be funneled to two leagues that own almost all of the top brands.

“It’s all driven by television, and it’s all driven by ESPN and FOX, and essentially that’s the battle line,” Finebaum said. “This is no longer about college sports. This is more like something you would see on Wall Street, a battle between Pepsi and Coke or Miller and Budweiser. That’s where we are right now. It’s an unbelievably strange place. I’ve covered college football for 40 years and I’ve never seen it like this.”

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