In a three-part series covering Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week, SEC Country will explore the feasibility aspects of Fox Sports writer Stewart Mandel’s ambitious and, dare we say, crazy, vision for college football — 10 years from now.
Mandel’s extravagant piece is a radical departure from SEC Country’s outside-the-box stab (from last December) at projecting the SEC’s 14 head coaches for the 2025 season. The one common thread: Both stories fully acknowledge that substantial changes are on the horizon for the nation’s premier conference.
Part II: For today, we’ll tackle the highly sensitive topic of contraction.
QUICK HISTORY LESSON
“Contraction” may be a four-letter word in the major sports landscape, but the notion is not necessarily unheard of, either.
In 1978, the NHL’s Cleveland Barons (formerly the California Golden Seals) and Minnesota North Stars (currently the Dallas Stars) merged into one entity (North Stars).
In 2002, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig attempted to remove two clubs from the MLB masthead — the Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos — thinking it would benefit the sport’s ever-changing economics. (Spoiler alert: The commish’s plan quickly became an epic fail.)
And over the last 40 years, a number of NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL franchises have relocated to other American/Canadian markets, in search of better days and greener pastures.
Yes, the prospect of contraction has its (awkward) place in pro sports; but it’s a little different on the college side.
Outside of the Big East booting Temple over a decade ago, it’s hard to think of a major conference dumping a member school from competition in every sport.
Even Mid-American Conference member Eastern Michigan (perhaps the worst Division I/FBS football program of the last 25 years) quickly debunked the recent whispers of abandoning its MAC roots and dropping into the FCS level of competition.
This anti-contraction stance rings especially true with the Big Ten and SEC.
The Big Ten has lost only one member in the last 80 years (University of Chicago in 1946), and the SEC has incurred only three defections in that same span (Sewanee: The University of the South, Georgia Tech, Tulane).
And all this occurred before college sports’ absurd economic boom (1980s/1990s) … along with America, in general, becoming a litigious nation (more on that later).
FOOTBALL ISN’T FUTBOL
In his expansion vs. contraction column, Mandel takes a page out of the Champions League soccer playbook to “winnow down” the Power 5 conferences’ 67 schools (including Notre Dame, part-time ACC member) into one mega-conference of 24 national programs.
Mandel’s criteria for determining the 24 teams (four divisions of six), in advance of the 2026 college season, goes like this:
• All 24 have either won or played for a national title, or at the very least appeared in a BCS bowl, since that system began in 1998.
• Nineteen ranked among the 24 biggest national fan bases in a 2011 study by statistician Nate Silver.
• All but three ranked among the top 24 nationally in average attendance last season.
• All of ESPN’s top 15 markets for college football broadcasts last season, as well as 12 of the nation’s 20 largest TV markets, are represented.
And for the revamped playoff system, Mandel offers three futuristic directives:
• Each team plays five games against its divisional foes, six games against other divisions (two teams from each, predetermined like in the NFL) and one game against whoever it wants from any level, be it an old rival that didn’t make the cut for this list or an FCS body-bag foe.
• The top two teams in each division make the playoff. No committee or BCS formula needed. You could also easily expand the playoff to 12, with the champion of each division getting a first-round bye.
• And just like in pro sports leagues, the Confederation, not the individual conferences/divisions, holds the TV rights for every regular-season and playoff game between any of these teams.
Of the fortunate Double Dozen, Mandel has six Big Ten schools (Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin) and eight SEC institutions (Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, UGA, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida, Arkansas) dominating the composition of three divisions (East, South, Midwest — none in the West).
Conversely, it means that 14 combined schools from the Big Ten and SEC would be lawyering up big-time to prevent this hypothetical breakup from occurring.
Therein lies the inherent difficulty of Mandel’s outlandish proposal: In broad terms, there isn’t much legal precedent for collegiate conferences making drastic cuts on the membership level (especially with those in great standing); and given how the Big Ten and SEC — the most prolific revenue-generating leagues — have so much on the line, in terms of maintaining college football’s public trust, it’s implausible to imagine either conference firing off the first radical-reconstruction salvo.
As Exhibit A to that, let’s hearken back to the 2003 Rose Bowl, pitting Washington State (Pac-10 co-champs) and Oklahoma (Big 12):
After the 2002 regular season, the Orange Bowl representatives stealthily used their Bowl Championship Series wild-card picks on Southern California (Pete Carroll‘s first great team) and Iowa (co-Big Ten champs with eventual national champion Ohio State), thus angering the Rose Bowl committee … which, during the BCS era, almost always had a Big Ten vs. Pac-10 matchup in non-championship situations.
A year later, the politically conscious BCS committee streamlined its process for filling out bowl lineups, mandating that Big Ten and Pac-10 programs would get Rose Bowl-bound preferential treatment in non-championship settings. The move was heartily endorsed by the Big Ten and Pac-10, demonstrating the conference’s collective power and prestige … under the guises of “tradition” and “stability.”
Fast forward 10 years from now: What would be the Big Ten’s motivation for breaking up a 14- or 16-team conference which reigns supreme with history, academics, sports, research and, of course, money (donations, endowments, revenues, etc.)?
The same goes for the vaunted SEC, the undisputed kings of college football (eight national champions since 2006).
By extension, why would the other Power 5 leagues, or any emerging Group of Five power, ever consider this form of radical reconstruction … if the Big Ten and SEC weren’t in lock-step support of the move?
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.