For the epic “Godfather” movie saga, it was always interesting to see the heads of the Five Families work together on certain issues, even though these organized-crime “families” had separate business agendas and wildly disparate ways of handling personal vendettas.
The same analogy loosely applies to the Power 5 conferences of college athletics. How do these indomitable leagues (in terms of generating revenue, publicity, TV ratings) find unified harmony with their most important business decisions, despite having different agendas and practices along the way?
Take college football, for example: The Power 5 leagues (SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12) all bow to the greatness of the four-team College Football Playoff, even though simple math dictates one conference automatically will be excluded from the process by mid-December.
Plus, that misery might extend to two leagues, if Notre Dame runs the table or enjoys a dynamic one-loss season as a powerful “independent.” (The Irish are contractually obligated to play five ACC teams each year, but don’t officially factor in the conference standings.)
**The 10-team Big 12 has a simple round-robin model for conference play, with a clear winner (hopefully) emerging from the nine-game slate, eliminating the need for a year-ending title game. The conference executives soon could invoke major changes to this system.
**The Pac-12 supports a nine-game scheduling model, with five divisional outings and four crossovers. The North and South champions meet at season’s end to determine the conference champion.
**The SEC and ACC (both comprised of 14 football members) remain committed to an eight-game conference schedule, with six divisional outings and two crossovers. Both leagues host championship games on the first Saturday of December.
**The Big Ten, which endorsed the eight-game model from 1985-2015, will advance to a nine-game format this fall. The new movement calls for six divisional outings and three crossovers … along with a title bout at season’s end between the East and West champions.
Notice how we said “advance” and not “upgrade” when addressing the Big Ten’s scheduling change? It remains to be seen whether the mega-conference (14 teams … and counting?) will greatly benefit from the burden of adding an extra conference clash to the mix.
Sure, it may provide more insight into determining the conference’s best team. But then again, Ohio State was clearly the league’s most talented and formidable squad last year … but a bad-weather home loss to Michigan State crushed the Buckeyes’ chances of a Big Ten championship game appearance.
And even if the Big Ten had a nine-game scheduling model last season, the Spartans likely would have aced that ninth challenge, against a West crossover, thus earning a spot in the conference title game.
Nevertheless, the SEC powers-that-be should still take copious notes on the Big Ten’s permanent (but not irreversible) switch to a nine-game scheduling model.
It could be the wave of the future, especially with more game-changing money on the line.
In recent years, the NFL has toyed with the notion of upping the number of regular season outings from 16 to 18 games per team while eliminating a week or two from the boring preseason schedule.
The rationale: The league’s annual revenue pie — which already exceeds $10 billion per year — would continue to grow on the TV side, since the television partners would be paying extra for an additional two weeks of inventory.
Which begs the question: Would increasing the number of conference games per school have a similarly stellar effect on the SEC and Big Ten’s TV deals?
Check out the early word from the Big Ten’s latest round of TV negotiations:
**For Phase I of the Big Ten’s media-rights package, Fox Sports reportedly will pay up to $250 million annually for roughly 25 football games and 50 basketball games.
**Phase II then would be up for bidding among other networks (ESPN, CBS, ABC, NBC, etc.), with this potentially more attractive slate of games having the chance to fetch a substantially higher price tag than Fox’s package.
**Throw in the money earned from postseason-appearance payouts, ticket sales, merchandising and the popular Big Ten Network (carried throughout the United States), and the Big Ten’s annual revenue pie over the next six years could exceed $1.5 billion.
Back to the SEC: The idea of preserving the sanctity of an eight-game scheduling model makes sense on the football field (coaches, players, fans, pundits). However, it’s also fair to wonder if the Big Ten’s dramatic spike in reported TV revenue has been aided by the nine-game scheduling move?
THE NECESSITY FOR CUPCAKES
In 2016, college football fans will appreciate how no SEC school has a ‘bye’ in September or November (new quirk).
By extension, the SEC should also garner national praise for offering at least one conference matchup for all 13 weekends of the season.
As part of that balanced commitment …
**Ole Miss has two landmark home games against Alabama and UGA within the season’s first four Saturdays.
**Auburn will encounter Texas A&M (Sept. 17) and LSU (Sept. 24) — two national-title contenders — in the opening weeks (back-to-back Saturdays).
**LSU has Mississippi State (home) and Auburn (road) on the docket before September ends.
**South Carolina launches the Will Muschamp era/rebuilding project with back-to-back road outings (Vanderbilt and Mississippi State). No other Power 5 program can match that road challenge to open the 2016 campaign.
**All told, nine of the 14 SEC schools have at least two conference outings during September. By comparison, neither Ohio State, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue nor Illinois has a league game scheduled in the opening month. (The Big Ten wants to eradicate FCS opponents from its schedules by 2019.)
On the down side, for everything to come together in a manner which appeases SEC coaches, fans, players and the deep-pocketed TV partners, some sacrifices have to be made — scheduling the likes of Austin Peay, Prairie View, Presbyterian, Tennessee State, Tennessee Tech and UT-Chattanooga later in the season.
For the most part, it’s the only time these cannon-fodder matchups can be scheduled, given how the SEC front-loads its inventory like no other Power 5 conference.
THE TRUE HEART OF THE MATTER
Here are two inescapable truths about the College Football Playoff, relative to how the CFP committee has approached this venture after two seasons:
1. Only conference champions (or a perfect Notre Dame) shall be rewarded
Through two seasonal go-rounds, a non-champion from a Power 5 conference has never reached the four-team Playoff. In earnest, conference champions always trump non-champions with similarly stellar resumes.
As such, SEC fans shouldn’t expect Alabama or UGA to reach the Playoff in the same season. The same holds true for LSU and Tennessee … this year’s early-line favorites in the West and East divisions, respectively.
It’s all part of the built-in angst that comes with choosing four Playoff teams among five conference champions … and maybe Notre Dame on elite-level occasions.
2. Strength of schedule means very little, provided the conference champion goes undefeated
For its non-conference slate last season, Iowa knocked off the mediocre likes of Illinois State, Iowa State, Pittsburgh and North Texas.
For Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes essentially breezed through an eight-game schedule that didn’t include Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Penn State as divisional crossovers.
And if Iowa hadn’t fallen to Michigan State in the final seconds of the conference title game, the Hawkeyes — as an undefeated Big Ten champion — would have undoubtedly claimed the No. 2 seed in the Playoff, ahead of Alabama (SEC champ) and Oklahoma (Big 12 champ).
Never mind that Iowa’s talent wasn’t on par with Alabama, Oklahoma, LSU, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Stanford or maybe even North Carolina last year. And forget about how Northwestern (which lost to Tennessee 45-6 in the Outback Bowl) might have been the Hawkeyes’ second-toughest opponent during the regular season (after Michigan State).
Intelligent coaches and administrators already know that conference titles and undefeated campaigns carry far greater weight than the passing fancy/thrill of scheduling high-profile foes every few weeks.
It also presents an interesting conundrum for the SEC (reported revenues of $527.4 million in 2014):
What’s more important, legacy-wise: Deviating from a time-tested eight-game scheduling model, in search of greener pastures … or adding on to the SEC’s count of eight national championships since 2006?
Simply put, an undefeated or one-loss SEC champion will always headline the four-team Playoff. The conference has too much power and prestige to have its CFP invitation get lost in the mail.
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.