There is a large segment of the American population (and anyone who pays attention to American sports) that believes the college game is superior to the professional leagues because the players aren't playing for money, but rather for love of the game. The fact of the matter is that there is just as much of a monetary power play in college sports (specifically college football) as there is in any professional sports league. Money is a fact of life in the world of sports, which in itself isn't inherently bad, but as time goes on the game itself becomes more about income than about actual players and the game. Things such as expedited and geographically obscure conference realignment, as well as the College Football Playoff as a whole, has commenced the crumbling of the structure of college football as we know it.
The topic of expansion and realignment is something that many people are sick of hearing about. Unfortunately for them, it is something that will not be going away any time soon, as we certainly have not seen the last of it. It is an interesting topic of conversation, who goes where and for what reasons, but many teams are left behind and suffer because of realignment. The simple explanation for why schools move conferences is because of money, it's as simple as that. Moving to a bigger conference gives a team more opportunities for income and exposure, which itself leads to more income. Take a look at the SEC, for example.
When the Big 12 conference was facing a potential disastrous collapse, Missouri and Texas A&M left behind their long-standing rivalries in that conference and made their way to the SEC. Had those two schools stayed in the Big 12, that conference may not have gone through a great deal of the turmoil it has experienced in the past couple of years (granted, some would have been unavoidable). By jumping ship to the SEC, these programs are now perceived as elite places to play, solely because of the supposed greatness of the conference. Better recruiting, more time on TV, all the money being pumped into the SEC Network by ESPN, etc.; why would a program not want that?
One potential reason why is the rivalries and traditions that were abandoned. Missouri and Kansas have a rivalry which dates well before the advent of collegiate sports, back to the days of the Civil War and even earlier. It was a blood feud that has been put to an indefinite halt. One team is clearly superior to the other, but that does not take away from how meaningful a rivalry is. Texas and Texas A&M have been in-state rivals since the late 19th century. But a variety of actions by Texas, specifically the creation of the Longhorn Network, spurred on the demise of the former Big 12, and the Aggies were not willing to stick around. A&M moved on to the SEC, leaving the Big 12 in a state of flux which it hasn't truly been able to escape since.
The Big 12 is a prime example of the negative ramifications of conference realignment. While their basketball is great, football is the prime factor in the changing of conferences in the world of college sports today. It is a good football conference too, but it doesn't have a big stereotype like some of the other major conferences do. The SEC is thought of to be the best of the best, with the best recruits and strongest coaches. The Big 10 has all of their history and academic prowess. The Pac-12 is an offensive powerhouse conference. The Big 12? Just the teams in the heartland of the United States, now with the perception of just being a random mix of states plus a bunch of Texas schools.
It's assumed that the conference will need to expand from its current format with 10 teams, otherwise they will be missing out on a conference championship game and a clear route to the College Football Playoff (in other words, they will be missing out on more money). But the rapid and expedited expansion of conferences such as the SEC, ACC and Big 10 has limited the potential options to fill out the remaining possible spots in the Big 12. If the conference cannot add legitimate teams, will it fold? Will the Longhorn Network force the other teams in the conference to leave, regardless of expansion? If that's the case, then where do they go? Oklahoma has long been rumored as a future member of the Pac-12, but they are tied to Oklahoma State; would they be wanted to? Where does a team like Kansas go? A poor football program with a great basketball team and academics that are perceived as decent at the very least. Do they fit in with the Big 10? There are way more questions than answers at this point, and further conference realignment and shifting of income and assets will only further the troubles for the Big 12.
The Big 12 is certainly not the only conference facing issues. The ACC is generally thought of as the weakest of the Power Five conferences, so will they add even more teams to their conference? The American Athletic Conference is essentially a group of major programs that don't quite fit in with any of the P5 conferences. As other leagues look to expand, how many of the schools will be poached away? And what of the Group of Five conferences? The small schools that fans have been clamoring for to get some respect for over a decade now, what happens to them? Will programs like Boise State try to move into major conferences, or will they remain a "mid-major" for years to come? Whatever the case may be, the fact is that conference realignment has reshaped the landscape of college football, not necessarily in a positive way for the greater good, and it will only continue to happen. Rivalry, history and tradition has been ignored for dreams (and frankly, the reality) of more money and even more television exposure, and concept which seems sad to fans of college football and all of the history it holds and represents, but it is a fact that the nation is going to have to get used to.
Realignment and the money grab that comes with it is not the only thing that is dragging down college football today, not by a long shot. One of the other biggest issues facing the game today, as crazy as it sounds, is the College Football Playoff. Fans have been dying for a playoff system for years and years, a tournament to decide a true National Champion in the NCAA. Unfortunately, the system that has been created and instituted this year is not a great system at all. This system allows biases to shine through more than ever, kills a great deal of tradition and also hurts smaller programs more than ever before. With all of this in mind, what is so special about having a playoff in college football?
It should be brought up, before anything else, that in NCAA Division I FCS (formerly Division I-AA), there already is a playoff tournament to crown a true champion. Every year, there is a bracket, seeding for each team and everything, eventually concluding in a National Championship Game. This can easily make a fan wonder why the major programs can't have a championship tournament while the second level of Division I can. The answer is simple, if not also disappointing: the biggest programs and conferences have less direct control over their fate and there is likely less money to be earned.
When it comes to the new College Football Playoff itself, there are four teams in the playoff, each one being hand-selected and seeded by a committee which was appointed prior to the season. Whether or not you agree with who was selected in 2014 for the first playoff doesn't make a huge difference in itself at this point, because the problem is more about how the teams are chosen than which teams are chosen.
The committee tried their hardest (at least in public) to show that they would leave bias out of their decisions for the playoff, even leaving a rack of hats in their meeting room as a symbol of hanging up their biases. While it was an interesting attempt, it is very clear that bias shined through throughout the process. The first major problem with the committee was the fact that every week, it was clear that biases were holding some teams back while propelling others. Was it fair to have Florida State, a team which at times struggled yet still finished as the only undefeated team in FBS, ranked third in the final poll, and as low as four, despite never losing? You have to wonder how much an undefeated record actually means if you don't play in what is commonly thought of as the best football conference.
All the while, a team like Alabama suffered their one loss to a team in Ole Miss that proved as the season went on that they were not an elite team by any stretch of the imagination. Alabama still got to jump in the rankings at stayed at the top all season long. Oregon also suffered one loss on the season, coming against Arizona, a team often considered better than Ole Miss. However, Oregon was kept below Alabama in the rankings. Despite suffering a supposed better loss, why did Oregon not get to jump Alabama? If you aren't in the meeting room for the selection committee, you can't know exactly what the thought process was, but it seems evident to outsiders that there was a strong SEC bias amongst the committee.
The Big 12 and their realignment and small conference size once again contributed to major issues faced by the conference. For the latter half of the season, the debate raged over who should make the playoff from the conference: TCU, one of the strongest teams in the nation all season long, or Baylor, another one loss school that actually edged out TCU. In the end, it proved to be a moot argument, as neither team made it to the inaugural College Football Playoff, with a lack of a conference title game being considered the main reason why. Again, more questions need to be asked, chief amongst them: why would one game make a difference? A bias towards teams with a conference championship game seems strange at first glance, but it is clearly existent.
Bias doesn't just affect major conferences though, as smaller programs are also now at a severe disadvantage, much more so than before. There are numerous examples of this throughout the season. For example, Colorado State, as of the Week 13 College Football Playoff rankings, was a 9-1 team with a high-powered offense, with their only loss coming on the road to a good Boise State team. The Minnesota Golden Gophers, one week prior (Week 12), had been ranked #25 with a 7-2 record. They then lost before the release of the Week 13 rankings, yet remained in the #25 spot. This seems like an evident bias towards power conference schools, even with a G5 conference school having a great season. It's hard to say that there isn't a systematic disadvantage being faced by the G5 schools.
Another more direct example of this bias is how Marshall was kept out of the rankings until the Week 14 rankings, when they were 11-0. No matter what conference you are in and what your schedule looks like, it is hard to say that an undefeated team in the highest level of college football is undeserving of being ranked as one of the top 25 teams. It certainly did not help their case that Oliver Luck, the now-former Athletic Director for West Virginia, was a member of the selection committee. There has been a strange sort of rivalry between the Thundering Herd and the Mountaineers throughout history, and Luck has made no excuses for his negative views of Marshall during his tenure. It really seems unfortunate that an undefeated team was being kept out of the rankings for most of the season just because of their schedule and conference, especially when you consider that one of the reasons that people were clamoring for a playoff was so that smaller schools would get more recognition, respect and a shot at a title. That was clearly never going to happen under the new system this year. (It needs to be noted that both Colorado State and Marshall ended their seasons with losses).
We've already covered the biases involved in selecting the teams for the playoff, but there is a great deal more that goes into the faults of the College Football Playoff, namely the destruction of tradition that is going on with the biggest named bowl games, including the Orange, Peach, Cotton, Fiesta, Sugar and Rose Bowls, the latter of the two being the playoff games this year.
Before talking about the New Year's Six bowls, however, it needs to be said that the bowl system, as much as it benefits smaller, mediocre teams monetarily, is a sham of a postseason at this point. This season, there are 38 bowl games (this does not include the championship), the most of all time. This means that 76 teams are bowl eligible, and just 52 are not (or did not get invited to a bowl). With more than half of Division I FBS schools headed to bowl games this season, 59.4% of teams to be specific, the postseason has been diluted, doing nothing but essentially donating TV money to teams that otherwise would not be deserving of it. It is an honor for any team to go to a bowl game, but college football has reached a point where a bowl is no longer a special occasion as much as it is a fairly simple way to earn more money from TV contracts.
As for the major bowl games previously mentioned, known as the New Year's Six games, the tradition linked with those games is essentially being severed from them. Every year, the playoff games will rotate in sets of two, resetting every three years. This means that a game like the Rose Bowl, a matchup typically between a Pac-12 team and a Big 10 team, no longer has the guarantee, and in years when it is a playoff game, no longer has the grandeur that it should. It is known as "The Grand-daddy of Them All" for a reason, but the new playoff system makes it just another game. For fans of history and college football traditionalists, as well as just casual fans, this is an issue and is frankly disrespectful of the history that the Rose Bowl, as well as the other five games, has.
Under the BCS system, Oregon likely would have been going to the National Championship Game, while Arizona would be headed to their first ever Rose Bowl. Instead, Oregon is going to the Rose Bowl, which serves as just a normal game instead of one of college football's greatest institutions, while Arizona gets another very good bowl, although not the one it necessarily deserves. The new playoff system harms the tradition of the sport, something that is recognized by college football teams as one of the most important aspects of the entire game.
College football as a sport is facing even more issues than those already mentioned. Amongst these are the inconsistency from the regular season to the postseason in the College Football Playoff rankings. Fans should also be concerned about just how interconnected the game and the media are today, especially when it comes to a few specific companies. And the story of UAB should also not be forgotten, as the Blazers' football program has officially ceased to exist as of the end of this season (they were one of the teams who finished with six wins but was not invited to a bowl game). Whatever way you look at it, the game is facing a whole host of struggles in this day and age.
Some people think that college athletics are all about love of the game, unlike the love of money that seems to exist in professional leagues. However, just because players aren't getting paid for their performance does not mean that the game isn't all about money, as upsetting as it sounds. There have been many solutions to these problems, from adding more teams to the current playoff format to adjusting payment models for TV contracts. But the fact of the matter is that the game today is about cash flow, despite the wishes of the viewing audience. It is not inherently bad that money is a driving force behind college football, but when it truly affects the history of the sport and the way it is approached, it is time to reflect on the current state of the game and how much integrity still exists on the gridiron at the collegiate level.