To say that, come 2024, college football will never be the same – as if that’s a bad thing – is to ignore whence it came. This sport was a mess. It’s still a mess. It will forever be a mess.
There was a time when bowl appearances depended on recency. Teams repeating as champs in certain conferences couldn’t grace certain bowls in consecutive years. The sport’s biggest name deemed itself above conferences and bowls, Notre Dame going 45 years between January excursions – until, being Notre Dame, it changed its mind. (Though not about conferences. That part stands, at least in football.)
Ties were once a thing. Unbeaten Notre Dame played for a tie against a likewise unbeaten opponent and was rewarded for its lack of industry. Because, back in the day, champions were decided by ballot.
Late tuners-in are conditioned to believe Alabama always gets the benefit of every nod. Not true. The final 1966 Associated Press poll: 1. Notre Dame, 9-0-1; 2. Michigan State, 9-0-1; 3. Alabama, 10-0-0.
(We shed a retrospective tear for those Spartans. Not only did they get the non-benefit of the Notre Dame draw, they were barred from the Rose Bowl despite winning the Big Ten, having gone the year before.)
This isn’t ancient history we’re citing. I was alive in 1966. Herschel Walker was alive in 1966. Lee Corso was alive in 1966, coaching DBs at Navy.
Speaking of Herschel: He made his famous debut on the night of Sept. 6, 1980. Unless you were in Neyland Stadiium, you didn’t see it happen. It wasn’t until Nov. 1 that the nation got a glimpse of the great freshman on live television. The NCAA, which then handled TV contracts, had a cap on televised games. A school could appear only so many times a season.
Such nonsense led to the formation of the College Football Association. As represented by Oklahoma and Georgia, the CFA beat the NCAA in court – the Supreme Court, no less – and stripped the governing body of its power. College football became all about conferences, never more so than now.
A month ago, the Pac-12 had 12 members. Eight will be elsewhere in 2024. The league couldn’t rustle up enough TV cash, Apple TV being deemed a penny-ante enterprise. (Note: Apple’s market cap is $2.79 TRILLION.)
The biggest conferences, eventually and finally, forced the one sport that didn’t crown its champion on the field to stage a championship game. That was a good thing. Like many good things, it bore unintended consequences. The more money TV threw at conferences, the more the conferences wanted. The bigger a conference got, the more members it was able to poach. A sport became a survival game.
The 2023 college football season will be the last of its ilk. Next year will see the Big Ten grow to 18, the SEC to 16 and the Big 12 to 16 if not more. The ACC could grow to 17-1/2, Notre Dame being the half. Or it could stay at 14-1/2. Or it could … well, who the heck knows?
The four-team playoff will triple in size. The first tier of games will be staged before Christmas. The final won’t arrive until MLK Day.
If you’re a Georgia fan, you greet the new era thinking, “Just when we’re owning the SEC East, they’re doing away with the SEC East.” If you’re a Georgia Tech backer, you wonder if your program – which claimed a voted-on national title in 1990 and won the Orange Bowl in 2014 – has any hope of respectability in the time of NIL money and the transfer portal. If you’re a supporter of any team, you’re asking, “What happened to the sport I used to know?”
TV happened. Money happened. There are 42 bowl games, 17 of which are owned – not just aired but owned – by ESPN. Why? Because nothing beats live programming, and no sports programming trumps live football.
There are 133 FBS teams, but in a sport that gets only top-heavier, how many will matter? The chosen 12? Nobody but Georgia and Bama and Ohio State and Michigan and LSU? (Oh, and Notre Dame. Can’t forget Notre Dame.)
To say I’ll swear off college football for a less cutthroat sport – like the NFL, heh heh – is to ignore personal history. I’ve always hated something about CFB, but I didn’t stop watching. I suspect I’ll do the same with the post-2023 version. But I do have concerns. I have many concerns.
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