Bowls used to be the sport’s most important entities. Five conferences have come to rule the roost. The ACC and SEC just indulged in an amusing but nonetheless revelatory round of flexing. The former sought to impose a plus-one on the latter, to which the latter said, “Take a hike.” Implicit in the SEC’s rejection of four annual SEC/ACC in-state rivalries was the message: We’re a bigger deal than you are. (Clemson might argue the point.) If it comes to choosing between League Affiliation and Longstanding Tradition, there’s no question which way the SEC leans – which means each of the other four leagues has no choice but to do the same.
Nick Saban has been lobbying for the SEC to adopt a nine-game conference schedule. His conference – and the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 – just one-upped that. It’s possible those leagues will, in a post-virus world, cut back to nine conference games. It seems unthinkable that any would ever return to eight. (The Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 were already at nine.) Ask TV rights-holders whether they prefer to air Alabama-Georgia or Alabama-Georgia State.
Even the P5 leagues will lose a ton of money in the fiscal year that ends June 30, 2021; these arrears will be felt amid the dollars not banked because of the NCAA’s cancellation of March Madness. The easiest way to recoup money is to play more conference games and to offer fewer guarantees to lower-tier minnows for a guaranteed win that the CFP committee will care nothing about. If every conference adopts a 10-game league schedule, that would make it still harder for Notre Dame to keep going it alone. Would USC and Stanford want to play the Fighting Irish on top of 10 Pac-12 dates?
Notre Dame has hastened to proclaim its intent to stay independent in football beyond the pandemic year – assuming the pandemic lasts only a year, about which there’s no guarantee – but that stance, like every stance in our reeling world, is subject to immediate shift. The Irish could well find comfort, not to mention scheduling stability, in binding their future more tightly to a conference that already constitutes half their annual schedule.
As for the existing-except-for-2020 plus-one rivalries: It’s difficult to imagine Tech and Georgia – or Florida and FSU, or Clemson and South Carolina, or Kentucky and Louisville – not playing on an annual basis. (There are contracts in place, for one thing.) It is not, however, impossible. The SEC and ACC have never been the best of pals, and their little back-and-forth will leave a scab, perhaps a scar.
We’ve just seen the five major leagues go their separate ways. The virus has impelled people and institutions to prioritize what’s most important. The Power Five have chosen conference solidarity above all else. In the years ahead, it could be that Georgia says to Tech – or Florida to FSU, or Clemson to South Carolina – “With 10 conference games, we no longer have room for you. But thanks for the memories.”
Could be, we stress. Nobody yet knows anything. Nobody will for a good long while. But some temporary changes, it must be said, can prove to be bright ideas. Does anybody believe any major-league 10th inning will ever again start without a runner on second base?