When the news got out via The Athletic on Thursday that college football cognoscenti had coalesced around the frame work of a 12-team playoff in the FBS division? I had one of those too good to be true instant reactions.
Not because I didn’t trust the news — a leak on something this substantial usually doesn’t come out unless there’s at least some tacit perception among the participants that it’s going to become a reality — but by too-good-to-be-true impression was more like your first glance at a winning lotto ticket. Did I really just win $50? That kind of thing.
Purely from a fan standpoint? The 12-team college football playoff is manna from heaven. And given that most of the talk of playoff expansion was an evolution from a four-team to an eight-team playoff? This feels like a bonus no one was expecting. There will always be arguments over who should or shouldn’t be in, but I don’t think any true national title contenders will be left out.
Also, purely from a fan standpoint, being someone who is a fan of a Power Five school and a grad of a so-called Next Five school, I see benefits for both ends of the FBS spectrum — a rarity when it constantly feels like the wheels are greased for the big boys.
The format also seems fair. The conference winner from the six best conferences in a given year — note it doesn’t say the Power Five plus one, though it’s rare that it won’t be the Power Five plus one — gets automatic bids and the remaining six spots are at-large qualifiers.
The top four teams get byes and the first round of games will be played on campus sights. So not only does the playoff field get expanded, but we also get “real” college atmospheres instead of the neutral site blandness that sometimes characterizes these games in the current format.
Twelve teams creates real opportunities for every conference in the FBS division. Sure, in most years, it will be teams from the Power Five hoovering up the at-large bids, but there’s certainly a better chance for a school in the Next Five conferences — the American Athletic, Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and the Mid-American — to make the field if one of their teams has a historic season.
In fact, there were undoubtedly champagne corks bouncing off the ceilings in the offices of those Next Five conferences because they suddenly became quite a bit more valuable to TV partners than they were when they were not allowed access to the championship. Now? A Utah State-Nevada game has more heft than just something cool to watch at midnight when you’re ratcheting down your weekend.
While curmudgeons will undoubtedly come out of the woodwork to defend the elite nature of college football to-date and bemoan its demise when it occurs, this playoff plan is really good for the health of all programs at the FBS level.
Which brings us to the ripple effect this could have on FCS football — which Indiana State participates in as part of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. The ripples could be tsunami’s depending on how the influence the expanded playoffs have on conference realignment.
My first thought when I read the reports on Thursday about how this enhances the value of conferences like Mountain West and the MAC was to think back to those rumors that cropped up on occasion about MVFC schools seeking to make the jump to FBS.
Since I’ve been covering ISU, Northern Iowa, Illinois State, Missouri State and the two Dakota State’s have at least been mentioned as possible candidates to move up, or, there has been desire expressed on someone’s part — whether it was someone within or out of the university itself — to at least explore it.
Heck, even Indiana State was once approached by the Sun Belt Conference (more or less as a courtesy, real interest was minimal to non-existent) during the last round of realignment in the early 2010s.
Most of these rumors were just that and none of them had legs beyond the talking stages. One reason why is that to jump from, say, the MVFC to the MAC, really had a minimal benefit. The moderate increase in money made off higher guarantees in no way matched the expenditure it takes to compete at the FBS level.
Television exposure in the Next Five conferences is better than FCS, but let’s not pretend that the majority of games from Next Five conferences has ever more than just time slot filler on second-rate cable TV nets. Or, alternately, a MAC situation where they sold their souls to play on weeknights, alienating fans along the way who like the Saturday football experience.
The reward for having a winning season in a lower-tier FBS conference was a money-losing road trip to a backwater bowl game. The playoffs? A pipe dream.
There are money-losing propositions in FCS football too, including the playoffs, but at least there’s a championship to shoot for. North Dakota State has likely gained quite a bit more exposure for its FCS dynasty of the 2010s than any winner of the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl or the Camellia Bowl. (Name me one winner of any of those bowls … ever. This isn’t a quiz, I want you to actually tell me, because I don’t know and have never had any inclination to know.)
Now? With better access to the FBS playoffs in the Next Five conferences? The dynamic has changed dramatically. Suddenly, making the leap from FCS to FBS has a more tangible reward if you’re the lucky program that can do it right.
Given that ISU plays in the best conference in FCS? Guess where some of the teams that are most likely to be able to make the leap would come from?
Now, it’s nowhere near that simple. NDSU can’t suddenly decide tomorrow to tell the MVFC “smell you later” and jump into the Mountain West. It has never worked like that. Desire is often a one-way street and often goes unrequited.
While I can envision a scenario where the Dakota State’s — who could probably most easily fund their programs at a FBS level among current MVFC schools — get plucked by a Next Five conference? I can also envision a scenario where their small market sizes and remoteness from any other schools also make such a move impossible for them even if they do want to move up. I can also envision a scenario where long-suffering schools in the Next Five conferences won’t be eager to share any kind of newly-gained TV money with Johnny Come Lately’s.
The only way a FCS school is attractive to a Next Five conference is if they can enhance their access to the playoffs. How many FCS schools could truly do that? A handful at most … and that handful likely includes two schools with acronyms with with three letters than end in “DSU”.
All of that said, if I were sitting in the athletic offices of one of the traditional FCS bluebloods or schools in attractive markets — NDSU, SDSU, James Madison, Sam Houston State, Montana, Villanova, etc. — I’d be putting my long-term plan together to move up. You’d be negligent not to do so.
The one thing FCS schools have going for them is that if there’s another round of conference realignment that starts among the Power Five conferences, which is possible, the ripple effects will be felt throughout Division I as conferences seek replacements in conferences lower than them and the cycle continues until FCS elite teams become expansion candidates themselves.
All of this leaves ISU — which from a facility standpoint alone is nowhere near ready to consider a similar jump — in a pickle. We’ve talked purely about football in this column, but conference realignment obviously affects all sports. It’s one thing if the Dakota schools were to move on, they’re not full-time MVC members. It’s quite another if Northern Iowa, Illinois State or Missouri State suddenly became attractive to a conference and the stability of the MVC itself is part of the shake-up.
However it plays out, playoff expansion will be fun for fans and a welcome change to the usually exclusive world of college football postseasons.
Just be ready for turbulence at the FCS level when the ramifications of the expansion (and NIL too) work themselves out.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.