Note: I thought that I could do this in one article. I was wrong, even as an overview there is just too much to cover. So, this is Part 1 of 2.
We launch into the analysis with some facts laid out on the table. Some of you know this and might find it a bit boring, but these general numbers are extremely important in the long run, and will set the stage for the next set of articles that will cover the conference breakdowns.
The current configuration of the FBS is under an extreme amount of strain, even if the fans don’t particularly see it, at the moment. There is a great deal of competition tension between the two informal, but consequential sub-divisions, and there is little title consolation offered to programs that are insufficiently funded and supported to compete with the “big boys”. Face it, no one is going to see Louisiana or Georgia State compete for the FBS national championship.
Because of the potential length of the article, we’ll break it down into two pieces. None of you want to grind through a 3,000-word summation of the current situation with the conferences and the establishment of the frame of reference for the changes about to occur.
Le Peloton Grande
For those familiar with bicycle racing, the French word for a group of cyclists that Americans would generally refer to as the Pack, is “le peloton” it is a mixture of riders of varying skill levels that both compete with, and support each other as the racers string out along the course. The mass of current FBS football programs looks just like a peloton. There are the filtering out thin leaders, and similar filtering out trailers with the bulk of the teams forming a vast bunch with the slightly more capable teams a little further ahead than the slightly lesser capable organizations.
Ultimately the same influences and factors contribute to the success, failure, or “averageness”. (Mediocrity sounds pejorative at this juncture… it might be true… but being mean is sort of pointless, here.) It’s all heavily dependent upon how much money the competitors have to spend on their efforts. The wealthier teams have better facilities, coaching, equipment, players, and opportunities. Those things are not guarantees of success, but the odds are considerably reduced.
The Current Map
Currently the Football Bowl Series programs are grouped into three major categories, Power Five (P5), Group of Five (G5), and Independents. The Current configuration of the Power Five is the driving force behind any major FBS changes because these teams are the programs with the biggest monetary and prestige investments in high level championship competition within the FBS.
By the way, the P5/G5 “thing” doesn’t seem to have a formal construct. The names seem to have evolved out of the media’s need to categorize organizations into neater more digestible concepts.
Power Five and You Know Who
Power Five is a shorthand name for the conferences that make up the bulk of the big money programs and organizations with major media contracts. Someone somewhere has a list of the criteria for what would constitute a Power 5 program, but in general it is the historic conferences in which the winning programs qualified for the limited number of bowl games at the end of the season. Of course, this is a sort of throw-back definition to the era before there were a multiple of double-digit bowl games available to perform in, and when the National Championship was completely poll driven. In short, they’re the conferences with teams that you saw on ABC Saturday broadcasts before the cable TV contract revolution. So, here are the “Power 5” conferences in a basic order of prestige and capability. We are going to avoid program names and save them for the drill down articles:
Southeast Conference (SEC)
The SEC is the most powerful and prestigious of the conferences. Its East and West divisions dominate FBS playoff contention. The member programs that connote the quality of the brand image make up a larger percentage of the league than any of the other conferences. Of the 14 programs currently in the SEC (more about the realignment later), 10 programs are either upper tier championship quality or on the bubble. There are only four arguable “cupcakes” and none of those four programs are consistently bad, long term. The main point is that NFL rosters are loaded with SEC players.
The Big 10 (B1G)
The B1G is the old rust belt big university team set. Of course, the B1G is a bit math challenged, because there are 14 teams in the conference. Half of those teams are traditionally in the non-cupcake status, though several have been struggling over the last decade or two. Again, the major draw for B1G programs remains that NFL roster draw, where a very large number of players from the old Rust Belt show up on the professional gridiron.
Pacific Conference Twelve (PAC 12)
If the SEC and B1G are the powerhouses of the P5, the PAC 12 is the tweaky British 1960s speedster. The PAC 12 has an accurately described 12 teams, but only three or maybe four teams are actually “Power 5” quality programs. And of them, only one program has managed to keep its head above water and contend for post season glory. There are quite a few PAC 12 players in the NFL, with the bulk coming as individual effort draft picks. The conference is currently struggling to maintain some level of achievement above treading water in a system that is weighted heavily toward the SEC and B1G.
Big Twelve (BIG XII)
This single division 12 team conference is about to drop out of the Power 5 in everything but historicity. Once the two major teams of the league leave, there will be a reshuffling of teams from the mid-major conferences moving into replace them. That might or might not happen before 2025, but definitely after. This condition eventually places the remaining BIG XII teams in a mid-major reality zone with only a few P5 capable programs left. Expect the BIG XII to drop below the ACC on the viability chart within a few years. The reality is that the difference is with the two teams leaving, and once gone, the BIG XII might just better be thought of as a G5 level conference.
Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
The tragedy that is the Atlantic Coast Conference brings up the bottom of the Power Five (though not by much since the pre-2025 BIG XII isn’t appreciably better and will certainly drop down as several mid-major programs join to fill the void left). The ACC seems to be relatively stable at the fourteen teams currently listed. There are rumors of some potential imports from other conferences as re-alignment occurs, but for the next few seasons the ACC looks to remain relatively stable. It is also relatively mediocre. Out of the fourteen teams in the conference there is probably one that could potentially sustain playoff viability, and another six programs on a sort of flash in the pan bubble. Once described by a friend as the “Parity and Awe” conference, the ACC isn’t horrible year to year. The fact remains that it remains inconsistently mediocre at football.
Of course, the oddball Wild Card Team Always Frustrates Everyone
Notre Dame is listed as an “Independent” because it has its own fanbase, revenue flow, TV contracts, and “rivalries”. It is an ACC Athletic Department with the Irish playing significant reps against ACC teams, but the money and contracts allow it to demand an exemption from football participation in the conference, and the conference is not strong enough to insist that the football program become a permanent member of the ACC. That tension will have to be sorted out at some point, and the inability to do so has a big impact on the playoffs, playoff structure, and expansion. Until the Golden-Domers are required to join a conference and participate in conference play the money will dictate that they be considered for inclusion in the “Fakeoffs” currently in place.
That leaves the “Upper League” of the NCAA with the following number of teams, and projected number of teams for next season:
Number of Power Five FBS teams at the end of the 2021 season: 65
Number of FBS “Power 5” teams anticipated for the 2022 season: 65
What percentage of those teams are actually, really “Power” programs is something that we will discuss as we drill down into each conference and the changes that are about to start taking place.
Well, What’s the Beef? There isn’t any Tension in a “Stable” League
Like that bicycle peloton, there are advantages and disadvantages to riding in a big bunch. One guy has a mishap and a bunch go down. Some riders get into a heated competition and disrupt the core of the group causing it to lose momentum. Other riders get to physicality and trying to knock the other guy out. All of which has ripple effects through the group.
The same can be said for a seemingly stable configuration of the lead elements of the college football bowl series peloton. There is serious friction that is beginning. Actually, it’s not just one frictional element, it is several. There is little chance of any team outside of a golden 10 or so programs ever making the “Fakeoffs”. This season’s repeat of the SEC Championship Game played out as the National Championship game was a bitter pill for more than a few conferences to swallow. The ACC, PAC 12 and Big XII were completely shut out of the 4 playoff spots. Of the top 10 teams in the CFB rankings, 3 teams were SEC, 3 teams were B1G, 2 teams were from the disintegrating BIG XII, Notre Dame, and a gratis nod to Mid-Major powerhouse Cincinnati formed the bleeding edge of the 2021 Peloton. Actually, the ACC and PAC 12 ended up being frozen out of the top 10 altogether.
The Tension and Pressure for Change Builds
This lack of opportunity for on-field competition for playoff spots has gone past the dragging point and gotten to hot button time. The problem remains that each Conference has some degree of self-interest and the lower performing conferences of the decade have some out right demands that are making realistic conference alignments and real on-field playoffs exceedingly difficult. Jay Johnson highlighted the ACC’s latest clinker thrown into the playoff expansion talks. The ACC Ends a CFB Playoff Expansion, For Now 2022 NCAAF College Football Playoff CFP VT Virginia Tech Hokies Clemson Tigers Jim Phillips - Gobbler Country
The reality is that the asserted reasons for not expanding the playoffs are all really shading the truth. Most are total excuses for something that is more darkly dimming the concept of amateur sports, in general. The issue is and will continue to be about money. The FCS has had actual on-field championship playoff series games for decades. The model and schedules exist. Ultimately, it’s all about the Benjamins. It’s about TV revenues, media contract negotiations, conference network deals, and exhibition bowl game money.
If you add that level of “business competition” (Ironically college football is not supposed to be a business where anyone makes any money, at all. It’s theoretically and legally “non-profit” and tax exempt.) with the push pull of jockeying around for recruits and the added potentially corrupting wrinkle of Name, Image, and Likeness money, you get a poisonous brew threatening to burst what looks like a stable balloon.
The Result is Unhappy Programs Searching for Talent and Fairness in Opportunity
By 2025, which marks the period of renegotiation of media contracts with “The Mouse”, and any other side bar deals, there are also the rumblings of big shifts in the conferences. The SEC will gain two power level teams from the BIG XII. The BIG XII will import several mid-major teams to replace them. Conferences are looking to expand to compete with the SEC (which will reset to 16 teams after the jump). And as of this year, at least one team is joining the ranks of the FBS from the FCS – there will probably be more to come. Which one or combination of factors will shove the pin in the stability balloon in the P5 is still up in the air.
It’s time for you to say something. We can see that appearance and reality are not exactly the same. The Power 5 is a de facto Major Division of the FBS. The pressures are increasing for serious changes to occur, and not all teams in the virtual division are functioning at the same level of competition.
So, tell us, considering the general picture does the Power 5 remain the Power 5?
This poll is closed
Yes, It will. The power structures of each conference will remain the same, the BIG XII will find enough cupcakes to stay an active league, and the shuffle won’t affect the current distribution of "rewards".
No, the BIG XII will barely have a presence once two of its top teams are gone. The ACC is a boiling mess of inconsistent programs. It will all boil out into 2 sixteen team Power Conferences (SEC and B1G) and the remainder also rans.
Maybe. Yes – if someone can get a handle on real playoffs and get a stable agreement on an official championship league. No – if things keep going the way that they are going with the secret negotiations, money deals, and fake playoffs.
Not now, please, I already have a headache and you haven’t even gotten to the Mid-Majors. Ask me later.