Opinion by Will Leitch
(CNN) — On Monday night, college football as we know came to an end. Now that Michigan has defeated Washington in the College Football Playoff Championship Game in Houston, the sport will fundamentally reconstruct itself.
Washington, UCLA, USC and Oregon will join the Big Ten; Oklahoma and Texas will join the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The College Football Playoff will expand to 12 teams, while the Pac-12, a conference that originated in 1915, just three years after Arizona became a state, will wither and die.
This is the end. And it is also, of course, just the start.
What did 2023 teach us about what we should be prepared for in the years to come? Here are six lessons from The Last Season Of College Football As We Knew It.
TV executives are the new commissioners and now run everything
Stewart Mandel, one of the top college football reporters at The Athletic and one of the emerging unofficial deans of the sport’s conventional wisdom, has taken to saying that college football’s ideal fan is no longer a crazed Auburn message board poster or the sort of guy who sets up his weekend tailgate sometime around Wednesday afternoon. It’s instead a bored, distracted, unaffiliated gambling aficionado who doesn’t really care about college football but will look up from his phone when the television is showing a game with a brand-name team he recognizes.
All that drives decision-making in college football now is television ratings, to the point that conferences are hiring former television executives as their commissioners. This trend reached its logical, and most mercenary, conclusion when Florida State, an undefeated champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), was left out of the College Football Playoff (CFP) in favor of Alabama, a team that had lost a game and had been ranked behind the Seminoles all season, in large part because leaving an SEC team out of the playoff would be disastrous for the CFP’s ratings. (Attempts by CFP committee members to construct other rationales consistently fell on deaf ears.)
Was it “fair?” Of course not. But the people in charge showed this year that “fair,” or even “competition,” were at best happy accidents that took a backseat to the real driving force here: name-brand competition that gets as many dudes as possible to look up from their phones.
The death of conferences is only beginning
The death of the Pac-12, a conference that went from having its own cable channel to no longer existing seemingly overnight, is one of the more stunning things to happen in college sports in decades. Its disappearance leaves only four major conferences, but if you’re in the Big 12 or (especially) the ACC, you shouldn’t breathe all that easy just yet.
As college football has veered closer and closer to the NFL model, it has long been speculated that the logical end game for all this change is not four conferences but two: essentially, much like the NFL, an Eastern Conference and a Western Conference, a consolidation of only the sport’s biggest names. It stands to reason those conferences would be the SEC and the Big Ten, the conferences currently soaking up all the oxygen (and money, which is more important in college football than oxygen).
This is already starting to happen. Florida State was so stung by its exclusion from the CFP that it is reportedly trying to figure out ways to get out of its grant-of-rights contract with the ACC, a conference it has long battled with over financial issues. We’ve already seen that the SEC and Big Ten will pounce when other conferences seem weak. A future where they are the only two conferences standing is well within sight.
‘Little’ schools will be banished to the minor leagues, and ‘little’ may just mean your alma mater
The biggest losers of college football realignment this year were unquestionably Washington State and Oregon State. After years in the Pac-12, their conference imploded around them, and while everyone else found safe havens, they were stuck in the mid-tier Mountain West … with their days of national relevance likely behind them forever.
But if you feel bad for them, don’t get too comfortable: Your school could be next. An inevitable result of a two-conference, NFL-style system will be a consolidation of schools, which will mean, with geography no longer a determining factor, only the schools that get big TV ratings will get to play on the biggest stage. That’s immediate bad news for schools like Northwestern and Vanderbilt, small private schools that have benefitted from their history with their conferences, but if the number of schools in these conferences is whittled down to 48 or even 32 teams, the meat will be cut much closer to the bone.
Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, they’ll all be fine. But at 32 teams — which is the direction all this is going — well, does that leave room for, say, Missouri? Kentucky? Purdue? Illinois? Arizona State? Kansas? If your team isn’t a member of that 32, it will be as irrelevant as Washington State or Oregon State is now. If you didn’t stand up for them this time, who will stand up for you then?
The college football video game is going to change everything
Ask anyone who works in the college football media business: The quickest way to juice your traffic is to write about the upcoming EA Sports College Football video game, scheduled for release this coming summer. The game, which stopped production back in 2013 because of issues involving the use of players’ names, images and likenesses (and leading to the NIL revolution that has transformed college athletics in the wake of the Supreme Court decision two years ago), is expected to revolutionize college football once more, with players now receiving financial renumeration for the game and schools licensing their own names, logos and stadiums for it.
The game is likely to have a rise-all-boats explosion of popularity that could mirror the success of the FIFA franchise, which is widely credited with expanding soccer’s ubiquity globally, and especially in the United States. In many ways, college football has come to resemble a video game in recent years. Now the game will come back to return the favor.
The sport has reached its end-stage-capitalism period
You might have heard Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh and his team talk about all the “adversity” it has overcome, but remember that all this “adversity” has of course been self-imposed. Harbaugh himself has been suspended for half of his team’s games this season for two different scandals, one involving illegal recruiting tactics and the other involving sign-stealing allegations. (Harbaugh has denied knowledge of any alleged in-game interception of opposing teams’ play calls.) His punishment, ultimately, has been a huge shrug followed by a “Michigan vs. the World” narrative that has been embraced by ESPN, ABC and anyone with a financial interest in selling Monday night’s game.
In any sane, just, orderly and downright healthy sport (or organization, really), Harbaugh and his team would be engulfed in scandal. In college football, though, as long as you’re winning and bringing in the ratings (both of which Michigan did), none of that makes a difference.
In the long term, these changes to college football seem potentially fatal. Sure, in the short term, they’ll work: I’m as excited to watch next year’s 12-team College Football Playoff as anyone. But in the long term, when you pattern yourself after the NFL in order to get some of their television juice, when you jettison the traditions and orthodoxies that made people fall in love with the sport in the first place, you stop being college football: You simply become Minor League NFL. And no one cares about minor league anything.
The people who run the sport — the executives, the conference commissioners, the athletic directors, occasionally (but rarely) even the school presidents themselves — know this can’t last forever. A reckoning is coming. So they’re getting everything they can while they can, before the party is over and the dance floor is cleared. Rules, tradition and sentiment be damned.
In the end, only the Pop-Tart will endure
I do not know what will happen to college football. But I do know that the Pop-Tart, the breakout star of this bowl season who celebrated the first-ever Pop-Tarts Bowl by sacrificing himself, “Midsommar”-style, to be eaten by the victors, will ultimately survive us all.
I, for one, welcome our new Pop-Tart overlords. I’d like to remind them, as a trusted internet personality, that I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground toasted pastry sugar caves.
This article has been updated with the news that Michigan defeated Washington to win the College Football Playoff National Championship.
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