Nick Saban's Idea of Five Conferences Would be Great for the Ohio States, Not So Much for the Boise States

By Kyle Rowland on May 14, 2013 at 9:30a
The Five Masters of a Post-NCAA Future

College athletics has always been about the haves and have-nots. Nowhere is it more true than the money grab of football. Conference expansion, ballooning coaches contracts, TV deals in the billions of dollars – the evidence is at every turn.

In the future, the sport could literally be split between haves and have-nots. The talk of super-conferences breaking away from the NCAA has floated on the periphery for several years – not absurd, but not anything imminent, either. But when Nick Saban expresses his wishes, which he did last week, ears perk up and important people tend to listen.

“I’m for five conferences, everybody playing everybody in those five conferences,” Saban told “That’s what I’m for, so it might be 70 teams, and everybody’s got to play them.”

It would set off a cataclysmic event in the college football world, effectively splintering the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and Notre Dame from the rest of the sport.

The rich would get richer while the MAC and all the others left behind would be rendered irrelevant. The shockwaves would be felt across the college football landscape, but perhaps that boom would be loudest in places like Boise.

Since moving to the FBS level in 1996, Boise State has steadily progressed up the respectability ladder. The program still remains among the most polarizing in the sport, some say the Broncos belong among the elite while others scoff at the idea of a little state school in Idaho being on par with the Ohio States and Alabamas of the world.

It might not be in one of the power conferences, but Boise State has proven over the years it can beat anyone – and it will play anyone anywhere, a quality missing from most of the big-time programs. The Broncos recently agreed to a TV deal with ESPN and are in the process of upgrading their facilities to keep up with the sport’s Goliaths.

When the College Football Playoff arrives in 2014, Boise State will finally have the opportunity it never received in the archaic BCS: a chance at hoisting the crystal football.

But if Saban’s vision comes to fruition, the Broncos won’t only be eliminated from championship contention, they’ll be ostracized from the haves in college football. The Big Ten indicated last year that all of its member institutions would beef up the non-conference schedules, but Saban’s suggestion opens up a Pandora’s box.

The financial implications appear first on the radar. The Bowling Greens and Louisiana-Lafayettes would be hamstrung and left bobbing in an open ocean full of sharks. The affects would ripple down the college football food chain to FCS, where Youngstown State and others rely on guarantee games to help fund their athletic departments. Already, lower-tier schools’ budgets have been stricken because there’s reluctance by big schools to continue shelling out million-dollar paydays for games. Nine-game conference schedules also give mid-major teams fewer games against big programs that involve large payouts.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Eleven Warriors that the more likely scenario would be a separate division within the NCAA for the power conferences. The idea would be having a different set of rules for the 60-70 schools that make up the five superconferences.

“I do think there could be a different governing structure for the top schools, underneath the NCAA umbrella.” – Gene Smith

“I do not see schools breaking away from the NCAA. I do think there could be a different governing structure for the top schools, underneath the NCAA umbrella,” Smith said. “A structure that allows those schools to have its own legislation, like the stipend issue where MAC and other schools cannot pay it but the top 60-70 can.”

Another hindrance, as Smith alluded to, is the looming possibility of $2,000 stipends or even expenditures that cover the full cost of attendance. The NCAA chose not to pass the former last year, upsetting many athletic directors and conference commissioners.

“It’s a disappointment that it’s not taken care of yet,” the SEC’s Mike Slive said. “We truly believe that we ought to do more for our student-athletes than just the room, board, books and tuition. We’re hopeful that we can continue to make that work. ... I think it's fair to say it's an idea that's not going to go away.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert supports the stipend plan and will unveil another proposal in October with hopes that the Division I Board of Directors will give it the OK. Sidney McPhee, the president of Middle Tennessee State and head of the committee in charge of the stipend, doesn’t think every institution can come to an agreement on the issue.

“There are some people who will oppose anything he supports, and that's unfair,” he told The Chronicle of Higher Education. But McPhee also indicated that universities regularly increase aid to students in the general population. Some see a double standard when it comes to spending money on college athletics. 

“If you want to compete, you've got to step up,” McPhee said.

When skyrocketing coaching salaries are examined, it appears some schools have not only stepped up to the plate but hit home runs. Still, money remains an issue with student-athletes due to opinions on amateurism and smaller schools not having the bank account of Ohio State and Texas. Title IX compliance could also play a factor.

“Title IX issues have ways to be balanced,” Smith said. “That is why the stipend has to be for all student-athletes.”

In a way, there’s already an existing divide. The BCS had a closed-door policy to the little guys, only allowing them in under extreme circumstances while the new College Football Playoff will split more than 70 percent of its revenue among the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and ACC.

There are also conference networks, and even the Longhorn network, dedicated solely to the University of Texas, that continue to boost athletic department funding. The SEC announced the launching of its own network this month that could involve $30 million annually to its 14 members, and it was announced last week that Big Ten members received a record payout of $25.7 million. Well over half of that came from media rights deals with ABC/ESPN and the Big Ten Network.

But where the haves could be hurt in the pocketbook is the ongoing Ed O’Bannon lawsuit. O’Bannon v. NCAA involves former UCLA basketball standout Ed O’Bannon and several other former athletes who don’t believe the NCAA should profit from their names and likeness without getting a piece of the royalty pie.

The multi-billion dollar outcome has college sports’ powerbrokers nervous. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany even made the silly comment about the conference being relegated to Division III if the NCAA lost the case. That’s not to say a ruling in favor of O’Bannon wouldn’t signal dramatic changes - possibly dropping sports - but chatter involving blue-blood programs moving to the Division III model is nothing more than fear mongering and insulting the intelligence of media and fans.

“The O’Bannon case would basically force schools to develop different funding models and sports would be hurt drastically,” said Smith, with emphasis on the word hurt.

But even in a charred landscape in the wake of an O’Bannon victory, college athletics will stay on course regarding the haves and have-nots.


Comments Show All Comments

DJ Byrnes's picture

I have been saying this is the inevitable destination of college football for about a year now. If this does happen, I expect the NCAA middleman to be laid to rest in a shallow grave in a field on the outskirts of Las Vegas, especially if the OBannon lawsuit goes against them this summer.

I welcome these days, as it will offer a true chance at reform and send Mark Emmert walking.

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

Hovenaut's picture

Jim Delany looks pissed off in that pict, portrait.

Chad Peltier's picture

We're implicitly promoting Dan Brown's new Inferno with that picture

nickma71's picture

The super conference leading to the destruction of Saturdays in the fall as you know it is a result of the brainwashing for a playoff.

bcWEcouldn'tGOfor3's picture

Would it even need to be as high as 60-70 teams?  Do any of us truly believe that Indiana, Vanderbilt, Duke, Iowa State, or Wake Forest have a shot at playing for a national championship? 
I would much rather drop more bottom-feeders for a chance to see more out-of-conference marquee matchups.

cplunk's picture

I'm fine with it.
And memo to Boise State: If you want to be considered one of the big boys, change your field to green. You've earned your stripes over the years, but nobody takes you seriously when you play on that gimmick.

yrro's picture

I think the gimmick field is fine and awesome. I think that wearing blue jerseys on it to match is some serious bullshit.

BED's picture

I'm still upset the NCAA didn't go through with the rule change that would've banned it.  Though, I know why, since it was horribly written in draft form.  All you have to do is make a rule like the NFL that says the playing surface must be a natural grass color.

The Ohio State University, College of Arts & Sciences, Class of 2006
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Class of 2009

Matt's picture

The outcry against this plan seems in large part to be based on the assumptions that (1) smaller schools are entitled to have football programs and (2) that having football programs is good for smaller schools.  Point 1 is debatable, but the data on to Point 2 suggest that the vast majority of football programs/athletic departments operate at a net financial loss.  In other words, having a football program for many of the schools that would fall outside the five-conference membership is a financial liability, not an asset.  The same can be said for many of the schools in the five-conferences, however.  That suggests to me that being on the outside-looking-in for many of these have-not schools -- the institutions that want to have football programs like the big boys -- could be a good thing, financially, for the school, in that it would dissuade them from attempting to engage in an arms race that they are bound to lose.  For every Boise State, there seem to be far more smaller schools that gamble on a D-1 football program, hoping they'll be the next BSU, when that hope ultimately turns out to be a (very expensive) pipe dream.

bnation's picture

The athletic departments for many of these schools operate at a loss, but I'd bet a large portion of them actually make money on their football programs.  Its just offset by the amount they lose on track, water polo, curling, etc.  All of those are things those schools would likely want to keep and pay for even if there was no football program.

bnation's picture

If each major conference partnered with a smaller conference there could be a play in method.  The lowest ranked team in the higher conference would have to drop to the lower and the lower conferences champion could be raised to the higher.  Keeps teams competitive in the upper conference and gives the lower conferences something to fight for.

rdubs's picture

Exactly: To include the smaller schools we just need to make 5 or 4 top conferences and have a couple lower tier conferences align with them and institute a relegation system!!

Menexenus's picture

I think relegation is an excellent model for college football.  Crappy teams like Indiana and Vanderbilt would not get free rides just by virtue of being members of power conferences.  And the Boise States of the world would get a chance to play with the big boys and prove that they belong.  And if they can't hack it, they'd be sent back down.  Perfect!
Too bad it'll never happen.

Real fans stay for Carmen.

Jack Fu's picture

I would love for the endgame to be this:
Four twenty-team conferences. Each conference is split into two divisions. You play the other nine teams in your division, a full round-robin. The team with the best record in the round-robin wins the division. Tie-breaker is head-to-head result; in the unlikely event of a three-team tie in which A < B < C < A (a la 2008's Texas/Oklahoma/Texas Tech clusterf*ck), the tiebreaker becomes total scoring margin in the nine conference games. The winners of the two divisions play in the conference championship game, played at a neutral site. The four conference championship game winners play in a Final Four, with the eventual winner being crowned the national champion.
Playoff proponents get what they want, plus, almost by default, your national champion also has the best resume in the country.
Because of the set-up, there is no need for polls, so they're gone. (The Blogpoll can stay, because it's fun and meaningless.)
With no polls, there would be no "we're the #5 team in the country, the playoff should be expanded to include us," because 1.) there's no polls, and 2.) that hypothetical "#5 team" doesn't have an argument: win your division and you move on. Win your conference championship game and you move on. It's 100% merit-based.
That's a 9-game conference season (plus the conference championship game for 2 teams) that definitively identifies the team that accomplished the most in its division (and, later, the conference). That leaves room for 2 or 3 non-conference games. Because whether or not you move on to the four-team playoff is completely dependent on how you do inside your conference, good teams have less incentive to schedule cupcake non-conference games, and might even have an incentive to schedule good non-conference games, to better prepare for the conference season and/or the playoff.
With only four teams going to the playoff, you can keep the rest of the bowl system if you want to.
As was stated further upthread, many of these schools, mid-major and below, quite simply can't afford to field football teams and have no business being DI. I think 80 teams is a pretty natural splitting point, as it's approximately the size of the "Big Six" that existed this year, plus you could throw in your worthier mid-majors (Boise, BYU, TCU, etc.).
We've got a system of defining a national champion with no inherent subjectivity, without lengthening the regular season and making "student-athletes" miss too many of their classes, and keeping the bowl system for everybody else. I'm all-for listening to what negatives there would be. As of right now, other than bellyaching from the minnows, I'm not seeing any.

BED's picture

So much.


The Ohio State University, College of Arts & Sciences, Class of 2006
The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, Class of 2009

PaleoBuck's picture

The idea merits interest, but I'd have a lot of concerns with it.
Limiting the number of team to 80 seems arbitrary. Teams enter and leave the FBS all the time. I doubt this rigidity would sit well with those teams that would like to do the same in the future.
More likely that teams would schedule tougher OOC opponents? Have a hard time imagining that too, for the simple reason coaches can pad their wins and two, most importantly, why risk increased chance of injury and why beat your own team up with stout opponents early in the season?
I would like to see better OOC scheduling, like everyone would, but I fear this would do just the opposite. Currently, there is some incentive to schedule better OOC games, because it will help in the polls. Remove the polls and you remove the incentive. We need there to be more incentive and I'm not sure that arbitrarily forcing teams into 4 20-team conferences helps in that aim. Polls aren't the problem.
Be careful what you wish for.
Creating a new division football between the FBS and FCS is worth considering. It's been done before and I think their would be a market for the lower division. This would create more parity among the FBS and FBS teams could play new FCS (not the old FCS).

Jack Fu's picture

Limiting the number of team to 80 seems arbitrary. Teams enter and leave the FBS all the time. I doubt this rigidity would sit well with those teams that would like to do the same in the future.

It is arbitrary, in a sense. I chose it because it made the numbers work really well, and was relatively close to the number of teams that participated in the "Big Six" last year (68). Add Notre Dame, BYU, Boise, and a handful of other teams that are more or less always good and you've got your 80. Or some other number around there. You just adjust the number of conference games according to the size of the league (although four 20-team leagues really leads to an elegant season, numbers-wise, as I said above).
And teams "enter" FBS a lot more than they leave. Most of them are trying to chase TV money and really have no business being FBS, considering their facilities, revenues, and fanbases. Quite frankly, I don't care whether it would "sit well" with teams trying to break into FBS, because I think almost all of them have no business doing it. However, I would listen to arguments that a promotion/relegation system be put into place to provide for movement between the tiers.

More likely that teams would schedule tougher OOC opponents? Have a hard time imagining that too, for the simple reason coaches can pad their wins and two, most importantly, why risk increased chance of injury and why beat your own team up with stout opponents early in the season?

Eh, I just said it was possible. It certainly wouldn't decrease the odds that we get more good non-conference games. Coaches and ADs of big-time programs know that poll inertia and zeroes in the loss column will get them to the vicinity of the title game regardless of non-conference schedule strength. Either way, the possibility of better non-conference games is not the primary reason to go to this system. It solves a ton of other problems about the legitimacy of college football's championship. Better non-con games is just a possible perk.

BeijingBucks's picture

meritocracy over idiocracy!!  you don't say...
I like the idea of the 80 teams and to keep it fresh and interesting use the Football relegation technique to keep the bottom teams from just filling space

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

45has2's picture

I like Nick's idea if you add relegation. That would give the Boise's of the world a shot while giving the Minnysotas incentive to step up their game.

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

Savage45's picture

Bosie is not willing to play anybody anywhere, they demand a home and home nowadays.
Title IX screws everything up, how can one rationalize paying $2,000 to a girl who plays field hockey? Or even a guy on the pistol team? If your sport doesn't make money for the school then you should not be paid anything beyond a free education/room and board.

ih8rolltyde's picture

Really like this idea. I would modify slightly. (This is an obvious pipedream)
Each team plays 2 random drawn, forced interconference games. Kinda like interleague baseball. You could even televise the selection show. Pull out some painted ping pong balls and make a bazillion bucks. Make it an 8 team playoff, wherein the teams representing the conferences with the best winning percentage (interconference) get homefield in the "Elite 8".  So North #1 plays North #2 for the North title. Same for East, South, and West. Say conf win % went South, North, West, East. Elite 8 would be (1)S champ at home v (8)E runner-up. (2)N champ at home v (7)W runner up. (4)E champ at home v (5)S runner up. (3)W champ at home v (6)N runner up. Random draw for Final Four matchups at neutral sites.
North: tOSU, tsun, nd, state penn, wisky, nebrasky, Oklahoma, Mich St, Ok State, Louisville (Top Tier) then fill to 20 with the likes of Ill, Indiana, Minn, Nerdwestern, Iowa, Iowa State, Cincy (Second Tier) then fill to 30 with MAC schools (Third Tier) then to 40 (Fourth Tier) and so on.
The bottom two teams in each tier play the top two teams from the tier below in their "Bowl Game." Winner goes up, loser goes down for next year. So Tier A #9 plays Tier B #2 and Tier A #10 plays Tier B #1. Same token for Tier B #9 playing Tier C #2, TB#10 v TC#1, and so on and on.
South: Bama, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Miss State, Ole Miss, TCU (top tier) then fill from there. Kentucky, Vandy, Southern Miss, Baylor, etc.
East: Georgia, Miami, Florida State, VA tech. NC State, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Rutgers. (Top Tier) fill from there. Central Fla, South Fla, Duke, Uconn, Virginia, etc.
West: Oregon, USC, UCLA, Stanford, Boise St,Utah, BYU, Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State. (Top Tier) fill from thereAir Force, Utah State, Nevada, etc.
Whew, that turned into more than I intended.

****igan smells like old water that hot dogs were boiled in.  FACT