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MAILBAG! Could an expanded playoff change conference realignment?

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

Thanks to everybody who sent a mailbag question on Twitter or in my email. This newsletter exists not just for my own personal edification, after all. It’s for you! So don’t be shy about reaching out to me! I’m at [email protected], or at @MattSBN. If you have something you’d like me to look into, drop me a line.

Let’s get to some of your questions.

Bert asks:

What if there were more independents? Or what would it take for another major (-ish) program to join BYU and Notre Dame as indies? As recently as 1990, 25 schools had no conference home. Would independence be worse than placement in a conference that makes no geographical sense? Or if the Big 12 were to cave in, would independence be better for schools like TCU and West Virginia than joining the AAC?

It’s a good question! The idea of other schools pursuing independence does seem to be gaining steam, as ADs at UConn and UMass have predicted other schools will follow that path. I’ve written about this recently, and I think the argument is much stronger for a few smaller, G5-type programs to kick the tires on this life. I wouldn’t be shocked if UTEP decides to do this in the near future, to help save on travel costs. I could see an argument for Hawaii or Air Force doing this as well. There may be others, usually on some sort of geographic or financial fringe.

At the lower level, you’re not making very much money from your TV rights, and you’re not making the playoff or a major bowl, so going independent, reducing travel costs and increasing bodybag game flexibility could theoretically be a better option.

For bigger schools, that math gets more complicated. Do you have a place to park your basketball or other sports programs? The Big 12 or ACC would be likely to allow a departing school to keep the rest of their programs in the league, after all. How will you make up the lost TV revenue? Are you okay giving up superior bowl access?

For most P5 schools, I think they’re almost no way they could make the math work. The one possible exception might be USC and UCLA, two schools that have historically threatened to leave the Pac-12 several times. I wrote about this for USC a long time ago, and I think while unlikely, it’s at least theoretically possible. USC could probably make decent money on an individual TV deal (especially if they played a national schedule), could theoretically put other sports in the WCC, and be freed from having to share money with Oregon State. That might work.

But for a TCU, or UVA, or middling Big Ten team? They’d make so much more money from their conference networks and tier 1 ESPN/Fox rights than they could going alone. And honestly, I suspect they’d make more money in a AAC-ish type league than they would going alone too.

Via friend of the program Fear the Wave:

So, before we dig into this, let’s quickly recap what we know about both TV situations.

The AAC’s new TV runs through 2031-2032, and reportedly pays out, on average, about $7 million a year. Some AAC schools are almost certainly going to make less than that, because they will also need to spend more money on broadcasting facilities, but it’s still a healthy raise over their last deal.

BYU’s new deal with ESPN reportedly runs through 2026. I think a conservative estimate would be BYU getting at least $10 million a year, and with better ESPN exposure than the AAC deal. BYU also has an out in their deal to join a power conference, but it isn’t clear what the repercussions might be if they joined the AAC. There may be some contracts to buy out.

So, absent any on-the-field concerns here, BYU joining the AAC in the next decade probably means they’re taking a paycut, and reducing their television exposure. Playing in front of lots and lots of people on TV is a major point of BYU’s independence, since BYU on ESPN means ESPN views are more likely to hear about the LDS church, missionary work, etc. It’s harder to use the football program as a brand builder for the school and church if you’re behind a paywall.

But you know what probably brings a ton of exposure? A playoff bid! And an expanded playoff, which probably happens in the 2020s, may very well include a G5 autobid.

So my next question is…how likely is it that BYU ever gets that bid?

First, we have to look at where BYU recruits. The program will pull kids from anywhere, but the bulk of this roster comes from areas where lots of LDS folks live, what we colloquially call the Book of Mormon Belt…places like Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Las Vegas, and parts of southern California. As a Mormon from Ohio, trust me…there aren’t very many other Mormons from Ohio.

If BYU joins the AAC, they’re suddenly going to play even more games outside of that footprint, and more games in places like Florida, Texas, North Carolina, etc…areas where it will be much harder for them to recruit (although they are trying in Texas, at least). I think, especially in the short term, such a move would make building a Top 25ish caliber roster much more difficult. Changing recruiting territories thanks to conference realignment can be a really difficult transition. Just ask Nebraska and Missouri.

There’s also the fact that if recent BYU history is any indication, playoff bids would be pretty rare. In the last 20 years, BYU would have been the highest ranked non-power program…three times? Twice? And they haven’t come anywhere close over the last decade.

So then the question is…do you take less money, less exposure, and potentially make it harder to recruit, in exchange for maybe making the playoff once a decade?

Maybe the answer is yes. Maybe an expanded playoff changes the financial landscape to the point where BYU doesn’t enjoy as much of a financial advantage by remaining independent.

But I don’t think that’s a slam dunk at all.

Reader Steven asks:

Do you think there will be a time when ADs, boosters, fans, etc. will come to accept a steady increase in wins or recruiting as a win for the school?

I'm coming at this as an NC State alum and there are people that want Doeren gone since we had a bad year. Is there anything to say for the idea that you'll ebb and flow but overall you're making the team better or will it always ultimately come down to higher numbers in that W column?

The unsatisfying answer to this question, I think, is “it depends.”

If Ryan Day goes from six to wins to seven wins to eight wins at Ohio State, he’s fired. If you go from four to give to six wins at Kent State, you get tenure.

So much of this depends on expectations. What has a program historically been able to accomplish? What are the factors outside of program control that could impact success? What specific games is a coach winning or losing? Going 7-5 but beating the best team in the league, or a hated rival, is more palatable than going 7-5 with a bunch of wins over Sun Belt squads and like, Pitt.

I think ADs and coaches should be as honest as they can with their fan communities. One of the big problems Willie Taggart ran into at Florida State, in my opinion, was doing very little to temper expectations when he knew (or should have known) his roster had big problems. Bronco Mendenhall’s lofty goals at BYU made 9-4 seasons sting more than they probably should have. There are other examples, I’m sure. Compare that to Scott Frost at Nebraska, who was pretty clear that he thought his team was going to suck for a little bit.

I can’t speak to NC State too much specifically, but the problems tend to happen when fan (or program) expectations are not in alignment with what is possible, or probable…and that can happen even if you are steadily improving.

Reader Dustin asks,

What's the most realistic path for a team making the jump to FBS to become an actually NY6 contender and perhaps eventual P5 expansion contender? Does a school with those capabilities currently exist?

I don’t think it exists. Here’s why.

For one, as this system is currently constructed, virtually every G5 program is locked out of the NY6, and all of them are locked out of a four-team playoff. A G5 team needs to either go undefeated, or win the MWC or AAC with one loss, if they want to make the jump. There aren’t any “recent” expansion programs really capable of doing that beyond Appalachian State.

We also don’t really have mobility between conferences. Plenty of high achieving G5 programs, like Boise State, UCF, Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, BYU, etc, can’t get into a P5 league. And if P5 leagues were to expand, there’s no guarantee that football performance would even be the most important variable to consider. Expansion doesn’t really work like that. Look at Rutgers.

A well-funded FCS program that had a strong culture of success, like a James Madison, or North Dakota State, or a Montana school, could jump to FBS and win a lot of football games, in my opinion. But to the point of making the Cotton Bowl, or beyond? I don’t think that’s possible right now. Class mobility in college football is nearly impossible without giant chunks of money, and even then, it’s tough.

Dustin also asks:

When the next round of P5 expansion inevitably comes, are we just looking at 2-4 teams for the Big 12 and maybe 2 in the Pac-12 to create five 14 team conferences? Any chance we ever see the supposed 16 team "super conferences" discussed in the past?

I honestly think there’s a pretty good chance we don’t get any P5 expansion or realignment in this cycle. It appears unlikely that any new companies, like Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Netflix, get seriously involved in the bidding for major CFB rights. The ability of networks like ESPN, Fox and CBS to pay huge rights fees for live programming hasn’t really declined. If Texas decides to do something crazy, sure, we could see some dominos, but I’d say it’s more likely that the P5 looks like the same in 2025 as it does now.

I think realignment in the FCS or G5 is much more likely to happen.

The super conferences idea gets floated a lot on message boards, but I don’t think it is especially realistic right now. There are difficult logistical issues with expanding beyond 14, and CFB history tells us that many leagues that did get that big, like the WAC, or the Southern, eventually buckled when it became too hard to maintain institutional ties and a unified institutional mission.

If you’re a hardcore realignment watcher, I’d pay closer attention to the Mountain West, Conference USA or the FCS, rather than say, the Big Ten.

And finally, via Twitter:

I’ve been mostly against Pac 12 before brunch, because I think it puts fans in a difficult position, just in the name of competing in already crowded TV time slot.

But what if that time slot wasn’t so competitive? One game, 9 AM Eastern?

One question, I guess, is who broadcasts it. Fox just spent a lot of money and effort on BIG NUDE SATURDAY (looks, I know the press release says Big Noon Saturday, but I have ears, I know what I hear), and you can’t really do this huge pregame show if you’re also showing Boston College at Virginia or something. ESPN has the same problem with GameDay, so we’re looking at shipping this game to CBS Sports Network, ESPN2 or FS1. Which, hey, maybe that’s fine! That’s basically what happens whenever somebody plays in Ireland.

From the perspective of the TV viewer, this would be pretty great. From the fan who actually goes to the games, it could be a challenge, but if the host school had a lot of fans that lived relatively close by, and if they were clever in how they promoted it (maybe with a sponsored postgame tailgate or watch party?), I bet you could do it. It probably shouldn’t be an every week thing….but a few times a season? It might be fun.

For the players? It’d probably suck quite a bit. Who wants to wake up at 3 or 4 AM to get ready for a game? But hey, this is college football, so nobody is going to take their needs or wants into account.

If TV is going to make our West Coast friends kick off at night every week, we might as well make life harder for the East Coasters every once in a while.

Just don’t mess with God’s Time Zone.

Central time.

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