How a 12-team college football playoff can help stop realignment

Earlier this week, Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark was, again, open about his interest in expanding his conference.

“Obviously going west is where I’d like to go,” Yormark said during a visit to future Big 12 member Cincinnati. “… A program that has national recognition. One who competes at the highest level in basketball and soccer.”

In other words, almost the entire Pac-12, which Yormark has been boldly targeting since USC and UCLA jumped into the Big Ten in late June, reigniting conference realignment speculation.

The point is that Yormark’s comments, or the likelihood of them coming to fruition, were much stronger last week than they are this week. This time, they were mostly brushed off as wishful bragging.

Last Friday’s decision to expand the College Football Playoff to 12 teams, including six reserved spots for the top six conference champions, will change how the game is played, let alone how its champion is crowned.

Also, almost everyone in college athletics hopes, further realignment will reduce.

“I think we need a break,” said a top athletic director. “We need a little calm.”

With an expanded college football playoff, more teams from across the country will have access to the field.  (AP)

With an expanded college football playoff, more teams from across the country will have access to the field. (AP)

Nothing would dampen interest more than football being controlled by just two or three super conferences while entire schools, fan bases and leagues fall by the wayside. Balance is preferable. It’s part of why a 12-team playoff is coming up.

Let’s use the University of Oregon as an example. Certainly, Yormark would jump at the chance to add the Ducks. However, what is Oregon’s incentive to leave the Pac-12?

If they were the Big Ten, who can offer maybe $30 million to $40 million or more in annual revenue, calls, then yes, Oregon is gone. The school is actively trying to lobby to get into that league. However, if the Big 10 don’t want Oregon (more on that later), staying in the Pac-12 is much more appealing this week because of the league’s almost certain auto playoff bid.

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The Big 12 can only offer the promise of stability and perhaps more value from media rights, though that will be limited. There may be a few million more, but with an automatic playoff offer available for the taking, the dynamic changes.

Oregon is arguably the football program best placed to win the Pac-12. He has won six of the last 13 conference titles, including two of the last three (lost to Utah in the title game last season). Without USC, the path to league dominance is a little clearer.

This is true for the entire league now. There will soon be a viable path to the playoffs, something no Pac-12 school has qualified for since 2016. Why join a 20-22-team league in a merger when you can stay and compete against only nine other schools?

The challenge for Oregon, or anyone else, is no longer to build their program to top-four national status (the extremely high standard for entry now). It is to capture regional supremacy. Then once in the tiebreaker, go see what happens. The Pac-12 under the future playoff plan offers a tremendous situation that only Big Ten or SEC riches could top.

So why would anyone listen to Yorkmark? And vice versa, why would any Big 12 team, where the competitive balance will quickly flatten once Oklahoma and Texas go to the SEC, would want to jump to the Pac-12 or anywhere else?

Perhaps, for once, it’s not all about the promise of a little more media revenue. (We get much more). Winning also brings its own riches, in the form of ticket and merchandise sales, donations, sponsorships, etc.

It’s also fun. Big games, league titles, playoff deals, etc. will build excitement, recruiting, publicity, and general applications for the student body. Let’s put it this way: Would you rather be an Oregon fan right now or a UCLA fan? The Bruins are going to get rich, but who’s happy about the end result?

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Oregon’s biggest concern after USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 was that its future home was still important enough to draw prized recruits from across the country, like 2023 five-star quarterback Dante Moore of Detroit.

Well, Moore and his future teammates are going to have a better shot at the coveted postseason at Oregon than anywhere else. Conference membership is no longer a weakness, it can become a strength. It’s the same for the other non-Big Ten/SEC leagues, including Sun Belt or Mountain West or American.

There is also a flip side to this. Talk to athletic directors in the Big Ten and mid-tier SEC programs, and the expanded playoff is exciting because it offers a better opportunity to break through. A school like Ole Miss has never threatened to make the four-team postseason: It would have to beat Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M and others. In a 12-team playoff, it would have come twice since 2014 and hosted a first-round match last season.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin, which also failed to make the four-team postseason, would have made the playoffs three times since 2014, hosting each time. Penn State would go from zero appearances to four. State of Michigan from one to three.

If you’re a school like that, on the brink of a postseason opportunity, what motivation is there to bring in more schools that could get in the way? Ohio State might not fear the addition of an Oregon, but for everyone else it’s one more hurdle to overcome.

Could the 12-team tiebreaker stop the relentless realignment wheels and the slow march toward two super leagues?

Not by itself. Money will always speak louder. However, the opportunity also has its own attractions.

That is why the possibility of a period of stability is much greater now that a real tie-breaker is approaching, with a real competitive balance.

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