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Rutgers & Conference Realignment Possibilities

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Can New Jersey’s biggest football program be a big winner again?

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s decisions and current contract could impact Rutgers’s place.
Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

In light of Oklahoma and Texas electing to take their talents to South Beach the SEC, the next cycle of college conference realignment is now inevitable, and message boards across this great nation of ours are blowing up. With the NCAA in a transition period of its own with NIL, not only do players, but the conferences and schools themselves have more power than ever before.

At this point in time, the Big Ten remains steadfast that they will not add multiple non-AAU schools. That being said, other factors may force their hand (even if it is not for another decade) especially in the event that relative revenue starts to decrease as SEC expansion continues. I will acknowledge that I’m making a large jump on my own in tandem with the Big Ten having to change its ideals (which they have made no indication of) for any of this to happen. However. let’s review the proposals that seem to be the front runners for where we will be in say 2030, assuming there is no World War, UFO invasion, or even more lethal pandemic until then.

One of our readers, JinNJ had a great comment of “sooner or later it will happen” regarding Art’s recent post discussing how the Big Ten should react. Like it or not, money drives college football, the 2020 season happening at all under pandemic conditions should have put any doubt to rest. Do I want the Big Ten to expand or realignment in general? No, but if conferences wait they will miss on getting the pick of the litter. Our friends at other SB Nation sites have been covering their own angles: Boston College, West Virginia, and Penn State to name a few regionally. Our B Vincent P just wrote that Rutgers will not be left in the cold, though crunching the numbers, I am slightly less optimistic.

With nothing to watch live, I had been pondering the realignment last year when no sports were being played and list below the most likely options, pros, cons, winners, losers, and how Rutgers would be affected. Admittedly, I even tried them out in NCAA Football 2014 for PS3. The picture today as a reminder with Oklahoma and Texas now ticketed for the SEC West.

Option A1: Super Division, others intact

The elephant in the room, a Football Super Conference might as well be where we start looking at what might be the intermediate future. I’ve heard high school coaches especially in the fertile recruiting grounds of Metro Atlanta and South Florida say that there are three types of teams that come to recruit their players; 1. Seven programs who have a legitimate chance to win a title each year in the four team playoff (Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, Notre Dame, Alabama, LSU, Georgia), 2. Teams who claim they could be in the mix and who could qualify for the top 4 once every few years (i.e. Penn State, Oregon), 3. Power Five Schools who are three years away or at least say they are. Thus, the basis of this design is simply to put the Top teams plus Texa$ in their own division and call it a day.

Pros: 1. Being honest with who is actually a national title contender, possibly even having Texas replaced by a wildcard team in an 8 team playoff. 2. A promotion / relegation system could somehow be devised to cycle teams in and out. 3. Less impact to the majority of teams and fans, some of which may be happy to avoid the beat downs from those trying to impress the playoff committee.

Cons: 1. Conferences as we know them can’t just absorb the losses of their biggest moneymakers. 2. How would this work for other sports? 3. How would the scheduling even work for schools in six team divisions? 4. What happens to the SEC?

Winners: 1. Everyone not in the SEC who qualifies for the Super division. 2. All the teams that don’t get squeezed out of the existing Power Five, but have no chance of contending for a national title. 3. Maybe West Virginia? WVU’s undecided destination could be one of at least four different conferences all of which would decrease their travel budget.

Losers: 1. Blue Bloods and former blue bloods who think they got the shaft by not being in the initial seven or eight. 2. Teams who make or even save their entire season by spoiling someone else’s playoff bid, particularly a traditional rival. 3. Traditional rivalries in general due to schedule imbalances.

Rutgers Impact: This at the current time is one of the BEST possible outcomes. First off, Rutgers remains in the Power Five and specifically one of its toughest remaining divisions. In addition, RU avoids the annual blowout by Ohio State to be replaced by a more manageable crossover opponent while also getting the added benefit of Penn State and Michigan reeling a little bit in recruiting after they were snubbed, significantly decreasing their chances of a playoff berth in the short or medium term.

Option A2: Super Division, 8 x 8

A variant of the set up listed above would at least add balance from a scheduling standpoint and allow easy rotation year over year as needed. Listed as the Big 8 is also a potential third division of the SEC if they continue to expand. This is admittedly how I thought things would progress the first time I heard of a super conference idea and as a college football fan it may be the best, but as an RU supporter ...

Rutgers Impact: This at the current time is one of the WORST possible outcomes because without the money, tradition, and potentially desire, the Scarlet Knights might not make the cut. Here’s what it would probably look like, although some teams could be swapped here and there. TCU, Rutgers, and Louisville are in white because they are probably the most likely programs that could end up getting the boot from a 64 team super-alignment. (The Northeast 8 will not have nine teams.)

Option B: Standard 8 x 8

For those seeking to allow the winds of change, preserving the existing conferences somewhat and blocking the super conference, this is probably where you should put your money. It’s 64 teams spread across eight divisions that puts emphasis on historical rivalries and alignments with less focus on the current landscape. The scheduling proposal I would make is division titles determine playoff qualification. Division titles are won based purely on your seven game intradivisional record, ties to be broken by head to head result. Two annual crossover games with the other half of your 16 team conference plus a third protected rivalry (i.e. Ohio State and Michigan) that could be a team in your 16 team block or perhaps not (i.e. Nebraska and Colorado). The 11th game being a rotation across other Power Five teams and the 12th regular season game being completely up to that school (FCS, Group of Five, etc.).

This is how I would do the eight by eight, admittedly heavily biased to keep Notre Dame out and expecting the SEC is three of the divisions by this point. (Notre Dame will be either independent or with the ACC per their contract that runs through 2035 barring a renegotiation). Again Rutgers, Louisville, and TCU would probably be the most at risk for missing the cut if Notre Dame is in.

Pros: 1. Balance prevents human bias from creeping into playoff qualification, perfect with the eight team format. 2. Allows for more normally cross-conference scheduling without having to worry about a loss negatively hurting chances for division title. Can even leverage mini-pods within each conference that would allow more intra and interconference flexibility 3. Enough flexibility to protect rivalries that are or should be annual. 4. The conference title games would simply be the playoff quarterfinals or part of the elaborate 12 team playoff.

Cons: 1. Long-term flexibility takes a hit as too much stock goes into where someone like Ohio State or Texas is placed. 2. One upset in a conference game and one of the nation’s best could miss out on the playoff despite being 11-1. 3. The Bowl games that don’t end up in the rotation. 4. Revenue imbalance.

Winners: 1. Those would would be losers with the super conference, most notably the entire Pac-12. 2. Whichever Big Ten teams end up in the Northeast / whomever makes up the Midwest or Mountain half of the Pac-16. 3. The Big 12 teams because even if it ceases to exist as a conference, the schools get a better seat at the table than they had before.

Losers: 1. The Super teams (specifically SEC) who now have pressure to go undefeated in conference games. 2. The Group of Five, there is no hope for a playoff berth with this set up unless you get the 12 team playoff that has a wildcard. 3. Whichever teams from the original Big Ten are not in the main eight for revenue purposes.

Rutgers Impact: This all depends on exactly how the divisions shake out. If Rutgers is in the field of 64 that at least keeps them relevant, especially since there is no appropriate division for them other than the Northeast which by any breakdown would be a hodgepodge of Big Ten, ACC, and former Big East members. The only question is who else is in it. I ran several simulations in NCAA Football ‘14 with updated rosters and it ended pretty well for RU even if Ohio State was in their division. Again Rutgers would be at risk though so there is a need for Schiano and company to cement RU’s position as a top 50 team each year at minimum to eliminate any doubt.

One 8 by 8 version was nicely drawn out in this tweet, slightly different than mine with Notre Dame replacing TCU and breaking into mini-pods:

Option C: The 9 x 7

If the 8 x 8 is too square for you, perhaps multiplying two odd numbers would be in your best interest. The main difference with the nine team divisions is the eight intradivision games that would allow a wildcard team, potentially a 2nd place finisher, an independent, or even a group of five team to qualify for the eight team playoff. For those who like my father’s advice more than mine on such matters, this is what he proposed to me as far back as the Auburn snub from the 2004 BCS title game as where he thought college football would go.

Pros: 1. Humans do get one pick of the wildcard team in the playoff 8 spot, possibly even an 8-9 play-in game or the full blown 12 team playoff. 2. Long-term flexibility (and current other sport affiliations) in this model reduces the impact if a team drops out of the main 63 or simply chooses to be independent for football. 3. Existing conference structure is preserved well enough, with those schools on the move being schools that have been nomadic before in most cases.

Cons: 1. Less scheduling flexibility than other models and historical rivalries might get the boot. 2. The SEC West and Midwest divisions can get super weird to keep other geography logical. 3. Is it really fair that the Northeast would get an automatic playoff berth?

Winners: 1. Notre Dame can stay independent if they want and be the year in, year out favorite to qualify as the wildcard team. 2. The SEC can boast the wildcard team at least half the time. 3. The ACC continues to exist (maybe even grow?) without being simply a little brother to the SEC or completely absorbed by it. 4. The Pac-12 teams again get more chances than they would have had.

Losers: 1. TCU seems to be the odd team out, though others could be at risk who actually want to be affiliated. 2. Whichever original Big Ten team ends up elsewhere, my guess is Iowa, possibly Northwestern. 3. The SEC East teams who need to face Alabama and Georgia every year.

Rutgers Impact: Rutgers has less risk of dropping out of the 63 than the 64 because there are still advantages to being independent for Notre Dame, BYU, and others in this model. Unless of course Rutgers wants to be independent themselves which I would doubt considering they would be a cornerstone member of a geographically appropriate division with an inside shot at a playoff berth as soon as the program is ready. This, along with the super conference option are the best two outcomes for the Scarlet Knights.

Option D:

The last proposal I have seen getting any real traction is the 8 divisions x 9 teams model that would allow for 72 teams (third grade math) to be relevant. Though I came up with many permutations last year, I won’t fully describe it here because the blowback from the Michigans, Penn States, and Auburns of the world being scared that one of those 8 divisions being the super division would make them even less relevant has taken center stage. Also, this is the least interesting to Rutgers fans because even though their inclusion within the framework would be guaranteed, the possible divisional make-up is too variable. For example, are they stacked with the current Big Ten East, the old Big East, or are teams like Temple and Appalachian State now annual foes?

Other options:

I have neglected to cover the 10 x 6 model that would allow for two wildcards in an eight team playoff. The jist of it is that the Big Ten returns to its namesake as does the Pac-10, plus the ACC remains intact while re-adding Maryland to become a basketball powerhouse again. The main issue I see here is that it wouldn’t be long for one division to see cash in Rutgers, BC, or Notre Dame and put us right back where we started. Would look something like this:

I have seen a 120 team option also proposed which again I find irrelevant because there is just too much incentive for the blue bloods to elevate themselves away from the Group of Five teams, like we have already seen play out a few times.

Final Thoughts

I like how the Big Ten says they are sticking to their guns. I don’t like conference expansion in general.

I like the possibility that in a re-alignment Rutgers would be more geographically appropriate regional rivalries. I don’t like how football causes the other sports to be at its mercy.

I like the fact that sporting events can still be fun even without playoff implications. I don’t like instant gratification culture or recency bias.

I like that people will be reminded of 7th grade geography with this exercise. I don’t like what a super conference would do to player NIL compensation battles.

I like the Pac-12 and it is worth saving, down to the fact that its member schools all wear different color schemes!

I like that no matter how pessimistic we are on sports, the NCAA, or the country as a whole, another college football season is upon us.

Poll

What conference re-alignment do you PREFER?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    A: Give the superteams their opportunity to get whipped by Ohio State and Alabama.
    (14 votes)
  • 61%
    B: Let’s balance these 64 teams.
    (109 votes)
  • 7%
    C: The 63 team allows flexibility I like.
    (13 votes)
  • 22%
    D or "Other": Give everyone a shot and I will describe in the comments section.
    (40 votes)
176 votes total Vote Now

Poll

What do you think will actually happen?

This poll is closed

  • 43%
    The Big Ten will hold firm and not budge. Dave, thanks but no thanks for the hot take.
    (95 votes)
  • 9%
    A1. Super conference is a champions league.
    (20 votes)
  • 12%
    A2. Super division within the 64 team field.
    (28 votes)
  • 25%
    B. 64 team field. Some academics still have sway in academic institutions.
    (55 votes)
  • 4%
    C. Wildcard and Notre Dame get their way.
    (10 votes)
  • 5%
    D. Rule of 72, one of the eight divisions eventually becomes "super".
    (11 votes)
219 votes total Vote Now

In the words of the immortal Rambo villain Murdoch played by Charles Napier, “With your participation I believe this mission has a better than average chance to succeed rather than fail.” Do you have an alternate proposal? Let us know which you prefer or an additional option.