Gary Conkling: Will college football make the leap to pro?

Conference realignment, the transfer portal and compensation for athletes have rushed college football closer to a Saturday version of professional football. Reaching that dubious end zone may only be a quarterback sneak away.

Defections from the Big 12 and Pacific Coast Conference have turned the Big 10 and SEC into super-conferences.

The Big 12 scrambled to replace its name-plate former members by raiding the already wobbling Pac-12. The ACC, based on the East Coast improbably, added Stanford and Cal on the opposite coast.

Individual colleges raid each other’s rosters through the transfer portal. A transfer can offer himself or herself up to the most attractive bidder, which can include exposure, playing time and compensation.

Stewart Mandel, writing for The Athletic, predicts it won’t be long before college football, or at least its brightest lights, officially turns pro. The College Football Federation he anticipates as a result could have as few as 28 teams completely divorced from their collegiate sports siblings.

The 28 teams Mandel chose to elevate bear a close resemblance to the existing top tier of college football teams — 11 Big Ten, nine SEC, four ACC, three Big 12 plus Notre Dame. Newly minted Big Ten members Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA all made his cut.

All the names are familiar because they typically occupy most of the spots on the Top 25 weekly ratings.

In Mandel’s imagined 28-team league, there would be four divisions. The seven teams in his Division B would be the westernmost teams in the expanded Big Ten ­— Oregon, Washington, USC, UCLA, Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin. Some historic and regional rivalries would survive; others would be dumped like old furniture at the curb.

There is no secret what’s driving the train — TV revenue chasing fan bases that thirst for big games every Saturday, all day, in every time slot and every time zone.

Ohio State versus Rutgers isn’t as pulsating or profitable as the Buckeyes playing USC in the Coliseum. Playing teams like Ohio State and USC every week is a coach’s nightmare, but a viewer’s ecstasy.

More money for fewer teams will be compensation for the teams, though not so much for fans accustomed to gaudy win-loss records. When you play powerhouses instead of cream puffs, 7-5 seasons will be more common than 12-0 seasons.

A preview of that can be seen in the 2024 schedule for Oregon, which includes a home game against Ohio State and a road game at The Big House in Ann Arbor. Winning one of those games would be viewed as a victory, winning both a distinct longshot.

For teams left behind, there will be a chance to rebuild abandoned conferences. Mandel’s projected 28-team super-league includes five soon-to-be-former Pac-12 teams (Utah is #5).

That leaves seven existing or former Pac-12 teams to resuscitate the Conference of Champions in a more condensed and fan-friendly geographical area. The TV revenue may not be as fulsome, but travel costs and time loss from the classroom would be far less and longstanding regional rivalries would continue.

Another advantage of cutting loose big-league football teams is not subjecting all other sports teams in their universities to costly cross-country, class-cutting schedules. Fans could exult in the big-league status of their pro-like college football teams without other athletes, their families and fans paying the price.

Mandel believes the market forces at work on major college football are “eerily similar” to what led European soccer teams to break away to form the Premier League.

“The richest clubs (Manchester United, Liverpool) organized a breakaway from the sleepy, century-old Football League to form their own thing and reap ginormous TV money,” he said. He likened the move to a shift from a socialist to a capitalist model.

“The traditional conference model is socialistic,” he said. “Ohio State receives the same Big Ten check as Northwestern despite generating infinitely more revenue. Ditto for Alabama and Vanderbilt in the SEC.

“That model has survived for more than 100 years, but is crumbling amid the rapidly changing landscape. The next milestone will be when courts demand schools begin sharing their revenue with athletes.”

He concluded, “Which do you think is more likely when that day comes ­— Georgia starts spending less on coaching salaries and facilities to pay the athletes? Or, Georgia finds a new source of revenue so it can keep excessively spending?

“What will that new revenue source be? A stand-alone football product.”

Conference “socialism” may have played a role in the financially motivated departures of USC and UCLA from the Pac-12. It also may have been a factor in the thinking of Oregon and Washington, even though the University of Oregon president defended the departure on academic grounds by saying Big Ten schools have better libraries. Right.

College football won’t have to worry about ditching the NFL’s “socialistic” draft. It already competes off the gridiron in front rooms recruiting top high school players and reaching out to players who voluntarily enter the transfer portal.

This is a recipe for the rich getting richer. In a pro-like football conference with college player compensation, it will become even more so.

Premier college football will be at once the NFL’s minor league and its brand rival. The advent of fifth and sixth year “seniors” may become more common and commercially advantageous.

Mandel predicts college football will enter the pros within the next decade after the current conference realignment settles in, with a few more iterations and TV deals. Changes in how viewers access content will become the major driver, he says. Direct-to-consumer streaming will allow people to watch the games they want, not just what’s on their local cable feed.

“It won’t matter whether the viewer lives in Los Angeles or Lafayette, La., so long as he or she cares about an Ohio State-Texas game,” Mandel said. “Hence, the increasing emphasis on big brands.”

Simply put, local fans want to win, national fans want a good game and TV networks want eyeballs.

For TV networks, the mark of a big brand, at least for now, is 4 million viewers per game. From 2015 through 2022, Alabama reached that mark 50 times, Ohio State 46 and Michigan 40.

Georgia, which has won two consecutive national titles, managed it just 30 times. Notre Dame, with its national following, only achieved it 21 times.

No Pac-12 team made the top 10 list, possibly because some of its top games air at 7 p.m. Pacific Time, which is bedtime on the East Coast.

College football dates back to 1869, when Ivy League schools took up the game, using slightly modified soccer rules. In the inaugural game, Rutgers defeated Princeton 6-4.

The college game picked up fans and techniques in the 1920s, spurred by Knute Rockne’s Notre Dame teams, which went undefeated five seasons, won three national championships and produced 15 All-Americans. His coaching fame belied the fact that he emigrated from Norway at age 5, speaking no English and never even having heard of football.

Small in size, Rockne only played in one varsity high school game before dropping out of school. But friends convinced him to take an equivalency test and apply to Notre Dame, even though he grew up as a Lutheran.

Somehow, Rockne earned a spot on the football team and was good enough to be considered an All-American his junior year.

Then came his big moment when he unleashed a 25-yard forward pass in a game against Army. It was the first recorded forward pass in the history of college football, and it revolutionized the game.

Flash forward and you might call Stetson Fleming Bennett IV a contemporary Rockne knock-off.

Bennett was a walk-on at Georgia, and was buried on the depth chart behind a 5-star quarterback recruit. So he decided to transfer to Jones College to see some playing time. There, he earned the nickname “The Mailman” for his passing ability.

Bennett came back to Georgia to become its second-string quarterback on the bench. It took an injury to the starter for him to get on the field.

The rest is history, as Bennett led the Bulldogs to consecutive national championships. In his final game to complete a 15-0 season, he led Georgia past TCU 65-7, the largest bowl game margin of victory in FBS history.

When top-tier college teams turn pro, this kind of feel-good story may become even rarer. Their super-team rosters will be NFL teams in waiting. packed with giant linemen, ferociously fast linebackers, acrobatic defensive backs, bruising running backs, huge receivers and multi-dimensional quarterbacks.

You can already see the pattern emerge. Many starting quarterbacks at top schools in Mandel’s college pro league have Heisman-like qualities, and many arrived via the transfer portal.

Mandel views the emerging situation as regrettable.

“I’d like to wave a wand and send college football back to 1995, when no major conference had more than 12 members and all were mostly contiguous,” he wrote. But when asked whether he would be a fan of the College Federation of Football that he anticipates, he answered, “Abso-freaking-lutely.”

And he won’t be the only one watching. Go, Ducks!

Guest writer Cary Conkling started writing stories as a child and publishing them on his own hand-cranked printing press. Little did he know digital technology would make it possible to repeat the task as an adult by publishing his own blog, Life Notes. He is a journalist by trade who has worked in the trenches of public affairs at the federal, state, regional and local levels. But he also is an observer of life occurring around him. This piece is from his blog, found at https://garyconklinglifenotes.wordpress.com. 


Don Dix

Many college athletes are now making huge amounts of cash using NIL (name, image, likeness). Oregon QB Bo Nix's estimated take is $2M this year, and there are others above that figure. It might be a big rea$on to stay in school!

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