2024-07-05 12:19

Hi everybody, College Football is coming back soon, and I could not hesitate to start writing again.

I started this 24th of June, I aim to publish from start of July onwards every week a conference to nt blob you with major long texts at the start.
We will have to see, whether I will get that done.

The upcoming season is what I would like to describe as another step stone into a near future, which will hopefully become another longer stable period regarding realignments and changes inside College Football. But my fear is, that this stable period is some more steppingstones away. Too many issues are yet unsolved, open, to be discussed and bound to decisions and reactions to come.

Enough cryptic stuff, let's get into the situations in more details.

Conference Realignments

As you hopefully know, the whole college systems work by conferences and teams do attach to such conferences to have a common ground to play with, to play for a conference championship and to generate money income.
The highest College Football level is the FBS, followed by the FCS, which both are so called division 1 College Football.
Now I do usually only write about the FBS and the FBS has right now 5 so called Power 5 Conference and 5 so called Group of 5 conferences, plus some independent teams.
The difference between Power 5 and Group of 5 is basically money and influence. Power 5 conference do get the most money, out of their ranks the National Champion did come from since ages, and they did change their set of teams over the past few seasons. The Group of 5 does basically earn less, have more or less no chance to play for a national title and are usually the pool the Power 5 does grab into, if a conference needs to adjust their number of teams.

But this season we have a big shift of teams from one of the Power 5 conference, the PAC 12, towards the 3 of the other 4 Power 5 conference (BIG 12, BIG10 and ACC) and the whole quite stable system over the decade is about to change dramatically.

The BIG 12 did welcome Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah, while they did lose Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. The BIG 12 did grow by that to 16 teams. The SEC became also a 16-team conference.

The BIG10 did get Oregon, UCLA, USC and Washington and have now 18 teams.

The ACC did agree with Stanford and California to join from the PAC 12 and on top got SMU from the American to grow to 17 teams.

By those moves, basically the Power 5 Conferences became the Power 4 conferences, with the PAC 12 holding only 2 remaining teams and the future of the conference is unknown.
They need either to add members soon, or they will have to find new homes for the 2 schools for football (since schools do offer several sports, a conference can continue to exist outside the football world and also team can join in different sports different conferences).
As far as I know, they have 3 seasons to get the planning done. Since the schools did state the intention to continue inside the PAC 12, it has to be assumed they will try to add at least 6 to 8 teams and those can only come from group of 5 conferences. Such a raid would lead automatically to additional shifts in those conferences or the end of a total conference.
Right now, NOTHING is known, beside the fact, that the PAC 12 did sign an association agreement with the Mountain West Conference for many games between the PAC12 and the MWC each season for I think those 3 seasons. This MIGHT lead to some sort of fusion or to nothing.

In addition, there were shifts from Indy to the American with Army joining and Kennesaw State did join in an FCS to FBS transition move the CUSA.

But that is NOT the final setup.
The CUSA has already an agreement with Delaware and Missouri State to join in 2025 in a FCS to FBS transition move.

Also known is that UMass will join the MAC in 2025 from Indy.

Also, a major topic is, what will happen with the ACC. Florida State and Clemson did sue the conference regarding the marketing contracts (running until 2030-something) and the conference did counter this by suing FSU and Clemson. Fact is, those big school want the same paycheck as schools from SEC or BIG10 get, and that marketing contract does limit those teams from leaving and does also limit all teams to a much less income. So far, only those 2 teams did sue, if more would join the case, the conference might switch their opinion fast (similar what did happen with the PAC12 last year in a different issue). Such lawsuits do need time, so I don't expect any change on that this season, but once a ruling was found, something WILL happen and either will the ACC lose teams long term, or it will transform somehow to fulfill those new demands.

Paying Players

Yes, you read right, the amateur status the whole system, defended since basically 150+ years, is close to be abandoned.
In the off season a settlement to end three lawsuits between the NCAA and players over their athletic service was agreed on worth 2.8 billion dollars and the intention to allow schools direct payments to players and to share revenue on payments and incentives.

As far as I know did all Power 5 conference agreed to the settlement, which would mean, that at least those conferences will change their recruiting and will start paying players.
And that will likely happen from season 2025 onward.

Many issues regarding this massive change are still open, but as far as I know, the settlement does not allow a shift of the introduction of that system to a later season, so it will be learn-by-doing on this from season 2025 onward. This will have a massive impact on recruiting, coach prolongations and facility renovations, since from that season onward there will be a new budget item on the balance of each university and the amount of money to be spend stays more or less the same, increases only based on TV contracts and sponsorships. But by far this will not be enough to compensate the money the top teams will need to pay the top players.

In the past that money did go straight to facilities and coaches, but now they will spend an amount X on players and that X will be missed on facilities and coaches.

Unknown is, how much that X amount will be per school and how this will turn out over the seasons.

We DID already see a shift in roster management thanks to the NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) business, so the wages will just add to that market and whoever offers the most will likely get the best players.

I could imagine that this season was the last one with coaches hirings and prolongations with 10+ million per year for a long time and an increase will not happen, since all increases on income will go on a very high percentage into the players wage section of the balance. Same for hyper modern playing facilities.

An aspect which is absolutely not know is, how this will affect the Group of 5 conferences and teams, since some of them are already prior the settlement on the limit and from 2025 onwards they would need money to get a good roster, but they don't have that money. And as far as I know, they did NOT agree on the settlement. Many do pay coaches a fraction of the money power 5 teams do pay so far, often way less than even the coordinators of power 5 teams do get. Now they will fall behind also in those wages, if they will start paying at all, which will mean, all TOP-whatever recruits will wait for an substantial offer from a power 5 (or likely power 4) school and recruiting for group of 5 schools will be compared to FCS. It could be that we will see at some point a cut between power 5 and group of 5 so that the division 1 football has power 5, group of 5 and FCS and everyone plays their own National Champion, or we will see that the group of 5 is forced to rejoin FCS, which I personally do not see.

Union or no union?

Another topic which just don't go way is the founding of a player’s union for College Football (or even College Sports). Several attempts were made, most notable the case of Northwestern, where the players were pretty close to form a union but were decline the right to do so (if I understood the process right). But with the new settlement on paying players, I think the next step will be to eventually form a union compared to the NFLPA, just for college players. But that topic does right now fly under the radar and likely will come up, once the terms of payment are more settled and many of the players will realize that not every player will get the same amount of money and that the top players will get the majority of the pile of cash. To protect the other players from becoming roster fillers, likely some people will begin the process to form a union again and this time, they might get it done.

So, all this is flying around, while the current players on the rosters have to prepare for the stuff they are originally brought into the schools, playing.
I think there will be several more seasons coming, until the rules and setups will that stable that the teams can operate without having severe adjustments from season to season.

Divisions are so yesterday

Another news is, that most conferences did get rid of the division system. The only conference with divisions left is the SUN BELT having 2 divisions of 7 Teams each. ALL other conference had already abandoned the division structure or did abandon the division structure starting this season.
Since many of the conference do now have more teams than a college football schedule can cover, a full round robin schedule is impossible, and the teams will have complicated schedules over the seasons to play each other once in a while inside the conference and on the other hand having for example some of rivalries intact.

Let's expand the playoffs!

And as last news we have the playoffs, which are now a 12 teams playoff system, which is a huge step compared to the 4-team playoff system of the past decade.

From this season onward the process will be, that the TOP 5 conference champions will get a spot plus 7 at-large teams. The TOP 4 conference champs will have a bye week and the other 8 teams will play the 1st round, with #5 playing #12, #6 plays #11 and so on.
The list of TOP teams is still on the hand of the playoff committee, but to be clear, the participating teams will eventually not be the TOP12 teams, it will be likely a big bunch of TOP teams, but could also have several teams lower ranked as TOP12, because the TOP5 conference champs are guaranteed, regardless their rank.

Not really comparable, but the best available is an example from 2022.
Georgia as SEC Champ at #1
Michigan as BIG10 Champ at #2
TCU did not win the BIG12, but was ranked #3, would be now #5
Ohio State did not win the BIG10, but was ranked #4, would be now #6
Alabama was ranked #5, would now be #7
Tennessee was ranked #6, would now be #8
Clemson as ACC Champ would be #3
Utah as PAC12 Champ would be #4, but this season PAC12 would not grant a champion, at this position Utah would be then #9 and only an at-large team
Kansas State as Big12 Champ would be #9, but under the constellation this season, they would be the 4th champ and then #4
USC was ranked #10 and would be #10
Penn State would be #11
Washington would be #12, but under this season’s circumstances we would miss a 5th conference champ so far and then Washington would NOT be in.
Tulane was ranked #16 and would be in as #12 under this season’s circumstances as 5th conference champ

I hope this makes it clearer, what we will see this season. It's good news for the Group of 5 conferences, who will have by that a guaranteed shot for a playoff spot, since the PAC12 has no champ for the next seasons.

That will hopefully make the playoffs more interesting and will give good teams from the weaker conferences a shot for a National Championship or at least more income.

So let's start with the conference preview, as last year with the weakest conference (at least in my view) and then work ourselves to the TOP.

Where to start?

Conference USA

The CUSA is roughly 30 years old. I have to say, only 30 years, since some of the other conferences are way older.
Still, this conference did funnel over the years already 21 teams into other conferences. The ACC has now 2 teams from the CUSA, the BIG12 has 4, the SUN BELT has 3 and the American has 12 former CUSA teams. That shows that this conference is raided regularly by other conferences to fill up spots, which did open up by other realignment moves.

Right now, the American does only consist of former CUSA teams and 2 former Indy teams.

So, imagine what they think regarding the openings at the PAC12? The CUSA will likely get raided again, directly or after other conferences got raided by the PAC12, if the PAC12 does this (which is likely), and THOSE conferences will then fill up their ranks again.

The main problem of the CUSA is, that their economical relevance is more or less irrelevant, compared to other conferences. That means, whenever a different conference waves money, teams are willing to move, because money does drive the college sport. More money means better coaches, better facilities, eventually not being in a deficit at all and in future to eventually being able to pay players.

The CUSA is on the future picture of College Sport likely a losing conference.

This season the conference has 10 teams, with Kennesaw State being in FCS to FBS transition mode and not eligible for post season games.

They will add 2 more teams in 2025, again additions from the FCS.

IF the conference keeps that amount of teams, the conference becomes a bit healthier again, but as said, I think we will see leaving teams, soon.

Last season we saw Liberty winning it all and New Mexico State did surprisingly finish 2nd for the other finale spot. Also, quite surprising was, that Jacksonville State not only did finish regular season with 8 wins as FCS-to-FBS team, they did also win a bowl game, even they were ineligible for post-season games. They got the bowl spot as exceptions, since other teams did fail to get the 6+ wins and some bowls had free spots.

That means, in theory Kennesaw State could play postseason, if the results are similar to last year. But of course, if enough teams do qualify, no exception will be made.

And the last sensation of last season was, that Liberty did get a New Year's Six Bowl spot, which did never happen to a CUSA team before. They got annihilated, but still ....
That means a lot of money did get to the conference, much more than usual. Whether this will help long-term is open, more likely will be Liberty a main target for other conferences.

No wonder, the Flames again are favored to win the conference, followed by Jacksonville State and Western Kentucky.

Jamey Chadwell is now in his 2nd season at Liberty and has all the tools to repeat. The offense should be fine with many returning starters, only the O-Line might need tweaking. Biggest concern will likely be the defense, which lost a lot of starters and was already not that good last season. But with the offense, in most games the opponents will have to play catchup any way. Their non-conference schedule is compared to former seasons fluffy, biggest matches are against Appalachian State and East Carolina. If they can stay undefeated, like last season, they might end up in the extended college Football Playoffs (if they are in the list of the 5 highest ranked conference champions, I doubt they would make the TOP12, even undefeated, with that schedule).

At Western Kentucky is Tyson Helton now in his 6th season and so far, his results are good, but far from the expected results (at least by the fans). In 2015 and 2016 did win WKU back-to-back-Conference-Championships guided by a guy who did already have another good period with Purdue and is now Louisville as their HC, which did play for the Championship in the ACC last year in his 1st season. Since 2016 did WKU win only a division title (2021 under Helton) and 6 bowls (which they won 4 times) but no championship under 2 different coaches. This season the Hilltoppers have to find a new QB but have beside that a quite stable group of returning starters. If they want to beat Liberty (on the road) they need to make their defense better than last year. The level of talent makes WKU a contender, but the season can go downhill fast at the end of the season with Liberty and Jacksonville State as the last 2 games. On top comes Alabama and Boston College as non-conference games.

Jacksonville State is very close to be a serious contender in the CUSA. Last year I had doubts regarding their adjustment to the FBS, but they won 9 games in their 1st season. Rich Rodriguez did a good job on the field and is now in his 3rd season with the Gamecocks. The Bowl game last year was a gift, and they will likely get back to one, now without an exception needed. But the team has some issues to fix. Their QB did transfer, and the new guy is not fixed yet, even the pool seems to be quite deep. The offense has more returning starter than the defense, which really needs attention. It has a new coordinator and if he can bring the new starters into a unit, the team might even challenge Liberty and/or WKU. They have a tough non-conference schedule and face Liberty and WKU on the road, which will likely limit their chances for a championship spot. But a bowl is very likely.

Sam Houston’s 1st season inside the FBS was rough, they finished 3-9, but had 6 losses with less than 10 points. K.C. Keeler is on his 12th season and all signs do indicate a jump in the win total. Whether they will really get the 4th place is of course open, but with a bit of luck and the returning starter, especially on defense, the team will win more games, likely enough to get into a bowl. The team has a mixed schedule for non-conference games, so they might win some of those, and a quite favorable schedule setup squeeze out wins against teams they did lose to last year.

Mike MacIntyre is now in his 3rd season with FIU and so far in both past seasons the team did win only 4 games. But this year he has 11 returning starters and the direct competitors for the mid field, Sam Houston and Middle Tennessee, are at home. The offense should be fine with a returning starting QB and a quite deep RB-pool, but the defense was bad last season, and this unit will be the key part for improvements or for doom. The non-conference schedule is quite soft, still they will likely lose some of them, the rest could give them likely something between 4 to 8 wins, depended on the defense. My guess is, they will flirt with a bowl bid.

Middle Tennessee had a bad season last year, which did cost the 18th-season-HC the job. New HC for the Blue Raiders is Derek Mason, last season the DC of Oklahoma State. He was a HC with Vanderbilt for 7 seasons and made it twice to a bowl with 6 wins (both lost) but was fired after a 0-8 start in 2020. Not many returning starters to work with, but at least the leading QB in passing yards is on the team. New coach, new systems, but a quite deep pool of talent makes this team to some sort of joker. Either the team will have growing pains, then the results will be as bad as last season or worse, or the team does find some spirit under a new coach and win more than last year. A bowl is possible but unlikely with a quite tough non-conference schedule.

It's likely a season under fire for Sonny Cumbie, who is now in his 3rd season with Louisiana Tech and won so far only 3 games in each season. With only 6 returning starters his fate is likely set. They have quite tough games as non-conference games and play many likely-mid-field-teams on the road. I think they might win more than 3 games this season, but I doubt a bowl season and LT might get a new coach after the season.

New Mexico State went to the championship game last year, lost that one, went to bowl, lost that one and then lost their HC, who was the main reason for the remarkable turnaround of the team in 2 seasons. I don't think Tony Sanchez, the new HC, will win close the 10 games of last season. Sanchez was the HC of UNLV for 5 seasons between 2015 and 2019 and won only 20 games in total and 5 at best in a season. Why the made the last-seasons WR coach the HC is beyond me, but of course he can prove me and all others wrong. The best they have is a full returning starting O-line. The rest is more or less in pieces. Maybe the spirit of the last seasons can be somehow replicated, but I doubt it and expect a major turn to the worse. The schedule is mixed, but under the current circumstances, likely tough.

UTEP hired a new HC after a 3-9 season under the last one. Scotty Walden came from Austin Peay (FCS), where he won back-to-back-conference-championships here in his last 2 seasons (of 5). He will need to rebuild UTEP and has brought some of his Austin Peay players to help here. Still, especially on defense, the team had many question marks and will likely not rise fast. Non-conference schedule is tough, the rest of course also but many low-level and mid-level-games are at home, so they might get some more wins than last year.

And at last, Kennesaw State with Brian Bohannon in his 10th season and HC. He guided the team in FCS between 2017 and 2021 to 3 conference titles in 5 seasons and made the playoffs in 4 of 5 seasons. But since then, 5-6 and 3-6. With the background of the team, they will likely become a solid FBS team, but this season they need to find a QB and an O-line as starters. Their defense might be the unit keeping them in a game with 6 returning starters, but overall, the team will have a hard time in their 1st season in the FBS and the conference. Non-conference games are also here tough, the conference games of course a challenge with the home games against the contenders and the rest on the road. Bad luck also here.

That’s it for the Conference USA and some news, more next week.

'Til next time

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