I was on vacation last week when I got a news notification about the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 forming an alliance. As a huge fan of The Office (and one who’s seen The Alliance more than a few dozen times), the headline gave me the giggles.
But it also brought a lot of excitement. Because news of the formation of an SEC superleague that includes Oklahoma and Texas was more than a little depressing — and an alliance does a lot to balance out that sadness, especially when Ohio State would be a beneficiary.
That’s because, especially from a scheduling perspective, there are serious benefits to having an alliance-based college football landscape rather than a set of superleagues. (There are also a number of procedural benefits that would streamline administrivia and make engagements more consistent, but we don’t need to get into that here).
For starters, there’s more capacity to maintain tradition, because existing leagues remain more or less intact. The Big Ten dates back to 1895. We’re all familiar with the plethora of trophy games that connect programs from across the midwest (seriously, would we ever be okay with losing Floyd of Rosedale or the Illibuck?).
Further, there’s the benefit of more teams being allowed to party — well, at least more than in a super-conference. While an alliance pushes teams from smaller conferences into even greater obscurity, it does offer the advantage of keeping top-to-bottom conference alignments whole rather than pulling, say, the 20 best teams from across multiple conferences.
We also benefit from more high-profile games in the non-conference schedule, both as viewers and from a media perspective. Better early games mean better ratings, which mean more viewers and greater leverage for media deals for conferences.
Then there’s the fact we could see something like basketball’s Big Ten / ACC Challenge, but football edition! I’ll admit I don’t catch as many regular season college basketball games as I’d like (especially for teams not named Ohio State), but I will always tune in for as many of the crossover games as I can.
Why? Trackable gamification and micro-competitions. With the Olympics barely in our rearview mirror, it’s easy to think about the urge of tracking the medal count — in some cases, several times per day. It was a separate thing to do from watching the events themselves, and triggered another level of competition that went beyond the sports themselves. Ditto for cross-conference challenges such as we’d get with alliances. The racked-and-stacked Big Ten and ACC face off in the same week of the regular season? Sign me up.
From a postseason perspective, the College Football Playoff committee would have a better idea of who the best teams are, because we actually know who the best conference is year in and year out. Further, with an expanded Playoff, automatic bids become more clear cut when spread among alliances (i.e., one champion gets a bid) rather than superleagues (who knows?)
Finally, alliances offer schools improved recruiting opportunities and cross-pollination across alliance recruiting grounds. While programs like Ohio State already have a national brand and can successfully recruit the likes of California, Texas and Florida, other Big Ten schools would benefit from being able to get out of the Midwest (though there’s something to be said for cleaning up in-state recruiting).
There are downsides, however. For starters, there’s little opportunity for schools not in the alliance to schedule up. The likes of UCF or Boise State would never be considered in a new system in which teams might have one non-Power Five team to schedule per year, which means those teams don’t get what for them are premiere out of conference matchups. Instead, we get more MAC versus Sun Belt.
As mentioned, there would also be less parity between the Power Five and the Group of Five and other teams. While an expanded CFP means Group of Five champs would have a better shot of making it in the field, poor strength of schedule (from not playing Power Five teams) would mean lower seeding and, likely, early exits.
Then there’s the recruiting aspect. There is some appeal for high schoolers recruited to the likes of the MAC for playing a big name school once a season. These are players who, for example, might never have been recruited by Ohio State, but who might get to play in the Horseshoe just once in their college careers when they head to Miami (OH) or Akron or Bowling Green. That recruiting pitch is lost for non-Power Five coaches.
We’d also have to imagine that ticket prices would also soar under an alliance system. If Ohio State’s non-conference games year in and year out are Oregon, Clemson and USC, there’s not a lot of opportunity to keep prices low for what we would imagine to be highly competitive games with marquee programs.
There will be problems with any system we have in college football. The BCS was too exclusive. The current Playoff format concentrates power among about five programs. Superleagues are too insular.
But given the choice of if it, do I want to form an alliance?
Absolutely, I do.