As Idaho and New Mexico State Can Attest, College Football Never Sleeps

by Johnny Furgele

As March Madness approaches, the office copy machine will be busy running off brackets so employees can fill them out and see if they can earn some cash and the bragging rights that go with it.  Most don’t know Iowa from Iowa State, but that’s what makes it fun.  There are some teams to avoid.  I certainly didn’t come up with this idea, but it’s always best to avoid directional schools.  That means schools like Northern Iowa and East Carolina (if the make the field) can’t be picked.  I also avoid state schools that are named after cities such as Kent State, Cleveland State and Kennesaw State, even though, Memphis, formerly known as Memphis State made it to Final Fours in 1973 and 1985.

All this said, football is still the dominant college sport and continues to grab the attention.  Last week, the Ivy League made news when it announced that players will not tackle during regular season practices.  Some of the old guard scoffed, but many schools limit tackling and full-scale hitting at practices and Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens hasn’t let his players tackle in practice since 2010.  His 2015 team finished 9-1 and shared the league title with Pennsylvania and Harvard.  The quest to reduce head trauma continues and even though football remains the most popular sport to watch, safeguards must be taken to preserve its long-term survival.

The other news came out of the Sun Belt, when the conference announced that they were kicking out football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State out after the 2017 season.  The Sun Belt currently has 11 football members with Coastal Carolina coming in officially in 2017.  After NMSU and Idaho depart, the conference will have 10 football members and 12 schools overall (Texas-Arlington and Arkansas-Little Rock don’t play football).  The NCAA recently announced that only 10 schools are needed to have a conference championship game, so the Sun Belt—should they choose—no longer needed Idaho and New Mexico State.

Both the Vandals and the Aggies never really fit in with a conference that lives in the shadows of the Southeastern Conference.  Add to this the fact that neither school was very competitive made the decision to cut ties an easy one.  For 2016 and 2017, the schedules for Idaho and New Mexico State are set, but where the schools land in 2018 will be interesting to track.

The intriguing part is that both schools hinted that they may drop their programs to the FCS (1-AA) level.  As a fan of FCS football, it is something I’d like to see.  When you think about it, where can New Mexico State and Idaho go?  The only league that makes sense is the Mountain West Conference which has 11 full-time members and 12 (Hawaii) for football.  That would give the league 14 football members, but again, both schools would have to likely move all teams to the MWC.  And, because neither school “does well,” in football, the MWC isn’t begging for them to join.

Idaho has a standing invitation to join the Big Sky Conference, a conference that all their other sports play in.  It’s the perfect choice for them, but it does require a shot to their pride.  If the university officials can get over that, there is reason to believe that the University of Idaho could flourish in the conference.  They would have a natural rivalry in Idaho State as well as playing the likes of Weber State and both Montana and Montana State.  There has never been a school that has moved down from FBS to FCS but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.

New Mexico State would also benefit from playing at the FCS level and the Big Sky Conference.  Would the Aggies join just for football or would they move all sports to the Big Sky?  Currently, the Aggies play in the Western Athletic Conference, which dropped sponsoring football several years ago.  The Big Sky does have two football-only schools in Cal-Poly and California-Davis, so there is precedence for adding New Mexico State for just football.

Many schools think they have to get to FBS to increase their football profile and the for the most part, that’s bunk.  Yes, there is less revenue at the FCS level, but there is less expense too.  In 2015, Idaho coach and New Mexico State coach Paul Petrino and Doug Martin made $413,000 and $376,000 respectively.  Those salaries are at the bottom of the FBS level, but at the FCS level, they could pay coaches less and that would trickle down to assistants as well.  The NCAA should really stop the upward migration and work to strengthen the FCS level, but schools like Coastal Carolina and Charlotte dream of playing at the top level and going in to a Michigan or Notre Dame and pulling off the attention-grabbing upset.

FCS schools also allow for 63 scholarships compared to 85 at the FBS level.  Reducing 22 scholarships will save Idaho and New Mexico State money over the long run.  The problem with universities is that the see what they think they can make at the FBS level without considering what can be saved at the FCS level.

While basketball seems relatively stable, there will be movement in football in the future.  Like or not, the Big 12 will eventually expand from 10 schools as will the Pac 12.  The grow or die model never goes away in business and college football is huge business.  The Power 5 schools, truth-be-told really don’t want anything to do with the Group of 5 schools and that too, will work itself out in the coming years.

The Furgele model is still the best out there and it’s a very simple one.  The Power 5 schools will break away and form the College Football Alliance or CFA.  The CFA will have 72 schools.  Each Power 5 conference will have 14 teams for a total of 70.  Notre Dame and BYU would bring that total to 72.  Cry as you might, but there is no reason for Notre Dame to join a football conference and the CFA knows this and would be okay with it.  BYU could stay independent, but deep down; the Cougars would like to get back into a conference, so we’ll see what happens.

The Pac 12 would need to add two; the Big 12, four, so six schools would get a chance to stay at the CFA level of Division 1 football.  The CFA would have an 8 team playoff which creates seven more games for television networks.

The remaining schools would form the NCAA level of football.  This includes the G5 schools and all the current FCS schools.  Indiana State and Kent State would now be at the same level and they would compete for their own championship.  The NCAA would feature a 32-team field with 31 games for the television networks.  The bowl games–all of them—would be gone and though this would upset the folks at the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, things change and this is sign of the times.  The typewriter was a very useful product and so too, was the FAX machine and the coffee percolator.

Pasadena and New Orleans could still host playoff and championship games, but if college football wants to continue its surge, it has to do so by incorporating real playoffs like college basketball, hockey and baseball do.  It’s what America wants and going forward, will demand.

CFA schools could play NCAA schools in regular season, so the guarantee games could still take place when Idaho visits Alabama for both a beat-down and $1.2 million.

Fear not, Idaho and New Mexico State, your future is bright.  For now, play your final two seasons in the Sun Belt and then come to your new home in the FCS.  You will be happier, more competitive and more importantly, be primed when the next major move comes.

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