Optimal Conference Size

Posted by    |    October 24th, 2011 at 3:18 pm

Throughout this conference realignment soap opera, one of the silent driving motivations has been the assumed inexorable march toward superconferences. The most widely agreed assumption has been that the long-term end game for college football is a reduced number of conferences with 16 teams each. What I want to discuss is not if that assumption is correct (others will have better input on media partners, television footprints, etc.) but rather should it be?

Frequently repeated mentions of stability, schedule appeal, schedule strength, and conference strength caused me to question the assumption that those aspects are strengthened in a superconference setup. Now don’t get me wrong, I never took public mentions of those motivations as anything more than the PR moves that they were and are, because the only consistent thing in the conference realignment game is that all the players are out for themselves and the dollars.

So I sat down to consider only the above factors but, as usual, my thoughts led me all over the place.

A 10-Team Conference

I’m not going to pretend to be unbiased in this post. I thought about this and came to a conclusion, so of course I have a bias. And if you have at least a third grader’s ability to comprehend what you read, then you already know I’m on the side of a 10-team conference.

The primary reason that kept popping up again and again was that a 10-team conference enables a round robin schedule in both football and basketball (and baseball, too). It’s my contention that in the long run, round robin schedules drive greater stability and strength for a conference.

Rivalries and Stability

The first benefit of round robin scheduling is rivalry development and consistent familiarity between conference partners/foes. During the 12-team history of the Big 12, it’s hard to say that Longhorn fans truly considered Iowa State, Kansas State, etc. conference mates in the same manner we considered the South schools. Playing half of your conference brethren twice as often as you play the other half inevitably leads to division in terms of conference relationships and rivalries. If the Big 12 were to stay at ten teams for any reasonable length of time moving forward we would begin to develop more meaningful rivalries and relationships with the rest of the conference. I don’t particularly look forward to an annual loss to Kansas State, but I don’t thnk it can even be argued that they would begin to feel like more of a conference rival with annual matchups. And stronger relationships and greater visibility between conference partners creates more stability.

Conference and Schedule Strength

The argument that a 10-team conference is a better path toward conference and schedule strength counts on both some current real world data as well as some logical assumptions.

Reviewing the current Massey BCS ratings and Sagarin conference ratings reveals some interesting things about the conferences. Take a moment to sort the Massey ratings by the “SchF” column, which is the projected final schedule strengths for all teams based on games currently scheduled. Do you notice anything about the entire Top 10 in that metric? Yeah, it’s the Big 12. Now go to the Sagarin page and scroll past the part where the Big 12 is clearly the best conference all the way down to the Big 12 teams. Look at those schedule ratings and then realize that they will only improve as the rest of the conference slate plays out. Now for grins, take a look at the 2010 Massey BCS ratings and 2010 Sagarin conference ratings.

Look, Colorado sucks, we know that. But Nebraska isn’t bad and our conference schedule ratings have gone through the roof in one season. Each team had the opportunity to drop a scrub non-conference game for a conference matchup. Yes, this is a very good year for many teams in the Big 12, but I have to think that the round robin schedule has an impact as well. Teams are unable to avoid playing good teams from the other division, and I think that outweighs every team playing the weak teams in the league. Admittedly the 27-3 non-conference record is outstanding and has a lot to do with it, but the Big 12 also had a very good non-conference record last year after bowl games (43-13) and the schedule ratings are much worse.

Briefly, it’s also important to me to note that a round robin is the absolutely best way to determine a conference champion without question. It’s not a matter of being scared of a conference championship game, it’s more frustration that frequently the conference championship is therefore determined by a game not between the two best teams in the conference. Just looking at the SEC this year, it’s safe to assume that the LSU/Alabama winner will win the conference championship game. But that doesn’t change the fact that an undeserving SEC East team will be a fluke away from claiming the title. Meanwhile, in the Big 12, all of this year’s strong teams must play each other on the field. Could it end up in a tie? Sure, but I fail to see how a round robin tiebreaker is demonstrably worse than giving a clearly inferior team a chance due to the happenstance of divisional alignment.

But there are also tangential benefits to the round robin schedule when it comes to long-term conference strength. The Great State of Texas produces more FBS football players each year than the former Big 12 South schools can gobble up, the question is where the rest of them go. Splitting the conference into divisions means that the schools in the non-Texas division got one conference game in Texas each year. A full round robin, on the other hand, gives those teams two conference games each year within the Texas borders. Texas fans don’t like to think about other teams gaining exposure in our state, but the bottom line is that those players are going to go somewhere. Making the Big 12 the State of Texas’ conference is absolutely the right move for both the conference and the Texas program in particular. There have been rumors that Oklahoma and Oklahoma State want the league to grow to 12 teams, and my cynical side says those two programs want that to happen specifically because of that point. The Big 12 South was the perfect situation for those schools as they were seen as more closely associated with the Texas schools than the rest of the conference. If their desire for 12 teams is in fact due in part to this consideration, I think they are being extremely short-sighted. Would they rather recruit against LSU and Arkansas for the rest of the Texas players or against LSU, Arkansas, Kansas, and Kansas State? Remember, I am thinking about long-term implications, not the current strengths of the programs. The Sooners and Cowboys will be recruiting against someone for those players, it would be wise to make the Big 12 clearly stronger and more visible in Texas than the SEC.

The final aspect of a 10-team conference that would enable a deeper and stronger overall group of teams is not directly related to the round robin schedule. Instead, it is simply about the number of teams and therefore games on TV each weekend. In this case, it’s not so much the 10-team versus 12-team situation, although 10-team still wins that one, but more about the 10-team conference versus a 16-team superconference. We’ve already seen the results this year as Baylor and Iowa State have made it onto 2:30 ABC broadcasts more often than I can recall, even considering Baylor’s football program’s progress with Griffin taking snaps. The fewer games each weekend mean more opportunities for the down programs to make Tier 1 and Tier 2 television appearances, increasing their visibility throughout the conference footprint which should in turn enable them to more easily maintain a respectable level of performance.

No matter how I look at it, I currently believe that a 10-team setup is the structurally best solution for a stable and strong conference. Add in the fact that it means two fewer accounts with which to divide conference proceeds and I think it’s the right answer for the future.

There Be an Elephant in the Room

Snap back to reality. That last point in favor of conference strength flies directly in the face of what the TV networks and conference offices want in most cases, and ironically enough the Texas athletic department in one case. Expanding into new territories enables the media partners to argue for increased carriage rates in more areas, which in turn get passed on to the conference members. Just as importantly, a 16-team conference – and to a lesser extent a 12-team one – would also have a significantly larger amount of Tier 3 material that could be utilized and monetized via a conference network. You may think that this realization would push Texas toward favoring a larger conference where content available to ESPN and the Longhorn Network would greatly increase, but DeLoss Dodds’ position in favor of a 10-team structure has not wavered. Part of that is likely because he realizes that Texas content dropping to Tier 3 shouldn’t be very significant as long as the programs are doing their job regardless of conference size.

A larger conference also gives the Tier 1 and therefore Tier 2 media partners more inventory from which to select their broadcasts. Because of these reasons it’s obvious that TV is pushing the superconference direction. But after considering all angles, I hope that a conference is willing to give the 10-team model a chance again. With a solid recruiting base to fall back on (read: Texas) I think it’s worth a shot to see if going back to a smaller conference can win out in the end.

Because of the pressure and money from television, I don’t see it actually happening in the end. But it’s never too early to complain.

What would have been the perfect conference

Finally, a quick note on what I think would have been the perfect conference if we could go back in time and settle things down with long term commitments, etc.

Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska

Put that conference together with everything I mentioned above and I think it’s a winner. Something about horses and barn doors, though. I would really prefer a regional conference, so replacing A&M with TCU isn’t that big of a deal to me, but losing Missouri and Nebraska for Louisville or West Virginia (and the other’s place being taken by Iowa State’s involuntary loyalty) is definitely kind of a buzzkill.