An AQ / Non-AQ Split Is Inevitable And Necessary

In recent weeks, there's been a lot of talk about pay-for-play from two of the BCS heavyweights -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and SEC commissioner Mike Slive. Both commissioners have made arguments for expanding college football scholarships to include the "full cost of attendance."

That's well and good for members of the six BCS conferences, who can afford the luxury of paying student-athletes with their lucrative TV media rights deals, but what about the non-AQs? CBSSports.com columnist Tony Barnhardt believes that this could be the start of an inevitable split between college football's haves and have-nots:

"Schools on the lower end of Division I-A, whose budgets are already deep in red ink as they try to keep up with the big boys, feared such a move would further widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots. They were concerned this was just the first shot across the bow in a process where the six BCS conferences will eventually break away and operate as a separate division in college football."

Barnhardt proposes that the six BCS conferences and the four independents -- Army, Navy, Notre Dame and BYU -- will break from the BCS and the non-AQ conferences to form a 70-team group called the College Football Association. This group of 70 would crown its own National Champion, either through the bowls and polls or through a college football playoff.

The rest of Division I-A, the roughly 54 programs left standing -- current members of the WAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, MAC, Conference USA and I-A upstarts Texas State (WAC), Texas-San Antonio (WAC), UMass (MAC) and South Alabama (Sun Belt), would then ban together with several of the I-AA conferences to stay afloat, forming a new Division I.

Sound far-fetched? Perhaps. But if you ask me, the wheels for such a split are already in motion ... the writing on the wall. Why else would guys like Delany and Slive be advocating to pay student-athletes? Why are the Big Six conferences getting extremely lucrative TV media rights deals? This is just the beginning of the widening gap between the AQs and the non-AQs, with the potential of the gap only getting larger.

It's not hard to see the gap widening when you look at the Pac-12's new TV rights deal compared to that of, say, Conference USA. Pac-12 programs will make roughly $21 million annually under the conference's new media rights deal. Conference USA teams will make just $1.3 million. Just taking the revenue from TV alone, that's a revenue gap that is 6x larger than the total revenue gap between the Yankees ($427 million) and the Pirates ($160), according to Forbes. No matter how much these non-AQ schools raise student fees, they won't be able to consistently compete with the BCS conference programs given the widening gap in revenues.

But is this necessarily a bad thing? Not necessarily.

If the 70 or so BCS programs broke away from the non-AQs, I'd imagine this College Football Association could produce a pretty compelling TV product.

If you think the Big East will finally listen to its football coaches, the conference will finally get serious about college football and expand to 12 teams -- say, Villanova, Central Florida and East Carolina / Houston. That would up the total number of teams in the hypothetical CFA to 74 teams, and strengthen the football product for the weakest of the six CFA conferences.

Another benefit of this AQ / non-AQ split would be in terms of scheduling. The Pac-12 and Big 12 have moved or will move to a 9-game conference schedule, and my guess is the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and a 12-team Big East won't be too far behind. That would leave just three non-conference games to schedule, and if the new CFA keeps the bowl eligibility rule about wins against Division I-AA opponents (a new Division I-A in this scenario) in place, that would leave just two non-conference games for each program to schedule. Since there would be so few non-conference games, this may encourage programs to get a little tougher when it comes to scheduling, scheduling non-conference games within the CFA and not outside of it.

The new CFA could crown a champion either through the old bowls and polls system, or create a 4-team or 8-team playoff that co-exists with the bowls. But with just 74 teams, you no longer need 35+ bowls in undesirable locations like Detroit, Boise, Shreveport, Washington DC and The Bronx. You'd probably only need 10-15 bowls (combined with a playoff) or 20-22 under the old bowl system, since you wouldn't have nearly as many bowl-eligible programs. Say goodbye to today's college football postseason bloat and bowl games played in baseball stadiums.

At the end of the day, does the FBS really need more programs? Do you really expect programs like UMass, South Alabama and Texas State to become the next Boise State in 10 years?

Breaking away from the non-AQs would better the overall college football product and also stem the tide of Division I-AA programs looking to make a jump to I-A football. As an added bonus, a move like this would remove any anti-trust hurdles caused by the BCS (i.e. if every CFA team has an equal shot at the National title, there's really nothing that runs afoul of anti-trust).

The other thing about this proposed split is that it doesn't have to be an all-sports split. Since the NCAA awards an official championship in nearly every collegiate sport EXCEPT Division I-A football, the CFA could be a standalone entity that wouldn't interfere with the NCAA's other sports and championships (notably, the Big East could continue to toe the football-basketball line if it so chose). 

Would a move like this be extremely contentious? Absolutely. Would there be some football program casualties after an AQ / non-AQ split? Sure. But three of the largest potential non-AQ casualties -- TCU, Utah and BYU -- have all made moves to join the BCS in some shape or form. There would certainly be other casualties like Boise State, UCF, East Carolina -- but I doubt the six BCS commissioners would lose much sleep over them. Perhaps programs like this could pursue football independence or join forces with the Mountain West to make the case to bring an expanded MWC into the fold.

What do you think? Would you really miss the New Era Pinstripe Bowl? Would you miss playing multiple MAC football programs in one season? Wouldn't this be for the overall benefit of college football?

I say let's rip off the band-aid and get this over with.

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