Coastal Carolina, from the Big South Conference, won the College Baseball World Series this week, taking two out of three games from mighty Arizona. Let that one sink in for a minute, college sports fans.
The Chanticleers, in so doing, delivered perhaps the best argument for reforming college sports, which currently funnels the vast majority of resources to roughly 70 schools in the five so-called “Power Conferences.” The result is that in most sports, it’s all but impossible for outsiders to challenge for a national championship. In football, such a school wouldn’t even be let into the playoffs, let alone have a real chance to win it.
Even ESPN, arguably the major driving force behind the current structure of collegiate athletics, conceded in a column by football writer Ivan Maisel that a similar Cinderella run in football would be impossible. CBS, which oddly televises contests involving the leftover “Group of 5” conferences but almost never writes about them, took the same position in a post by Jon Solomon.
The problem is structural. Coastal Carolina, located near Myrtle Beach, would never be invited to the college football playoff over a power conference school, according to Maisel and Solomon. And they’re right.
The original field in this year’s college baseball playoffs included 10 schools from the ACC, seven from the SEC and four from the Pac-12. Last year, the ACC and SEC featured seven apiece, while the Pac-12 sent six and the Big Ten five.
This comes even though baseball is one of the most egalitarian of college sports. Joining Coastal Carolina among the eight schools in Omaha this year was UC Santa Barbara of the Big West. Cal State Fullerton of the same league reached the CWS last year and won it four times previously. Fresno State was a surprise champion in 2008. Schools like Dallas Baptist in years past burst onto the scene by playing well in June.
Even in basketball, famous for shocking early round upsets, the deep runs by Butler and George Mason were very much the exception.
In the BCS era, which worsened this mess, the highest team in the BCS standings before bowl season in 2013 — the last year of the miserable system — was one-loss UCF at No. 15. Eight teams ranked ahead of them with multiple losses. One had three Ls. The Knights, it should be said, defeated Baylor of the Big 12 in the Fiesta Bowl that year.
In 2012, the highest a non-power league team got before the bowl games was also No. 15. It was one-loss Northern Illinois, with nine multiple loss schools ranked higher.
The playoff system, in some ways, appears worse. Last year, the top non-power team was Houston, ranked 18th, below four three-loss schools. The Cougars beat No. 9 Florida State in their bowl game. In 2014, Boise State was No. 20, having lost twice. Ten three-loss and one four-loss schools were ahead of the Broncos, who, surprise, won its bowl game by downing No. 10 Arizona.
The top leftover teams have proven they’re pretty good, but to compete for a championship, you have to be invited.
You also need the resources to compete year-in and year-out. That takes money and exposure for recruiting purposes. Schools in the Big Ten and SEC are earning $30 million annually in their television contracts, and the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 more than $20 million each. Compare that to schools in the G5 leagues, which are lucky to clear $1 million every year. The difference is more than 30-to-1 and 20-to-1. Media attention is similarly weighted, especially when you have networks that rarely write about G5 teams on the web even though they have a stake in them through their cable sports affiliates.
So how do you compete in a landscape where the Power 5 and Group of 5 are both in the same division of college football? The answer is you really don’t. The Mountain West, which admittedly had a down season last year, went 3-21 against P5 schools, and two of the victims were among the worst teams among the major conferences. If the MW had been stronger, it might have claimed only another one or two wins, frankly.
Clearly, when you have half of major college football on one high plateau and the other half in the cellar, reform is needed.
The simplest option is also the most unlikely — nationalizing the football television contracts and dividing the pie evenly to all 120 or so teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. A federal court ruling several decades ago took the power of TV deals away from the NCAA and to the schools, which assigned the responsibility to their conferences. Plus, the big schools would scream about contracts and the networks would rightly claim that Ohio State is worth far more in terms of audience than Appalachian State.
The P5 conferences, while being uninterested in sharing their riches, also seem unwilling to take the long predicted step of taking all their marbles and going home, forming their own separate division. In strong leagues in which teams beat each other up on a weekly basis, a few easy wins pad the schedule and all but guarantee that most members will reach the six victories needed to qualify for bowl games. Breaking off on their own could also ruin the best thing college sports has going, the NCAA basketball tournament.
That calls for a more nuanced solution.
While a Coastal Carolina competing for a national football championship — the Chanticleers are moving up to the FBS this fall — would be a great story, it’s not realistic for the sport. Better to hang your hat on Houston or Boise State or, dare I say it, San Diego State. The problem with the have and have-not alignment in football is that some of the latter deserve to be haves, including the Cougars, Broncos and Aztecs. It should be noted that Coastal has had a good baseball program for some time now, sort of like how these football teams have also been pretty good lately.
So if we mix the fantasy and reality, we get closer to a real fix. Perhaps the best way to reform college football would be to make sure some of the G5 schools that are actually able to compete are provided the necessary resources. Maybe not $30 million per school, there will always be bigger TV audiences, attendance and fan interest for Michigan and Florida, but $10-15 million would be a start.
The most realistic option would be to finally create an oft-discussed “Best of the Rest” league, perhaps under the auspices of the American Athletic Conference, that can field the most competitive G5 programs and most attractive TV markets. Such a grouping could be given an automatic bid into the New Year’s bowl system and reasonable consideration for the playoff. The greater credibility and resources would lead to stronger programs, higher fan interest and more lucrative TV contracts even if they don’t become a Penn State or Texas.
When that happens, you might get your Coastal Carolina equivalent in football, or at least something close.