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CFB’s real turning point has just started to come into view

We’re in the middle of our summer research period for our 2022 fall previews here at, a process already made more difficult than usual because of unfettered access to the transfer portal by schools and players alike.

By the end of the summer, though, we’ll be happy if we can just remember which programs have transferred between conferences.

We’re in the middle of our second “Summer of NIL,” which is apparently going to be an annual event. We’re starting to hear the rumors we expected to hear from smaller programs who are afraid they won’t be able to continue to even play football, much less compete in it (and they’re right).

All of this points to certain truisms of change, most notably that change is inevitable, and what separates the winners from the losers is how each responds to the process.

Had this happened ten, or even five years ago, Alabama would likely have defined the terms by which all successful programs would have approached it. But unfortunately, time has changed some things about the Alabama program, too. In this case, it has added some years to the age counter over Nick Saban’s head, and with Saban now entering his 70s, there will inevitably be some that question how much longer he’ll have the energy to stay ahead of the pack – or even the desire to do so in the first place.

Given that Saban quitting on something before achieving domination over it is an unlikely premise, the bigger question is what kind of program will have the best chance of being college football’s alpha going forward. And, to a lesser extent, which conference is more likely to nurture the kind of framework for it to happen.

The answer to the second question is no longer as assured as one might have once thought, because the Big Ten has added powerful West Coast markets to its footprint by bringing in Southern Cal and UCLA after the 2024 season. Note how that sentence is phrased: markets. The SEC got the jump to some degree by adding Texas, but the SEC already had Texas A&M. Adding Texas (and Oklahoma, although the latter is more about traditional-style growth rather than modern growth) seems almost stale now. What prize is there left for the SEC to claim?

The reason this is important is because modern sports is less about teams and more about market share for media buys. The Birmingham-Tuscaloosa-Anniston market, for instance, is Alabama’s only market of significant size, and places at 45th. The top 50 markets, by and large, are the only ones that matter to Madison Avenue.

When the SEC added Texas A&M, it got the fifth-largest market in the nation, Dallas-Fort Worth. The SEC already had Atlanta (7th) and it’s debatable whether Houston (8th) also came with the Aggies. Adding Texas assured it. Oklahoma brought Oklahoma City (44th). Other SEC-friendly markets in the top 50 include Tampa (13th), Orlando (17th), Miami (18th), St. Louis (23rd, by addition of Missouri), Nashville (29th), San Antonio (31st), Kansas City (34th), Greenville S.C. (35th), Austin (38th), West Palm Beach (39th), Jacksonville (43rd), Louisville (49th) and New Orleans (50th).

Meanwhile, the Big Ten now has a presence in the following: New York (1st, by way of Rutgers), Los Angeles (2nd), Chicago (3rd), Philadelphia (4th), Washington D.C. (9th), Minneapolis (14th), Detroit (15th), Cleveland (19th), Indianapolis (25th), Pittsburgh (26th), Baltimore (28th), Columbus (33rd), Cincinnati (36th), Milwaukee (37th), Grand Rapids (41st), Harrisburg (42nd), and could probably make a strong case to include Boston (10th) and Hartford (32nd). Big advantage, Big Ten.

If you’re Greg Sankey today, you’re probably selling your superior athletes, fan interest and far more interesting rivalries. But that only goes so far, because now that NIL is here – along with questionable interpretations of NIL rules, such as those in play at Texas A&M and Miami – college football is going to look a lot more like NFL football. Just because the state of New York produces very few football players, for example, it doesn’t mean the NFL’s Giants and Jets don’t have access to them.

For the SEC, the ultimate question is if it will expand, and if so, by how many teams? The second half of that question will be determined by whether the NCAA steps aside and lets the Power 5 conferences (which appear to be quickly shrinking down into a Power 2, meaning the SEC and Big Ten) determine their own fate and compliance guidelines, or failing that, how long it will take the SEC and Big Ten to extend the middle finger of friendship and go do it themselves anyway.

The first part of the question will be driven by markets. Notre Dame is the big prize, because it would allow the SEC access to fans across the country, but more specifically it would allow the SEC to dip into the Chicago and Indianapolis markets. The Big Ten is also looking at Notre Dame, and is likely in a better overall position due to geography if nothing else.

Whether Notre Dame comes to the SEC or not, it’s a good bet the SEC wants to get into North Carolina in some way, because the Tarheel State is home to three major markets: Charlotte (22nd), Raleigh-Durham (24th) and Winston-Salem (47th). The University of North Carolina is the real prize there due to basketball, but the Tarheels would likely have to agree to come without Duke attached. Failing that, North Carolina State would be a willing partner.

A lot of football fans’ preference is for Clemson, but Clemson brings nothing from a market standpoint, as South Carolina already has that area covered. Pulling in Miami would solidify the southern Florida markets that currently have only whatever interest is generated by the Florida Gators, while Florida State would bring nothing to the table from a financial standpoint. Virginia or Virginia Tech would each allow the SEC access to not only the Washington D.C. market (9th, currently Big Ten country due to Maryland), but would also bring in Norfolk (46th).

Having 16 teams in the SEC already makes things unwieldy from a scheduling standpoint, however, and moving up to 20 or even 24 teams would rewrite the rules of college football even further. At 24 teams, the SEC could theoretically hold its own 12- or 13-game regular season, then use the SEC Championship Game as a de facto national semifinal, while the Big Ten does the same. Then the champion of each conference would meet every year for the national championship.

Doing such would essentially create what we’ve been discussing here on for awhile, a “Division Zero” atop the current D-IA, D-IAA, D-II, D-III structure. But where we once called for five 16-team leagues and an 8-team playoff (five conference champions plus three at-large), this would have the effect of creating a league of between 32 and 48 teams, kicking to the curb what is left of the ACC, Big 12 and PAC-12. The question there becomes whether enough media markets are left available to the rejected conferences so that they, too, could claim to hold a national championship game. And, despite what is said about its declining influence, the college bowl system still moves a ton of money every December and January and would have to be considered.

This brings us back to Alabama. The University of Alabama is now undeniably considered the top college football program of all time. Those that still cling to notions of Notre Dame, Ohio State, Southern Cal or Oklahoma holding the honor have to ignore a lot of basic math to get there, to say nothing of Alabama having employed the runaway Nos. 1 and 2 coaches of all time. But Alabama is not without its challenges; teams from the states of Georgia, Florida, California and Texas have huge in-state recruiting advantages, and Louisiana probably holds a slight edge as well. Alabama is far from the richest state in the union, and while UA boasts a large endowment and solid athletic donor base, it has a fraction of the resources of some other programs.

This is why Nick Saban’s career disposition remains of paramount importance, and why selecting the right replacement once he finally hangs up the whistle will be potentially the most important hire in the history of Alabama football. Unless or until a governing body forms around the SEC and Big Ten that can lay down some guidelines as to what proper NIL use is or isn’t – and imposes strict penalties for “isn’t” – then the sport is a financial free-for-all. Conferences will snap up as many viable programs in large media markets as they can, the better to enrich broadcast contracts, divvy up the resulting dollars and plow those back into an unregulated talent market.

College football as we all knew it ended with the Supreme Court’s unanimous condemnation of amateurism. Never has the crown on Nick Saban’s head worn any heavier than it does today.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN


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