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Divide might be coming, but which leagues will conquer?
A lot of people in Division I-A (FBS) football sat up and took notice last week when Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and SEC commissioner Mike Slive raised the possibility of expanding athletic scholarships to include “the full cost of attendance.”
Delany and Slive, the two biggest powerbrokers in big-time college sports, said the time has come to consider giving athletes a stipend to cover incidental living expenses, something major academic scholarships already do.
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.
But you know who else noticed what Delany and Slive had to say last week? Guys like Charlie Cobb.
Cobb is the athletic director at Appalachian State University, one of the very best programs in Division I-AA (due to public confusion over the labels, we don’t use the official NCAA designations FBS and FCS). The Mountaineers of Jerry Moore won three straight national championships from 2005-2007 and have led the nation in Division I-AA attendance (at 28,000-plus) three times in the last four years.
In case you are wondering, in 2010 a total of 32 of the 120 Division I-A teams averaged less in home attendance than Appalachian State. In fact, 23 Division I-A schools averaged less than 20,000 in attendance last season.
“When we look at the WAC, the MAC, the Sun Belt and the others we compare very favorably to what they are doing,” Cobb said. “So we decided that if things change dramatically we need to be prepared.”
Last September the school announced the formation of a committee that would conduct a feasibility study to determine if they should go Division I-A. Originally that committee was going to give a recommendation in May. That announcement has been postponed. Appalachian State wants to wait for several reasons, and one of those is to see what is going to happen in the upper level of Division I-A football.
“What the Big Ten said last week got everybody’s attention,” said Cobb, a former football player at N.C. State. “What it really showed is that the gap in college football is not between Division I-A and I-AA. It’s between the BCS schools and everybody else Division I-A.”
Cobb said there are a number of schools like Appalachian State who have had very good success at the I-AA level and who wonder where they need to be if there is a major upheaval in the college football landscape. For example: What if the BCS schools split from the rest of Division I-A? What happens to rest of the division?
“I like to look at the math. And when you look at the math, we are a lot closer to East Carolina [a member of Division I-A Conference USA] than East Carolina is to the ACC,” said Cobb.
So here is today’s exercise. Imagine if you will that the big boy conferences of the BCS grow tired of getting beat up about their postseason. They get tired of getting direct threats by the attorney general of Utah and indirect threats from the Justice Department. With five of the six BCS conferences (the Big East is the exception) in possession of television deals that are over 10 years in length, they are pretty secure financially. So consider this possible chain of events:
• The Big East, as our Brett McMurphy reported this week, knows it has to expand to 12 to prove it is serious about the football business. It does that and finally gets a serious television deal.
• Some time in 2012 or early 2013 the six BCS conferences announce the end of the BCS as we know it when the current contract expires after the 2014 bowl season. The 70 schools in those six conferences will be joined by independents Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and BYU to form the College Football Association (Sound familiar? It should. The original CFA was formed in 1984 and broke up when conferences began negotiating their own TV deals). The CFA will crown its own national champion, either through the bowls and polls or through a playoff. The CFA will also expand the value of its scholarships to include the full cost of attendance.
• The remaining conferences in Division I-A (Mountain West, WAC, Mid-American, Conference USA, and Sun Belt), will be joined by the best conferences in Division I-AA to form a new Division I. This division will crown a national champion with a playoff. The Big Sky, CAA, Missouri Valley and Southern conferences would be among those I-AA leagues likely to help form a new Division I-A.
• The Division I-AA conferences that did not want to move up to Division I-A would remain and still play for a championship. The doors would also open for Division II programs that wanted to move up.
So when all the smoke clears your divisions in college football for the 2014 regular season would be:
The College Football Association (CFA): ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Big East, Pac-12, Army, Navy, Notre Dame, and BYU.
Division I-A: Mountain West, WAC, Mid-American, Conference USA, Sun Belt, Big Sky, CAA, Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Southern, Southland, Charlotte (Independent)
Division I-AA: Big South, Ivy, MEAC, Northeast, Patriot, Pioneer, SWAC, Fordham (Independent)
Is this just a hypothetical? Of course. Would it be controversial? Extremely.
But ask yourself: Why are all these conferences getting these incredible, long-term TV deals? Why are Delany and Slive floating the trial balloon of expanding scholarships? What’s the end game?
By Tony Barnhart, CBS Sports