Play It Off! 

Instead of shifting football conferences, let's eliminate them.

I've got a solution for poor Mike Tranghese, the soon-to-be-spurned Big East commissioner who has whined that the pending departure of football powerhouse Miami for the ACC would be "disastrous" and "wrong." (One can only imagine his stance on the potential flight of original Big East member Syracuse, the current men's basketball national champ.) If college football's powers-that-be continue to forsake a national playoff -- the most ludicrous oversight in organized sports -- why not get rid of the entire conference football system as we know it? It can and should be done.

The fact is, a conference title in college football doesn't mean a thing anymore. (And stand down, ye proponents of the Bowl Championship Series and its rotating "bids" to major bowls for prominent conference champs. That system only compounds -- even mocks -- the systemic problem college football has.) With television money falling off trees, Division I-A programs are no longer restricted to regional play. So open up the scheduling process so that we can follow a legitimate, if de facto, playoff-caliber regular season.

My system retains the sport's big rivalries, which are built more on geography and history than conference affiliation. The system will rotate opponents -- again, based primarily on geographic regions -- so that the game becomes what it should be: a national enterprise. Finally, this new system would force teams to play others of similar strength. I don't know about you, but I've seen enough of the annual Florida State-Wake Forest clash, to say nothing of Tennessee-Vanderbilt or Michigan-Indiana.

With the regular season now made up of 12 games, each school's football schedule would be drawn up in three tiers of four games each. A school would retain four permanent "rivalry games." For instance, Tennessee would continue to face Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Arkansas year after glorious year. Memphis fans would see Louisville, Southern Miss, Arkansas, and Ole Miss every fall. Fully one third of a team's schedule would be built around animosity. College football like it oughta be.

The second schedule tier would borrow from the NFL's rotating interdivisional play. Schools would continue to be loosely affiliated with their "home" conferences. (After all, the conference system is still invaluable to sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey, where often three games are played each week.) One season, Memphis would play four members of the Big 10; the next season, four ACC opponents; the next, four from the Big 12. This approach would level the playing field for the have-nots (read: Memphis), allowing fans in Tiger Nation to see big-name opposition year after year, as opposed to annual schedule-fillers like Arkansas State or Southwestern Louisiana.

Finally, a team's schedule would be rounded out with four teams that finished within 10 ranking positions (higher or lower) from the previous season. Why shouldn't the defending national champion have to play other top-10 teams? And why should the likes of Vanderbilt have to deal with UT and Florida every fall? (These match-ups are less competitive than intrasquad spring games and they're ruinous to college football on a "macro" level.) I can't stand the subjective ranking system college football has built as its foundation for determining a champion. But as long as it exists, utilize it to balance schedules for all 117 Division I-A programs.

At worst, this system would leave us with precisely what we have now at season's end: two teams based on statistical data playing for a mythical national championship. At best, the new system would broaden the competitive impact of "mid-major" programs like Memphis (and thereby boost recruiting hopes), all the while sharing the lucrative comet tail that follows glamorous programs like Miami's wherever it takes the field.

College football is a worthwhile institution, and it can be saved. So dry your tears, Mike.

Frank Murtaugh is managing editor of Memphis magazine and writes a regular column on sports for the Flyer Web site.


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