For the past two years, Stick Jockey has, at the end of the season, used EA Sports' NCAA Football to supply an alternate-reality simulation of a post-season involving a true college gridiron playoff, one that invites every conference champion. I've become resigned to the utter fantasy of this idea ever happening in my lifetime.
What seems more reasonable is the so-called "Plus One" format, which got a lot of traction after the Bowl Championship Series posted its final rankings on Sunday. The final poll created not only a rematch in the title game, but one involving two teams from the same league, the dominant Southeastern Conference, which has won the last five national title games. "Plus One", if it happens, would seed the top four teams in two bowls and pair off the winners in a national championship game. Representatives of the Pac-12 and Big 12 have recently voiced support for the model, after opposing it when it was first introduced.
There was a lot of talk this week about how the SEC itself tried to save us from this, if only we would have listened. True, the SEC's commissioner proposed "Plus One" back in 2008, and aside from the ACC, no other conference supported it. While that's preferable to the ridiculous beauty pageant we have now, let's be clear about something: Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner, was not proposing a playoff involving participants from four different conferences. He just wanted to double the number of championship-eligible berths, in response to Auburn missing a title-game shot in 2004, as one of three undefeated teams from the power conferences that year.
The idea that Slive and the SEC came in peace for all mankind is a neat irony that reads well in a sports column today, but it's bullshit. Even if they got an all-SEC championship game under the current format, the league has a much better shot at it under a Plus One model.
However, if college gridiron did divide itself into four true power conferences composed of 16 teams each — more than half of the programs in the NCAA's top division — a Plus One format could not only function as a four-team playoff, it would be a de-facto eight team playoff. That's because 16-team leagues would stage their own conference title games, involving two divisional winners.
This idea gained a lot of traction last year as the Big 12 seemed headed for collapse, with its biggest members dispersing for the Pac-10 or SEC. People started imagining four super conferences practically seceding from the current structure and pitting their champions against one another, with none of the inconvenience of polls, automatic qualifiers, and at-large bids given to teams from lesser leagues.
The realignment upheaval of 2010 was one of the reasons the NCAA Football development team introduced an all-new allowing users to alter ever conference, expanding them to 16 teams or reducing them to four, renaming their divisions, and setting their automatic bowl berths. The feature is, truly, one of the best value-adds in sports video gaming this year. And it is the foundation upon which this year's Stick Jockey postseason simulation is built.
But first, let's hold a draft.
In this alternate reality, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the SEC, the Pac-12 and the Big 10 have, along with the major bowls' leadership, decided to completely restructure themselves in order to expand to 16 teams each. Though the current zero-sum process of realignment has largely benefitted major conferences at the expense of sick-man leagues like the Big East, it's likely that at some point the big four leagues will start raiding each other's membership. A Malta conference of all four leagues developed a plan for their orderly and fair expansion, and the result is akin to the NFL draft.
Here's how it works: Each league designates a nucleus of eight existing (or future) members. After that, they will "draft" another eight schools. In reality, they will be offering these schools bids to join their league, but the draft means no school gets more than one bid and the conferences aren't competing.
The arrangement absolutely insults and marginalizes the Big 12, Big East and other lesser leagues, but the idea is that no university would refuse major conference membership when it means television money and an objective shot at a national championship. It would also, finally, force Notre Dame to join a conference, or else accept that its independent schedule is a series of exhibition contests with no meaningful postseason to follow.
The controversy wouldn't end there: All four leagues have between 12 and 14 members, currently. That means four to six of their universities would be left unprotected, either for strategic purposes to be redrafted later, dangled to another conference, or orphaned altogether. The angst in places like Corvallis, Pullman, Bloomington and Winston-Salem would be palpable.
Finally, to keep the process from being a complete free-for-all, the leagues' eight-team nuclei must come from states that are geographically contiguous on the map. Then, all universities "drafted" after that must form a geographically contiguous group of states. This avoids ridiculous enclave scenarios, like the Big East bringing in San Diego State next year, or the Pac-12 drafting Alabama right off the bat and the Big 10 extending a bid to USC.
The draft was set in order of least-recent national championship, and would be the same order in each of eight rounds. As a State graduate, I represented the ACC. My friend David, an Indiana alumnus, represented the Big Ten; our friend Jim, a Stanford man, acted as Pac-12 commissioner. Grudgingly, we included our pal Robert, a Missouri graduate, to represent the SEC. We held the draft two weeks ago.
Though I liked the fact all of us had ties to the major conferences, our personalities were also very much consistent with our league's values. David is very much a college gridiron traditionalist, but also a realist. He knows the Big 10 has dead weight. Jim is very invested in the Pac-12's academic and athletic stature and would place a priority on inviting members consistent with that league's makeup.
I know the favoured sons and stepchildren of the ACC, who's actually serious about gridiron in our region, and can imagine the other schools that Greensboro would favour. Robert, frankly, is the most cutthroat of us all, and a perfect avatar for the naked capitalists of the SEC.
Mostly, I wanted to see how our strategies unfolded. There would be few moving parts in the early rounds — David for sure would select Notre Dame first. Robert and Jim would be sparring in Texas. I'd be trying to pick off the dregs of the Big East and anyone I could get from the SEC, maybe even raiding the unprotected members of the Big 10.
The later rounds is where things would really get loony, as we pushed for new media markets and struggled to find two to four, to six (if we cut dead weight) big time programs in the vicinity.
With all that out of the way, the conferences set aside their protected members. They were:
ACC: Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia Tech.
Big Ten: Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin.
Pac-12: Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington
SEC: Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas A&M.
We had to hold a remedial geography class at the beginning. First, we needed a ruling on whether Colorado and Arizona actually bordered. They share a single point, but that's good enough to count. Then Robert, as the SEC, forgot to look at a map. With the No. 1 pick I poached an unprotected Kentucky from the SEC, to prevent that league from stealing West Virginia. After the Big 10 took Notre Dame and the Pac-12, curiously, drafted Oklahoma State (more on that later), the SEC tried to select West Virginia, forgetting it no longer had a border with that state.
Robert panicked and took an unprotected Virginia from the ACC, instead, leaving me to correctly deduce that he'd cut a backroom deal with the Pac-12. The two sides, in fact, had. Robert role-played the choice, realising that Texas A&M and Missouri would not tolerate the Longhorns in the new SEC. So he offered Texas to the Pac-12 in return for the Pac-12's agreement it would not take Oklahoma with its first four picks. Robert wanted to shore up his northeastern flank with the ACC, but I threw that plan into disarray when I went after Kentucky.
I'll spare the play-by-play. Here's how the rest of the choices played out, in order:
ACC; Kentucky, West Virginia, Miami, N.C. State, Indiana, Boston College, Connecticut, Louisville.
Big Ten: Notre Dame, Michigan State, Kansas State, Rutgers, Cincinnati, Tulsa, Houston, Minnesota.
Pac-12: Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU, Kansas, Boise State, BYU, Northwestern, Utah
SEC: Virginia, South Carolina, Oklahoma, LSU, Air Force, Texas Tech, San Diego State, Ole Miss.
The Pac-12 and SEC weren't done cutting deals; they swapped Missouri and Arizona State mid-draft, allowing the Pac-12 to reach Chicago with Northwestern, and for the SEC to stretch coast-to-coast, landing San Diego State at the end before recovering Ole Miss.
Though I said basketball affiliations would be assumed to be distinct, you can see that the ACC picked up two really good hoops schools while getting rid of Wake Forest and Duke, almost out of spite. If major gridiron really did choose up like this, I have no doubt that Wake and Duke would become basketball-only members, like some of the schools in the Big East. Duke hasn't been serious about gridiron in a generation and Wake Forest is home to one of the smallest stadiums of the major conferences. Vanderbilt likewise would be gone from the SEC. David was happy to cast off his Hoosiers from the Big 10, and almost took Iowa State rather than redrafting Minnesota. He then realised he'd lose the Minneapolis TV market and gain nothing in Ames.
>The Post-Apocalyptic Landscape
The realignment didn't stop there. There was then the question of what to do with the remaining conferences. The Big East lost all but South Florida. The Big 12 was reduced to Baylor, Kansas and Iowa State. Mississippi State and Washington State were orphaned altogether.
Here's how I aligned the rest of the conferences in NCAA Football 12.
Big 12: Arizona, Baylor, Colorado State, Iowa State, Kansas, Mississippi State, New Mexico, SMU, Southern Miss, Washington State
Big East: Army, Duke, Marshall, Navy, Rice, Temple, Tulane, USF, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest
Conference USA: ECU, FIU, FAU, Memphis, Troy, UAB, UCF
MAC: (East) Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Kent State, Miami, Ohio (West) Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo, Western Michigan.
Mountain West: Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico State, UNLV, UTEP, Wyoming
Sun Belt: Arkansas State, Middle Tennessee State, North Texas, UL-Lafayette, UL-Monroe, Western Kentucky
WAC: Fresno State, Louisiana Tech, San Jose State, Utah State
In reality, such a realignment would likely force the Mountain West and WAC to merge and Conference USA and the Sun Belt to do likewise. The video game won't let you kill a conference. Nor will it let you play with no Independent schools, which is why Hawaii was the token lone wolf.
For the four super conferences, here were their final divisional layouts:
Atlantic Coast Conference
North Division: Boston College, Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Syracuse.
South Division: Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Maryland, NC State, North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech
East Division: Cincinnati, Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Rutgers.
West Division: Houston, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tulsa, Wisconsin.
Eastern Division: BYU, Colorado, Missouri, Northwestern, Oklahoma State, Texas, TCU, Utah.
Western Division: Boise State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington.
Atlantic Division: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia.
Pacific Division: Air Force, Arizona State, Arkansas, Louisiana State, Oklahoma, San Diego State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech.
Finally, with all that set, I simulated the year..
Same Year, Different Conferences
These simulations always make for a long column, so I'll try to keep the results brief. In NCAA Football 12, I simulated a 2011 season using the real-world conference alignments of the current season. Then, taking advantage of the mode's ability to remake conferences between seasons, set the new memberships for 2012. I used named 2011 rosters acquired from Operation Sports.
I actually had to run a couple of simulations because of the way the game handles its poll logic. Two things became apparent: One, there were a lot of undefeated teams in the lesser leagues. In one simulation I ran, UCF and USF both went 12-0 and ended up in the BCS National Championship (as determined by current methodology, not my fantasy scheme). In all others, every divisional winner from one of the four major conferences had at least one loss.
If it has a flaw, NCAA Football 12 tries to be more meritorious in rewarding a winning team than happens in real life. Even after deleting the auto-qualifiying bids for the Big 12 and Big East, their top teams routinely penetrated the Top 10, which is intriguing, as the highest preseason ranking for any team outside the "Bg 64" was SMU at No. 27. Part of this is because the game's ranking logic still treated the Big 12 and Big East as major conferences, and Mississippi State as an SEC team. But I think it's also because a 12-1 year, even in a weak league, gets a more favourable ranking in the video game than it would in real life.
Also, looking closer through the schedules, I saw how good NCAA 12 is at preserving meaningful scheduling even through a drastic realignment. Texas and Oklahoma still played; so did Notre Dame and USC. Even Missouri and Kansas hooked up in a nonconference game, although when you think about it, this kind of a realignment would create a permanent rupture between schools that made a major conference and those left out.
Teams from weaker conferences were more apt to go unbeaten because of their diminished league representation and the inability to schedule nonconference dates in October or November. In one case, Fresno State scheduled (and won) four Division I-AA games in a row.
In the most reasonable simulation developed, Wisconsin, Penn State, TCU, Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech all had one loss at the end of conference play. Oklahoma lost to Texas A&M; Alabama to Tennessee; TCU to Missouri; VPI to Florida State,. Wisconsin lost a nonconference game to Oregon State, Penn State lost to Nebraska but beat Michigan.
What was really amusing, however, was Kentucky going 10-2, and unbeaten in the ACC, both of its defeats coming outside the conference (to Mississippi State and to Tennessee). Jeered for taking an SEC basketball school with my first pick, I ended up adding our eventual conference champ. The Wildcats beat Virginia Tech 35-31.
Penn State defeated Wisconsin 28-23, though it should be noted that this game was created well before the upheaval of the sex abuse scandal at that university.
USC, with Matt Barkley staying for his senior year, lost a 51-48 overtime shootout to TCU; Alabama, which locked up a title game berth with a 27-21 win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl prevailed over Oklahoma 23-20 in overtime.
The first two games of our Plus-One saw Penn State against Kentucky and Alabama against TCU. Penn State prevailed 35-21, and Alabama roared back in the fourth quarter against the Horned Frogs to win 27-20. The Crimson Tide then took the national championship 38-31.
All of that conflict, angst, strategising, dealmaking, backbiting, conniving and arguing, and we are right back where we started: The SEC winning its seventh consecutive national title.
The Reality Now
This plan is admittedly fantasy. For starters, the bowl mafia keeping the BCS in place would have to give its blessing to this format, and you're talking about a three-game playoff. There are four big bowls. That leaves someone out, or with a meaningless runner-up pairing. I don't ever see the Rose Bowl settling for that. Its insistence on a Big Ten/Pac-12 matchup is partly why even talking about a final four of college gridiron has been so difficult.
But beyond that, the major conferences will not be able to achieve or sustain 16-team memberships without dramatically altering their character, and that value is of intense interest to these leagues and their university administrations. The Big 10, remember, took in Tulsa and Houston in this thought exercise and jettisoned longtime members Indiana and Northwestern. They may be lesser schools on the gridiron field but are bigger in institutional stature, and members of the conference for more than a century. And if the Big 10 is unwilling to bring in Missouri in real life, I simply don't see who could join that league after Notre Dame.
If the SEC didn't pursue Manifest Destiny, as Robert did in our draft, what other two schools would it bring to the fold? Louisville is too small, and opposed by Kentucky; Florida State is opposed by Florida, and solidly entrenched with the ACC. N.C. State is a charter member of that group, and doesn't add much in terms of television. Memphis, Southern Mississippi and Tulane are all underweight for that league, Southern Miss's current Conference USA title notwithstanding.
A Plus-One format may be coming, but the idea of four 16-team superconferences supplying its participants is at present unworkable, especially given the Big 12's newfound stability in bringing in TCU and West Virginia. It doesn't stop anyone from experimenting to his heart's content in a virtual environment such as NCAA Football 12. Just realise that this scenario, like a college gridiron playoff, won't be appearing on any television other than the one connected to your Xbox 360.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on sports video games. It appears Sundays.