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College football’s Super League may be coming sooner than we think

Andy Staples head shotby:Andy Staples03/04/24


Cole Cubelic, Andy Staples Break Down Trent Dilfer's Timeline On Major College Programs Breaking Away | 03.04.24

The attempts to predict college football’s future always felt more like thought exercises. If you were a cynical reader, you may have assumed that we were merely trying to engage you during a slow offseason by imagining new-look conferences, and you probably were at least partially correct. Because even though we could see the plates shifting under the sport, most of us assumed the future we imagined would take place in some far-off flying car/jet-pack age. We might never actually see it.

The big changes aren’t going to wait that long. They’ve obviously already started. State legislatures passed name, image and likeness laws that went into effect in 2021. The Supreme Court effectively neutered the NCAA that summer with a 9-0 decision. The Pac-12 imploded in 2023. The 2024 season will feel dramatically different than any season that came before it. There are new conference alignments. The postseason has changed. 

But the big break — the schism between the biggest football brands and everyone else — hasn’t happened yet. Most of us have resigned ourselves to the likelihood of a super league of sorts, but it still feels like something George Jetson might watch on his floating screen. It won’t be. It’ll appear on a streaming service coming through your home Internet pipe sooner than you think. Maybe in the next few years.

I thought about this a lot over the weekend. Friday morning, I opened my show with a rant about the nakedness of the Big Ten and the SEC trying to push a 14-team College Football Playoff that would begin in 2026 that would have two first-round byes guaranteed to the Big Ten and SEC champs. This would be a ploy to protect the commercial viability of the Big Ten and SEC championship games, which are cash cows but essentially become anachronisms once the 12-team CFP begins this season. By guaranteeing those games have stakes none of the other conference title games can have, the Big Ten and SEC guarantee those games remain valuable to network partners. They also cement the stacking of the deck against the other leagues, which probably is bad for business if you’re trying to pretend everyone has the same chance. If you’re going to go that far, I said in the rant, just go ahead and get to whatever super league alignment you’re headed for and cut out the middleman.

The further this goes, the more it feels that’s what might actually happen.

Friday night, I got a text from ESPN commentator and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic. Cole was sharing a clip from the daily radio show he hosts on Birmingham’s WJOX-FM with former Alabama QB (and fellow ESPN commentator) Greg McElroy. On Friday morning’s show, UAB coach Trent Dilfer quite confidently expressed an opinion that the great schism is coming in fewer than two years. It was interesting in part because Dilfer is a sitting FBS head coach and in part because he came to college football after a long stint as an ESPN NFL commentator. He knows quite well some of the people who pull these levers.

Cole and I discussed this at length on Monday’s edition of my show. You can watch the entire discussion in the video at the top of the page or download it in podcast form. We each had a similar reaction to what Dilfer said. Most of us have assumed these things would happen more slowly and have been proven incorrect multiple times. Perhaps we should prepare for them to happen quickly.

What makes this so maddening is no one actually knows what’s going to happen. Those lever-pullers — be they conference commissioners like the SEC’s Greg Sankey or the Big Ten’s Tony Petitti or television executives — know more than we do, but what they do next hinges on some elements outside their control. Multiple federal court cases and National Labor Relations Board decisions will shape the next steps. So will the dueling court cases involving Florida State and the ACC.

We can make our 36- or 48- or 60-team super league graphics. We can sort teams into the divisions that seem equitable. But we don’t know how any of it will work because the people who actually will make those decisions don’t yet know how it will work. They need to create an economic system that doesn’t resemble the labor price-fixing scheme the schools and NCAA engaged in for decades. They need that system to conform to federal and state laws, be they employment law or Title IX. They may need to collectively bargain with athletes, another step that would require the athletes to set up a bargaining unit. Will football even be governed by the same group that governs the other sports?

These are all questions that need to be answered soon, but they haven’t been answered yet.

So maybe I don’t need to get too worked up about the ideas being tossed around for a 14-team playoff, because perhaps the system will change so much by the 2026 season that further adjustments must be made. Or perhaps Sankey and Petitti are pushing the sport toward a 14-team playoff because the NFL uses a 14-team playoff and they believe a bracket people are already familiar with might work well with conference alignments that might shift dramatically in the coming years.

Maybe Sankey and Petitti don’t want the SEC and Big Ten to swallow everything. Their public comments suggest they don’t and that they’d like to keep the multi-conference flavor that gives the sport its jagged edges — which are more features than bugs. But their suggestions thus far for the new CFP format suggest they are preparing for a world where the Big Ten and SEC do swallow everything that we think of as major college football.

Last week, ESPN reporter David Hale made a fascinating point. Hale, who covers the ACC, said that while the Big 12 and ACC getting two automatic bids to the 14-team CFP might seem on the surface like a victory, it’s actually a devastating admission that those leagues are inferior to the Big Ten and SEC, which each would get three automatic bids. If that winds up in the CFP contract — which could be finalized within the next month — the ACC would have codified its status as a second-class citizen. How would that play in those dueling lawsuits with Florida State? 

That’s merely one moving part with an outcome that ultimately will help determine how the sport looks. There are several more, and they’re all barreling toward outcomes that also will help shape college football’s future.

That future isn’t some sort of colonies-in-space sci-fi fantasy, either.

“When will then be now?” Dark Helmet famously asks Col. Sanders in Spaceballs.