At some point in the future, the best programs in college football may choose to merge into multiple super conferences and create a championship format separate from the rest of the current Football Bowl Subdivision.
And even before that might happen, the existing postseason system finds the same handful of teams at the top of the FBS in any given year — Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson have combined for seven of the past eight national titles and 14 of the 16 total appearances in the College Football Playoff championship game.
Why not cut to the chase? Rather than pay lip service to the concepts of parity and unpredictability, this upper crust of college football could jettison some dead weight and forge a new enterprise consisting only of the most successful and marketable programs in the country.
We don’t have to search far to find an example of how that split would unfold: If or when the step is taken, this top tier of college football could model the NFL. With only so many spots to go around for the current 131-team FBS, all that would be left to decide is the guest list and seating arrangements.
How would this work? Who would be included in a 32-team National College Football League? How would the regular season and playoffs be scheduled? Could you mirror the two-conference, eight-division layout of the NFL and still hold on to the rivalries that help define the sport?
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Using the same factors at play in realignment — including historic success, financial and fan support, national reach, location and TV marketability — here are the programs that would make the cut for this hypothetical NCFL.
Divisional and conference setup
The NCFL conferences are named for two coaching innovators who played a vital role in college football’s creation and early evolution: Stagg, after Amos Alonzo Stagg, and Camp, for Walter Camp.
Eastern Division: Central Florida, Georgia, LSU, Miami
Adding Central Florida to Miami gives the NCFL a foothold in two of Florida’s largest markets. Georgia is the top program in the conference. While the Bulldogs and LSU are not historic rivals, the two will carry the flag for the SEC in the Stagg.
Southern Division: Oklahoma, TCU, Texas, Texas A&M
Cherished rivalries between the Sooners, Longhorns and Aggies are maintained or reestablished. TCU gets the nod to join these three heavyweights over several other regional options, including Baylor, Oklahoma State, SMU and Houston.
Northern Division: Michigan, Michigan State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin
Michigan and Notre Dame are two of the biggest brands in college sports. For the Wolverines, this division helps maintain the program’s three biggest rivalries: against the Spartans, the Irish and Ohio State. (More on permanent rivals in a moment.)
West Division: Arizona State, Brigham Young, Oregon, Utah
Oregon is an easy pick to be one of a handful of NCFL programs located on the West Coast. Joining the Ducks are current Pac-12 cohorts ASU and the Utes, while BYU is one of the few programs out west with a national following.
East Division: Auburn, Clemson, North Carolina, Virginia Tech
One of nine current or future SEC programs in the NCFL, Auburn could develop a nice rivalry with Clemson. The Tar Heels and Hokies give access to Mid-Atlantic markets such as Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham and Washington, DC
Southern Division: Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Tennessee
Much like the Stagg South, this division captures multiple meaningful and longstanding rivalries while occupying a somewhat compact geographic area. This also might be the league’s most accomplished division: The four programs have accounted for 11 national championships since 1998, more than half via the Crimson Tide.
Northern Division: Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Pittsburgh
The second Midwest-centered division gives Ohio State a foil in Penn State. There was a challenging debate between Nebraska and Iowa, but the Cornhuskers’ broader appeal to a national audience gave them the edge despite the Hawkeyes’ dominance of the rivalry and far more impressive recent track record.
West Division: Colorado, Southern California, UCLA, Washington
USC and UCLA are no-brainers. (There’s a reason they’re both headed to the Big Ten.) Likewise with Washington, to a lesser degree. Colorado was one of the final teams to make the cut for the NCFL, doing so largely for the program’s ability to pick up the Denver market.
How scheduling will work
Teams will play a 12-game schedule using a 3-4-4-1 model that makes rivalries a central part of the regular season and rotates through the eight divisions, ensuring that every team meets at least once in every four-year cycle. The model features:
Three games against the rest of the division;
Four games against teams in the same conference, drawing two opponents from two divisions;
Four games against a division in the other conference;
And one rivalry game.
In any given year, teams in the same division will play an almost identical schedule. Each team is given a primary rival outside of its division and will always meet this rival on the final Saturday of the regular season.
While some divisions may be perceived as stronger than others — take the Stagg South against the Stagg West, for one — it’s worth noting divisional games only make up a quarter of the schedule. There will be plenty of elite opponents for everyone to face each season.
As in the NFL, divisional tiebreakers begin with head-to-head results, followed by winning percentage within the division, winning percentage in games against common opponents and winning percentage in conference games.
The playoff format would also mimic the NFL model. The four division champions from each conference would be joined by two wild-card bids, with the two top finishers earning a bye into the second round. There would be a wild-card round, a divisional round and conference championships followed by a championship game.
How rivalry games will work
While most historic rivalries will continue in this model, others will be left behind. As one example, Clemson will take on a new rival to replace South Carolina, which did not make the 32-team cut. Other rivals may meet in divisional play, such as BYU and Utah, UCLA and USC, and Oklahoma and Texas.
Each team will be given two backup rivals because of the possibility that primary and secondary rivalry games will be part of scheduled games against other divisions. (The second and third rivals are listed in parentheses.)
Alabama: Auburn (USC, Texas A&M)
Arizona State: UCLA (Texas A&M, Wisconsin)
Auburn: Alabama (LSU, Oregon)
BYU: TCU (UCF, Notre Dame)
Clemson: Tennessee (Miami, Ohio State)
Colorado: Utah (Florida State, Nebraska)
Florida: Georgia (Oregon, Michigan)
Florida State: Miami (Colorado, Virginia Tech)
Georgia: Florida (Penn State, Texas)
LSU: Texas A&M (Auburn, Tennessee)
Miami: Florida State (Clemson, Pittsburgh)
Michigan: Ohio State (Washington, Florida)
Michigan State: Penn State (Virginia Tech, Utah)
Nebraska: Oklahoma (Wisconsin, Colorado)
North Carolina: UCF (Utah, Washington)
Notre Dame: USC (Oklahoma, BYU)
Ohio State: Michigan (Texas, Clemson)
Oklahoma: Nebraska (Notre Dame, USC)
Oregon: Washington (Florida, Auburn)
Penn State: Michigan State (Georgia, UCLA)
Pittsburgh: Virginia Tech (Tennessee, Miami)
TCU: BYU (UCLA, UCF)
Tennessee: Clemson (Pittsburgh, LSU)
Texas: Wisconsin (Ohio State, Georgia)
Texas A&M: LSU (Arizona State, Alabama)
UCF: North Carolina (BYU, TCU)
UCLA: Arizona State (TCU, Penn State)
USC: Notre Dame (Alabama, Oklahoma)
Utah: Colorado (North Carolina, Michigan State)
Virginia Tech: Pittsburgh (Michigan State, Florida State)
Washington: Oregon (Michigan, North Carolina)
Wisconsin: Texas (Nebraska, Arizona State)
How a season will look
Let’s use Alabama as an example of a regular-season schedule.
The Crimson Tide would face all three division opponents:
Play four games against in-conference opponents split between two divisions:
Play another four games against the entire division from the opposite conference:
And then the season-ending rivalry game:
One other team in Alabama’s division would play an almost identical schedule minus the team’s specific rivalry games. For example, Florida would finish with Georgia.
Tennessee and Florida State would play the same divisional games and cross-conference opponents but face a different in-conference slate. Instead of the Cornhuskers and Buckeyes from the North Camp, the Volunteers and Seminoles would take on Pittsburgh and Penn State; instead of Colorado and USC from the West, they’d face UCLA and Washington.
Yes, there are imperfections that are sure to upset those who face a different future and those who are snubbed entirely. That’s the harsh reality of no system being perfect. But this might be as close as you could get.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football in NFL model? How it would look with just 32 teams