Football in 2030: Conference realignment and other changes in college football

All this week Crystal Ball Run, This Given Sunday and Awful Announcing are taking a look at the future of football. In our first installment in this series Crystal Ball Run took a look at the state of the NCAA, its role in governing football and the issues facing the sport of college football in general. Today we conclude our college football portion of our coverage with a round table look at the game itself, how it has evolved and what is different in 2030 compared to today's game.

As a reminder, our panel of college football experts are:

Bruce Feldman, college football columnist and co-author of Swing Your Sword

Gerry DiNardo, Big Ten Network analyst and former coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana

Bryan Fischer, Pac 12 Network

Ty Duffy, The Big Lead senior writer leading the site's college football coverage

Ramzy Nasrallah, Eleven Warriors staff writer covering Ohio State football

Aaron Torres, co-managing editor of Crystal Ball Run and staff writer for Fox Sports Live

Our panel had some good thought son the state of the NCAA in our first part of this discussion. Here is what they had to say about conference realignment and the future of the sport itself.

Conference Realignment's Future

Is conference realignment still in flux? How large are the power conferences?

Bruce Feldman: My guess is there will be a bigger split that comes in the next decade between major and mid-major college football.

Bryan Fischer: I think the power conferences get into the 16-20 range and there eventually becomes just four of them. I’m very much in favor of a relegation/promotion model and that may just end up happening.

Ty Duffy: You might have some shuffling. I think by this point, conferences will realize they are in business with each other. Money will be equal. You may see teams shuffle for competitive reasons like divisions in professional sports.

Gerry DiNardo: There are now 4 major conferences.

Aaron Torres: Frankly, I don’t think that conference realignment will ever truly end, but I do think that the seismic, earth-shattering shifts we’ve seen over the last decade are done.

Why? Well, as I answered in one of the questions above but the reason is simple: The money is better than ever before, to the point that it’s actually so good, that conferences are starting to realize that it can almost be a detriment to add too many teams.

Don’t let Texas A&M and Missouri fool you, that’s the truth. Just go ahead and look what’s happened across college football these last few years.

We all remember that the Pac-10 nearly became the Pac-16 back in 2010, but what many forget is that once the conference eventually “settled” at 12, they had the opportunity to expand again in 2011, and decided against it.

Why? Well it’s simple really. The league’s members looked around, realized they were making more money than they could’ve ever imagined and realized “you know, what we’re good!” And not only did they have more money than they could’ve ever imagined, they weren’t overextended geographically or competitively. You think that Oregon State and Arizona didn’t look around and realize: We’ll never win this damn league if we let too many teams into our conference? Because I’m pretty sure they did.

Now look at the opposite end of the spectrum and the ACC. The ACC was expecting to make money hand over fist by adding Syracuse and Pittsburgh, and well, it didn’t really happen. Now they’re stuck with two dead-weight football teams that bring nothing to the table competitively, nothing to the table from an interest standpoint (it’s not like fans in Tallahassee are saying, “Honey, Syracuse is coming to town! We’ve got to buy tickets before it’s too late!) and all they’re left with is stuck splitting TV money two more ways. 

How have schools that have moved from FCS to FBS fared at the next level? Is a program's upward mobility still viable in this new day and age?

Duffy: I think the bulk of smaller, borderline FBS programs will drop football. Many of those schools are only just hanging on now. With the end of amateurism, progressive research into concussions and increased liability, the cost of participation will increase markedly. For many schools that will be a game ender.

Feldman: Those programs will continue to be marginalized as the money gap widens with increased TV money.

DiNardo: There have been no major successes when it comes to a FCS FBS move.

Fischer: I think they’ll be fine, still with a middle of the pack type glass ceiling but otherwise just fine. I’m sure by 2030 there’s no FCS/FBS distinction.

Which big name program(s) have moved into a new conference? Have all the conferences survived?

Fischer: They’re not Texas or anything but I always feel WVU is such an outlier in the Big 12 that they’ll eventually align with some league along the East Coast. Could the rest of the Big 12 schools go West or North? Sure. I would imagine eight team divisions that are actually geographically relevant happen so I’m sure at least one big time program makes a switch.

Torres: Again, I answered all this above, but I don’t think we see too many more schools making too many more big moves.

Even a conference like the SEC already has way more money than they could’ve ever imagined, and under current by laws no candidates immediately jump out as interesting. Remember, the league isn’t going to dip into their foot-print (sorry Florida State and Clemson) and aren’t going to reach for schools that aren’t the right fit academically (I’m looking at you West Virginia). Plus, as Maryland is learning the hard way with their $50 million exit fee, even the lure of the SEC probably wouldn’t be enough for a North Carolina or Virginia Tech to jump ship. 

Duffy: All the conferences have survived. If teams move it won’t be for monetary reasons. You may see some ironing out. Perhaps the Big 12 and ACC swapping Louisville and West Virginia or something similar.

DiNardo: Clemson, Florida State, Boston College, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Texas, and Oklahoma have all changed conferences.  Only four conferences maintain "Major" status.

Feldman: Texas.

Will Notre Dame be a full-conference member in the ACC or any other conference?

Feldman: No, I think with this ACC deal ND is allowed to have best of both worlds. And school won’t change its “status” since it’s not forced to.

Duffy: Notre Dame will join a conference full-time. The present agreement with the ACC is delaying the inevitable. It will become too hard to fill out a slate of games.

DiNardo: Notre Dame continues to be independent in football because they still are allowed to compete for the National Championship.

Fischer: I bet once a new generation of leaders come to ND and the Big Ten, they can eventually find enough common ground to get the Irish to join. It just makes too much sense.

Torres: I do feel like I’m getting a bit repetitive with these answers, so I’ll try to keep this brief: For these college football programs it’s all about money, money, money, and put simply, Notre Dame’s helmets aren’t the only thing green on campus.

No Notre Dame might not quite be the “brand” that they once were, but with more networks battling for the same inventory, someone will continue to overpay to broadcast the biggest draw in all of college sports.

I see no scenario where Notre Dame joins a conference in the next 15 years. 

On the Field

What does the most successful team look like? Are they built on defense or has offense completely taken over? Are we seeing more spread offenses or more read based running attacks?

Torres: Great question, and this is something that not only do I wonder about, but I also think guys like Nick Saban do too.

I still think the sport is going to skew towards offense, mainly because just like in the NFL, all the rules skew towards protecting the players. We haven’t quite reached the point where receivers can go across the middle without the fear of getting hit, but we’re getting there. We’ve already seen how the “targeting” rules have changed the sport just in this year alone, and the rules will only continue to be put in place to protect players.

At the same time, while everyone talks about the rules, there’s one other dynamic that I think not nearly enough people talk about: And that’s the strategic side of it all.

No I’m not a coach, and no I can’t break it down with X’s and O’s for you, but I know what I see with my own two eyes. And what I see is that teams who actually huddle, who actually run a pro-style offense, who actually run time off the clock seem archaic.

Remember, it was just what, about five years ago that you could count the number of coaches on one hand who ran some variation of the spread, or no-huddle offense. Rich Rod at West Virginia, Urban Meyer at Florida, eventually Gus Malzahn as a coordinator at Auburn and Chip Kelly at Oregon.

Now everybody does it. Why? Not just because offense puts butts in the seats, but because it gives the team an inherent advantage. It limits what a defense can run, and the personnel they can shuffle into and out of games. Again I’ll leave the X’s and O’s to someone else, but there is a reason it’s so common.

Ramzy Nasrallah: The most successful teams exploit space and constraint offensively, running power out of multiple spread formations. Defensively they’re predicated on minimizing constraint and isolating the success of any given play down to the one remaining option. Rules continue to favor scoring and offense in 2030.

Fischer: I think the most successful teams are those that can at least get a stop or two in what is increasingly an offensive game. There will still be plenty of teams that want to power the ball down the field and plenty of spread attacks that want to get athletes in space.

DiNardo: Some are built offensively and some defensively but the spread has all but disappeared because they have not had the success wining the big games or championships.  The safety issue is also a factor because there are more injuries when the game is played in space.

Feldman: This I don’t think changes. I don’t think you can say it’ll be only one thing or the other. I think it’ll be a balance.

Duffy: Spread concepts have become almost ubiquitous the past decade at the pro and college levels. I don’t think there will be a broader push back to manball. The sport will have to reduce contact and collisions. For that reason I think defense becomes a less integral part of the game. 

What rules have been put in place or have been changed over the years? Has instant replay changed at all?

Fischer: There will definitely be more player safety rules put in between now and then. I’m looking forward to a chip being put in the ball so we can get an accurate spot/touchdown call sooner rather than later. I’m sure there will be plenty of sensors and whatnot to get to the point where every call will be pretty much correct so there’s nothing to review. If there is, 28k slow more 3-D cameras should be able to help out.

Duffy: Instant replay is faster with better camera angles. You may even just have a video ref in constant, real time communication with officials on the field.

Feldman: Yes, I think instant replay will be quickened up and the targeting rule and its 15-yard gift penalty will be finally straightened out.

Have advanced statistics and metrics impacted the way the game is played or how we watch the game of college football?

Duffy: I think it will and is impacting how the game is played. The next generation of coaches will be much savvier at using them, managing time during games (Thanks, Madden) and other things. I’m not sure it affects how we watch games. It’s not baseball where statistics are integral. I think efficiency trumping total yardage numbers will be broadly accepted. 

Feldman: It will to a smaller scale but not like in other sports. The snags for football is smaller sample size and different roles and “hidden” responsibilities that make it tougher to gauge worth/intent.

Fischer: I think it’s a huge part of how many head coaches run their programs. It probably takes some of the fun out of the game given how easy it will become to crunch the numbers and how many people are doing it but a data driven society is the way the world will likely work in 2030 and football is probably not the exception.

What changes have been made to the rules or to equipment to improve player safety? Has college football been subjected to a similar legal and PR trial over injuries similar to the NFL?

Nasrallah: Any deliberate contact to the head will be result in a 15-yard penalty and a warning to the player that carries throughout the season. A second instance will result in an ejection that lasts through the next game. Kickoffs will come from the 50-yard line to all but eliminate the most violent play in football.

In 2030 football rules will still not understand (or acknowledge) that head trauma does not have to result from direct contact to the head. Doing so would significantly impact the sport and result in a legal nightmare that dwarfs what the NCAA is seeing now both with concussions and amateurism.

The decline of American football’s popularity won’t take place until well beyond 2030. Fortunately we won’t live long enough to see it turn into boxing.

Fischer: By 2030 I’d hope al the legal/PR issues related to the game will be played out and the sport would be past that overall. As for equipment, this is probably the area where’s there’s been the greatest advancement. With  advanced materials, I’m sure the game of 2030 is safer than ever before.

Duffy: College football has been subjected to similar legal and PR trial over concussions. Unlike the NFL, they have not spent two decades delaying and preparing for the inevitable liability. If research substantiates that CTE is caused by sub concussive impacts, that will force radical changes in football as we know it. Better helmets. Safety precautions. Vastly reduced contact. 

Feldman: I’m sure it will be because stuff like that seems to be increasing with the added visibility and money.






Kevin McGuire

About Kevin McGuire

Contributor to's College Football Talk, Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Host of the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and iHeart Radio. FWAA member and Philadelphia-area resident.