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College football’s biggest tournament is expanding — and it’s leaving us behind

<p>Fans take in a Miami football game at Yager Stadium</p>

Fans take in a Miami football game at Yager Stadium

This was inevitable.

The move to a 12-team College Football Playoff makes economic sense in a decisive way that few previously conceived tournaments have ever matched. The administrators of the game at the highest level can waffle all they like about “fairness for student athletes” and “competition at the highest level,” but everyone can see through it – and it’s only really a surprise that it didn’t come sooner.

Billions of dollars of extra television revenue is expected to be generated by the expanded set of games. The presumed first round is being planned for teams to play on college campuses, before quarter and semifinals are held at the six locations of the New Years’ Six bowl games. 

The format of including the six highest ranked conference champions and six at-large teams is an initial bone thrown to the current Group of Five conferences, though which conferences will be where in the pecking order after the current period of realignment remains to be seen.

One thing seems for certain, though – while the American Conference, the Mountain West Conference and the Sun Belt Conference have either maintained their status or made gains during realignment to date, Conference USA (CUSA) and the Mid-American Conference (MAC), the latter of which being the home of the Miami RedHawks, sit clearly behind the bunch.

CUSA was the victim of raids by the American and Sun Belt, losing 11 of its 14 members before adding four; two smaller schools in the periphery of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and two schools from the subdivision below them, FCS Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). 

Meanwhile, the Mid-American Conference sits almost alone, as a conference already at the bottom of the FBS pack and refusing to push for the addition of new members, even despite the apparent interest of (relatively) nearby schools in Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State.

The current revenue split for the College Football Playoff allots $6 million to a conference for each of their teams entering a semi-final game, and $4 million for each of their teams participating in the other four non-Playoff bowls which constitute the New Years’ Six bowls. 

The numbers are likely to change with the move to a 12-team playoff system, but the principle will probably remain – conferences receiving payment, directly alongside the number of their teams reaching the Playoff. In 2019-20, the Mid-American Conference received the lowest amount of College Football Playoff money out of any conference, as it also did in 2018-19.

With the shift of power between conferences after the realignment to-date, we’re less likely to see a distinct Power Five and Group of Five power split as we’ve seen since the introduction of the College Football Playoff. 

The Big Ten and Southeastern Conference (SEC) are likely to sit alone at the very top, followed by the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and a weird huddle of the Big 12, Pac-12 and Sun Belt, depending on further realignment which seems all but imminent. Then sits the Mountain West, in good position to challenge for the sixth Playoff auto-bid with a good season from a top program like Boise State, and at the bottom, Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference.

As I’ve detailed in a past column on the topic, college football is about money more than anything else. Increasing the amount of money going to a broader amount of teams and conferences is good for the sport – parity should bring competitiveness that hasn’t been seen too much lately at the top of the game – but the simple fact is, the Mid-American Conference in its current state is extremely unlikely to have one of the six best conference champions, and thus a spot in the College Football Playoff. 

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Missing out on millions of dollars every year, and watching the conferences that were their former equals cash in as their occasional star program made the run required to claim that sixth spot, means the Mid-American – and Miami – will only fall further behind. 

That means a greater focus on conference football – which is fun, especially during weeknight MACtion near the end of the season – but a greater and greater disparity between it and the rest of the FBS where it ostensibly belongs. 

That means more blowout losses in out-of-conference matchups, more losses to FCS teams (as both Buffalo and Bowling Green from the MAC East suffered on Saturday), and less national attention – which itself becomes its own vicious cycle, as conference officials find themselves with continuously weakening leverage in broadcasting deal negotiations with the major networks. 

That means yet another blow to the Victory Bell rivalry game (which I also wrote about in a previous column), as Cincinnati’s move to the Big 12 gives them what is almost certain to be an even greater slice of the pie that the RedHawks can only dream of tasting.

Miami football isn’t in trouble – far from it now, with the best quarterback in the conference and a stable, experienced head coach who has worked excellently to rebuild this program and is now entering his ninth year in the job – but when the RedHawks take the field on Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium for the 126th meeting between Miami and Cincinnati, don’t be under any illusions that the blowout Bearcat victory that seems all but certain will be the last of its kind.