College football thrives on disorder — far more so than its professional counterpart. This is a sport that, for decades, could not find a way to have the teams ranked first and second play each other at the end of each season.
Once its overseers solved that uncrackable puzzle with the Bowl Championship Series, the sport's best minds faced the quandary of what to do with more than two undefeated teams. Conference realignment, clumsy internal rule enforcement, a playoff run by the same people that, just years earlier, insisted a playoff was unworkable and dangerous: the sports skews toward a consistent, almost genetic, affinity for chaos.
College football is inherently unpredictable. Motivated by that guiding principle, I've tried to predict what will happen to the sport over the next three decades. The future I'm proposing may not come to pass, even in part. But it's certainly weird and crazy and drunken enough to consider as reasonable a possibility as any other.
PHASE ONE (2018-2019)
It begins with the NCAA losing a court case. Take your pick: uncompensated use of player likenesses, the ability for student-athletes to unionize, or the antitrust claim arguing scholarship amateurism is an unlawful restraint of trade. One case will end in a very bad ruling for the NCAA and dramatically reshuffle the power relationships in college football, especially where the distribution of money's concerned.
PHASE TWO (2019-2023)
Though there's always been some question as to how profitable college football programs really are (thanks to accounting cleverness and the desire for athletic departments to look like non-profits and not lucrative businesses), the new costs of increased player benefits prove to be overwhelming for many universities. Some schools shut down teams immediately, convinced that the numbers won't ever work in their favor. Others attempt to soldier on for a while, find themselves ultimately unable to compete in the changed recruiting landscape, and decide to fold. This winds up being one of the most heartbreaking and difficult periods in the sport's history, and once the dust has settled, the number of FBS teams has been cut roughly in half, with just 60 teams or so remaining.
PHASE THREE (2023-2025)
The surviving teams cluster into four different superconferences, though the distribution is slightly unequal, and the Playoff Committee is dissolved once all agree that the four playoff teams should be the four winners of the superconferences. Once fans adjust to this radical shift in the landscape, they begin to see some of the positives. With no cruddy teams left to pad the schedules of superior teams, games are of a much higher quality. Recruiting becomes more accessible to the remaining teams, since the number of available spots has been halved; though fewer high school athletes choose to play football due to injury concerns, the drastic reduction in opportunities still makes this a buyer's market for schools, while the overall pool of talented incoming freshmen hasn't changed.
PHASE FOUR (2025-2030)
With more bowl games than teams available to play in them, some of the newer and less-regarded bowls disappear altogether. More popular bowls start throwing money at teams to secure the best available match-ups. (Because this involves bowl committees, yes, there are copious kickbacks.) The shift creates new financial imbalances in favor of established, name brand teams, since they have the traveling fan base and national recognition the bowls desperately want. Unable to draw the interest of the top-tier bowls, a few more schools drop out of the college football game altogether.
PHASE FIVE (2030-2034)
While all this has been going on, the superconferences have let their contracts with ESPN, Fox, CBS, and other media companies expire. Rather than put them up for bid, they choose to retain their media rights and focus their resources on building superconference networks to air games. Following the precedent set by the University of Texas, some schools set up networks dedicated just to their own athletic programs, negotiating with the superconference for the exclusive rights to a few games each season.
PHASE SIX (2034-2039)
Two schools from one of the superconferences, after months of quiet collusion, suddenly announce something momentous: they're going independent. These schools plan to do everything themselves. They set their own schedule. They handle all their own TV distribution. Though this development infuriates the remaining members of the superconference they've abandoned, the scorned schools have a problem: their fans still really want them to play against these two schools. A quiet settlement precludes any drawn-out litigation, and college football has its first teams without a conference affiliation in decades.
PHASE SEVEN (2039-2040)
A domino effect follows, with more and more teams leaving the constraints of conference membership and going independent. (In the process, more schools drop football, unable to make it completely on their own without the cache of belonging to a superconference.) That means more scheduling freedom; without conference foes you have to face every year, you can really mix up your opponents. Some schools go so far as to only schedule the first month or so of the season in advance. They then fill the remaining weeks with quickly arranged matchups based on who they think will make for the most interesting game. Strength of schedule, once a potential albatross from arrangements made years prior, now becomes a flexible tool.
PHASE EIGHT (2040-2043)
The one big flaw in the system at this point? The dissolution of the four superconferences eliminates a clean and efficient source of playoff teams. Without that structure, polls start to return to the sport, handing out championship awards based on their own preferences. We even see the dreaded return of split national titles in some years. College football fans, angry at this development, insist that the NCAA — which, at this point, only exists as an academic eligibility clearinghouse and source of free breakfasts at conferences — step in to provide a way to identify a national champion on the field.
PHASE NINE (2043-2045)
Down to 30 or so teams, the NCAA restricts every school to a 10-game schedule and organizes an eight-team playoff at the end of the regular season. Participants are selected by a newly formed College Football Tournament Committee. (Ty Willingham is a member.) One of the defunct football schools, seeing the financial windfall generated by the Tournament, forms an exploratory committee to consider bringing its football program back.
PHASE TEN (2045-2050)
With amateurism entirely a thing of the past, NFL teams start negotiating partnership agreements with college football programs. The Draft largely disappears, as Cowboys fans know they've already got dibs on the best players at Oklahoma, for example. That NFL money lures even more colleges back to the table, until the inevitable happens: Alabama formally applies for membership as a full-fledged professional franchise.