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Nick Saban Says NCAA Division I Football Will Shrink

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Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide said that NCAA Division I Football is going to shrink down to 60 to 70 teams.

I wrote about this probability in June while discussing the plight of Eastern Michigan out of the MAC Conference. Last week, we heard the announcement from Idaho that the Vandals would be going independent following the dismantling of WAC Football, which is the first step towards a drop down for the Vandals to 1AA, or FCS, as it’s now called.

Yesterday, Saban verified my suspicions in a radio interview discussing the SEC and the current state of big-time college football.

“Eventually in college football we’re going to have to get to 60 or 70 teams in this Division 1, whatever you want to call it. All these teams need to be playing each other,” he said.

Saban is correct, simply due to the influence and control that TV executives from CBS, ESPN and others now wield. Literally billions of dollars are being dished out for the TV rights to the power conferences and with those giant checks comes a certain understanding that every game needs to be important, crucial, compelling etc.

Unfortunately, the massive and rapid growth of the big-time conferences (SEC, ACC, BIG 12, BIG 10, PAC 12 and BIG EAST) could eventually lead to fewer football players having scholarships and an equally massive and rapid decline for the mid-major programs and many current FCS programs.

Eastern Michigan is a perfect example. Coach Ron English has done a tremendous job for the Eagles and had them at 6-6 last season. If not for two narrow losses in conference play, the Eagles could have been an 8-4 MAC team and bowl bound. However, the Eagle’s fan support in Ypsilanti has been dismal since the economy crashed in 2008. In 16 home games in the last three seasons, they’ve failed to surpass the 5,000 fan threshold in attendance for 10 of them. They average just under 4,000 fans per home game over the past three years. My high school program back in Texas outdraws them weekly. Eastern Michigan survives as a Division I football program due to the payouts they receive each year from the likes of Michigan, Ohio State or Penn State. Without those funds, Eastern Michigan can’t survive at the Division I level.

You can include Charleston Southern, The Citadel and dozens of other FCS programs that get walloped–or sometimes pull off the upset–and survive on the big payouts they get from their big brother opponents annually. Florida State opens with two home games this season against FCS program Murray State and FCS program Savannah State. Those games are likely to be ugly, but they also fund the programs at both of those smaller schools.

I’m sure there are plenty of fans nationwide that could care less about the Murray State Racers or the Eastern Michigan Eagles, but the 22 scholarships that differentiate an FCS and a Division I program is drastic. Dropping down means that 22 young men now don’t have the opportunity to get an education paid for while pursuing a sport that they–and we–love. That may sound like an idealistic view of the student-athlete’s relationship with the program, but on principle, that’s what it is.

How many of these guys would get any sort of post-high school education otherwise? I’m curious as to what Saban thinks of that dilemma. And what about the current FCS programs that survive off of the big-brother payouts? Will they be forced to drop down to NCAA D2 football? That is a drop from 63 scholarships down to a maximum of 36. Again, that’s a drastic drop.

I truly hope that the powers that be in the NCAA, TV executives and conference commissioners take a big step back and consider the residual effects of their decisions on the mid-majors and the FCS programs. Lots of lives may be altered in the process.

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