Since we are willing to now consider Big 10 (11) expansion beyond 12 teams to any and all possibilities, and Brian encouraged this sort of wild speculation, it seems to me that some configuration of 18 teams makes the most sense. We become the Big 18. The solution is actually quite simple. The base schedule is 11 games + conference playoffs. You create three six team divisions, based on geography. Within the division, you play each team once per season (5 games). You allow one non-conference creampuff/tune up game at the beginning of the schedule. The rest of the games must be arranged exclusively with other conference members (5 games) at the discretion of the schools. This would allow certain teams to arrange rivalry games every year. It would also increase the conference strength of schedule. (If the Big 10 gets out in front of this, if college football evolves into three, or perhaps four, 18 team super-conferences, it means we get first choice of available schools and thus assuring no current or former mid-majors end up in the Big 18). It will also encourage more home and home non-divisional series.
Big 18 Western Division
Big 18 Central Division
Big 18 Eastern Division
(I picked the schools with an eye to football and basketball, especially the Eastern Division, which would be the weakest football division but likely will be the strongest basketball division).
When all 10 Big 18 conference games are done, the winner of each division moves on to the conference playoffs and there is one wildcard team (some formula would have to be worked out to resolve wildcard ties if two divisional winners have the same record, but that would be a small problem. The NFL manages it every year). Then there is a two game playoff:
Best Record vs. Widcard
2nd Best Record vs. 3rd Best Record
The winner of those two games play each other and is crowned Big 18 champion, and will be a strong candidate to play in the national championship game every year.
The carrot that would induce teams to give up one regular season game each year would be a TV revenue sharing agreement so that all teams would benefit equally from the playoffs in terms of revenue. The downside is that you do not get as much opportunity to play other big conference schools, as that one non-conference game will be used as a pre-season tune up game, like played against a baby seal team. Bowl games could make up for that a little.
If this were to induce a move to three or perhaps four mega conferences, you could then follow the conference schedule with one of two playoff structures:
Best Team – Bye Week
Number 2 vs. Number 3
Winner of 2vs.3 plays number 1 for the national championship.
Best Team vs. Number 4
Number 2 vs. Number 3
Winners of those games play for the national championship.
The national championship is played at the Rose Bowl in the evening of New Year’s Day.
The teams would be seeded according to wins and if the conference winners have an equal number of wins that some formula (to be determined) is used to seed the three or four teams. The upside of this is that football is decided on the field and leaves voting out of the equation. The downside is that college football starts to look like the NFL.
You could still allow schools to arrange bowl games as consolations, and to sort out some of the conference strength nonsense (perhaps you could base seeding in next year’s national championship, in the event that two conference winners have the same record, on the respective record of the conferences in the bowl games. This would give a little more meaning to the bowl games). If people want to watch bowl games, why not put them on TV.