Looking ahead to the top 2013 nonconference games; more mail
You know we're stuck in the dreariest depths of the college football offseason when Bob Stoops' booster-club comments generate a week or more of national coverage. It's times like these when actual games somehow seem further away than they did two months earlier. To offset that perception, I'll do my part to add a taste of September (and August 31) to your spring reading.
Unfortunately, this season lacks a blockbuster neutral-site opener like Alabama-Michigan in 2012 or LSU-Oregon the year before that. Meanwhile, it seems like every week there's been another announcement of a cool home-and-home (Oklahoma State-Boise State, Michigan-Virginia Tech) series that kicks off in 2019 or some other futuristic date, early dividends of the new playoff system. Looking at this season's comparatively lackluster slate, however, is a reminder that we've still got one more year of the BCS era's no-risk, all-reward philosophy.
Keeping that in mind, here are my top five nonconference games for the first month of the 2013 season:
Alabama fans will surely howl for leaving the Virginia Tech game off this list, but it's only because I don't expect it to be much of a game. (Offshore books already have the Tide as 22-point favorites.) It was tougher leaving off UCLA-Nebraska.
Sure, Stoops has a point, the same one I've been making ever since the Alabama-Oklahoma State controversy unfolded in 2011. For the past two years, the Big 12 has been a much deeper conference. Last season, Kansas State had to play against eight conference foes that made bowls, meaning it had to show up every week but one (Kansas). It didn't against Baylor, and it paid the price. Alabama, on the other hand, played five games against teams (Arkansas, Ole Miss, Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi State) that never stood a chance. However, the reason Stoops gets no sympathy is that his comments imply that the SEC as a whole is overrated. Just because those six top-10 teams beat up on the other eight (they went 30-0 head-to-in 2012) doesn't mean the former weren't as good as advertised. In fact, Stoops should know that better than anyone after getting his brains beat in by a Texas A&M team that tied for second in the SEC West.
But you raise a good point about the selection committee. If it does put an emphasis on strength of schedule, then it absolutely should downgrade teams that play a heavily imbalanced conference slate. For example, I find it hard to believe that a committee, unlike pollsters, would have had Georgia at No. 3 on its board going into the SEC Championship Game last season. At the time, the Dawgs had beaten one top-five team (Florida) and 10 also-rans. But had it then proceeded to beat No. 2 Alabama in Atlanta (which it almost did), Georgia would have boasted two wins over top-five teams with its lone loss coming to a top-10 opponent. Big 12 champ K-State had no such wins and lost to a 7-5 squad, though it did beat eight bowl teams. Which was the more "difficult" accomplishment? I'm not entirely sure. I'd point you to this column I wrote in March after talking to various stats people who make the case that merely defining "strength of schedule" isn't nearly as simple as it sounds.
I'm sure Bill Hancock and most of the commissioners truly believe the playoff will stay at four teams for 12 years, just like they were steadfast there would be no playoff at all two years ago. But mark my words: The field will expand to eight halfway through the deal (in 2020). The controversy surrounding the selections will be deafening, but that might not even be the biggest factor. First and foremost will be the money. The event will become so popular that there will be so much more to be had, and barring a drastic downturn in its business, ESPN will be happy to pay to make it happen. Also, by 2018 or '19 (when a new deal might be negotiated), old-guard stalwarts like Jim Delany and Mike Slive might be retired. The new-age guys coming up the ranks aren't as wed to the traditional bowl system, and they may in fact encourage adding a play-in quarterfinal round at campus sites.
Anything sooner than 2020 is unrealistic given the various contracts with the bowls, but after six years each will be on equal footing in terms of the number of times it has hosted semifinals. That should make it easy to conveniently hit the reset button.
No question. Imagine Alabama maintaining its recent four-year run over a 27-year span and you'd get an approximation of the dynasty Kehres built at Division III Mount Union. His 11 national championships are incredible, but his most staggering stat is his record of 332-24-3. The man averaged fewer than one loss per season. My goodness. We wish him well.
At the time it realigned, West Virginia felt it had to get out of the Big East at any cost, and given what transpired the following year, AD Oliver Luck was absolutely correct in his reasoning. Unfortunately, the Big 12 was never a natural landing spot, and some of the consequences of the move are already apparent. The talent gap would have existed regardless, but it certainly didn't help matters that WVU had to make consecutive road trips to the state of Texas in early October. While the Mountaineers' defense was atrocious from the get-go, it wasn't a coincidence that previously torrid quarterback Geno Smith and the offense looked completely out of sync in both the second game of that swing (at Texas Tech) and then the next week at home against K-State. It's also not a coincidence Bob Huggins' travel-worn basketball team had an uncharacteristically bad year. I'm not sure there's an easy remedy to the fact Morgantown is nowhere near any of the other cities in the Big 12, though Luck has apparently sought some help from the league.
As for the talent ... let's not forget, West Virginia has fielded plenty of nationally competitive teams over the years. The talent level is down right now, and Dana Holgorsen needs to build it back up. The challenge for WVU will be differentiating itself in a league where nearly everyone makes its living in the state of Texas. While Holgorsen has Texas ties, he'll probably find more success in the ACC/Big Ten footprint (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia) and the state of Florida (South Florida in particular), where WVU has pulled several of its recent stars (Noel Devine, Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey). The Mountaineers are never going to recruit on the same level as Oklahoma or Texas, but neither have Kansas State or Oklahoma State, and that didn't stop the Wildcats and Cowboys from winning the past two Big 12 titles.
I think BCS will be phased out fairly quickly. When the NCAA replaced I-A and I-AA with FBS and FCS in 2006, the new designations seemed so unnatural that I thought they would never stick. In fact, I kept using I-A and I-AA at first. But within a couple of years they had near-universal acceptance. The only time you ever hear a reference to I-AA anymore is when someone mentions a team or game from that era. And that was for something pretty innocuous. Nearly everyone in the sport, both participants and observers, can't wait to rid themselves of the BCS and everything associated with it. You're already hearing the term "BCS conference" replaced by "power conference." (The disintegration of the Big East and ensuing paradigm shift likely accelerated that process.)
The only thing I'm unclear on is how people will refer to the equivalent of the current BCS bowls in the new system. For instance, it was a big deal at the time for Utah or Boise State to play in a "BCS bowl." If, say, San Diego State reaches the Fiesta Bowl in a few years, will the Aztecs be playing in a College Football Playoff bowl? That doesn't make much sense, since it wouldn't be a playoff game. Will it be dubbed a "New Year's bowl," even if the game is on Dec. 31, and even if other games like the Capital One Bowl technically remain New Year's bowls? All that is yet to be seen. But I can't imagine the term BCS living past this year.
You know you're reaching when you've got to dig out the heinous 2009 Alabama textbook scandal for fodder. P.S., your fifth-best team in 2008 had more than 20 players in the NFL as of last season.
We may soon have to rename the Mailbag "This Week in SEC Conspiracy Theories."
Well, the good news is a year from now the poll voters' decisions will have no meaningful bearing on anything. But yes, the fact that ESPN -- by far the most powerful entity in college football, whether or not its executives will admit as much -- now owns and operates a major conference's television network creates huge conflict-of-interest concerns. Just look at the ramifications caused by ESPN doing the same thing for one school, Texas. It caused major unrest within the Big 12 and arguably became the lightning rod that finally pushed Texas A&M to bolt. While ESPN has a vested interest in every FBS conference, you can be sure there will be grumbling from coaches in other conferences if they feel the network is pushing SEC teams over theirs.
Ultimately, though, I'm most interested to see what effect -- if any -- ESPN and the forthcoming network will have on the SEC itself. For instance, it would be in ESPN's best interest for the conference to go to nine league games, thereby creating better programming for the network. Right now, its coaches (save for Nick Saban) are strongly opposed to that notion. We'll see just how much power the network has if it tries to override them. Similarly, ESPN often brokers scheduling arrangements for certain high-profile nonconference games. Will it now be incentivized to focus more on games involving SEC teams, knowing that some might get pushed to the SEC Network? And will the conference's notoriously territorial coaches start griping if they feel the network isn't spotlighting their team enough? (Steve Spurrier comes to mind.) This deal will certainly be a boon to the league, but as the Pac-12 learned this year, these ventures don't come without their fair share of headaches.
I take back what I said earlier. Getting levelheaded emails from Ohio State fans is a sure sign we're stuck knee-deep in the offseason doldrums.
A quick programming note: There WILL be a Mailbag next week, then off for vacation the following week. Then, starting in June, we'll go weekly the rest of the way.