You might think nothing in college football can surprise me anymore. In the past week alone, we saw two schools make a $5 million pledge to keep a conference together, then bolt five days later; we heard Florida State icon Bobby Bowden allege for the first time that he was "fired" from his job after 34 seasons; and, in lighter news, we read that a drunk, naked Oregon State offensive lineman (since dismissed) got in a three-point stance and lunged at police officers.
None of those things surprise me. But the latest buzz regarding Big Ten realignment absolutely, positively flabbergasts me.
Given the way the Michigan and Ohio State ADs are talking, it looks like the Big Ten will be putting Michigan and Ohio State in separate divisions and moving the game earlier in the year. The only benefit to the conference I see is $$$. Are they merely hoping that in years to come (once RichRod -- or someone else -- rights Michigan) they could have two UM/OSU games and rake in the dough?-- Russell, Austin, Texas
Money runs the world, Stewart, obviously. But why would the Big Ten want to mess with the greatest rivalry in sports for the off-chance Ohio State will play Michigan twice a year? Isn't the fact that the two schools meet once at the end of the year, with one perhaps playing spoiler, what made the rivalry? Doesn't history mean anything anymore?-- Vincent, Dublin, Ohio
Change was inevitable when the Big Ten opted to expand, and I fully expected some rivalries to be altered or severed. But Ohio State-Michigan? Are you kidding me? It's been played the last week of the season all but once since 1935, and it's the league's single most important franchise. You would think conference leaders would go to any length to protect it. Unfortunately, based on Michigan AD Dave Brandon's recent comments, it appears at least one decision-maker thinks he'd be enhancing the rivalry by putting the two in separate divisions, because, "one of the best things that could happen in a given season, in my opinion, is the opportunity to play Ohio State twice."
If we know anything, it's that Jim Delany doesn't do anything unless he sees a potential windfall in it. The league is going to be signing a separate TV deal for the title game, and perhaps he's eyeing some sort of "premium clause" that allows for a spike in rights fees in a year when those two meet. Because there's no question an Ohio State-Michigan championship game would be one of the most coveted properties in sports television. Delany even suggested to ESPN.com on Tuesday: "You could make a good argument that Michigan and Ohio State should never really be playing for a divisional crown. If they're going to play, play for the right to go to the Rose Bowl."
Fair enough, commish, but if you haven't noticed, Switzerland is closer to Pasadena right now than Michigan. Even when the Wolverines do get it going again, they're going to be in a division with at least two other regular contenders (perhaps Penn State and Wisconsin) that will likely prevent any one team from reaching the title game annually. In the years OSU and Michigan don't play for the Rose Bowl -- i.e., most of them -- shouldn't they at least play for something more than a run-of-the-mill conference win? The ACC tried this same thing with Miami and Florida State. Five years later, they've yet to meet in a title game.
Meanwhile, in the Big 12, the Oklahoma-Texas Red River rivalry has seen a huge national resurgence over the past decade, not just because the teams are strong, but because there are tangible stakes: pole position in the Big 12 South. If placed in opposite divisions, Ohio State and Michigan would be playing for much the same stakes -- only they'd be doing so against Penn State or Nebraska instead.
Sometimes leaders make decisions without properly thinking through the issues. This one sounds like a case of over-thinking. Do the right thing, Mr. Delany, Mr. Brandon and Mr. Smith, lest the ghosts of Woody and Bo haunt you in your sleep.
Stewart: I am actually thrilled about the lack of respect that Texas Tech is getting, but curious as to why. They are returning a lot of starters on a team that endured a great deal last year and still blew out Nebraska in Lincoln and finished in the Top 25. Is this coaching change so great that everyone thinks this team is going to drop so far?-- Adam LaGrone, Austin, Texas
I'm pretty puzzled myself that Tech has fallen off the radar. The ouster of Mike Leach -- the winningest coach in school history -- was obviously a traumatic event, but it's not like the school replaced him with some unproven sucker. Tommy Tuberville was an SEC head coach for 14 years, produced an undefeated team at Auburn in 2004 and finished in the Top 25 in six of his 10 seasons there. And he's inheriting a veteran squad, one about which Leach recently told my colleague Richard Deitsch, "I felt like it was the best team I had coming back in 10 years."
If there's some hesitation among voters, it's probably because Tuberville has no experience running the type of wide-open passing offense for which Leach's players were recruited. While Tuberville hired Troy offensive coordinator Neal Brown to run a similar system, there could be an awkward transition period as they try to incorporate more of a true running game with tailback Baron Batch. On the flip side, however, I fully expect Tech's defense to improve significantly under Tuberville. Led by star nosetackle Colby Whitlock, the Raiders will fly to the ball and get more pressure on the quarterback.
Ultimately, Tech still lags behind division stalwarts Texas and Oklahoma, but I'm a bit puzzled as to all this buzz about Texas A&M being the new "hot" team in the South. Last I checked, Mike Sherman was still the coach of the Aggies. Thanks, but I'll put my money on Tuberville.
I keep hearing all this talk about Stanford being a darkhorse team this year (ranked in most publications) and all the focus is Andrew Luck. But I think people are missing how bad their defense was last year -- they gave up 26.5 points a game. I don't think their offense will be as powerful as it was with Toby Gerhart in the backfield. Can Luck still score 35-plus points a game, because that is what it's going to take against a Pac-10 full of experienced QBs.-- Tyler, Los Angeles
You hit the nail on the head, Tyler. The Cardinal have become semi-media darlings because A) We writers love whenever one of the academic-minded schools does well, B) Jim Harbaugh is such a quotable, intriguing fellow, and C) Luck is being hailed as a possible No. 1 pick. In reality, Stanford will be hard-pressed to match last year's eight wins -- and especially its six Pac-10 wins -- and it would be no surprise to see the Cardinal slip back to around 6-6.
My concern isn't with Luck. He's the real deal, and we only began to see his full potential last season, when Gerhart was still the focal point of the offense. I've heard some speculation that defenses will be able to focus more on Luck with Gerhart out of the picture, but it's not like Stanford's fundamental scheme will change. Defenses will still have to account for the threat of play-action. And he's got the benefit of a very good offensive line, fullback (Owen Marecic) and receivers (led by Ryan Whalen).
It's that defense -- ranked 110th against the pass last year, with more experience than this year's unit -- that makes you cringe. Stanford got away with it a bit last year because most Pac-10 defenses stunk, but you're going to see a lot of improvement around the league on that side of the ball, from Washington to Oregon and Oregon State to USC. But like Tyler said, the offenses will only be getting more potent with all those returning QBs. Harbaugh has improved Stanford's talent level immensely, but not to the point where it can shut down dynamic offenses.
Stewart, a question that combines two of your current loves. Can you give the college football equivalent (program, coach or player) to each character on Jersey Shore?-- Chuck Madden, Dunwoody, Ga.
I sat here for a good half-hour contemplating this question. It seems so enticing, but I've got to tell you -- it's tough. Every time I thought I'd come up with a good comparison, I'd share it with a co-worker who would politely told me: Sorry, that's a grenade.
So, readers/Jersey Shore fans: Feel free to take a stab at this one. I'll publish the best response next week.
Do you think BYU's interest in going independent is more about BCS status or television revenue?-- Mike, Mapleton, Utah
More the latter than the former, and even then it's more about exposure than it is revenue. Dick Harmon of the Deseret News recently discussed BYU's television quandary in great depth. In short, the Mountain West's decision four years ago to ditch ESPN in favor of what was then CSTV (now CBS College Sports) and Comcast (which operates Versus and The Mtn) has been nothing short of calamitous. Mountain West teams basically go into hiding once conference play begins. BYU, with its national Mormon following, has been particularly frustrated, because it can neither get its games on a wider distributed network like ESPN or show them on its own BYUtv network, which reaches 50 million homes and boasts state-of-the-art HD capabilities.
In terms of BCS status, as I wrote last week, there's clearly a lot of resentment in Provo that rival Utah will now enjoy the benefits of AQ status despite lacking the history and tradition of the Cougars. Realistically, however, BYU never had a chance of joining the Pac-10 due to some of its controversial political stances, and the Big 12 seems content to stay at 10 teams. Utah's move almost certainly prompted BYU's sudden uprising, but even had the Utes stayed, these TV issues would have remained a sticking point with so many lucrative deals being signed by other conferences. It will be interesting to see what concessions, if any, the Mountain West might make to try to appease BYU and keep it in the fold, or whether it's even necessary now that the league preemptively squashed any viability of joining forces with the WAC.
Where does the WAC go from here? Louisiana Tech is already an odd fit geographically. The other five schools don't appear to have any good options in football. Hawaii is the only program to have had even minimal impact on the national scene. Would the league be better off downgrading to FCS status and looking for a new home for basketball and non-revenue sports? I grew up following and cheering for the schools in the WAC and MWC, and I hate to see them going after each other.-- Jeff Cobble, Nashville, Tenn.
Longtime WAC commissioner Karl Benson has rescued his league from pillages twice before, and he's pledged to do it again, but right now, the WAC is on life support. If all the current members stay (and that's no sure thing, with Utah State openly courting the MWC and Hawaii reportedly considering the independent route), he still needs two new teams -- possibly as soon as 2012 -- to remain an FBS conference. Because any current FCS school must go through a two-year NCAA transition period, none can help Benson in the short-term, so he'll have to pursue existing FBS schools -- but what are his options? North Texas is one. Can you name another?
If I were Benson, here's what I'd do. Go ahead and concede that the WAC is going to have to drop football for a couple of seasons. Convince the current six schools to temporarily become FBS independents and continue scheduling each other. In the meantime, focus on adding three to four FCS schools that can compete immediately in other sports while transitioning in football. UC Davis, Cal Poly, Sacramento State, Texas State and Texas San Antonio have been mentioned as possibilities. By no means would one would view this reconstituted league as football juggernaut, but it may hold more long-term stability than adding two random filler teams in the short term.
Hi Stewart. What do you think about Maryland's chances of turning it around while Ralph Friedgen is still coaching? The last few years have been pretty strong for the Terps in terms of recruiting, but strong recruiting isn't always enough. Can Maryland reclaim the once-proud football tradition it used to have when coaches like Bear Bryant and Bobby Ross led the team? People forget the Terps won a national championship long before the Penn States and Florida States got on the scene.-- Jerry, Radford, Va.
It's not that we forgot, Jerry. It's that it happened before most of us were born (1953). Minnesota won one more recently -- in 1960.
In all seriousness, the Fridge does have a penchant for pulling a rabbit out of his hat when you least expect it. The general consensus is that Maryland, coming off a nightmarish 2-10 season, will be relegated to the ACC scrap heap again, but I wouldn't be so sure. Friedgen suffered consecutive losing seasons in 2004 and '05 and recovered to go to three straight bowls. This year's team faces a far longer road back to respectability, but there are reasons for hope, particularly on offense. Top rusher Da'Rel Scott is back after an injury-marred '09 season and dual-threat quarterback Jamarr Robinson will benefit from a more experienced offensive line and legit receiver Torrey Smith. A favorable early schedule could allow the Terps to start 4-1 or 3-2, followed by an ACC slate that does not include Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech or North Carolina.
Clearly, however, Friedgen's best days (three straight 10-win seasons from 2001 to '03) are a distant memory, and they're not likely coming back. Only a hefty buyout saved him from the firing squad last year, and with both a new president and athletic director coming in, things could get particularly ugly. Friedgen, believe it or not, actually has a designated coach in waiting (offensive coordinator James Franklin), but I can't imagine anyone but Franklin is hoping to honor that arrangement. Unlike the Maryland of 50 years ago, Maryland today has a lot working against it, from an apathetic fan base to a much tougher ACC. Still, it sits in a fertile recruiting area -- schools from all over the country poach players from D.C. and Maryland -- and there's no reason the right coach can't turn the Terps into consistent winners. Probably not national champions, though.
So Ohio State will pay Colorado -- a major BCS program -- $1.4 million to lose a game in Columbus. You must have something to say about that.-- Dan, Washington D.C.
Yes. Apparently even Ohio State wants to buy out Dan Hawkins.
Just a friendly reminder: Next week is GAME WEEK. Craft your questions accordingly.