So, it's not quite realignment, but the Big 12 did finally deliver the kind of news that lends itself perfectly to the Mailbag by bringing back its championship game. Thank you, Bob Bowlsby and pals. Feel free to drop another decision every month or so until kickoff to give me new material.
So you think the Big 12 made the right decision regarding a championship game. Can you explain what would have happened last season? Would everyone still be happy in Big 12-land if the "regular season" champ Oklahoma lost that game? Money aside, do you really think they made the right decision?
-- Joseph Ehrenreich, Raleigh, NC
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It's absolutely the right decision, which I'll explain primarily by debunking the various arguments against it.
The main one, of course, is that the conference already plays a full round robin. As such, a championship game rematch seems redundant. But as I wrote at the time, so far, the selection committee has continually cited one set of criteria more than all others -- Top 25 wins. Because the 10-team Big 12 is not generally as deep as larger conferences, its teams won't always get as many opportunities to play Top 25 teams during conference season. Therefore, it's smart to add another game against what will almost always be a Top 25 team.
Of course, there's always the risk its top playoff contender will lose that game, and Big 12 fans are particularly nervous about that possibility due to the history of upsets in its old title game. But as I wrote Friday, that's a statistical aberration. The last time the SEC experienced a championship game upset of the magnitude that would potentially cost it a playoff representative was 2005. In the ACC, lower-ranked teams have defeated higher-ranked teams in the title game three times in 11 years, none of which affected a national title contender. The numbers bear out that reward outweighs the risk.
As for the Oklahoma example last year, it's worth noting that the Sooners did drop from No. 3 to No. 4 by not playing the final weekend. And had Pac-12 champ Stanford been 12-1 instead of 11-2, the Cardinal likely would have bumped the Sooners just like Ohio State did Baylor the year before. At the time it was painted as a positive for Oklahoma that it did not have to expose itself to risk that final weekend, but over time it may have become increasingly uncomfortable for the Big 12 champ to have to sweat out that last weekend from its couch.
And finally, the unexpected element that put this over the top for me was Bowlsby saying the conference will likely form two divisions. I'd always assumed they'd pit the top two teams because, let's be honest, five-team divisions are strange. But this approach is smarter, for one because the top team may catch a break and face the third- or fourth-best team, but more notably, in the event the conference has two playoff hopefuls, it's not burning itself by guaranteeing ahead of time one will knock out the other.
The money, reportedly $27-$28 million, is nice, but it was always there. The league built that possibility into its contracts with ESPN and FOX. So if this were solely about money, there would have been no decision to make once the NCAA started allowing a championship game with 10 teams. The fact is, it's a smart move for a whole lot of reasons beyond the dollars.
Howdy Stewart. So the Big 12 voted to return to a championship game in 2017. Why not this year? Also, they will reportedly continue to "ponder" expansion. So yea or nay, on expansion and if yea, who will it be?
-- David R. Butler, San Marcos, TX
It's harder than you might think to stage a major event like that on six months' turnaround. First they'd have to choose a venue (Jerry World? Arrowhead?), sign a contract, figure out the logistics, possibly adjust schedules, etc. So 2017 was the realistic start date.
As for expansion ... I'd say it's looking increasingly unlikely. At this point, what's the incentive?
Lost in the news of the championship game announcement were two other important nuggets from the Big 12's meetings. One was the surprising revelation that the conference's per-team revenue distribution jumped 20 percent in one year, to $30.4 million, much closer to the Big Ten and SEC (for now) than most of us anticipated and solidly ahead of the ACC and Pac-12. Less surprising, the league's TV consultants confirmed there's little interest in the marketplace for a conference cable network, so the powers-that-be are abandoning that cause.
The Big 12's expansion dilemma has always been that there are no two programs out there likely to make the conference more valuable in TV's eyes. Granted, the conference's existing contracts include a pro rata clause, guaranteeing both old and new members' cuts remain the same regardless of what teams it adds. But if you're not increasing the overall pot, what's the point? And if you're not starting a network, then adding as many households as possible is no longer a driving factor.
Expansion isn't necessarily dead. It may be that after one year in this 10-team, two-division configuration, the conference feels it's just too clunky and needs two more schools to balance things out. If that's the case, though, it may be the rare expansion move made almost entirely to benefit the actual quality of play, in which case Cincinnati, BYU and Houston seemingly stand a better chance than UConn, UCF, USF or Memphis.
Stewart, I love the Big 12 adding a championship game. This means one more college football spectacular to consume at the end of the regular season. What I don't like is the possibility of playing a true round-robin AND having two divisions. What's the point? The 10-2 champ of the South vs. 8-4 champ of the North, while two teams from the South that destroyed the North champ in round robin play sit at home? Either expand to 12 or chuck the division idea.
-- Scott Saxton, Windsor, Ontario
I hate to clue you, but that already happens all the time, albeit without round-robin play. Last season, Oregon, 7-2 in the Pac-12, blew out 6-3 USC during the regular season, but the Trojans won the South and got a rematch with Stanford. In 2012, UCLA went 1-3 against the North in regular-season play, including losing its regular-season finale against Stanford, then turned around and got another shot at the Cardinal six days later. And of course there's been no shortage of 7-5 and 6-6 teams that made championship games due to ineligible teams in their own divisions.
People just seem to accept that divisional play comes with these quirks, and I believe they will with the Big 12, too.
Hi Stewart. In your article "Dear college football: Please do better," you say, "But of course, if [Mississippi State] suspended [Jeffery Simmons] for a season, he might himself opt out and go become someone else's five-star signee."
This sounds like grounds for action by the NCAA to make sure that all criminal cases are treated equally by all schools. If a recruit is suspended for a year at the school where he committed a misdeed, he will face the same punishment everywhere. Because if this guy was a two- or three-star, the punishment might have been different. Your thoughts?
-- Chris, Leesburg, VA
It's an understandable source of frustration that schools don't handle discipline uniformly, or that if one school cuts ties with a recruit for criminal misconduct, there's nothing stopping another from signing him. But it's simply not plausible that the NCAA could apply some blanket policy to cover the thousands of schools under its purview, which between them field nearly 500,000 athletes annually. While our focus here is on the relatively narrow world of big-time football, you can't expect the NCAA to take action against Jeffery Simmons, but not a Division III water polo player accused of the same act.
And that's before taking into account all the myriad ways that one particular case can differ from another both in the area of jurisdiction and the specific circumstances of an incident. In all likelihood you'd need something akin to individual case officers to wade through the details. You think the NCAA academic clearinghouse takes a long time; imagine the organization trying to process hundreds and hundreds of criminal cases in a given year.
More realistically, conferences need to adopt their own policies. Interestingly, the SEC has done just that in regards to transfers dismissed from their previous school for "serious misconduct," but last week specifically steered clear of extending it to incoming freshmen. Mind you, even if they did it would not apply to Simmons, whose charges are a misdemeanor, not a felony. But as much as I'd love to think schools will just start doing the "right thing," more likely Mississippi State needs explicit assurance that if it cuts loose its arrested recruit, LSU will not be able to pick him up.
Nebraska's home schedule stinks, with all of its marquee games (Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State) on the road. Oregon was to be the premier home game, but the Ducks had a dismal year last year (by Oregon standards). As of this writing, Nebraska has not sold out the 2016 season, which is making people nervous. Will a dud showing against Oregon put NU on the path to another sub -500 year, kill the 347-game sellout streak, and turn up the heat on Mike Riley?
-- John, Jackson, MS
First of all, thanks for bringing the sellout streak danger to my attention. I was not aware of it. Let's all take a second to stop and marvel at the fact that any school could sell out every single game for the last 54 years. It's insane. My guess is they'll find a way to sell 1,400 season tickets between now and the start of the season, but it's a good thing Riley got into and won that bowl game against UCLA. I'd imagine the cancellation rate would be even higher coming off a 5-8 season.
I'm not sure why you're so down on Oregon. The Ducks went 9-4 last season, not 4-9. I do have concerns that the Ducks' post-Mariota quarterback dropoff could bite them pretty badly this season, but that Sept. 17 matchup should still be a red-letter game for Nebraska. A win would be big for the program, but I don't believe a loss spells doom for the Huskers. Riley will feel heat regardless unless the Huskers rise up and win 10 games.
The problem is, as you said, the rest of the home schedule -- Fresno State, Wyoming, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Maryland -- is dreadful. If the sellout steak ends, you should not blame Nebraska fans; blame Jim Delany. This is the path he went down in bringing on Rutgers and Maryland, creating a 14-team conference with some great brands at the top but a whole lot of dreck further down. Someone's got go play the dreck, but that doesn't mean fans have to blindly fork over their money to watch it.
I've long suspected realignment would reach a point of diminishing returns, and maybe this is that moment. At the same time the Big Ten is preparing to reap a huge TV payday, a member known for having the sport's most loyal fan base is reaching a point of disillusionment it hasn't experienced in more than half a century. But that's the tradeoff Delany was willing to risk.
Could you please explain the rationale of all sides in the satellite camp debate? Right now it seems like a marriage where they're arguing out of habit.
-- Michael, San Diego
You know what? That's the perfect analogy.
The whole thing started because Jim Harbaugh was so brazen about barnstorming the South. Coaches in the South did not like that, obviously, but the reasons they expressed earlier this year -- mainly having to spend more time away from home in the summer -- have been replaced by an entirely different set of concerns that due hold validity. They're concerned about ulterior motives by the people hosting these high-profile college coaches and the potential for a myriad of ticky-tack NCAA violations, like Harbaugh taking a picture with a prospect who it appears was not actually a participant in the camp.
Now, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey will tell you those were his concerns even before Harbaugh came along. He believes the increased emphasis on this budding summer circus will turn football recruiting into as sleazy a scene as AAU basketball. The problem is, rather than take a year to join other conferences in examining the larger recruiting culture and taking measures accordingly -- as the Big Ten proposed -- the SEC and ACC insisted on trying to ban the camps altogether. Once that backfired, so close to the summer, nearly every school in the country hurriedly put together their own events with little thought given to the potential compliance headaches. The whole thing is a mess.
To take the analogy full circle, a marriage counselor here might reasonably conclude that both sides have valid arguments. In defense of Harbaugh and other satellite camp proponents, it's generally a good thing to give high-school players increased opportunities to learn from and get noticed by top college coaches. In the SEC guys' defense, there's probably a more efficient and easier-to-police means for doing it. Expect a healthy dose of NCAA regulation by this time next year.
If you were a conference such as the Big 12 or ACC, wouldn't your first call about starting a network be to the WWE? They have basically launched a 100 percent online network with original programming, archived footage and pay-per-views. Meanwhile, their main shows are still on cable TV. If a conference could get 3 million subscribers at $5/month (WWE charges $9.99), that would generate $180 million in revenue.
-- Dan Klobucar, Minneapolis
That's an excellent point. It's inevitable that all TV entities, not just conference networks, will eventually head in that direction, and WWE is ahead of the curve. Two years in, that network reported an average 1.3 million subscribers and generated $38 million in revenue last quarter. Taking the Big 12 as an example, multiply that by four, divide it by 10 and each member gets an additional $15 million -- same as Texas is getting for Longhorn Network.
However, college sports are very different from professional wrestling, and I'm not sure that exact model would work. For one thing, WWE fans are WWE fans, but not all Big 12 fans are Big 12 fans. They may only care about their own school. Furthermore, WWE controls all of its content. There are lots of places you can watch old ACC games that the ACC either licensed away long ago or, in the case of bowl and NCAA tournament games, does not hold the rights to. And finally, WWE largely revolves around one big event a week. A conference network broadcasts hundreds of baseball/softball/volleyball games, all of which come with considerable production costs that eat into revenue.
By all indications, the ACC is very much headed toward some sort of digital network in partnership with ESPN, and I'm fascinated to find out what form that takes. It will be more challenging for the Big 12 to embark on something similar because it would require corralling all of the schools' Tier 3 rights. Right now several are making more money off those than could be guaranteed by an over-the-top league offering.
Hi Stewart. Which game will Alabama lose this year that triggers the usual (and false) predictions that "Saban has lost it" and "the Crimson Tide have declined?" I'm picking the October 8th road game at Arkansas after a cakewalk at Kentucky.
-- Ken, Hollywood, FL
Well, saying Ole Miss (Sept. 17) would be a cop-out at this point.
Losing to Arkansas would not be ideal, obviously, but I'll push my answer to a week later, Oct. 15 at Tennessee. Because you already know what the over-generalizations would be. The Tide's decade-long dominance of their hated rival is over. Master recruiter Butch Jones has caught up to Nick Saban. The SEC East no longer plays second fiddle to the SEC West. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who lost to Tennessee last year while at Georgia, is a huge step down from Kirby Smart. And so on and so forth.
I'll admit, I had my doubts about 'Bama after last year's Ole Miss loss, but I knew better than to declare the dynasty dead, and I won't until I see a Saban-led team lose at least three games in consecutive seasons or go 7-5 once.
So, not anytime soon.