June 18, 2010

Conference Expansion: Thoughts on Texas, the weakened Big 12, Nebraska in the Big Ten, the Pac 10, and why I'm happy Notre Dame remains independent.

So much going on in college football in the last week, so here are some big picture thoughts on college football expansion.

(1) How will Nebraska fare in the Big Ten??

I've said since the first day this was announced that Nebraska was the perfect addition for the Big Ten, and I personally think Jim Delany should just stand pat from here.

The Big East schools don't have the regional brand name cache to really make it worthwhile for the Big Ten. Nebraska adds an entire state of diehard fans who will rprsent the Big Ten well in bowl game trips, tv ratings, and brand loyalty. Not a lot of fairweather Cornhusker fans in that state.

Nebraska passes the "are you really excited to see _________ coming to town?" test for the rest of the Big Ten fans. If you're a Wisconsin fan, do you get fired up just seeing "October 13 NEBRASKA" in your upcoming schedule?? The answer to that question is yes. Living here in Columbus, I am looking forward to Nebraska's first trip to the Horseshoe as a member of the Big Ten. I'm sure I'll be up in South Bend for some random ND-UConn game, but still. That's a marquee, big event kinda game that will be going for twice the face value on Stubhub.

Rutgers and Missouri and Syracuse don't have that same appeal for me. I wouldn't even bat an eye if any of those teams was in town. Maybe the Cuse for hoops, but that's it.

So we know that Nebraska is a big coup for the Big Ten. Only one question pops up for me when I think about this Nebraska move. Why are their fans so enthused about it?? I guess you could say money and academics, but what fan really cares that much about either thing?? Won't Nebraska fans miss some of the Big 12 rivalries?? And is playing Iowa and Michigan really that much more exciting for them than playing Texas and Missouri??

My best guess is that Nebraska fans think they are going to clean up in the Big Ten. They've been beaten down by that Texas/OU juggernaut in the Big 12, and they probably think they are going to waltz through the Big Ten. Sort of a fresh start on life. They know where they stand in the Big 12. Third. In the Big Ten, it's a clean slate. I can understand that position.

Here's the only think that I would note about Nebraska's move to the Big Ten. Is this move going to have a negative effect on their recruiting?? Nebraska has made a living recruiting guys from Texas and California. Here are their last four classes:

2010 class - 22 commits -- 5 from Texas, 2 from California
2009 class - 20 commits -- 7 from Texas, 5 from California
2008 class - 28 commits -- 8 from Texas, 3 from California
2007 class - 27 commits -- 7 from Texas, 4 from California

Maybe they'll still be able to attract all those Texas and California guys in the Big Ten, but what other Big Ten school is doing that?? Why would a kid from Texas want to play in the Big Ten?? At least Nebraska could sell a Texas player on staying in the Big 12 footprint by playing at Nebraska, but I have to think it's going to be a lot harder down there now.

If Nebraska suddenly can't get all these California and Texas recruits, will they be the same program that they are now?? Will they suddenly morph into Iowa West?? More of a good program than an elite program. Tough to say.

And by giving up their presence in other traditional recruiting areas, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, will they be able to make up for it by going into traditional Big Ten markets in Chicago and Cleveland and Pittsburgh for players?? Squeezing more talent out of the Midwest is like squeezing blood out of a turnip.

As of right now, here's how I'd rank the 12 programs in the new Big Ten in terms of strength (tradition, recent history, coaching, program commitment, recruiting base, etc).

(1) Ohio State
(2) Penn State
(3) Nebraska
(4) Michigan
(5) Wisconsin
(6) Iowa
(7) Michigan State
(8) Illinois
(9) Northwestern
(10) Purdue
(11) Minnesota
(12) Indiana

#2 and #3 are pretty much interchangeable, but I give the edge to Penn State purely because of their in-state recruiting base. Penn State has a stable of players in PA and Jersey that will probably always keep them health as a program.

Nebraska's future as a dominant force in the Big Ten comes down to one name: Bo Pelini. I'm as big of a Pelini fan as anyone and think he's as good a coach as there is in the country right now. With him running the show, it really feels like Nebraska is back. By the end of last yaer, they were playing like a top 10 team, and this year's team coul be better. What if Nebraska won the national title this year?? Would the Big 12 commissioner even congratulate them?? Awkward.

(2) What does this expansion mean for the future of the Big Ten??

For a traditional league like the Big Ten, this has been quite a bit of change. Some questions:

(1) Are people really excited about a conference championship game??

This is sort of funny. For all the talk about how the Big Ten can finally have a conference championship game, has anyone stopped to talk to the member schools to see how they feel about it??

Do fans actually like these conference championship games or do they just view them as another obstacle to an undefeated season?? Did Texas fans really enjoy that Nebraska game last year?? That was a no-win situation.

Locally in Columbus, Ohio State fans have become accustomed to a certain path to an undefeated season. 1 big OOC game, 2 big conference matchups (PSU, Michigan), and typically 1-2 other tricky road games at night somewhere. The schedule is usually going to have 2-3 "big games" that are going to make or break the season. I would imagine that Penn State and Wisconsin and Even Michigan fans feel the same way going into every season.

Are these fanbases even excited about a conference championship game?? Wouldn't a championship game just be another opportunity to lose?? Just curious about that.

One propsoal for Jim Delany. I know we'll be getting a majority of these games in Indy/Detroit/Minnesota and maybe even St. Louis, but what about the occasional outdoor game?? It's the Big Ten!! Shouldn't a rough and tumble Midwestern league lke the Big Ten play the occasional outdoor title game?? It's not like these games are in January.

A Big Ten title game would be a week after the regular season. If a Nebraska fan can watch Nebraska-Wisconsin outdoors on November 27, why can't they watch Nebraska-Ohio State a week later outside at Soldier Field or Lambeau?? How great would that be??

(2) The two division breakdown

Here's how the divisions might break down if the Big Ten splits geographically:

Western Division

Eastern Division
Ohio State
Penn State
Michigan State

Umm, is it safe to say that these divisions are wildly unbalanced?? No wonder Nebraska is so excited about joining the Big Ten.

I almost think the Big Ten would have to do some sort of different alignment for the divisions. How are you going to have the three current kingpins of the conference in the same division??

Even on the basketball side, the dispartiy there would be laughable. In terms of historic power, that Eastern Division with Indiana, Purdue, MSU, Ohio State, and Michigan would blow the other division out of the water.

I think they would have to come up with something different. Maybe one of these "Plains" and "Lakes" alignments that has been discussed.

(3) How strong is the Big Ten now??

I almost think people are underrating this addition for the Big Ten. People have been so obsessed with Texas and Notre Dame and Texas A&M and a Pac 10 superconference, but none of that stuff ended up happening. Here's what we ended up with:

Colorado and Utah to the Pac 10
Nebraska to the Big Ten

Who got the better end of that deal?? The Big Ten added one of the top 10 football programs of all time with a fanbase that is as passionate as any in the country. The Pac 10 added two more Arizonas.

The Big Ten has emerged from this chaos as the clear cut second best conference in America. The Big 12 has been weakened, and the Pac 10 is a disaster right now. Who is going to carry the torch for the Pac 10 in the next five years?? A probation-ravaged USC?? Utah??

(3) Is Texas a winner or a loser here??

On the surface, Texas is a major winner in the sense that they are going to be printing money down in Austin and might be getting a Longhorn Sports Network in the near future. They are basically the undisputed king of the Big 12 now, and control all aspects of the league from finances to the power structure.

But I don't really care about the money issues. What about on the field?? And more importantly, what about their brand? Is Texas in a better position today than they were at this time last year??

At this time last year, the Big 12 was considered by the majority of college football fans to be the 2nd best conference in America. You had three major powers (Texas, OU, Nebraska), several other solid mid-level programs (Mizzou, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech), a conference championship game, and only a couple real clunker programs (Iowa State, Baylor, maybe Kansas State).

Now?? Think about what has changed in the Big 12 in the last week:

--The league has gone from three heavyweights to two. Texas now is basically playing one heavyweight a year (Oklahoma). The Big Ten now has four heavyweights, and the SEC has six.

--No more conference championship game. The Big 12 championship game was another opportunity for a big game/win on the schedule. The Big 12 has become more like the Big Ten now with no conference championship game. Isn't the Big 12 going to get lose in the shuffle here??

Think about your Big 12 viewing habits. How many Big 12 games do you really watch?? I watch bits and pieces of maybe 4-5 Big 12 regular season games a year (OU-Texas, the 8pm ABC games, Bedlam, maybe a Nebraska game) and the Big 12 championship game. With this newly formed Big 12, I'll probably watch Texas-OU and maybe one other game. That's a 50% reduction in nationally relevant games.

Doesn't that hurt the league's brand in some ways??

--No more Nebraska and no more Colorado for tv viewing purposes -- As if the Big 12 wasn't already Texas-oriented, it has somehow become even more regionalized. The Denver market is done, and the Nebraska markets are out. The Big 12 is basically down to the Texas cities, Kansas City, St. Louis, and Oklahoma City.

And if Missouri leaves for the Big Ten someday...

--Only ten members. Here are your remaining Big 12 schools:

Oklahoma State
Texas A&M
Texas Tech
Iowa State
Kansas State

The top is strong, but what about the rest of the league?? Iowa State, Baylor, and Kansas State are clunkers, and now they make up 30% of the league.

Here is Texas' 2010 football schedule:

09/04 2:30p ESPN at Rice (Reliant Stadium)
09/11 6:00p FSN Wyoming
09/18 7:00p ABC at Texas Tech
09/25 2:30p/7:00p ABC UCLA
10/02 at Oklahoma (Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX)
10/16 at Nebraska
10/23 Iowa State
10/30 Baylor
11/06 at Kansas State
11/13 Oklahoma State
11/20 Florida Atlantic
11/25 7:00p ESPN Texas A&M

Imagine that schedule with no Nebraska. Their nonconference schedule is Rice, Wyoming, Florida Atlantic, and UCLA.

When this new Big 12 starts up next year, how could Texas possibly justify a spot in the title game ahead of an undefeated SEC, ACC, Big Ten, or even Pac 10 team?? They are basically playing one elite team, 2-3 decent teams, and a bunch of duds after that. And no conference championship game.

Texas is notorious for playing cupcake nonconference schedules. If they don't step it up and start playing better competition in the nonconference, I don't see how their new overall schedules will justify a spot in the title game for them.

Don't get me wrong, Texas is the elite of the elite these days in college football. Probably in the top 3 in terms of their strength in the overall college football world along with Alabama and Florida. They have the talent and coaching staff to be play in the title game every single year.

But their schedules are about to become a joke. If ND ever goes undefeated and gets left out by an undefeated Texas team that beats one good team (Oklahoma), it would be a travesty.

(4) Biggest star of the "conference expansion" week

How about Chip Brown of Orangebloods.com?? Biggest breakout media star since Chad Millman at the 2010 NCAA Tournament?? How could he not be?? I've never even heard of this guy, and now suddenly he's the go-to guy for all things conference expansion. Considering all the information he had, why would you go anywhere else for news on expansion??

Speaking of information, what exactly does ESPN do anymore in terms of reporting?? Has Joe Schad ever broken a story in his entire career?? Going to ESPN for breaking college football news is completely worthless. The best you are getting is Joe Schad quoting someone from Yahoo or Rivals or one of these local insider sites (i.e. Orangebloods.com). Whatever ESPN pays Joe Schad is about ten times too much.

ESPN might have the best NFL beat guys out there with Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter, but their college department is an abomination. It's basically Joe Schad and a bunch of columnists who disappear from January to mid-August. Whoops, I forgot Bruce Feldman. Yippee.

(5) Can the Pac 10 be called anything but a loser here??

I'm not really sure I understand what the Pac 10 has accomplished. They're like an NBA team that had $30 million in cap room and decided to blow it all on Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon (whoops, sorry Detroit).

What was the rush to add Colorado and Utah?? Just seems strange that the Pac 10 has waited 30 years to expand and then just decides to throw caution to the wind and jump in headfirst with Colorado and Utah.

What do either of these schools add to the Pac 10 in terms of dollars or championship programs?? Utah is a nice program in a decent sized metro market (Salt Lake City), but it's not exactly a heavyweight. I happened to be in Salt Lake City a couple weeks ago and checked out Rice-Eccles Stadium on the Utah campus, and it's a 45,000 stadium. Spectacular setting and all, but not exactly screaming out big time college football. They've had great success in the MWC the last few years, but I expect them to settle into the middle of the Pac 10.

And Colorado?? Really?? When was the last time they've even been relevant in college football?? The Rashaan Salaam era?? I'm not sure I've watched a Colorado game in ten years if not longer.

People talk about Colorado and this supposedly rabid Denver market, but why is Folsom Field (which admittedly looks very cool) only holding 53,000 fans if these Denver fans are such Colorado Buffs diehards?? I mean, come on. Wake me up when you're bringing in 80,000 fans for home games.

Plus, Colorado baskeball is a complete joke. Maybe the worst college hoops program in the Big 12.

Is Fox/ESPN going to shell out a bunch of dollars to the Pac 10 now because they've added Colorado and Utah?? I don't see it. Instead of splitting the pie between ten schools, now they are splitting it between 12.

The other thing is that this expansion destroys what has made the Pac 10 a unique entity in college football: the round robin. I loved that the Pac 10 stuck with 9 conference games to ensure that every team played each other. With twelve teams, the round robin is over unless they go to 11 conference games (highly unlikely).

Finally, what if the Big 12 collapses in the next couple years under this new arrangement?? Isn't that easily a possibility?? For all we know, Missouri might start up some "Marshall Plan" to ramp up their sports programs, and try to parlay that into a spot in the Big Ten. Or maybe the numbers drop off for Big 12 viewership, and Texas starts looking round.

If that happens, how foolish is the Pac 10 going to look?? Texas and Oklahoma would be out there looking around, but the Pac 10 is already boxed in with Utah and Colorado. That would be a disaster.

(6) How has this worked out for Notre Dame?

I'm not sure this could have worked out any better for Notre Dame. The more I hear about conferences and the "landscape," the more convinced I am that independence is still far and away the best path for Notre Dame. Even with all our struggles, we remain big time brand in college football.

This Jerry Jones story says it all. He wants Notre Dame in the Big 12 with Arkansas. Of course he does. Even if the Big 12 doesn't really make sense for our fanbase or our programs, we are the only school in the country that could pull that off. We're still the only nationwide brand out there.

I have heard very few compelling reason for Notre Dame to join a conference. It is certainly not money. ND is making money hand over fist, and it appears that the Big Ten numbers about Indiana and Northwestern making more money than ND have been debunked.

Exposure?? Please. NBC and nationwide coverage every week.

Recruiting?? How would joining the Big Ten help our recruiting?? If anything, it would destroy our recruiting. Our only edge in recruiting right now is that we have a nationwide schedule and a national tv deal. If we are suddenly playing noon Big Ten games on the Big Ten Network against Minnesota and the occasional ESPN game again Illinois with Pam Ward broadcasting live from Champaign, does anyone really think that is going to help our recruiting?? How??

People want to come to ND because we have a national presence. If we move to the Big Ten, we basically become Northwestern 2.0. We have no in-state recruiting base, so we'd be going into Michigan/Ohio State/Penn State's territory to go after players. And we'd have nothing unique to offer these guys because we'd be playing the same Big Ten schedule that those teams play. Why go to ND and play in the Big Ten when you can just stay in state and play at Penn State against the same schools??

The "Landscape"?? - I guess there is a scenario out there that will create 4 superconferences that would leave us high and dry, but I see no reason to rush into anything until that actually happens. How do we even know this four superconference thing is even going down?? If it was ever going to happen, it would have happened this offseason. Instead, teams like Texas realized that the superconference model of 16 team leagues is a flawed model and completely unworkable. I think it will be a long time before we ever see something like that.

And even if we do, ND still has options:

(1) Roll the dice and stay independent and hope that teams will stay play us
(2) Join a different league -- If the Big Ten decides to "bypass" us and move on to other teams, big whoop. That doesn't even slightly concern me. We can join the ACC the next day. Or the Pac 10 for that matter.

Scheduling?? Ok, this might be the one issue that would cause some problems for us. If USC someday has to play 11-12 conference games and can no longer play us, that's a problem. Same with Michigan. If the choice is playing a schedule filled with cupcakes and midmajors and Big East schools versus playing a conference schedule of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, then sign me up for a league. If we want to remain a big time football program, we have to be able to play the types of schedules that will attract recruits and get us respect in the college football world. If everyone else is playing conference games every week and we're playing Army and Rice, we're in trouble.

How can we combat that potential problem?? Bold and aggressive scheduling. I think Jack Swarbrick might be working on that as we speak. The Miami series should get locked down to give us another anchor tenant on the schedule.

Other moves I would make:

1) Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma -- I'd sign up home and homes with all three of those schools. The Big 12 is scaling back to ten teams, and all these teams are going to need more marquee games on the schedule to remain competitive for BCS spots and also for tv ratings. If ND could get a home and home with Big 12 teams on a regular basis, that would be an attractive package for ESPN in the next bidding.

Heck, we should be looking at deals with everyone in the Big 12 for that matter. Sign up Texas Tech. Or Oklahoma State. I would love to go to Stillwater and party it up at Eskimo Joes.

The Big 12 is a big opportunity for us to make some splashes on the scheduling front. We already have Oklahoma for 2012-13. An ND-Texas series should be on the top priority list for Swarbrick.

2) Tell Purdue and Michigan State to stuff it -- I would tell Purdue and Sparty that they need to move to November or they're off the "permanent" list on the schedule. If they don't do it, they're gone. I'm tired of freaking Purdue telling us that they'll only play ND in September. They charge double for the ND home game that they do for every other game, and they're controlling the terms?? Please.

It doesn't even need to be both teams. Just moving one of them to November every year would alleviate a lot of our scheduling problems. Instead of playing Tulsa in November, we'd at least have a couple respectable Big Ten teams there. And then we could use those September spots for some different schools.

I don't mind playing Purdue and Michigan State. We have history with those schools. But the terms of our current relationship are very one-sided. We are a huge rivalry game for both teams that their fans get fired up for, and yet we allow them to control when the games are played. If we're going to agree to play them every single year, I think we should demand that the games get played in November. If not, we'll just move on and find somebody from the ACC or Big 12 or SEC to play instead.

The other thing is that it creates less dependency on the Big Ten from our side. If we can establish some relationships with other schools outside of the Big Ten, it would help strengthen our independence and national brand.

I am extremely pleased that we are remaining independent, but now comes the toughest part: protecting that independence. We need to be forward-thinking and aggressive to ensure that we have a place at the table with the power brokers in college football. In order for us to stay relevant, quality scheduling is more important than ever.

The status quo is a perfect scenario for ND. Independent in football and Big East hoops. I can't really think of a better scenario. It is the best of both worlds, and we are very fortunate to have two great situations. Hopefully we can start fresh in this new decade by actually accomplishing some things on the field now that our off-the-field questions have been answered for awhile.


Anonymous said...

Texas in 2010 is analagous to ND in 1990. Dominating their rivals, in the NC conversation every year, and cleaning up on recruiting. It seems like it will never end, but it will. Maybe Mack Brown has a heart attack, maybe Will Muschamp won't be able to take the reins. No one knows how it will end, but it will.

The difference between the two schools is that ND's run was partially brought on by efforts within ND administration (admission requirements, AD changes, Holtz being run out). UT won't make those mistakes, but their run will come to an end soon.

In the meantime, hats off to UT for leveraging their last 5 years of success and trying to keep a good thing going.

Anonymous said...

I think the whole thing is stupid. Nebraska slides in nicely to the Big Ten identity, and so do Utah and Colorado in a way with the PAC-10. Who else was the PAC-10 going to add outside of Texas and co., seeing as how set they were on expanding? Maybe they should have caved in and let Baylor come along after all. Who knows.

But you know what? Texas, Oklahoma, etc. in the PAC-10 would have been lame. They're not western schools and really have no business in a west-coast league, certainly a lot less so than Utah and even Colorado do. I mean you can make your arguments and you can run the financial numbers, but it's still Texas and Oklahoma in the PAC-10. It's true that things for the Big-12 South would have largely stayed the same, with the exception the inclusion of Arizona/ASU into their regular rotation, and that part of it was convenient for all parties. But it would have still been lame. Like you say, fans don't really care about TV contracts, other than to the extent that they effect viewing availability.

I think all of this sucks. If ND had joined the Big Ten instead of Nebraska, that could have been cool, but I'm happy for us to remain independent. At the end of the day all I really care about is every ND game being nationally televised and Brian Kelly being our new coach. Conference schmonference.