College football has finally settled down – for the most part – into five major conferences. Those five might opt to rescue a team or two from the under-affiliated ranks, but for the near future there is relative reshuffling peace at last.
Now the expansion focus in our little corner of the football world turns inward instead of outward – namely whether or not to expand the conference football schedules to nine games to accommodate the added inventory. It is not a cut-and-dried decision by any means.
But it should be. With the pending influx of revenues from the coming playoff era, dedicated conference networks and the Southeastern Conference-Big 12 model for unaffiliated “bowl” unions, it’s time to stop kowtowing to outdated constraints and beef up the schedules.
This should be the era of pleasing the fans and not appeasing reluctant coaches. Going to a nine-game conference schedule should be just the starting point – limiting the games that don’t matter while increasing the ones that should.
“I’m not opposed to a different scheduling model,” SEC commissioner Mike Slive said recently as the debate rumbles toward the conference’s upcoming spring meetings in Destin, Fla.
For the Pac-12, Big 12 and BIG Ten, the issue has been resolved. The Pac-12 already started doing it last year. For the 10-team Big 12, it was an easy choice as every team played each other, leaving no need for a championship game. The BIG Ten has announced it will go to nine by 2016 and is considering banning all patsy games against Division I-AA opponents.
That leaves the SEC and Atlantic Coast Conference as the only remaining eight-game holdouts among the major players. That’s not a coincidence considering they have the most overlapping territory in the major football landscape.
The ACC was all set to embrace nine games until it complicated the matter with its partial arrangement with Notre Dame. With the Irish committing to only five ACC football matchups a year, the nine-game plan was revoked in October.
The SEC, of course, has its own problems – all of it concentrated in the East Division where Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky have historic fixed non-conference rivalry games with in-state ACC opponents Georgia Tech, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. That wrinkle prompted Alabama’s Nick Saban to call his East brethren “whiners” as he endorsed the nine-game plan. It’s easy for him to say with all the latitude in the world for scheduling.
“There’s certain in-state rivals who are within the league, there’s certain coaches whose instate rivals are out of the league,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said recently. “That’s why you get a mixture of thought as to what would be the healthiest thing to do.”
For once – don’t get used to it – I agree with Saban.
“I mean, strength of schedule is important, but also, how about the fans?” Saban said. “Don’t they want to see good games and all that?”
It’s time to think more about those fans who have been footing the bill for college athletics for too long with little say in the matter. With directors of athletics carping about the financial need for seven home games and coaches complaining about too many tough foes, fans have had to fork over money for creampuff games that nobody really wants to see. There are generally two per season, not counting the annual conference doormats that rarely cause the better teams to trip.
With the SEC’s traditional 6-1-1 conference plan (one permanent division crossover and one rotating crossover game), Georgia and South Carolina fans will only get to face Alabama or LSU or Texas A&M once home-and-home every 12 years. Entire classes of Bulldogs and Gamecocks will go without facing some marquee West Division programs.
Nine conference games would reduce that window to six years.
“It could go to nine,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. “Whatever they say is fine with me.”
That should be the attitude of all coaches. Instead of griping about a schedule that’s too tough, work on legislating a more level playing field with everybody. Pass conference rules that limit nonconference games against teams outside the five major conferences to two or even one. Perhaps do as the BIG Ten is considering and ban playing Division I-AA teams, ensuring strength-of-schedule won’t be an issue when the playoff selection committee starts weighing the conference elites.
That’s a little tougher for the ACC, which will have teams rotating games against Notre Dame. If there are only three nonconference opportunities, there would be seasons when Clemson would have only one option other than the Irish and Gamecocks.
From the perspective of the fan buying the tickets and paying the cable fees that produce all that revenue, would that really be a problem? You think the players will be crying “When do we get a break? Bring on Buffalo.”
It would be even better if more schools would put aside petty squabbles and reestablish old traditional rivalries (Texas A&M-Texas, Missouri-Kansas, Oklahoma-Nebraska, Pitt-Penn State) or lock in new regional ones (Tennessee-Virginia Tech, Alabama-West Virginia, LSU-Texas Tech, Arkansas-Oklahoma State) that make the whole tapestry of college football even stronger.
Of course there will have to be some sacrifices made. Some seasons would only have six home games (Georgia-Florida would need to move to home stadiums). Ten-win seasons would be tougher to come by but more precious when accomplished. Coaches might be forced to feel a little more pressure to earn their $4 million salaries.
But with all the money the SEC and ACC will be making in this new college football era, it’s time to give something back to the fans and players who make the sport great in the first place. After all the upheaval, it’s time to settle in to our new conference homes even more than ever.
One of the biggest obstacles to the SEC and ACC joining their super-five brethren with nine-game conference football schedules is the annual regional rivalries between the two overlapping conference territories.
It would be a great shame to see Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson, Florida-Florida State and Kentuck-Louisville becoming roadblocks to the increasing the number of games that fans most want to see. It would be an even greater shame if those rivalries went away altogether.
What would be better is if the super-five conferences (and Notre Dame) who make up the most likely pool candidates in the pending playoff era would all embrace more comparable rivalries – some old and some new – that wouldn’t make the long-standing SEC-ACC unions outliers.
Here’s a five-step plan that would make college football close to perfect as it enters the playoff era:
STEP 1: Embrace the orphans. The major poaching part of conference realignment has ended with the grant of rights agreements that bind teams long-term in the ACC, BIG Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. But that doesn’t mean there’s not still room to invite a few programs that don’t deserve to be left on the outside looking in. The ACC (15 schools plus partial Notre Dame), SEC (14) and BIG 10 (14) have probably reached their upper limits for the foreseeable future. But it would be great if the Pac-12 (12) and Big 12 (10) made a little room for others.
Boise State and BYU seem like perfect fits for a new Pac-14. And the Big 12 has plenty of room to expand its market by adding the likes of Cincinnati, Memphis, South Florida and Central Florida. If they’re feeling especially generous, Houston and SMU would welcome inclusion with their Texas brethren.
STEP 2: Dismiss the patsies. It’s time for Division I to cut the cord completely with I-AA in football. With strength of schedule being a major component in any playoff selection committee criteria, schools can’t afford to have the cupcakes bringing down the curve. The big five conferences need to ban all I-AA from counting toward bowl eligibility. There will be 66 major conference teams (including Notre Dame) and 72 other D-I teams once the conferences finally resettle. Those numbers could flip if the orphan project mentioned above is adopted, leaving room in the lesser conferences to absorb some other enterprising I-AA programs to fill the gap and even things out eventually.
STEP 3: Nine-game schedules. To make things as balanced as possible, the SEC and ACC need to join in the nine-game conference schedule movement. That would better establish the best teams in each conference and keep every team with three non-conference games to make scheduling simpler.
STEP 4: Super conference cross-pollination. To really foster competitive balance at the highest level, the five major conferences should bring the basketball “challenge” model to football in a way, having teams play two non-conference games against other programs within the big five. The remaining game on the schedule would be against one of the lesser conference programs. If everybody has harder schedules, nobody can complain.
STEP 5: Establish new rivals. Those traditional rivalries that are currently standing in the way of nine-game conference schedules should become the norm and not the exception. First, jilted realignment rivals should put away petty differences and renew old annual relationships that players and fans crave. That means Texas A&M-Texas, Oklahoma-Nebraska, Missouri-Kansas, Pitt-Penn State and Virginia-Maryland need to remain or become staples again. Duke and Vandy are perfect for each other. Other natural alliances could form out of rotating co-ops, making scheduling easier for all. Take a pod like Alabama-Auburn-Tennessee and perhaps Ohio State and match them on a rotating home-and-home basis with another pod such as Miami-North Carolina-Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Other smaller pods might be LSU-Arkansas vs. Oklahoma State-Texas Tech; N.C. State-Wake Forest vs. Ole Miss-Mississippi State; or Syracuse-Boston College vs. Rutgers-Northwestern. Eventually you’d have every super-five program hooked up with another non-conference team or alliance, to foster long-term recognizable associations.
Eventually, STEP 6 will evolve naturally when the playoff expands to eight or 10 teams to be more inclusive and bring in even more cash to the schools. At that point, college football will finally be done fixing itself.
This golfing season of discontent took a tantalizing turn last week at PGA Tour headquarters, where there was enough emotion and animosity emanating from Sawgrass to generate crossover appeal for fans who like their sports a little less prim and proper.
In a week that made Freddie Couples cry (Hall of Fame induction) and Jason Dufner smile (rare eagle on No. 18), the most compelling takeway from the Players Championship was a bitter aftertaste.
First came Vijay Singh v. PGA Tour in a made-for-courtroom drama, and then Tiger Woods vs. Sergio Garcia in a two-day rumble that extended from the course to the podium. Even Woods salvaging the event from a David Lingmerth sentence couldn’t drown out another drop controversy involving the world’s No. 1 golfer.
Delicious stuff for a non-major week.
One thing golf has long been missing is a villain, and Singh stepped up to take on the role in the classiest fashion. Not content to just drift off quietly into senior-circuit irrelevance (and it seems a good time to note that the 50-year-old Hall of Famer from Fiji hasn’t won a PGA Tour event in five years), Singh decided to cement his legacy as unlovable by suing the tour on the eve of its flagship event.
Singh’s beef is that the PGA Tour somehow besmirched his reputation – which, it should be reiterated, began all those years ago when he was kicked off the Asian Tour for cheating and banished to Borneo. All the tour did was (without comment) follow its drug protocol policies to the letter and ultimately let Singh skate scot-free despite clearly violating the rules that every player agreed to abide by.
Doesn’t seem to matter that Singh incriminated himself in a Sports Illustrated story with his laughable comments about using the explicitly banned deer-antler spray. Then he outed everything the tour had discreetly kept secret – the details of his original suspension and subsequent appeal that prompted the tour to let him off after further review by the World Anti-Doping Agency – by filing the lawsuit despite sound advice against that tactic from his agents at IMG.
Singh, whose $67 million in tour earnings ranks third all-time, even sued for the interest on the $100,000 the tour kept in escrow for three months while he appealed.
It’s not easy to make the PGA Tour look like a sympathetic character, but Singh pulled it off before promptly missing the cut in his adopted hometown. Bravo.
Just as Singh exited for the weekend to go rehearse his testimony, Tiger and Sergio took center stage and held everyone’s attention until the thrilling conclusion.
The two have long been golf’s unrequited rivals since El Niño popped out from behind an oak tree at Medinah in the 1999 PGA and skipped onto the scene. The one-sided nature of the dynamic hasn’t diminished it in any way.
Paired together in the last group Saturday, it took only two holes for their animosity to go viral. During a rain delay, Garcia semi-accused Woods of gamesmanship by stirring up the crowd and causing him to hit a bad shot from a perfect lie in the fairway that led to bogey. Woods’ view of Garcia from the trees was blocked by fans, and when he pulled out a fairway wood just as Garcia was hitting it caused the gallery to murmur at his aggressive club choice.
Garcia pointed it out, prompting Woods (who rarely says a discouraging word) to say “not real surprising that he’s complaining about something.”
On Sunday, when they were tied for the 54-hole lead but paired separately, Garcia didn’t mince words.
“He’s not my favorite guy to play with. He’s not the nicest guy on tour,” Garcia said of Woods, adding later, “We don’t enjoy each other’s company. You don’t have to be a rocket engineer to figure that out.”
While Sergio’s honesty often comes out as petulant, you have to admire his willingness to speak his mind – especially about a dominant player so many others are afraid to talk negatively about. It’s too bad the gifted Spaniard had to add another meltdown to his ledger with Woods, rinsing three balls at Nos. 17 and 18 on Sunday when he was tied with Tiger through 70 holes.
How might it have played out if Woods and Garcia had been paired? You can bet Sergio wouldn’t have been timid to offer his two cents about where Woods’ ball last crossed the hazard on the 14th hole. Woods consulted playing partner Casey Wittenberg, and they agreed on a very generous drop considering TV replays seemed to indicate Woods’ ball never crossed land near where he wound up playing from.
Despite how it looks after two high-profile mistaken drops this season (Abu Dhabi and Augusta), Woods followed proper protocol and there’s no recourse to overrule it. Chances are he would have made the same double bogey from anywhere, but a confrontation with Sergio could have made things very interesting.
The Tiger-Sergio relationship is the most colorful thing in the game – a welcome departure from the homogenized comments and competition that passes for rivalry in golf these days. Certainly more intriguing than the Woods-Rory McIlroy “bromance.” A little bad blood is what makes sports entertaining, and put that on a stage like the Stadium Course where fans revel in seeing crashes like it’s Daytona and you get a very compelling show.
While golf can do without the anchored-putter users filing their own ambush litigation, here’s hoping Woods and Garcia can continue to spice things up when the remaining majors roll around at Merion, Murifield and Oak Hill.