Everyday I’m Shuffling: College Football Playoffs, Conference Realignment and Penn State

I’m finally back from along family vacation where I was blissfully unaware of any major news during that time, so let’s catch up on a few items:

(1) College Football Playoff Details Dripping Out and Confusing Everyone – About a month ago when the FBS commissioners plus Notre Dame announced that they agreed upon a new college football playoff system, it seemed fairly straight-forward with a 4-team playoff, semifinal sites rotated among 6 bowls to be played on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and a selection committee choosing the participants in the semifinals and top bowls.  The first caveat, however, was that certain bowls would have ironclad contractual tie-ins, specifically the Big Ten and Pac-12 with the Rose Bowl, the SEC and Big 12 with the Please Choose the Sugar or Cotton So I Can Stop Calling This The Pompous Champions Bowl, and the ACC with the Orange Bowl.   I wrote back in November prior to a playoff being on the radar that any proposed elimination of automatic qualifier (AQ) status from the BCS system would simply be a matter of semantics and that contractual tie-ins would not go away.  In essence, the removal of AQ status only affected the Big East (which didn’t have a contractual tie-in with any top bowl).  In fact, the new system goes a step further and protects the contractual tie-ins in years where those top bowls aren’t semifinals regardless of ranking.  That is, if the Rose Bowl isn’t a semifinal in a given year and a Big Ten team is a semifinalist, the Rose will have a Big Ten replacement no matter what record or ranking such replacement has at the time (whereas the current BCS system requires any non-champ replacement needs to be in the top 14).  On the flip side, in the years that the Rose Bowl is a semifinal host and the Big Ten champ isn’t in the top 4, then that Big Ten champ will go to one of the other top 6 bowls.  From this point forward, being a “power conference” means having a guaranteed tie-in with a “contract bowl”, while “access bowls” provide variable at-large spots that may or may not provide access to the non-power conferences in a given year.

At the same time, what was initially thought to be a simple rotation of semifinal games among the 6 top bowls may end up being much more complex.  The new Rose Bowl deal with ESPN indicated that Pasadena might only host 2 semifinals over a 12-year period (as opposed to 4 if there was an even rotation).  It has been speculated that the I’m Really Really Really Sick Of Calling This The Champions Bowl would similarly host fewer semifinals.  That didn’t make too much sense to me until SportsBusiness Daily reported an extremely important detail yesterday: the Big Ten and Pac-12 will split $80 million per year in media revenue from the Rose Bowl for the years that the game is NOT a semifinal host, while the revenue during semifinal years would be distributed in a manner to be determined with the rest of the new playoff system.  No wonder why the Big Ten and Pac-12 (and the SEC and Big 12) aren’t really that keen on giving up their top bowl tie-ins very often to semifinal games – they could be taking a haircut on a guaranteed $40 million payday in the applicable years.

The SportsBusiness Daily report also indicated that the commissioners expected to have the Rose Bowl and Allstate AT&T Chick-fil-A Breakfast of Champions Bowl host semifinals in the same years, which perplexes me to no end. What’s the point of doing that?  Would this mean that there could be years where there isn’t any semifinal on New Year’s Day when those two bowls aren’t hosting semifinals?  Why would a TV partner paying billions of dollars for this playoff (which is basically the entire impetus for this playoff being created in the first place) not want at least one semifinal in prime time every New Year’s Day?  By the same token, why would such TV partner pay for any semifinal games played on low-rated New Year’s Eve when most of America is outside of their homes getting hammered and not near a TV?

How the “access bowl” slots will be filled is also up in the air.  The goals of a selection committee, bowls and TV networks aren’t always going to be aligned here.  A selection committee will presumably want to award bids based on merit, bowls want teams with the best ticket buying traveling fan bases and TV networks want the most attractive national brand names.  (The latter two usually have a strong correlation, but there are certain exceptions.  Iowa, for example, is gold for bowls with how Hawkeye fans travel, yet a TV network would likely prefer bad-traveling-but-big-TV-ratings-draw Miami if it came down to a choice between the two.)

Then, we get to the selection committee itself.  I’ve warmed up to the concept a bit over the past month or so, but I still have a ton of reservations on how it’s going to work.  Is this structurally going to end up being an end-of-the-year poll only using 10 to 20 people as opposed to 115 people?  If so, why is that an improvement over the current usage of the Harris Poll?  (Note that I firmly believe that the use of the Coaches’ Poll where there are blatant conflicts of interest should be eliminated from any sort of selection criteria.)  How is strength of schedule going to be taken into account?  (In my humble opinion, SOS is politically correct code for “only the 5 power conferences matter”. When looking at the SOS rankings last year, the only school outside of the 5 power conferences plus Notre Dame that made it to the top 50 was Tulsa, which had a murderer’s row non-conference schedule of Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Boise State.  Big East champ West Virginia was only at #51 even though it played LSU as a non-conference opponent.  Anyone that thinks that SEC teams are going to get docked for playing cupcakes in their non-conference schedules are completely misguided – SOS rankings help the SEC even MORE than subjective human polls.)  I know a lot of college football fans believe that many pollsters fill out their ballots blindly every week and distrust the polls accordingly, but I’m honestly much more worried about the disproportionate power of 1 committee member vote that can’t be mitigated by a large poll pool.  This is a situation where we really won’t know how well the selection committee concept will work until we see it in action.

To be clear, I’m very happy with the new playoff system overall. I have been pushing for some type of playoff for many years that still manages to preserve the Big Ten/Pac-12 tradition of the Rose Bowl and this system largely fits that criteria.  As someone that has been following this story closely, though, I’m just curious about the details that I don’t believe the commissioners themselves know how to resolve as of yet.

(2) All Quiet on the Conference Realignment Front – When the Orange Bowl signed a new deal with the ACC that provided the conference with all of the bowl’s media revenues, that removed any doubt regarding the ACC’s place in college football’s power structure.  I feel like the proverbial broken record here in continuously saying that the ACC is much stronger than what football fans give them credit for.  The ACC’s on-the-field record in BCS bowl games is irrelevant here: a league with academically prestigious schools (many of whom are flagships) that own or have large shares of their own home markets isn’t going to get booted out of the elite club.

This means that the chances of Florida State, Clemson, or any other ACC schools defecting to the Big 12 or even SEC have dropped precipitously.  To be sure, the new Big 12 TV contract might end up being so massive that it’s too much for any of those schools to turn down, but then it becomes circular for the Big 12 schools themselves.  That is, if the Big 12 TV contract is truly going to be that large, why expand at all and split up the pie further?  We’re at the point where there might be little incentive for either side to make any moves other than to provide all of us here with blogging fodder to discuss during the offseason.  There is no longer any rational fear on the part of Florida State and Clemson that the ACC will no longer be part of the power group.  By the same token, the Big 12 doesn’t need Florida State or Clemson to stabilize themselves to get a larger TV contract.  The wild card is obviously Notre Dame, but I’ll agree with The Dude of West Virginia on one point: anyone that thinks the Irish are joining his/her conference for football has gone full retard.

That leaves us with some less-sexy outstanding conference realignment matters that need to be settled, mainly who the Big East will add as its 14th football member.  Air Force still seems to be the most reasonably plausible addition that would add value to the league by pairing it up with rival Navy, although the Falcons completely backed off from Big East overtures last fall after appearing very interested.  (Note that I personally believe that BYU is going to be committed to independence for awhile.  The Cougars appear to be concerned with national ESPN exposure and building up BYUtv even more than money and being independent could be a better value proposition to sell in competing against Pac-12 member Utah for recruits compared to being in the Big East or any other non-power conference.)  After that, the pickings get a lot slimmer.  Fresno State is competitive on-the-field with a solid fan base, but might be the West Coast version of East Carolina where the Big East isn’t interested in entering that market.  UNLV has a solid TV market yet is essentially the Western version of Memphis, where their football ineptitude/basketball competence means that they make more sense as a potential all-sports member as opposed to a football-only member (except that UNLV doesn’t have the geographic proximity of Memphis to make an all-sports membership viable).  Bottom line: the Big East needs Air Force pretty badly here.

(3) Little Glass Houses For You and Me – Finally, the Penn State scandal seems to continuously get worse and worse for the university in the wake of the issuance of the independent report by Louis Freeh.  This has led to calls of punishments such as the death penalty for the football program, which NCAA president Mark Emmert said is an option that is not “off the table”.

I really cannot defend anything that Penn State’s leadership, including but not limited to the late Joe Paterno, did (or more appropriately, did not do) in covering up multiple instances of child rape.  There is truly nothing more heinous than letting child rape continue on for years and years when it could have been prevented by someone just speaking up.  However, I have also seen a lot of commentators, columnists, bloggers and message board posters spend a ton of time acting sanctimonious and try to one-up each other in terms of how outraged they are.  What troubles me, and as Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal poignantly pointed out in this piece, is that there’s an argument being parroted by many people that the “insular culture” in State College that allowed a massive coverup to protect the Nittany Lion football program is somehow a unique Penn State problem.  If you believe that to be the case, ask yourself about how confident you are that your own alma mater or favorite college team hasn’t skirted or outright violated the law at some point.  How many sexual assaults by star football and basketball players have been swept under the rug over the years?  How many schools use coeds as “hostesses” for top-level recruits visiting campus where there are certain expectations of how those hostesses are supposed to provide a memorable weekend? How would you feel if your own daughter was one of those hostesses?  What about the murder of a transferring player, like in the case of Baylor in 2003?  How about sending a student to a tall video tower with 50 mph wind gusts?  Even a marching band in the SWAC can have its own insular culture that results in horrific consequences.

It’s not just about whether child rape is worse than the recruiting violations at SMU back in the 1980s that caused the NCAA to hand that school the death penalty.  Child rape is obviously exponentially more heinous and awful than anything that the NCAA has on the books (and frankly, I’m someone that believes that most recruiting rules are completely ridiculous).  However, the supposedly insular culture at Penn State where the protection of the “brand” is of the utmost importance is a culture that permeates everywhere in big-time college sports.  Chances are pretty high that your own school has some skeletons in its own closest that would bury your football or basketball program if the truth ever came to light.  This isn’t to excuse anything that occurred at Penn State, but it’s something that everyone needs to remember when trying to pass judgment on the culture in State College.  None of us are in a position to be sanctimonious here.  The culture everywhere in college sports needs to change (not just at Penn State).

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from The C-Blog)