Take Me Home, Country Roads: The Latest Conference Realignment FAQ

With West Virginia finally getting invited to the Big 12 after some political haggling, we are one step closer to the settling the composition of all six BCS automatic qualifier conferences for a few years.  This has brought up a whole slew of questions from Slant readers, which I’ll address here:

1.  Is Missouri really leaving for the SEC? – I’m not sure why this keeps getting asked between the accidental “we f**ked up” web posting on the SEC website announcing the addition of Mizzou and the conspicuous absence of any mention of the Tigers in the Big 12’s press release regarding West Virginia, but there are still constant lingering questions about whether the Columbia-based school is going to stay in the Big 12 or receive a last-second Big Ten invite.  As I’ve stated previously, the SEC has turned the normal expansion process for most conferences on its head by making its candidates go through a public kabuki dance, which elongates the time frame for getting a deal completed.  Make no mistake about it: Missouri is heading to the SEC.  It would be the dumbest conference choice in college sports history if Mizzou were to stay in the Big 12.

2.  What did the Big 12 see in West Virginia over Louisville? – For quite awhile, I thought Louisville was the top non-BYU expansion choice for the Big 12.  My impression is that most of the Big 12 presidents agreed with me from a cultural fit standpoint (along with slightly better geography), which is why so much of the chatter over the past month seemed to be centered on the Cardinals.  However, let’s not forget that there’s one big-time reason why the Big 12 is still alive and kicking today: Fox and ESPN have decided to pay the same amount for a 10-school conference without a championship game as it would have for a 12-school conference with a championship game.  Without those TV deals, the Big 12 would have been executed last summer.  As a result, the Big 12 had to listen to its TV partners or else risk getting a reduction in its rights fees.  When the media people came down strongly in favor of West Virginia, that was enough to get most of the Big 12 presidents to change their tune.

Despite the geographic issues, I see where the TV networks are coming from.  If you’re Average Joe Sports Fan in Any Town, USA, West Virginia versus Texas or Oklahoma is probably going to be a much more attractive TV matchup in an average season than Louisville versus those same schools.  (If you need a reminder, we’re solely talking football here.  Basketball is, unfortunately for this hoops fan, pretty much irrelevant.)  The irony is that the main knock against West Virginia as an expansion candidate for various leagues was its tiny home TV market, yet the school ended up getting into the Big 12 because of the TV networks wanted the Mountaineers.

3.  Is the Big 12 really going to stay at 10? – As long as the Big 12 is unable to get a deal done with BYU, I see the conference staying at 10.  While Louisville has solid athletic assets, it’s simply not a single expansion candidate school that the Big 12 would be willing to go up to 11 for and then split the league’s TV money different ways.  The Big Ten stayed at 11 for many years, but that was because (a) Penn State was school #11 and (b) they had always been waiting for a legit football king (initially Notre Dame and eventually Nebraska) as school #12.  The schools involved for the Big Ten were more than worth going up to an uneven numbered alignment and waiting for in such alignment.  That’s not quite the case for the Big 12.  At the same time, schools like Cincinnati won’t really provide enough revenue to be taken instead of BYU in a 12-school alignment.  Now, I still have a hard time believing that BYU won’t end up in the Big 12 at some point.  If/when that happens, I’d fully expect Louisville to make the move to the Big 12, too.

4.  Would Notre Dame join the Big 12 as a non-football member? – I think the Irish will stay in a wounded Big East (more on that later), but I’d give it a 30% chance of them heading to the Big 12 for non-football sports, with approximately a 0% chance of joining the ACC or Big Ten for all-sports.  It doesn’t matter that the geographic and institutional fit would be horrendous for Notre Dame in the Big 12.  As long as the Irish have a strong non-football option that allows them to maintain independence, they will ALWAYS choose such option.  It might not be rational to anyone that isn’t a Domer, but independence in and of itself will always be the top priority for that school.  Now, I can’t see any reason why Notre Dame would agree to play 6 Big 12 opponents per year (as Chip Brown of Orangebloods reported), as that just sounds like the opening bargaining position of Chuck Neimas/DeLoss Dodds.  The Irish playing 3 Big 12 opponents annually (2 of which are Texas and Oklahoma), though, is certainly doable if that’s what it takes to preserve independence overall.  The overarching point: Notre Dame going to the Big 12 for non-football sports is NOT crazy.

(To be sure, all of the Notre Dame-to-the-Big 12 reports so far have originated from Texas.  This is important because I find it hard to believe that any Big 12 member outside of Texas would grant Notre Dame partial membership when it would provide the Longhorns a direct precedent to do the exact same thing in a few years.  The Texas “commitment” to the Big 12 is what’s keeping the league from splitting apart, so it would be a disaster to watch them use Notre Dame as leverage to get their own independence in football/member in non-football sports deal.  If I were running any Big 12 school that wasn’t located in Austin, I would stay far away from granting Notre Dame a partial membership.  That’s just me, though.)

5.  Why don’t the other AQ conferences just kill the Big East? – This is near the top of frequently asked questions during this conference realignment cycle.  Putting aside the potential litigation issues, there’s a pretty basic and easy answer to this: the other AQ conferences don’t want the remaining Big East schools alone.  Maybe those schools would be fine as complementary pieces (Rutgers or UConn heading to the Big Ten or ACC in conjunction with Notre Dame or the aforementioned Louisville and BYU to the Big 12 scenario), but not as sole additions.  While the other AQ conferences might be annoyed that the Big East has AQ status, they aren’t going to take other Big East schools simply as a mechanism to get rid of that league.  It’s a whole lot cheaper for the AQ conferences to allow the Big East to keep its AQ status than to expand with schools that don’t bring in enough revenue.

6.  Will the Big East football schools finally split from the Catholic schools? – I’ll point back to my comparison of the Big East to Netflix and Qwikster as to why I don’t believe the Big East will split.  If anything, the defections of Syracuse, Pitt and West Virginia make the Big East’s basketball TV and NCAA Tournament credit revenue even more important for the remaining schools.  Also, don’t disregard the Notre Dame factor.  The Irish hold a ton of sway with both the football and Catholic sides of the Big East – the former because Notre Dame alone can prevent further expansion by the Big Ten and ACC (which in turn protects the Big East from further raids) and the latter as a result of all major Catholic institutions wanting a direct link with the South Bend school.  The Big 12 non-football option mentioned earlier is definitely a viable one for Notre Dame, yet when it comes to having a presence in the markets the Domers actually care about and live in (New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, New England), the Big East still fits them best.  It’s just that a split Catholic-only league wouldn’t provide a strong enough non-football home for Notre Dame’s sports outside of men’s basketball.  So, the Irish are going to do everything that they can to keep the Big East hybrid together.  If I’m wrong and the Big East splits, I’d expect that Notre Dame will take up the Big 12 on a partial membership offer if it exists.

7.  Why wouldn’t Boise State stay in the Mountain West Conference/Conference USA Alliance instead of joining the Big East? Won’t the Big East lose its AQ status, meaning that Boise State would be taking a huge gamble? – I keep seeing comments that the Big East is unstable.  This is obviously very true.  However, every single conference besides the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and maybe the ACC could be considered to be completely unstable.  The one thing that the Big East has is AQ status in-hand.  This fact cannot be emphasized enough and provides the conference with a ton more leverage than many fans give it credit for.  It would be one thing if the Alliance were some type of bastion of stability itself with some type of assurance of AQ status in the future.  However, doesn’t anyone remember what happened to the Mountain West within weeks of Boise State joining that league?  It lost its three most valuable members: Utah, BYU and TCU.  So, how the heck is the Mountain West stable?  On the C-USA side of the Alliance, are Houston, SMU and UCF going turn down Big East invites?  Their departures would deplete the depth of the Alliance even further.  At the same time, there isn’t a single non-AQ school besides Boise State that has the recent resume of current Big East member Cincinnati (which finished #3 in the final BCS rankings in 2009).  The Bearcats alone give more numerical credence to the Big East retaining its AQ status in the future than any amalgamation of the MWC/C-USA Alliance.

At the same time, we saw Senator Mitch McConnell get involved last week with Louisville’s talks with the Big 12, so how likely are the other AQ conferences going to be willing to strip away the Big East’s AQ status with at least one powerful Louisville backer along with 2 service academies?  I just don’t see the Big Ten, SEC and others risking killing their control over the college football world by inviting a political firestorm just to get back one BCS bowl bid per year.  Dealing with the Big East is the political cost of doing business for the power conferences.

Everyone knows the saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Well, for any potential Alliance member (including Boise State), there isn’t even one bird in the bush to worry about.  The only chance that they have for long-term AQ status is to be in a rebuilt Big East that effectively annexes the top non-AQ schools and leaves behind the deadweight that have been dragging down the BCS criteria numbers for MWC and C-USA.  For those that think that Boise State has a lot of leverage, remember that this was a top 10 school last season that because of a single loss, ended up at the Las Vegas Bowl instead of a BCS game.  Even the most powerful programs go through down periods (see Notre Dame), so it would behoove Boise State to avoid becoming the football version of UNLV basketball (which was a 1990s powerhouse that quickly receded back into the midmajor masses as soon as it started losing more games).  Boise State and others might publicly posture over the coming days and weeks to make it seem like they have lots of options (similar to Missouri and the SEC or the Big 12 insisting that they were considering going up to an 11-school alignment), but ultimately, the only real choice is to take AQ status now because you never know when it might come around again.

(Even without the AQ status, the TV contract for a proposed rebuilt Big East that adds Boise State, Air Force, Navy, SMU, Houston and Central Florida is going to be significantly better on a per-school basis than whatever the Alliance could come up with.  So, there’s a financial incentive beyond AQ status to think about, too.)

8.  How is this all going to turn out? – Personally, I think “less is more”.  There has been and will continue to be a lot of school movement by historical standards, but not in a way where there’s an Armageddon scenario of 16-school superconferences forming.  Barring a choice by Notre Dame to give up independence, the Big Ten and ACC are settled.  The Pac-12 appears to have made Texas their equivalent of Notre Dame to the Big Ten and ACC, where no further expansion is happening for them without the Longhorns involved.  Once the anticipated move of Missouri going to the SEC is finalized, the SEC and Big 12 are going to be done with membership changes for the time being.

This means the action is going to be in the Big East.  As a form of AQ status triage, I actually like the Big East’s proposed plan of adding Houston, SMU and UCF as all-sports members along with Boise State, Air Force and Navy as football-only schools.  My guess is that Temple will be considered as a football-only member to replace West Virginia and get the Big East a football presence in Pennsylvania again, which would provide the Big East with 8 football members, 8 non-football members and 4 football-only members.  The MWC/C-USA Alliance may actually end up being a single all-sports league when all is said and done after any defections to the Big East.

As pretty much everyone knowledgeable about conference realignment likes to say, the situation is still fluid.  We just need Missouri and the SEC to get things going.

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

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West Virginia Reportedly Invited to Big 12: Open Thread

Several news sources, including the New York Times and Charleston Daily Mail, are reporting that West Virginia will leave the Big East for the Big 12 as a replacement for Missouri (who is expected to head to the SEC sooner rather than later).  It appears that the Big 12 will stay at 10 for now.  I personally think the Big East can still rebuild into an AQ conference as long as the remaining 5 football members stay and without having to resort to a 32-team Rebel Alliance League.  West Virginia leaving alone also doesn’t seem to be enough to spur Notre Dame to look for a different conference home, either.  (I think Louisville leaving would’ve been worse from the Domer perspective.)  I’ll have more thoughts later, but you can use this post as a new open thread to discuss the latest news.

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

Will Missouri End Realignment Rumor Misery?

If we all took some truth serum, most of us would have to admit to at least one trashy guilty pleasure TV show without any redeeming social value.  Some people enjoy Jersey Shore.  Others watch some variation of the Real Housewives.  The truly prurient are avid viewers of the Oakland Raiders.  My favorite trashy TV choice: Cheaters.

The premise of Cheaters is fairly elegant: a girlfriend/wife that is not quite sure of the fidelity of her boyfriend/husband has the Cheaters private detective squad led by host Joey Greco follow the suspect around with hidden cameras.  In 100% of the cases, the boyfriend/husband is caught in the act of cheating and a highlight videotape is then shown to the girlfriend/wife.  By sheer coincidence in 100% of the cases, the boyfriend/husband happens to be with the temptress at that very moment, which provides the opportunity to the spurned girlfriend/wife to have what it is literally titled in the last segment of every show, “The Confrontation”.  Gloriously, The Confrontation almost always occurs in a public place with the girlfriend/wife dumping the cheating bastard in front of about 150 people (plus 40 cameras), typically after verbally and physically beating down the boyfriend/husband and the temptress.  In a way, it’s the ultimate form of reality TV justice.  Cheaters provides such a high level of quality trash that it’s a constant source of inspiration for Maury Povich, who is essentially the Yoda of Trash TV.

This got me thinking about Missouri and the SEC.  (We could go a whole lot of ways with that one, no?)  Last year, when the Big Ten was going through its expansion evaluation process, Tom Osborne talked about how Jim Delany had him fly to secret locations in order to avoid any press.  Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has openly complained about people tracking the private jets that he uses via FlightAware, as that could tip off the public about schools he was meeting with.  Last month, a story broke on a random Friday night out of the blue that the ACC was looking to invite Syracuse and Pitt and a press conference confirming the invitations was held less than 48 hours later.  Even with all of the rumors surrounding who the Big 12 would invite over the past few weeks, it has kept and continues to keep its true intentions muddled, with the TCU invite coming quickly and it still being unclear how the conference is going to proceed.  Much like mergers and acquisitions in the business world, the major conferences have tried to keep their expansion plans in a shroud of secrecy and misdirection, which has fueled a cottage industry of blogs like this one along with providing reams of message board speculation.

The SEC, though, doesn’t play that way.  Clandestine expansion operations?  Pfffffft.  Oh sure, Mike Slive will continuously issue official statements that “The SEC is happy right now and it isn’t inviting any school that’s already a member of another conference.”  Of course, that SEC position means that it fully expects and requires any school that wants to join the league to publicly break up with its current conference just like in The Confrontation in Cheaters before applying.  This seems to more than just a legal technicality.  For all of the CYA tactics that Slive and the SEC presidents used prior to admitting Texas A&M, I honestly think that they get a kick out of public institutions openly going through a divorce with their current leagues.  As a result, we have a fairly unprecedented situation where two different schools (Texas A&M and now Missouri) have gone through extremely long, public and acrimonious processes just to get to the point of applying to the SEC.  I can’t really tell you whether this is really the right or wrong approach compared to the Big Ten’s Operation Purple Book Cat, but one thing should be clear: the SEC doesn’t do any super secret invites.  Thus, forget about the thought that the SEC might be targeting West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Florida State and/or Clemson.  It’s all about Missouri right now.

This prolonged period between Missouri announcing that it’s “exploring conference options” and what ought to be a withdrawal from the Big 12 this week has created a whole lot of activity and rumors regarding other schools … but absolutely everything has to be written in pencil.  The Mountain West Conference and Conference USA have announced a 22-school alliance/merger/clambake (AKA Mount USA), yet it’s not quite clear whether the largest names in that proposed league, such as Boise State and Air Force, are even going to stick around in Mount USA since they’ve been rumored to be heading to the Big East.  In turn, the Big East seems to have a goal of a 12-school alignment with the additions of UCF, Houston and SMU as all-sports members and Navy, Boise State and Air Force as all-sports members, but it can’t be finalized without exit fees that are contingent upon at least Navy and Air Force joining, and who knows whether those two would join if a school like Louisville heads to the Big 12.  Lurking in the background, don’t forget about BYU and its own Big 12 prospects.  A number of reports earlier this month seemed to intimate that BYU and the Big 12 couldn’t come to an agreement (or maybe more appropriately, BYU and the Big 12’s TV partners regarding BYUtv), yet the school’s athletic director took pains this past weekend to state that no invite was turned down and kept everything as open ended as possible.  (I’ll reiterate that I believe BYU-to-the-Big 12 will eventually get done.  It makes too much sense.)

A couple of things to note:

(1) The issue with the AQ status of the Mountain West has never been about the strength of its champion and the next top team or two.  Instead, the league has always gotten killed on criteria that deal with depth, as its lower two-thirds have generally been abominable.  I fail to see how the Mount USA merger with C-USA addresses that issue and, in fact, could very well make it worse even if schools like Boise State stay, which gets to the next point…

(2) If there’s been one constant in conference realignment, it’s been that whenever a weaker conference starts thinking that it can attack a wounded stronger conference, that stronger conference slaps the weaker conference back to the stone age.  It’s hard to remember now, but there was about a week in Summer 2010 when the WAC was actually thinking that it could raid the MWC after BYU declared its independence.  MWC commissioner Craig Thompson then proceeded to go off on the WAC like Sonny Corleone on Carlo Rizzi by essentially grabbing everyone except for poor Utah State.  A lot of Big East fans back in August were having thoughts of absorbing a number of Big 12 schools such as Kansas or even raiding the ACC with the promise of a new lucrative TV deal.  That led to the ACC taking two old line Big East members and the Big 12 grabbing didn’t-even-get-a-chance-to-play-in-the-Big-East member TCU while continuing to swarm like a vulture.  We now see the Big East will always be in the position of raidee instead of the raider compared to the other AQ conferences.

Even with all of those losses (and possibly more to come), the Big East still has guaranteed AQ status until at least 2013 (and by other reports, until 2015), which means that Mount USA ultimately isn’t going to fend off a Big East raid, either.  Maybe the service academies would decline the Big East since they are institutions that are in a different realm than anyone else, but all of the others, including Boise State, know that this is their only chance to jump into the “haves” category of college football.  A 10 or 12-school Big East with a guaranteed AQ bid versus a 22-school Mount USA that doesn’t have any guarantee of an AQ bid whatsoever really isn’t a very difficult choice.  While there seems to be a lot of Big East haters out in the college football world these days, rationally speaking, there’s no reason why even a Big East that’s down to 2 members left still isn’t more desirable than the Mount USA simply because there’s AQ status at stake.  There will always be more leverage for a league to retain its AQ status than a newly formed league to attain it, especially in a BCS system that stacks the deck against upstarts.

So, there’s an avalanche of moves on the precipice of occurring, but they’re all waiting on The Confrontation scene between Missouri and the Big 12.  The SEC still only wants single schools to apply.

UPDATE (10/17, 11:50 pm): Big East is reportedly inviting Houston.  This dovetails with a scheduled Big East conference call to discuss realignment on Tuesday, so we also might see invites provided to SMU, UCF, Boise State, Navy and Air Force.

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

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How Far North Will the Dirty South Go?

As we come ever so closer to something official somewhere about Texas A&M moving to the SEC, the college football world has naturally turned to speculating on who is going to be SEC school number 14.  I can buy that the SEC might spend a year or two at 13 schools, but with divisional play having long been in place, an odd number of members is not going to work long-term in the same manner that it did for the Big Tweleven.

Mr. SEC had a nice breakdown of the SEC’s realistic expansion options last week and I agree with his overarching point that there are not nearly as many choices for Mike Slive as the average college football fan believes.  (Note that Mr. SEC is as close to that conference as anyone, so he’s not some biased and blasphemous Big Ten blogger like yours truly.)  I’ll reiterate my belief once again that the ACC is much, much, much stronger than so many people that just see the recent results on the field, current TV contract cycle, and preponderance of hookers and blow in Miami seem to give it credit for.  The ACC has extremely strong academics (which, whether sports fans like it or not, actually matter to academic institutions) along with a core of UNC, Duke and UVA that’s never going to realistically leave.  Mr. SEC’s contention (and I once again agree with him) is that when you’re not including ACC schools (although I’ll evaluate a few of them as cursory measure in a moment) and it should be assumed that the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren’t poachable, then the list of schools that can (1) add value to the SEC and (2) aren’t tied down by home state politics (i.e. the Oklahoma – Oklahoma State situation) is cut down to Missouri, West Virginia and Pitt.  That’s it.  As a result, Mike Slive just can’t start blowing up other conferences like Emperor Palpatine (not that it’s in his best interest to do so, anyway).  Let’s take a look at those 3 schools along with a handful of specific ACC members that often get mentioned as potential SEC candidates:

VIRGINIA TECH

Virginia Tech is probably the most oft-rumored addition to the SEC these days and it certainly makes sense from a financial perspective.  The Hokies have a large fan base that also opens up a brand new fast-growing Southern state for the SEC while providing access to the Washington, DC market.  Here’s the problem (and I know many readers believe I harp on this too much): Virginia state politics.

Let’s take a look at the historical timeline of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s ACC members:

1819 – The dude that wrote the Declaration of Independence founds Big Brother University.

1872 – Little Brother University is founded.

1953 – Big Brother becomes a founding member of the ACC.  Little Brother kicks around in the Southern Conference and then as an independent later on.

1991 – Little Brother joins the Big East.

2003 – Big Brother’s league raids Little Brother’s league.  Little Brother then gets Virginia politicians to pressure Big Brother to scuttle the league’s expansion plans entirely in order to have Little Brother join instead.  It works!

Does that timeline really look like a situation where Little Brother can go and completely screw Big Brother only 8 years when Big Brother directly called in favors to get Little Brother into the ACC?  Make no mistake about it – UVA would be screwed in this situation.  The notion that UV A would be unscathed if Virginia Tech left is a fallacy.  If we believe that the ACC would lose TV money with Virginia Tech leaving (very possible) and/or even worse, the long-term stability of the ACC that UVA founded (another strong possibility), then Virginia legislators are going to put the smackdown on that move.  It’s not just about the ACC or UVA simply surviving here.  At least in the case of Texas A&M, leaving for the SEC wasn’t ever going to damage Texas financially at all and in a strict political sense, the Aggies is closer to UT’s equal in terms of power.  The Commonwealth of Virginia, however, is heavily ACC country and it wouldn’t go over well to see a Virginia-based university that begged politicians to force it in then turn around and completely destabilize it less than a decade later. As a result, I don’t believe that Virginia Tech going to the SEC is realistic.  It’s the best combo of new markets and solid football for the SEC, but that doesn’t mean that they’re attainable.  There’s NFW that a public flagship university that was founded by Thomas Jefferson is going to get screwed by a fellow in-state institution here.

(It’s certainly ironic that a school that the ACC didn’t originally want in 2003 may end up being the key to the conference’s long-term stability.  Just as UVA had circumstantial veto power when the ACC last expanded due to the UNC/Duke bloc against any type of addition, Virginia Tech has ended up in the position where it may singlehandedly determine whether the ACC stays intact.  That’s the type of position that legislators love to pounce upon.)

NORTH CAROLINA STATE

Here’s a link to the website of the  University of North Carolina system.  If you look at the list of institutions controlled by the UNC Board of Governors, you’ll find North Carolina State University listed there.  This means the UNC system has to ultimately approve any conference move by NC State.  If you haven’t figured out by now why UNC and NC State will never, ever be separated, I can’t help you.  Considering UNC isn’t going to ever head to SEC for academic and control reasons, NC State isn’t going anywhere, either.

FLORIDA STATE

Florida State is really the only ACC school that I could realistically see heading to the SEC.  Its Big Brother is the one that’s already in the SEC, so this isn’t a situation where Little Brother would somehow be abandoning Big Brother like Virginia Tech or NC State.  It’s probably up to the University of Florida as to whether FSU would get an invite.  The rumored “Gentlemen’s Agreement” among SEC schools to not add any expansion candidates in current SEC states seems more rooted in giving deference to fellow in-state institutions as opposed to some type of outright ban.  FSU doesn’t bring a new market, but the Seminoles clearly have the top national football brand in the ACC and that may trump any territorial overlap concerns with the Gators.

CLEMSON

Clemson is one of the other ACC schools that may accept an SEC invite despite the difference in academics, but the issue is whether Clemson actually brings much to the SEC.  I find Clemson to be more of a fan-based wish as opposed to a financially-sound addition.  To be clear, Clemson has a great fan base and solid athletic programs across-the-board.  However, I think that the SEC looks at them in the same manner that the Big Ten looks at Pitt: a great fit in everything but straight cash homey.  The SEC already has the flagship in Clemson’s home state of South Carolina with a relatively low population while the Tigers don’t have the national name of FSU to compensate.  If you could move the Clemson campus to virtually any state outside of the current SEC footprint, then it would be a top target.  Unfortunately, the one thing that a school can’t change is location unless it’s an online diploma mill.  Speaking of Pitt, by the way…

PITTSBURGH

Even as a guy that is largely known as the blogger that wrote about the possibility of Big Ten adding Texas, the thought of Pitt going to the SEC feels geographically out of whack even though the actual distance may not actually be as far as you think.  It’s a strange thought on the surface and not a cultural or institutional fit, although with the footprint and mishmash of different types of schools in the Big East now, we’re probably at the point where it doesn’t matter.  Pitt has everything checked off that you’d want in a school with great academics, a long football history, and a top tier basketball program.  This would be purely a money play for the SEC to get into Pennsylvania, though, and while money is certainly factor #1 in any conference decision, those types of moves generally don’t work out without some intangible cultural and institutional ties, too.  Pitt might end up being the beneficiary of the domino effect in the event that the SEC takes Florida State and then the ACC needs a replacement (where the Panthers would be a much better match).

WEST VIRGINIA

A year ago, I couldn’t see any reasonable way for West Virginia to end up in the SEC.  Now, though, the Mountaineers might be the most realistic frontrunner with the way everything has played out.  WVU is pretty similar to Iowa – a rabid statewide fan base in a small immediate market but whose grads disperse to major markets nearby and have an incredible traveling reputation.  (Differences: WVU has a functioning basketball team along with top tier rifle and couch burning programs.)  The Mountaineers would be a great cultural fit with the SEC while getting the conference some exposure in the Mid-Atlantic region.  Whether the SEC can get over the school’s small market the way that the Big Ten got over Nebraska’s low population base is another story.

MISSOURI

Ah, Mizzou.  I know that there are a lot of Missouri fans that are convinced that I have it in for them as an Illinois alum, but to be honest, it would’ve been great strictly from an Illini perspective to have had the Tigers as a conference rival in the Big Ten.  The issue was that Mizzou is the kind of school that makes a lot of sense in a multi-school expansion (good TV markets, academics, football and basketball), yet they aren’t necessarily stellar enough in any category to make them the lone addition.  The SEC is probably going to look at Mizzou in a similar fashion, where they likely weren’t going to make the Tigers the primary target but could be very attractive in a pairing with Texas A&M.

My somewhat educated opinion is that the ACC is going to stay intact, so it’s going to come down to a choice between West Virginia and Missouri for the SEC.  Mizzou has the advantage in TV markets and recruiting areas, while West Virginia has the edge in cultural fit and fan base intensity.  If I were in Mike Slive’s shoes, I’d choose Missouri, but I’m getting the impression that Mizzou may stick around the Big 12 minus 2 minus 1.  That’s what happens when your university president heads up the Big 12 expansion search.  As a result, West Virginia is who I’d wager on becoming SEC school #14.

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

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Big East Says No Va to Nova For Now

Back in the fall, the Big East extended an “invitation” to Villanova to move up from Division I-AA football and join the football side of the conference.  After several postponements on a decision by Villanova, the school’s Board of Trustees was finally prepared to vote today to approve the football upgrade.

However, the Big East suddenly said, “SIKE!”

The issue appears to be Villanova’s choice of 18,500-seat PPL Park as a home football venue, which is the soccer home to the MLS Philadelphia Union.  I would certainly understand the hesitancy on the part of the other Big East football schools… if it weren’t for the fact that PPL Park has been well-known as the only realistic stadium option for Villanova for around 5 months now.  Regardless of whether one believes that Villanova joining Big East football is a good idea, it appears to be disingenuous on its face that some of the conference’s football members brought up the stadium situation that they’ve known about for quite awhile at the very last minute.

The New York Daily News reported today that 75% of the Big East’s football members would need to approve the upgrade, which means that it requires a 6-3 majority.  What’s interesting is that the scuttlebutt among Villanova insiders is that the Big East members that are blocking the process are Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse and West Virginia as opposed to the newer members.  (See the 4/11 9:37 am post from the publisher of Rivals site VUSports.com.)  It doesn’t surprise me to see Pitt, Rutgers and West Virginia up there, but the talk about Syracuse having objections is quite jarring as the Orange (along with UConn) have the longest conference relationship with Villanova of any of the football schools.

I explained the rationale for the Big East prodding Villanova to move up in football in my last post: (1) approval of any all-sports expansion (including the addition TCU) by the Catholic members was predicated on Villanova getting a chance to move up and (2) none of the potential expansion candidates from C-USA would clearly add enough football revenue to risk diluting the conference’s basketball revenue even further.  That’s not to say adding Villanova would really do much for Big East football competitively, but they were a necessary political mechanism to obtain the votes for football expansion overall with TCU (which virtually everyone agrees was a great move).

The Big East released a statement that it would continue to perform “due diligence” on the Villanova upgrade.  What I don’t understand is what’s going to change over the next few months – the PPL Park plan “is what it is” and there aren’t any alternative options for Villanova.  If Pitt, Rutgers and others don’t like the Villanova proposal today, then they’re not going to like it in June.  Everyone involved would be best served by an up-or-down vote ASAP instead of dragging this out further.

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

(Image from Sports Business Daily)

The Big Ten Expansion Index: A Different Shade of Orange

The Big Ten has sent college conferences across America into a tizzy with its announcement that it will examine the possibility of expanding. Of course, the announcement was really a non-announcement – the conference has always looked at expansion issues every few years. However, this feels a little bit different this time around where it feels as if though the conference is finally starting to think about options outside of the Irish-born elephant located in the middle of the conference footprint in South Bend that always seems so stubborn (or what they would call “independent”).

A few years ago, I wrote that if the Big Ten ever wanted to expand with a school other than Notre Dame, then it ought to invite Syracuse for a variety of reasons. A lot of the same analysis still applies today, although I wanted to do a comprehensive review of the various candidates using a 100-point index (as I’ll expand upon in a moment). The conclusion is that the best available Big Ten candidate certainly wears orange, but it’s not who most of the general public is discussing (even though it makes incredible sense considering that a new school has to have a massive impact in order to make it worth it for the conference, which is the nation’s oldest and wealthiest, to split the pot 12 ways instead of 11). We’ll get to that in a bit.

I. GENERAL RULES

There are two overarching rules to examining potential Big Ten expansion candidates:

RULE #1: Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan.

RULE #2: 11 + 1 = 13

The first rule is something that over 90% of the pundits (whether it’s in the “traditional” media or on blogs and message boards) violate with impunity on this subject. A massive number of sports fans see Team A vs. Team B as being a good matchup in this particular season and think that the Big Ten ought to expand solely based on that reasoning yet not even bother to address any academic requirements. Others put a high value on strict geography without even thinking about financial matters such as whether a school will add any new TV markets. Contrary to an Internet-fueled urban legend, there isn’t any rule that says that all Big Ten states much touch each other. Even if such rule existed, finding the right school completely trumps any geographic issues for a conference that looks at itself as an exclusive club. I’m going to hammer on this geography issue A LOT because too many sports fans are hung up on this when the university presidents really don’t care about it as much as being aligned with peer institutions for BOTH academics and athletics wherever they might be located.

As for the second rule, that isn’t just fuzzy math for a conference with 11 members that still calls itself the Big Ten. The reason why the Big Ten has stood at 11 members for so long is that Penn State, which has been an unqualified success in bringing an enormous amount of resources to the conference, is now the baseline standard for any type of expansion candidate. That is, a new school must bring financial, academic and fan base value to the conference that is way above and beyond what an average school would bring to the table. The Big Ten DOESN’T need 11 + 1 = 12, where all that does is add another mouth to feed without materially changing the fortunes of the current conference members. At the same time, the Big Ten absolutely positively will not even consider 11 + 1 = 11.5, where the revenue split per school would actually go down by adding a 12th member. Instead, a viable expansion candidate has to show that by becoming the 12th school in the conference that it would be the equivalent of bringing value that is above and beyond simply adding a conference championship game – essentially, the Big Ten needs 1 marquee school that is worth 2 average schools. Hence, the proper math for the Big Ten is 11 + 1 = 13.

(Note that the excellent Big Ten lawyer blog The Rivalry, Esq. borrowed a modified version of the 11 + 1 = 13 concept in its own analysis of Big Ten expansion candidates and gave a shout out my way in the process.)

So, when some columnist, blogger or message board poster starts talking about Big Ten expansion, remember those two overarching rules at a bare minimum when considering whether the writer has a financially and academically astute brain built for running conferences or a sports stereotype “What have you done for me lately?” brain. Only the former type of brain has any type of credibility.

II. EXPLANATION OF THE BIG TEN EXPANSION INDEX

As I alluded to earlier, I’ve built a 100-point Big Ten Expansion Index that evaluates the viability of each particular school’s Big Ten candidacy. There are 6 categories (Academics, TV Brand Value, Football Brand Value, Basketball Brand Value, Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit, and Mutual Interest) that receive different weights depending upon how important they are in the decision-making process. If a school were to receive a perfect score in each category, then it would have 100 points. Here are detailed explanations of the categories and how they are weighted:

Academics (25 points) – This is a zero-sum category: either a school meets the academic requirements and receives the full 25 points or it doesn’t. Casual sports fans tend to ignore this component since they just see conferences for how they perform on the field or hardwood. However, academics are heavily weighted in this analysis because membership in the Big Ten also means membership in the Committee for Institutional Cooperation (CIC). That’s not a small consideration as the Big Ten universities plus former conference member University of Chicago share research and resources among each other for academic purposes. Therefore, any expansion candidate needs to fit in with academic discussions among U of C and Northwestern faculty just as much as they need to bring prowess to the football field against Ohio State and Michigan. Membership in the American Association of Universities is preferred but not required if a school is in the upper echelon of the U.S. News & World Report rankings. Tier 3 schools, however, are going to be eliminated right off the bat no matter how much they might bring to the athletic side of the equation.

TV Value (25 points) – An expansion candidate needs to either bring new major TV markets to the conference or be such a massive national name that it would overshadow a small market. Outside of the obvious school in South Bend, any school that overlaps a market that the Big Ten already has today without bringing new markets on top of that will receive 0 points – the most important point that people need to understand is that being within the current Big Ten footprint is a massive negative to the conference. Too many sports fans mistakenly think the opposite way, where they think that because School X is in the same state as Ohio State or School Y used to have a long rivalry with fellow in-state school Penn State means that they are good fits for the conference, when in reality those types of schools bring little or no value to the Big Ten because they don’t add any more TV households to the table. I’ll repeat the mantra here: think like a university president instead of a sports fan.

Another important consideration here is that the Big Ten’s future media revenues are going to be heavily dependent on the performance of the Big Ten Network. As with any basic cable channel, whether it’s ESPN or the Food Network, the Big Ten Network’s revenues and profitability are largely based upon getting into as many basic cable households as possible – pure and simple. The TV ratings for a particular school in a market don’t mean as much as whether such school has enough leverage and drawing power in a region or market to get the Big Ten Network onto basic cable there. What this means is that there’s going to be a heavy premium (if not outright requirement) that a new school delivers the largest number of cable TV households possible on top of what the Big Ten has now. On the flip side, if a school doesn’t add any new Big Ten Network subscribers, then that school is a non-starter.

Football Brand Value (30 points) – This is the most heavily weighted category as a reflection of the reality of the college sports landscape. The revenue generated from football is so massive in comparison to the other sports (including basketball) that no expansion is likely to happen in the Big Ten unless the new school is a bona fide gridiron power. It’s why the ACC was willing to water down its basketball conference with football schools like Miami and Virginia Tech a few years ago and the root of the massive unilateral pushback from the major conferences about any type of NCAA Tournament-esque college football playoff proposal – there’s so much money involved with football that there’s no rational economic reason for the BCS conferences to share it.

It must be emphasized that Football Brand Value puts much more weight on the long-term history and financial underpinnings of a program over short-term or recent success. Thus, Team A that has sold out 80,000-seat or even 100,000-seat stadiums for decades whether it wins or loses is much more valuable than Team B that only sells out a 40,000-seat stadium when it’s in the national championship race, even if Team A has had a mediocre seasons recently and Team B happens to rank in the top 3 of the BCS rankings this year. The “What have you done for me lately?” attitude of most sports fans doesn’t apply here. Instead, the proper question is the opposite: Even if the target school goes 0-12 in a season, will it still attract TV viewers and attendance? In other words, the true value of a football program is really measured by how much attention it still receives when it’s down as opposed to how much attention it gets when it’s up. The Big Ten will only consider programs that have large and real hardcore fan bases that will stick them in good times and bad as opposed to programs that have bandwagon fans that will bolt when there’s a 7-5 season.

Basketball Brand Value (10 points) – Personally, there’s nothing that would make me more delirious as a sports fan than Illinois winning the national championship in basketball. However, when it comes to conference expansion discussions, basketball simply won’t be much of a consideration, which is why the Football Brand Value category is weighted three times as much as the Basketball Brand Value category. A common argument that you’ll see on blogs and message boards is that “Team A won’t leave Conference X because Team A is a basketball school and Conference X is so much better in basketball than the Big Ten.” Once again, this is a sports fan view as opposed to a university president view. As I alluded to before, the financial value of football outweighs basketball interests by such a massive margin that every single all-sports athletic director in America will take a bad football program in a top drawing football conference over a championship caliber basketball program in the best basketball conference without hesitation.

That being said, if all things are relatively equal in the other categories, then basketball considerations could be the tipping point. In that event, this index assigns 10 points to a school that would be a legitimate marquee basketball program in the Big Ten, 5 points to a middle-to-upper middle class basketball school that isn’t quite a top program but would at least provide some depth and 0 points to a school that doesn’t bring anything to the basketball side of the equation whatsoever. There might also be a specific case where the conventional financial argument between football and basketball could be turned on its head (which will be addressed in examining how Big Ten Network distribution could work with a certain school located in Upstate New York).

Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit (5) – This is more of a “smell test” category. Does a school have existing or historic rivalries with any Big Ten schools? Is the atmosphere balancing academics and athletics at the expansion target in line with the rest of the conference? When the average sports fan looks at the conference alignment, does it seem to make sense? 5 points are given to a perfect fit across the board, 3 points are given to a good fit in some respects but maybe less so in others, while 0 points are given to anyone that simply would stick out like a complete sore thumb (with much more emphasis on the character of the school as opposed to geography).

Mutual Interest (5) – The basic question is the likelihood of whether an expansion candidate would actually accept an invitation from the Big Ten. This is relevant because Notre Dame publicly declined an official Big Ten invitation in the late-1990s, which was a drawn-out process and left a lot of sour feelings among the conference members. As a result, the conference has no desire to invite anyone unless that school has confirmed with its university president and board of trustees that it will say “Yes” without a public debate or discussion. 5 points are given to a school whose university president will be on the next plane to O’Hare and start popping champagne the moment that the Big Ten extends an offer, 3 points to a school that will give an invitation heavy consideration but could go either way and 1 point to a school that will hear the Big Ten out yet will almost certainly reject any offer.

III. EVALUATION OF THE BIG TEN EXPANSION CANDIDATES

The candidates are listed in reverse order from least desirable to most desirable. For the purposes of this evaluation, I’m assuming that the only viable expansion candidates are currently independent or members of the Big East and Big 12. For various reasons, the Big East and Big 12 have the most unstable conference situations where a move to an extremely stable Big Ten would be attractive on paper, while there is little reason for any school to leave the SEC, ACC or Pac-10 at this time (meaning suggestions that I’ve seen elsewhere that the Big Ten should add the likes of Maryland, Vanderbilt and/or Kentucky aren’t going to be examined here). I’ve placed the candidates into tiers of Pretenders, Contenders and The Only Real Choices.

A. Pretenders

CINCINNATI
Academics: 0
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 10
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 0

Mutual Interest: 5
Total: 20
Overview
: This is the ultimate example of the short-sighted sports fan “What have you done for me lately?” choice based upon this particular year’s results as opposed to thinking like a university president. Cincinnati is in the third tier of the U.S. News rankings, doesn’t add any new Big Ten Network subscribers since Ohio State already has the city of Cincinnati covered for the conference (and then some) and it would be an urban commuter school in a conference that is largely composed of large flagship universities where nearly all of the students live on campus. For those that think that the Football Brand Value is too low at 10, remember that the criteria is a long history of football success as opposed to recent gains. At the end of the day, Cincinnati couldn’t sellout 40,000 seats until it was in the national championship race (which indicates a high level of bandwagon fandom), its coach couldn’t take the Notre Dame job fast enough despite being the #3 team in the country, and the school doesn’t even have a football practice facility. In contrast, Ohio State has practice facilities that put almost every NFL team to shame. Here’s my personal litmus test for expansion discussions: anyone that mentions Cincinnati as a viable Big Ten candidate loses all credibility whatsoever with me on the issue.

LOUISVILLE
Academics: 0
TV Value: 10
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 0
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 40
Overview: Similar to Cincinnati, Louisville is a tier 3 school, which eliminates them off-the-bat. Elite basketball program and excellent fan base overall (even with the football team being in the doldrums lately), yet there rightfully isn’t much buzz about Louisville as a candidate.

IOWA STATE
Academics: 25
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 10
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 43
Overview: The only expansion name that gets thrown out by the pundits more idiotically than Cincinnati might very well be Iowa State. I’m not exactly sure why the Big Ten would want to take one of the least valuable schools in the BCS that is located in a small state which is already covered by the conference with a much more popular flagship. If it wasn’t for Iowa State having a halfway-decent engineering school, it would be the worst possible Big Ten expansion candidate out there. Yet, Iowa State’s name gets tossed around merely because it’s within the Big Ten footprint, which I’ve already explained is actually a massive negative mark as it doesn’t open up any new markets. Therefore, I’ll amend my original litmus test for expansion discussions: anyone that mentions Cincinnati or Iowa State as a viable Big Ten candidate loses all credibility whatsoever with me on the issue.

WEST VIRGINIA
Academics: 0
TV Value: 10
Football Brand Value: 25
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 43
Overview: On the field, West Virginia is a solid school across-the-board: excellent football program with a great traveling fan base, an upper tier basketball program and a dormant rivalry with Penn State. However, the off-the-field considerations will kill any talk about the Mountaineers – it’s a third tier school academically and the school brings very few new TV households.

B. Contenders

PITTSBURGH
Academics: 25
TV Value: 0
Football Brand Value: 20
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 63
Overview: Pitt is mentioned by a lot of pundits as a top candidate for Big Ten expansion or maybe even the very best candidate outside of Notre Dame. Certainly, there is a lot to base this upon: excellent academic research reputation, long history in football, elite basketball program, a great-but-dormant rivalry with Penn State and there’s no doubt that Pitt would accept a Big Ten offer. However, WAY WAY WAY too many people have completely forgotten about the obvious problem with Pitt: just like Iowa State and Cincinnati, Pitt wouldn’t add a single new Big Ten Network subscriber. Penn State already delivers the Pittsburgh market and much more (Philadelphia and the rest of Pennsylvania), so Pitt’s TV value to the Big Ten is zero. It’s unfortunate that Pitt couldn’t trade locations with Rutgers – if that were the case, then Pitt would be an excellent candidate. Alas, the one thing that Pitt can’t change is its location, which means that it won’t ever receive an invite from the Big Ten.

RUTGERS
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5

Total: 63
Overview: Another popular name that’s being discussed in the general public and it’s almost solely based on the location of Rutgers in the New York DMA. The problem is that it’s highly debatable as to whether Rutgers has the leverage to get the Big Ten Network onto basic cable in the New York City area overall or even in just New Jersey. In fact, a lot of neutral observers would say that the Big Ten already has the most popular school in that market in the form of Penn State, so adding Rutgers wouldn’t even do much on that front. Therefore, the market of Rutgers is fantastic on paper, but its ability to deliver that market is questionable at best, which results in it only having a TV Value of 15. Without guaranteeing the NYC market, Rutgers isn’t really very attractive.

MISSOURI
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 15
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3

Total: 66
Overview: As an Illinois fan, it would be fun to see the Braggin’ Rights games for both football and basketball be taken in-house. However, as someone that always wants the best for the Big Ten overall, Mizzou is more of a “meh” move. There’s some decent value on all of the fronts in terms of academics, TV markets (the portion of the St. Louis market that the Illini don’t deliver and Kansas City), football, basketball and cultural fit, so it’s not as if though there’s anything particularly bad about the school. Yet, nothing screams out that adding Mizzou is a spectacular game changing move by the Big Ten, either. As I stated earlier, Penn State is the standard for Big Ten expansion, and on that front, no one can reasonably put Missouri anywhere near that level. If the Big Ten just wants to expand just for the sake of expanding, then Missouri is a decent choice, but I don’t think that’s the Big Ten’s modus operandi. Therefore, I think that the heavy talk about Missouri going to the Big Ten is mostly coming from the Mizzou side as opposed to the Big Ten side. (Please see this interview with the Missouri athletic director, who seemed to be saying, “Please invite us to the Big Ten!” in the most diplomatic way possible.) Plus, as I’ll get to later, it’s possible that all of the Big 12 schools are up for grabs, in which case there truly is a non-Notre Dame game changer available.

NEBRASKA
Academics: 25
TV Value: 15
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 0
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3

Total: 76
Overview
: I’m giving Nebraska the benefit of the doubt on the academics front here – its undergraduate admissions standards are significantly below anyone else in the Big Ten, but it’s an AAU member with solid graduate programs. Still, Nebraska brings maximum points in the most important category of Football Brand Value. Hypothetically, is Average Joe Sports Fan in Anytown, USA going to be that interested in watching Missouri vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State or Rutgers vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State? Probably not. However, Nebraska vs. Ohio State/Michigan/Penn State will get marked on the calendar by ABC for national distribution immediately an draw massive ratings year-in and year-out. Nebraska’s issue, though, is that while its national reputation is great for traditional TV contracts with ABC/ESPN, its tiny home state doesn’t help much with the Big Ten Network since the school probably won’t spur many cable providers outside of its home markets to add the channel. As a pure football move, Nebraska would be a fantastic addition, but I think the TV market issue is significant enough to keep the Cornhuskers from receiving an invite.

SYRACUSE
Academics: 25
TV Value: 20
Football Brand Value: 20
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 5
Total: 83
Overview
: As I noted earlier, Syracuse was my favorite Big Ten expansion candidate outside of Notre Dame for a long time. The analysis from my original post still largely stands. If the goal of the Big Ten is to gain entry into the New York market and effectively dominate the East Coast in the same way that it dominates the Midwest, then I believe Syracuse is a much smarter addition than Rutgers. While Syracuse football probably doesn’t have the leverage to get the Big Ten Network into New York DMA households just as Rutgers, the difference-maker here could be Syracuse basketball. New York is a terrible college football town, but it’s a pretty good college basketball city, and on that front, Syracuse is at or near the top in that market. So, NYC residents may not care to get the Big Ten Network for a handful of Rutgers or Syracuse football games per year, but they may very well have enough interest in 10-15 Syracuse basketball games per year to launch the BTN into basic cable distribution there. In essence, the “football means everything in college sports” mantra could be turned on its head here with respect to New York where basketball is the driving revenue factor. I’m not saying that this logic will hold in practicality, yet at least it seems more likely to me than the thought of either football programs at Rutgers and Syracuse really having an impact for the Big Ten in the NYC market.

C. The Only Real Choices

NOTRE DAME
Academics: 25
TV Value: 25
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 5
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 5
Mutual Interest: 1

Total: 91
Overview
: It’s pretty simple as of today – if Notre Dame wants to join the Big Ten, then it’s in. The national fan base of its football program is unparalleled and, frankly, it would propel the conference into East Coast markets such as New York better than pretty much any school that’s actually located on the East Coast.

Of course, it’s easy to see what’s in it for the Big Ten. However, the issue has always been about what’s in it for Notre Dame. While I personally believe that Notre Dame will continue with its current stance in favor of independence, the college sports financial landscape has drastically changed since the Fighting Irish rejected a Big Ten invite in the late-1990s. What the average sports fan doesn’t realize is that Notre Dame’s NBC contract, which is what the uninformed pundits point to as the major reason why the Irish wouldn’t join the conference, pales in comparison to what every single Big Ten and SEC school makes from their respective conference TV contracts. Notre Dame reportedly makes around $9 million per year from NBC, which was a level that made it the top TV revenue school back in 1999. In contrast, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported last week that the Big Ten is currently making $242 million per year in TV revenue which is split equally among the 11 schools, meaning that everyone from Michigan to Northwestern is taking in $22 million per year. Think about that for a second: the vaunted Notre Dame was the #1 TV revenue maker in the entire country up until just a few years ago, yet it’s now only #3 in its own home state behind Purdue and Indiana (and less than half as much of each, at that).

How did this happen? It’s the fact that the TV landscape has tipped completely in favor of cable over the past decade. Cable channels have a dual revenue stream, where they make a certain amount of money for each subscriber it has every month plus advertising on top of that. In contrast, over-the-air networks can only rely on advertising. For instance, about $3 of your monthly cable bill goes to ESPN whether or not you watch it. ESPN is in over 100 million households, which means that it’s making $300 million per month and $3.6 billion per year in subscriber fee revenue… and that’s before the network sells a single ad… and that’s not counting its revenue from ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU and ESPN Classic. As a result, ESPN is the single most profitable entity in the entire Disney empire, which is why the network can afford to pay much more for high profile sports events such as Monday Night Football (note that ESPN is paying almost twice as much for MNF as NBC is for a better flex option slate of Sunday Night Football) and the BCS bowls than the traditional TV networks. When Comcast bought NBC Universal last month, the main prize was the stable of profitable cable channels such as CNBC, MSNBC and Bravo. In contrast, NBC itself is bleeding over several hundred million dollars per year in losses and is the main reason why General Electric wanted to sell the entertainment unit in the first place.

While the Big Ten has ensured that its top tier games continue to be shown on ABC for football and CBS for basketball, it has taken advantage of the sports landscape by securing massive cable revenue for its second tier games on ESPN and its own Big Ten Network. The SEC has done the same via its own wide-ranging media rights deal with ESPN. Notre Dame’s issue is that it’s almost impossible for it to take advantage of these financial changes by being outside of a conference unless it moves all or most of its games to cable (i.e. Versus, which is now a sister company to NBC in the new Comcast conglomerate), which defeats the main advantage of having an independent TV contract in the first place (nationwide over-the-air NBC coverage whether you have cable or just rabbit ears). As a result, independence has turned from Notre Dame’s greatest financial asset into possibly its greatest long-term financial liability.

Therefore, the “Notre Dame makes way too much money as an independent with the NBC contract to ever join a conference” argument is simply not true anymore. For the first time in a century, it may very well be in the rational economic interest of Notre Dame to join the Big Ten. The academics and faculty in South Bend already strongly supported a move to the Big Ten in the 1990s because of the CIC research opportunities and now the financial people might be on board. Of course, this type of logic doesn’t necessarily apply to Notre Dame alums (no offense intended for the Irish fan readers of this blog – I sincerely mean it in a positive way that describes the special passion that alums have for the school) – it’s “independence or die” for them. As I’ve thought about this issue more, this longstanding mentality might actually be as much of a roadblock for the Big Ten as it is for Notre Dame. On one side of the ledger, you have school that has spent most of its history protecting itself and profiting from independence. On the other side, you have the nation’s oldest collegiate conference where most of its members have dealt with each other for over 100 years, share everything equally and have a legitimate “all for one and one for all” mentality. Ohio State truly understands that what’s best for the Big Ten overall is best for Ohio State individually. Could Notre Dame ever adopt that type of worldview? It might be impossible, which could lead to a lot of heartburn down the road.

As a result, it would behoove the Big Ten to look toward another powerhouse university where there appears to be much more mutual interest than the pundits are generally acknowledging. This is a school that the Big Ten could add as a 12th member and unequivocally never think about Notre Dame again…

TEXAS
Academics: 25
TV Value: 25
Football Brand Value: 30
Basketball Brand Value: 10
Historic Rivalries/Cultural Fit: 3
Mutual Interest: 3
Total: 96
Overview
: You’re not seeing a misprint – the University of Texas-Austin is the single best possible addition for the Big Ten and the Longhorns are a whole lot more open to it than what the public seems to realize. The average sports fan that has been raised to view college conferences in a regional geographic context probably believes the notion of Texas going to the Big Ten is weird, crazy, upsetting and will never happen. However, as I stated under the Notre Dame overview, the college sports landscape has completely changed from a decade ago where national TV contracts and cable channel distribution now rule the day.

Putting aside any geographic concerns for the moment, Texas is a perfect fit in almost every possible way from the Big Ten’s perspective. The academics are top notch where Texas is one of the nation’s top 15 public universities in the latest U.S. News rankings and its graduate programs are right alongside Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin as among the elite for public flagships. The football program in Austin was just ranked as the most valuable in all of college football by Forbes magazine (#2 is… Notre Dame) and, unlike Nebraska, the Texas basketball program is playing at an elite level, as well. As I’m writing this blog post, both the Texas football and basketball teams are ranked #2 in the country. At the non-revenue sport level, Texas would completely put Big Ten baseball back on the map. Finally, the value of the Big Ten’s traditional TV deals and Big Ten Network revenue would skyrocket with the addition of the #5 (Dallas-Fort Worth) and #10 (Houston) TV markets in the nation plus the entire state of Texas (the country’s 2nd most populous after California). While it’s questionable whether Syracuse or Rutgers could really break the Big Ten into the New York area, there’s absolutely no doubt that Texas would deliver the Big Ten Network to every single cable household in the Lone Star State. The market impact is incredible – the Big Ten, which already has the largest population base of any conference, would further increase such base by over 1/3 with Texas to over 90 million people. When you start thinking about Texas as a possible Big Ten candidate, the thought of inviting Missouri, Syracuse or Rutgers feels like a inconsequential move.

It’s clear why the Big Ten would want Texas. So, why on Earth would Texas want to join the Big Ten? Well, the financial implications are massive. As I stated earlier, the Big Ten receives $242 million per year in TV revenue to split evenly among its 11 members, which comes out to $22 million per year for every single school. In contrast, the Big 12 receives $78 million per year in TV revenue that is split unevenly among its 12 members based on national TV appearances. That comes out to $6.5 million per year for the average Big 12 school. Even Texas, which is a beneficiary of the Big 12’s unequal revenue distribution model since it receives a large number of TV appearances, received only about $12 million in TV revenue last season according the interview with Missouri’s AD that I linked to earlier. In other words, every single Big Ten school makes $10 million per year more than Texas does on TV revenue whether such school is on ABC 12 times or the Big Ten Network 12 times. Remember that the $10 million difference is more than what Notre Dame receives from its vaunted NBC contract. If Texas were to simply bring enough to the Big Ten to maintain the status quo of per school revenue, that would be an 83% jump in TV revenue for the Longhorns immediately off the bat. Considering that the addition of Lone Star households to the Big Ten Network’s distribution would yield an even greater increase in revenue, Texas would easily see in excess of a two-fold increase and maybe even close to a three-fold increase in TV revenue whether it wins or loses.

The average sports fan will look at those numbers and retort, “It’s not all about the money. It’s about rivalries and the passion.” That’s a fair enough point. However, consider that Texas has only been in the Big 12 for 15 years, compared to the original Big 8 members like Nebraska and Oklahoma that have been together for nearly a century. Texas cares about playing Oklahoma (which was a non-conference rivalry for decades up until the formation of the Big 12 in 1994) and Texas A&M. After those two schools, the general consensus among Texas fans is that they could care less about Texas Tech, Baylor and virtually everyone from the Big 12 North (who are all old Big 8 members). Similar to how most of the schools in the East (particularly Big East schools) consider Penn State to be a rival yet the Nittany Lions don’t reciprocate that feeling, all of the Southwestern schools think of Texas as their main rival while the Longhorns simply don’t care about them. Also note that outside of the states of Texas and Colorado, the Big 12 is a decidedly Midwestern conference, only those Midwestern states pale in population size compared to the Big Ten’s Midwestern base. What this means is that the Texas ties to the Big 12 are fairly loose and not ironclad at all in terms of history while the geographic factor really isn’t that important considering how many Big 12 schools are in the Midwest. If Texas maintains its rivalries with Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the non-conference schedule, the Longhorns keep their two most important regional rivalries alive while opening themselves up to the entire nation during the conference schedule.

Speaking in terms that the average sports fan in Texas ought to understand, think of the Dallas Cowboys. When the NFL realigned its divisions in the 1990s, it strongly considered moving the Cowboys to the NFC West. It made geographic sense and, at the time, the Cowboys were in the middle of its run of great games against the San Francisco 49ers, so there was some emotional juice that could’ve been taken to a higher level with those teams in the same division. However, Jerry Jones completely insisted that the Cowboys stay in the geographically-challenged NFC East. Why? Because the Cowboys wouldn’t be able to continue being “America’s Team” by playing teams in the South and West Coast. In order to obtain a national fan base, you need to play in the major markets in the East. If Texas were to move to the Big Ten, it would break out from being a school with a strong regional fan base into one that could be the equivalent of the NFL Cowboys with a national fan base by playing in a disproportionate share of the largest markets in the country located East of the Mississippi River.

Academics are also an extremely important selling point for Texas. The issue with the academic standards in the Big 12 is that there are no academic standards in the Big 12. Texas is the highest ranked Big 12 school in the U.S. News rankings tied at #47 (the Big Ten schools ahead or tied are #12 Northwestern, #27 Michigan, #39 Illinois, #39 Wisconsin and #47 Penn State) while every single other school in the Big 12 except for #61 Texas A&M is ranked lower than every other Big Ten school (the lowest ranked are Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa tied at #71). No one else in the Big 12 comes even close to the academic research abilities of Texas. The potential entry of Texas into the Big Ten would include membership in the CIC, which opens up a whole new level of academic research opportunities for the school that simply doesn’t exist in the Big 12. The first general rule that I mentioned about discussing Big Ten expansion was that people need to think like a university president as opposed to a sports fan. If moving to another conference would (1) make more money for the athletic department AND (2) improve the academic standing of the university, you’ve made quite a powerful argument to the Texas university president.

Finally, there’s a CYA aspect to all of this for Texas. Please take a look at this discussion about expansion options on Barking Carnival, which is my favorite Texas blog. I was shocked to find very few “BIG TEN FOOTBALL SUX”-type comments and instead saw a whole lot of consternation about the long-term viability of the Big 12 overall. Here’s something that I didn’t think about before: if Missouri were to hypothetically leave the Big 12 for the Big Ten, then the Big 12 could end up imploding (i.e. Colorado would bolt for the Pac-10) or at least be severely weakened. The reason is the subpar Big 12 TV contract that I mentioned earlier. St. Louis and Kansas City are decent markets and Missouri is a decent state for a conference like the Big Ten, but none of them have much of an impact when the conference already has Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and the entire states of Ohio and Michigan. In contrast, St. Louis and Kansas City are respectively the 4th and 5th largest markets for the Big 12 (and more importantly, respectively the 2nd and 3rd largest markets outside of Texas) and Missouri is by far the largest state in the conference other than Texas. Therefore, the loss of Missouri would cause the currently bad Big 12 TV contract to get even worse since no possible replacement school from, say, the Mountain West (i.e. BYU, Utah, etc.) would come close to replacing those markets and households. In turn, all of the Big 12 schools might be sent scrambling for new homes. While that might be a doomsday scenario, Mizzou leaving for the Big Ten would severely damage the Big 12 at the very least.

So, if all of the Big 12 schools could be theoretically up for grabs, why the heck would the Big Ten go after a minnow (Missouri) when it could get a whale (Texas) instead? Why the heck would the Big Ten take Missouri or even Nebraska and let Texas possibly walk off to the much less financially powerful Pac-10? Why the heck would Texas just let a middle tier school like Missouri leaving for another conference put its future in limbo? Simply put, if a decent-but-not-great school like Missouri leaving could have that much of a potential impact on the Big 12, then that’s clearly evidence that the conference is unstable and maybe a powerhouse school like Texas will understand that it needs to start evaluating more stable options (if it hasn’t already). This presents a monster opportunity for the Big Ten to swoop in and solidify its place as the nation’s most powerful sports conference.

Sports-wise, the Big Ten has a reputation of being staid and conservative. In terms of overall conference management, however, the Big Ten is quite forward looking and thinks outside of the box. It’s easy to say that the Big Ten Network is an obvious cash cow for the conference as of today, but at the time of its formation, it was a massive risk considering that it could’ve easily taken a massive traditional rights deal from ESPN in the same manner as the SEC without the pain of a year of fighting for basic cable distribution in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. It now looks like the Big Ten is going to benefit from that risk. Similarly, I’m convinced that the Big Ten isn’t going to make a “meh” move simply to get to the 12 teams needed to stage a football conference championship game. The new school has to be strong enough where if Notre Dame all of the sudden decides that it wants to join a conference in 10 or 20 years, the Big Ten can comfortably say “No” and not have buyer’s remorse about the 12th member that it added. I don’t think that Missouri, Syracuse or Rutgers would come close to meeting that standard, but Texas hits the mark and even more. Therefore, there’s one task for the Big Ten over the next year or so:

Hook ’em.

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

UPDATE #1 (1/4/2010) – Tons of great feedback on this post, so I’ve addressed some additional issues in Big Ten Expansion Index Follow-Up #1: Superconferences, Conference TV Revenue and More Reasons Why Texas to the Big Ten Makes Sense.

UPDATE #2 (1/8/2010) – Confirmation that the Big Ten “contiguous state” rule is a myth, responses to blogs and message boards from across the country and, most importantly, the views of Texas fans in Big Ten Expansion Follow-Up #2: Nationwide and Longhorns Fan Responses on Texas to the Big Ten.

UPDATE #3 (1/20/2010) – More on the financial gap between the Big Ten and Big 12, how Notre Dame almost joined the Big Ten and thoughts on the East Coast schools and fallout in other conferences in Big Ten Expansion Follow-Up #3.

UPDATE #4 (2/1/2010) – Why the “Pitt Joining the Big Ten” Rumors are False.

UPDATE #5 (2/11/2010) – Newspaper reporting that the Big Ten has entered into preliminary discussions with the University of Texas.

UPDATE #6 (2/17/2010) – Template for Shooting Down Every Argument Against Texas Going to the Big Ten

UPDATE #7 (2/21/2010) – Explaining why the “initial list” of 15 Big Ten candidates is an examination of who would join WITH Texas and/or Notre Dame (NOT instead of them).

UPDATE #8 (3/2/2010) – What’s the purpose of the Big Ten leaking a study of Notre Dame, Missouri, Rutgers, Syracuse and Pitt?

UPDATE #9 (3/6/2010) – How Rutgers could work in the Big Ten (as long as another national marquee name also comes along)

UPDATE #10 (3/9/2010) – Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick leaves an opening for the Irish to join a conference.

UPDATE #11 (3/19/2010) – Rumors that the Big Ten is looking to add Boston College, Notre Dame and Rutgers.

UPDATE #12 (3/24/2010) – How the Pac-10 could affect Big Ten expansion.

UPDATE #13 (3/29/2010) – Notre Dame’s AD runs his trap again.

UPDATE #14 (4/6/2010) – Big Ten considering a 16-school conference.

UPDATE #15 (4/12/2010) – How a multi-phase expansion could be a good idea for the Big Ten.

UPDATE #16 (4/19/2010) – The value of expansion candidates to the Big Ten Network.

UPDATE #17 (4/25/2010) – Getting krunk on expansion news (or lack thereof).

UPDATE #18 (5/2/2010) – Rumors about a 5-team expansion with Nebraska, Missouri, Pitt, Rutgers and Syracuse.

A Defense of Big Ten Football

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When I wrote this post on the “Conference Pride Paradox” a little over two years ago, Big Ten football was at its zenith with 2 BCS bowl victories during the prior season and its premier rivalry (which, in my opinion, is also the best rivalry in all of sports) of Ohio State vs. Michigan was being hyped for weeks as the Game of the Millennium with a #1 vs. #2 matchup for the first time.  After the Ohio State won that classic game, the national debate was centered around how Michigan deserved another shot at the Buckeyes in the National Championship Game.  Thinking back about those days that really weren’t very long ago at all, it’s amazing how far the national reputation of Big Ten football has fallen.  With Ohio State’s loss last night to Texas (albeit one that could have been prevented had the Buckeyes just kept a safety or two back in the secondary to make a tackle), the Big Ten has now lost 6 straight BCS bowl games (2 in each of the last 3 seasons).

There’s no doubt that the nation has a right to be skeptical about the prospects of the next Big Ten invitee to a National Championship Game (and frankly, no one should be surprised if Ohio State is right back in that mix next year with the players that they have coming back).  However, with Big Ten bashing becoming so fashionable among college football fans, I believe that the performances of the conference over the past 3 seasons need to be into context.  Please note that the following comments aren’t excuses – if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best at anytime anywhere, and the Big Ten teams that have gone to BCS bowls have failed miserably on that front.  It’s just that when one looks at who and where the Big Ten has played in its recent BCS matchups, it becomes apparent that the only ones that have the right to say anything are USC and the top tier of the SEC (as much as I loathe them).  Everyone else that is piling on the Big Ten (i.e. Big East, ACC, and Big 12 fans, Pac-10 schools that aren’t USC, Mountain West Conference bandwagoners riding a hot Utah team, etc.), though, need to STFU since they all likely would be in the exact same position of the power Midwestern conference if they had to play the same games.

Here are the Big Ten’s BCS opponents over the past 3 seasons:

  • USC in the last 3 Rose Bowls in Pasadena
  • Florida in the 2006 National Championship Game in Arizona
  • LSU in the 2007 National Championship Game in New Orleans
  • Texas in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl in Arizona

Look at that list of teams – it’s complete murder’s row of marquee national programs without a single breather.  The Big Ten didn’t get to play the likes of Wake Forest, Louisville, Cincinnati, or Hawaii, who were BCS participants in other bowls during this period.  Unlike the conferences that are participating in Thursday night’s National Championship Game, the Big Ten didn’t lose to non-BCS conference teams in the manner of the Big 12 (the Boise State-Oklahoma gem in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl) or the SEC (last week’s stunning Utah beat-down of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl – there was nothing fluky about the Utes in that game).  Yet, those conferences haven’t been indicted in their entirety even though their marquee teams failed to beat smaller schools whose stadiums have fewer amenities than the average SEC weight room.

The one true horrible loss for the Big Ten was Florida’s thrashing of Ohio State in the 2006 National Championship Game, where the Buckeyes had been ranked #1 nearly the entire season and were strongly favored to win the game.  After that, though, note that two 2nd place Big Ten teams (Michigan in 2006 and my alma mater Illinois in 2007) along with this year’s Penn State team got to play USC in de facto Trojan home games right outside of Los Angeles.  How many champions from any conference, much less 2nd place teams like the Big Ten has sent, are going to beat USC head-to-head in Los Angeles?  Anyone that has even a smidgen of knowledge about college football knows that this is a monster task in a sport where home field advantage is a huge deal and nowhere near the same as playing Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl or Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl.  The Big Ten doesn’t have a Rose Bowl problem or a Pac-10 problem – it has a USC problem.  Of course, every other conference would also be “exposed” as having a USC problem if its champion or 2nd place team had to play the Trojans in LA every year.  (Please note that I wouldn’t trade the Big Ten’s relationship with the Rose Bowl for anything in world since it’s the one BCS bowl outside of the National Championship Game that people actually care about.  My trip to Pasadena following the Illini last year was one of the greatest sports experiences of my life, with the exception of that game thingy.)  If USC didn’t crush its Pac-10 competition every season (outside of the annual obligatory game where they don’t show up against a ridiculously inferior team, which ruins their national championship chances) where some other team from that conference would get to the Rose Bowl, then there likely wouldn’t be a Big Ten drought in that game.

Similar to the USC situation, LSU arguably received an even greater home field advantage with last year’s National Championship Game being played in New Orleans.  Once again, would any team from any other conference have won essentially a road game at LSU in that situation?  SEC fans have earned the right to crow here, but any other conference that throws stones at the Big Ten has to realize that if they had sent a representative to that game, they also would have been crushed.  West Virginia would have received the honors to get thrashed if they had taken care of business against a pathetic Dave Wannstedt-led Pitt team while Missouri would have been the victims if they had beaten Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game on the last weekend of the regular season.  None of that happened, so Ohio State, whose resume by the end of that weekend consisted of doing to the least wrong of any of the BCS conference champions that season, backed that ass up into the right to play in the title game on the road where they were guaranteed to be huge underdogs.

Finally, Texas was heavily favored to crush Ohio State in last night’s Fiesta Bowl but the Longhorns only salvaged a win because of a Buckeye defensive meltdown in the last 2 minutes of the game.  (By the way, it was fascinating to witness Jim Tressel use the reverse-Tebow technique of using Todd Boeckman to spot Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, where the intent was actually to bring in a traditional pocket passer for one or two plays at a time in order to change the pace from having a running quarterback.  The increasing reliance on spread or spread-esque offenses isn’t necessarily the greatest trend for college football overall, particularly for young QBs that want to reach the NFL, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Once again, I’m not saying that the Big Ten’s performances in BCS bowls have been anywhere near satisfactory.  The Big Ten receives a ton of perks for having teams that draw huge television ratings (the only BCS bowls that have had over a 10.0 rating outside of the National Championship Games since the ACC-spurned conference realignment in 2003 are all of the games that have featured a Big Ten team) and the most national and wealthiest fan base of the BCS, which includes placement in the Rose Bowl (the highest profile bowl) and the other BCS bowls salivating over taking one of the conference’s other teams for an at-large bid.  With that elevated position, the Big Ten is justifiably going to receive more scrutiny when compared to USC or teams from the SEC and the conference’s teams will need to start performing.  I have faith that the Big Ten will bounce back soon enough since conference performance is cyclical, which is often hard to remember in a “What have you done for me lately?” world.  Earlier this decade, the SEC and Big 12 were the conferences being criticized as being weak and without depth.  The Big East was hailed as being back as a power conference two years ago but now is facing calls of not deserving an automatic BCS bid.  The old cliche of “what goes around comes around” is very true in college sports, so the haters out there won’t have the Big Ten to kick around much longer.

(Image from Arizona Republic)

Post-Turkey Day Thoughts and Frank the Tank’s Football Parlay – 11/28/2008

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As I recover from my Turkey Day gorging (as well as possibly the worst offering of Thanksgiving Day football games in history, with all 3 NFL games and the Texas-Texas A&M tilt being blowouts), I’m feeling strangely good about the Bears this week.  Adrian Peterson will break a tackle or three, but I think the rest of the Vikings will be held in check.  The Illini basketball team isn’t half bad so far (I’ll eventually get to my postseason review of the football team once my anger subsists), while my man crush on Derrick Rose is growing exponentially on a daily basis.  Here are this week’s parlay picks (home teams in CAPS):

COLLEGE FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) West Virginia Mountaineers (-3) over PITTSBURGH PANTHERS

(2) Miami Hurricanes (-1.5) over NORTH CAROLINA STATE WOLFPACK

(3) FLORIDA STATE SEMINOLES (+16.5) over Florida Gators

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Illini Games for the Season: 5-6
Overall Season: 18-20-1

NFL FOOTBALL PARLAY

(1) Indianapolis Colts (-4.5) over CLEVELAND BROWNS

(2) GREEN BAY PACKERS (-3) over Carolina Panthers

(3) Chicago Bears (+3.5) over MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Frank the Tank’s NFL Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 1-2

Bears Games for the Season: 3-71
Overall Season: 17-16-3

(Image from ehow)

Arch Rivalry Rundown and Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay – 9/4/2008

With week one of the college football season in the books, there are a few conference-wide trends: the Big East looks bad, the ACC looks worse, and the jury is still out on how the Big Ten is going to look at the top.  Illinois lost to a simply better Missouri team, which wasn’t a surprise, but at least hung in well enough to justify the Illini staying in the top 25 in both polls, which was personally a pleasant surprise (and in the end, fair considering that Illinois was playing a team over 10 spots ahead of them in the polls going into the game).  The two main concerns coming out of the game for Illinois were the horrendous lack of tackling, which resulted in roughly 8,000 YAC for Mizzou (and Chase Daniel shred the defense overall) and the completely dead running game in the wake of the loss of Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL.  At least the running situation was mitigated by the fact that Juice Williams had a banner day stats-wise and nailed more accurate passes than ever before.  Mizzou practically stacked eight guys in the box the entire game to take away the Illini running “attack”, which allowed Juice to find some mind-boggling wide-open receivers downfield on a number of occasions.  Hopefully, the fact that Juice burned a pretty solid Missouri defense with his arm will make future opponents think twice in terms of stacking the line, which would open back up the Illini running game.  There really isn’t an excuse for the sloppy tackling, though.  The one bright spot on defense was the coverage ability of Vontae Davis – if he continues playing like he did this past week, he’s going to be taken very high in the first round by an NFL team in the near future.

There aren’t any odds available on the Illinois – Eastern Illinois since it involves a Division 1-AA team (I will continue to refuse to use the FBS/FCS monikers), so that game won’t be part of the parlay this week.  However, I’ll throw out a prediction that Illinois will win by at least 24 points.  On to this week’s college football picks from the worst slate of games of the year that features a dangerous number of spreads of 20 points or more (home teams in CAPS):

(1) Miami (+21 1/2) over FLORIDA – When the marquee game of the weekend features a 21 1/2 point spread, that means it’s a pretty bad football Saturday.  (It will all be made up next week, though, with Ohio State – USC.) I know that the Hurricanes were brutal last season, they have a bunch of freshmen playing, and Tim Tebow has a Zen-like hold on Erin Andrews.  However, have the mighty Canes fallen so far that they would be over three touchdown underdogs to the Gators in the revival of a once-heated rivalry?  I think not – I’m taking Miami with the points.

(2) CENTRAL FLORIDA (+14) over South Florida – Staying in the Sunshine State, I’m selling off USF stock after a couple of seasons of outsized returns.  This is one of those games that means a whole lot more to UCF (who believes they were just as worthy of a Big East invitation as USF) and it’s on their home field, so I’m taking the points again.

(3) EAST CAROLINA (+8) over West Virginia – Here’s a true home game for East Carolina against a top ten team one week after upsetting Virginia Tech in Charlotte.  At the same time, one of the few items that I have been consistently correct on through the years is knowing that West Virginia finds a way to stumble every season even though there is always a contingent of pundits that believes the Mountaineers will back into the national championship game since they always have a schedule where they could theoretically run the table on paper.  I’m not calling a straight-up upset here for ECU (and I’m sure WVU is on notice after VT stumbled last weekend), but it looks like I’m taking the points across the board on this week’s parlay.

The NFL parlay picks come tomorrow.

Frank the Tank’s College Football Parlay Record
Last Week: 2-1

Illini Games for the Season: 0-1
Overall Season: 2-1

(Image from Chicago Tribune)