this week in unintentionally grim-sounding recruiting headlines
On September 27, I wrote: ‘The tidal wave of major conference expansion and re-alignment is complete. The “Big Five” conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 – have reached equilibrium. None are likely to grow within the next ten years.’
Obviously I got that wrong. Way wrong. I don’t feel too badly about that. This move took practically everyone by surprise. (ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski seems to have been one of the few who predicted it.)
Still, I was wrong. It is worth exploring how.
The Four Axioms Revisited
In my last diary, I stated that conference realignment is governed by four axioms: money, football, academics, and geography. Stated more broadly:
- Money. No school willingly changes conferences to make less money. No conference accepts a school if its existing members will lose money.
- Football. No school moves willingly to a weaker football conference. No conference accepts a school that is below the league average in football.
- Academics. No school moves willingly to an academically weaker conference. No conference accepts a school that is drastically weaker academically than the rest of the league.
- Geography. The less sense a move makes geographically, the weaker the contracting parties.
Previously, I said that there’s no wiggle room at all in the first two axioms; there’s a bit of wiggle room in the third and fourth, especially for weaker leagues like the Big East.
I should have been more expansive about the second axiom, football. When a conference adds teams in pairs, it’s the combination that matters, not each school individually. Missouri never would have had a prayer of getting admitted to the SEC on its own, but it did obey the four axioms when you consider that it was part of a package deal with Texas A&M.
Those who criticize the Pac-12's addition of Colorado and Utah may be focusing too heavily on those schools' recent troubles. Historically, Colorado is #21 in all-time wins, ahead of every Pac-12 school except USC. Utah, at #36, is ahead of every Pac-12 school except USC, Cal, and Washington. It may not seem that way now, but for the Pac-12, Colorado and Utah were upgrades in the long term, assuming those schools don't remain long-term losers.
How Jim Delany Made History
This brings me to how Jim Delany made history: he broke the second axiom. No conference has ever voluntarily added two schools, both of whom were much weaker than the league average at football. With its .5283 all-time winning percentage, Maryland ranks ahead of just three Big Ten schools: Illinois, Indiana, and Northwestern. Rutgers, at .5048, ranks ahead of only the Hoosiers and Wildcats. (Neither percentage includes the 2012 season.)
These schools historically have played much weaker schedules than the rest of the Big Ten. Maryland, playing in the weakest of the Big Five leagues, has won the ACC championship in football just once in the last twenty years (2001). They’ve been in the final top-25 just eight times in the past 35 years. The Terps’ only period of comparative dominance was 1974–85, when they won the championship six times in twelve years. Before that, their last championship was in 1955. Against, the Big Ten, Maryland is a combined 4-44-1 all-time, with the majority coming against Penn State (1-29-1), whom the Terps used to play almost every year before the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten.
Rutgers’ history of futility is well known. The Scarlet Knights have finished in the top 25 just once in the last thirty-five years. They’ve never won a Big East championship; they could do so for the first time this season if they win their final two games. Knowing Rutgers, that’s a long shot. They’ve gone to just seven bowl games all-time, all minor ones, and only one before 2005 (in 1978).
Both teams have small stadiums by Big Ten standards. High Point Solutions Stadium in lovely Piscataway, New Jersey, seats 52,454, and Rutgers seldom fills it. They ranked fifth in Big East attendance last year, with an average of 43,761 fans. In basketball, Rutgers hasn’t fielded a winning team in six years. They averaged only a shade over 5,000 fans a game, good for 15th in a sixteen-team league. At Maryland, Byrd Stadium in College Park was expanded to 54,000 in 2008. Last Saturday, a home game against a top-10 Florida State team attracted just 35,000 fans.
You have to figure that recruiting and attendance at the two schools will improve after joining the Big Ten. Nevertheless, without very substantial program upgrades, it is likely that both Maryland and Rutgers will be bottom feeders in the Big Ten for many years to come.
Needless to say, this is quite a contrast from Penn State and Nebraska, who were championship contenders almost immediately upon joining.
Are the Four Axioms Busted?
We’ve learned that Money is King. Practically any deal is possible, if the money is good enough.
But before we abandon the Four Axioms, let’s remember this:
- Until now, no conference has violated the Football axiom by adding teams so far below the league average. The Football axiom is more of a guideline now, and not an inexorable command. But I wouldn’t count on it being violated regularly.
- The Academics and Geography axioms both held: Maryland and Rutgers, both AAU members, are well within the Big Ten academic profile, and both are adjacent to its geographic footprint.
Do Fans Matter Any More?
I could have added—but did not—a fifth axiom:
- The Fans. No school or conference makes a voluntary move that alienates its fans.
Jim Delany busted that axiom too. Now, let’s stipulate that fans are a fickle bunch, and there’s no change that everyone likes. Some people still think it was a mistake to add Penn State and Nebraska. But most Big Ten football fans could relate to those moves. Nebraska and Penn State will always be red-letter games on most schedules in the conference. From the schools’ perspective, most Penn State fans long ago realized that football independence was no longer practical for them. Nebraska fans surely miss the old Big Eight rivalries, but the Big 12 had become a Texas/Oklahoma-based league, in which the Cornhuskers were increasingly outsiders.
In contrast, very few Big Ten fans outside of Penn State will look forward to playing Maryland and Rutgers. Many will resent it, as there will be fewer games between historic Big Ten foes, like Michigan and Wisconsin. Reactions of the Maryland fan base have been decidedly mixed, although Terrapin fans are gradually figuring out that this is in their best interests. Only at Rutgers is the move an unvarnished blessing: when the alternative is the Big East, who wouldn’t prefer the Big Ten?
Is Jim Delany Canny or Crazy?
Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated has a good article explaining what the Big Ten stands to gain by adding Maryland and Rutgers. If the Big Ten could get carriage on basic cable in every household in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, it would bring in another $200 million in revenue per year. This is highly unlikely, but Delany doesn’t need anywhere near all of it for Maryland and Rutgers to be cash-flow positive for the conference. And that’s before you consider the Big Ten’s primary television rights deal, which is up in 2017, and will surely be worth a lot more with two new markets in its footprint.
Skeptics will point out that Maryland and Rutgers can’t deliver their television markets, the way Nebraska did. That is true. But the NY–Philly–Washington axis is so heavily populated that it might not matter. If Delany just gets just a decent fraction of it, the conference will make more than it did in Nebraska.
You can fault Delany for many things, but the one thing he surely knows is how to count money. That is pretty much all that he does. If you’re a betting man, you shouldn’t bet against Jim Delany’s ability to turn sports into cash.
None of this is to deny the very real fan anger at what is obviously a money grab with no other benefits. But remember, the money doesn’t just fund private jets for athletic directors. It also funds the rowing team at Michigan and the hockey team at Penn State. If the conference is going to make a move with only one purpose, money, you can at least be fairly confident that Delany got that right.
For a contrary view, check out the bearish analysis from Nate Silver, the New York Times statistical guru who forecasted all 50 states correctly in the presidential race. As good as Silver is in his own sphere of expertise, this was just a one-off blog post. Delany has spent years studying this. My bet is still on Delany.
What Happens Next?
Many message board participants see a push for 16-team conferences. This is wrong. Expansion is about making more money, not fielding some arbitrary number of teams. For the Big Ten to expand again, it’ll need two more schools that:
- Are eager to make a move
- Provide access to substantial markets that the Big Ten isn’t already in
- Are academically and geographically suitable
Currently, the Big Ten pays nearly $25 million per school in media rights, and that could grow to about $43 million per school when the conference negotiates its next media deal in 2017. Hence, the next pair of schools would need to bring in about $90 million per year just to break even, or else they’d dilute the average pay-out. Jim Delany doesn’t do deals to break even. In fact, the next pair probably needs to bring more than 100 million, as there’s clearly no point in making a move if it’s just a push. It needs to be compelling.
The ACC will almost certainly take another school from the wilting Big East, most likely UConn, but possibly Louisville, to get back up to an even number of football schools.
I noted in my last expansion diary that the Big 12 has structural reasons for actively preferring a 10-team league. As Former interim commissioner Chuck Neinas told Fox News, “Let's face it, they're making as much money as for the (Sugar Bowl) as the SEC and as the Pac-12 and Big Ten are making for the Rose Bowl and they only have to share it with 10 teams.”
The SEC does not have the Big Ten’s demographic problem: the south is still growing, and it’s the nation’s dominant football conference. Historically, the SEC does not expand in states where it already has members, and all of the available trophy programs are in those states. Should it choose to expand, the next logical step might be Virginia and Virginia Tech, though it is not clear if those two programs bring enough revenue.
I cannot see a money-making expansion path for the Pac-12. They’d need to make another play for Oklahoma and Texas, which they already tried and failed.
I won’t make the rash statement again that major-conference realignment is done, but the four axioms I introduced in my previous post still hold largely true. The more conferences expand, the harder it is to find logical moves that make money.
Denard Robinson's injury on Saturday, coupled with Russell Bellomy's poor performance in a backup role, prompts many questions about Michigan's quarterback recruiting. Could the coaches have anticipated this? Were mistakes made? If so, by whom?
Before we try to answer these questions, let's get a few quick observations out of the way.
1. Game performance and practice performance can differ. We don't know what the coaches saw out of Russell Bellomy in practice, but one must assume it was better than what we saw on the field. We do know that Bellomy looked sharp in the spring game, but that was in the friendly confines of Michigan Stadium, against the second-team defense.
2. Anytime a star of Denard Robinson's caliber is knocked out of a tough road game, you're probably going to lose. Obviously, a better performance by Bellomy would have made the game less painful to watch. But the fantasy where he actually wins it was always a long-shot.
3. Bellomy's first performance against a credible opponent with the game on the line, is probably not the best indication of his capabilities.
With that out of the way, let's get back to our original questions.
Quarterback Recruiting is Different
Quarterback recruiting has some unique challenges that the casual fan often does not appreciate.
1. Quarterback rankings are generally accurate. High-school quarterbacks are very highly scrutinized. Their position generates a lot of stats, and they're filmed on every down. It is therefore difficult to surprise anyone at quarterback. I know that Brian Griese was a walk-on, but he was a rare exception. Everyone knows who the great prospects are — including, of course, the prospects themselves.
2. Most teams play only one quarterback. This means that a star QB who's one class behind another star QB, has a very strong chance of spending most of his career on the bench. This situation differs from, say, the offensive line, where the presence of a 5-star on the roster is not necessarily going to dissuade other 5-stars from committing. You can make productive use of more than one of these. At QB, you can't.
3. Quarterbacks are usually not fungible. Leaving aside Devin Gardner, most QBs can only play QB. This means they have less potential for switching positions if they arrive at college and find a depth-chart traffic jam.
4. You don't play quarterback as a hobby. Even for exceptionally talented players, preparing to play quarterback is a full-time job. It is generally not possible to play another position, and then quickly switch to quarterback when the need arises.
What can we draw from these observations?
In economic terms, the market for college quarterbacks is transparent, and quarterbacks have the advantage: there are more schools seeking a great QB, than there are great QBs to go around. And it is rather unlikely that a school will find a great QB that no one else knew about. (Yes, I know: Denard Robinson. Keep reading.)
A highly-touted QB is therefore unlikely to choose a school where he risks losing the job to another highly-touted QB. The best recruits look for a school where there's a clear path to becoming a multi-year starter.
Of course, that's true at every position, to a certain extent. But there's no other position where the typical team plays only ONE guy, and if you're not THAT guy, you probably won't see much game action at all.
The Five-Star Thundercloud
When a five-star quarterback commits to your school, there's good news and bad news. The good news is: you got a five-star quarterback. The bad news is: the classes surrounding him are going to be barren.
Here's the list of Michigan's quarterback commitments in the Rivals era:
|2002||4||Matt Guttierez||Transferred to Idaho State|
|2003||4||Clayton Richard||Switched to baseball after one year|
|2005||3||Jason Forcier||Transferred to Stanford|
|2006||3||David Cone||Stayed but never saw meaningful game action|
|2007||5||Ryan Mallett||Transferred to Arkansas after his freshman season|
|2008||NONE||(Steven Threet had transferred from Georgia Tech the year before.)|
|2009||4||Tate Forcier||Flunked out of school after his sophomore year|
Observe the quarterback vacuum around each of the three five-star quarterbacks that Michigan has recruited in the Rivals era. Other top QBs don't want to compete with these guys.
(Some may recall that there was a similar vacuum around Drew Henson's recruitment. They weren't giving out stars then, but it's likely Henson would have had five, if he'd come along later.)
The Unusual Events of 2008–2010
To a lesser extent, it is also difficult to pick up multiple four-star quarterbacks in consecutive years. These guys aren't quite the nearly-sure things that five-stars are; still, they're in short enough supply that they tend to look for situations where they have a clear path to the top of the depth chart.
In 2008, Rich Rodriguez inherited Georgia Tech transfer Steven Threet (a former four-star) and Nick Sheridan, a walk-on. Neither guy was well-suited to Rodriguez's spread offense. After the 2008 season, Threet transferred for the second time in his short career, leaving a void at the quarterback position.
In the 2009 class, Rodriguez picked up two four-star quarterbacks, a rare feat. This was possible only because most major programs thought that Denard Robinson could not play QB at the college level.
You can't exactly call Robinson a sleeper, because he had offers at multiple top-tier programs, including Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Miami, Ohio State, and West Virginia. But among those schools, only Michigan offered him at quarterback.
Then, four-star Devin Gardner saw the tire fire that was Michigan's 2009 season, and decided to stick with the Wolverines in 2010, although he had other top-tier offers, including Oregon, Notre Dame, and Nebraska.
Thus, Michigan got three four-star QBs in two years, which you'll find is an uncommon occurrence in college football.
But Devin Gardner was taking the risk that all QB recruits take, when they sign the year after another touted recruit. To become a multi-year starter at QB, he needed Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson to both flame out. Only Forcier did.
Adding insult to injury, Rich Rodriguez foolishly burned Gardner's redshirt after Tate Forcier was temporarily demoted to third string, to punish him for a lackluster effort in off-season work-outs. Gardner played a total of three snaps in two games when Robinson was briefly sidelined, plus garbage time against Bowling Green.
At this writing, it is still unclear if Gardner can obtain a medical hardship waiver for an alleged back injury that he suffered midway through his freshman year. I am not sure how serious that back injury was. By the time of Michigan's bowl game, Forcier had already flunked out of school. Gardner made the trip to Jacksonville and would presumably have played if Robinson had been forced out of the game.
Should Gardner be unable to secure a fifth year, his lost freshman season is probably the worst burned redshirt currently on the team, and one of the dumbest ever.
The More Normal Events of 2011–2014
When Brady Hoke arrived in January 2011, he found only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster and none committed. No top-tier quarterbacks were available, and none would have considered Michigan in the wake of an ugly and disorganized transition from Rich Rodriguez to a little-known (at the time) coach from San Diego State.
So Hoke wasn't going to have a lot of options. The best he could get was Russell Bellomy, a three-star from Arlington, Texas, whose best previous offer was Purdue. The Michigan media promptly wrote fawning tributes to Bellomy, but let's not forget: quarterback rankings are generally accurate. There are reasons why his best previous offer was Purdue.
Brady Hoke started recruiting like a firestorm, and within a few months he'd snagged his first trophy: a commitment from Shane Morris, a junior quarterback who was on his way to getting five stars from all of the major recruiting services.
At this point, Michigan quarterback recruiting entered the five-star thundercloud. No one who's better than Russell Bellomy is going to want to risk the possibility that he'll spend three or four years on the bench, watching Shane Morris light up the Big Ten.
You can understand, therefore, why Michigan didn't take a quarterback in 2012. The only ones available would have been the David Cone types, someone practically guaranteed never to see meaningful game action. Certainly, any quarterback they might have taken in 2012 would not have helped avoid the loss to Nebraska. Nor would that hypothetical QB have been any help next year: he'd probably still be fourth string.
Obviously, Michigan will need to take someone in 2014 — Shane Morris can't be their only QB over a three-year period — but unless they find a legacy kid who happens to have four stars, it's probably going to be another three-star who feels that a probable date with a clipboard at Michigan is better than the starting job at Purdue.
Was Devin Gardner Mishandled?
With Devin Gardner, the coaches were damned if they did, and damned if they didn't.
Any idiot ought to have known that Gardner was likely to be a better backup quarterback than Bellomy. Gardner's not only a year older than Bellomy, but he was better than Bellomy in high school, and as we've noted, QB recruiting rankings are generally correct. Nothing we've seen from Bellomy, other than a spring game in which he faced Michigan's second-string defense, should have led you to believe otherwise.
Despite this fact, some people actually believed that Bellomy was better than Gardner; some even believed he was better than Denard. I imagine most have now been disabused of that notion.
I don't think the coaches ever believed Bellomy was better than Gardner. They're not stupid. But unless Denard were injured, Gardner was destined to waste another year on the bench. Pickings were slim at wide receiver, and Gardner was that rare quarterback who actually could play another position, precisely the one where Michigan needed him.
So the coaches took a calculated risk. They knew that if Gardner practiced at WR enough to actually be usable at that position, he would no longer be well enough prepared to step in at QB. They hoped that Bellomy would be good enough to spell Denard occasionally, and that they wouldn't need him to go out and win the game in Lincoln or Columbus.
It wasn't a crazy gamble, from the viewpoint of playing the odds, and trying to give Michigan the best chance to win every game. You can't be so defensive that you keep one of your best athletes off the field, waiting for an injury that might never happen. Unfortunately, they rolled snake-eyes.
So the short answer is: no, I don't think they mishandled Gardner, given what they knew at the time and the depth they inherited at wide receiver.
What Does It Mean for 2013 and Beyond
Devin Gardner will be a full-time quarterback again, starting the day after Michigan's bowl game. Depending on Denard's injury status, he might be switching back now.
The one sure thing, is that even if you believe Bellomy will eventually win the job, you wouldn't just hand it to him. You've got to have at least two ready, and Gardner will be the only other QB available between Denard's departure and Shane Morris's arrival.
Despite Morris's high talent ceiling, he lost half his senior season to mono, he played for a mediocre high school team, and he isn't graduating early. You're kidding yourself if you think he'll arrive in mid-summer, and be ready to start for Michigan (or even to be a credible backup) by September 1st.
My own view is that Gardner will win the job. As I've noted above, QB rankings are usually correct. He came in with a higher ceiling than Bellomy, he's the better athlete, he has more game experience, and he's a year older.
Gardner has provided useful depth at wide receiver, but he has not set the world on fire. This once again validates what Brian Cook has so often said: the presence of a position-switcher on the depth chart is usually a sign of weakness. The two kids Michigan actually recruited at receiver, Darboh and Chesson, should be ready to step up next year. And that's before we consider any production from the two incoming 2013 freshmen who are already committed, or any others who are still considering the Wolverines, such as Laquon Treadwell.
This scenario will allow Gardner to start at quarterback, Bellomy to be the backup once again, and Morris to redshirt. The worst conceivable scenario, which I imagine the coaches would prefer to avoid, is that Morris plays relatively meaningless backup action as a true freshman, and squanders what could otherwise be a far more productive fifth year down the road.
1. You should not be terribly bothered that Michigan didn't take a quarterback in the 2012 class. Anyone realistically available would not have seen the field anyway.
2. Russell Bellomy probably isn't a quarterback you can win a Big Ten title with. That shouldn't have surprised you.
3. You can't really fault the coaches for switching Devin Gardner to wide receiver, given what they had at the time. Nevertheless, he's probably your 2013 starter.
4. Michigan is better off with Shane Morris than without him. But it's hard to get two guys like that in close succession. Any other highly-ranked QB will want to put distance between himself and Morris. Your next stud quarterback won't come until 2015, or maybe even 2016. The next guy they get is going to be another Bellomy type; maybe even the next two.
The tidal wave of major conference expansion and re-alignment is complete. The “Big Five” conferences – the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and Pac-12 – have reached equilibrium. None are likely to grow within the next ten years.
The have nots will continue to jockey for position. The so-called mid-major conferences (the Big East, Sun Belt, C-USA, MAC, and Mountain West) are on the outside looking in. They are destined to remain there for many years to come. You will see additional shifts into or between these conferences, as each hopes to gate-crash the forthcoming playoff.
Every mid-major school hopes that it can be the next Utah or TCU, both of which punched their ticket up to the Big Five in the last round of realignment. It isn’t going to be easy. For crucial structural reasons, it will be extremely difficult for any of the have nots to make a persuasive case for admission to the Big Five.
Many fans make the glib assumption that the conferences that are still at 10 or 12 teams (the Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12) will need to get up to 14 or 15 teams, as the ACC and SEC have done. This is not so. These conferences are all in a position of strength. Any change needs to be extremely compelling, and it is difficult to come up with plausible scenarios where that would be the case.
The Four Axioms of Conference Re-alignment
To understand this, you need to know the four axioms of Conference Re-Alignment
They work in the following ways:
- Money. No school willingly changes conferences to make less money. No conference accepts a school if its existing members will lose money.
- Football. No school moves willingly to a weaker football conference. No conference accepts a school that is below the league average in football.
- Academics. No school moves willingly to an academically weaker conference. No conference accepts a school that is drastically weaker academically than the rest of the league.
- Geography. The less sense a move makes geographically, the weaker the contracting parties.
There is no wiggle room in the first two rules. No one makes moves that lose money, and no one makes moves unless they are good for football. To those two axioms I cannot think of any modern exceptions.
The third rule has a bit of wiggle room. The Big Ten added Nebraska, which is slightly weaker academically than any other Big Ten school, but not drastically weaker. Nebraska is still a better “worst” school than the bottom of any other Big Five league, even the relatively strong Pac-12 and ACC. But there are limits to how low the Big Ten will go. On academic grounds alone, if for no other reason, you’ll never see a Cincinnati or a Louisville in the Big Ten.
Conferences occasionally accept schools with academics below the league average, but schools never voluntarily take an academic step down. In every modern move, the destination conference was better academically than the conference the school came from. This is a factor seldom considered by fans, who are only thinking about the football field. Conference moves are approved by school presidents, who are professors first and sports fans second.
The geography axiom has the most wiggle room of all, and it’s correlated with weakness. When the contracting parties are weak, they’re more likely to accept moves that make little or no geographic sense, if the other three axioms are satisfied. The Big 12, as the only net loser in the re-alignment derby, needed to find a tenth member, and with its options dwindling, took West Virginia, the best football school available. They rejected Louisville, which is geographically closer to the Big 12 footprint, but worse at football. West Virginia wanted to escape the collapsing Big East, and was willing to accept worse geography in order to do so.
The ACC accepted Notre Dame, their first member not on or near the Atlantic coast. But as the weakest of the Big Five leagues, the ACC needed to improve its football product, and Notre Dame needed access to the post-season. Here too, it was only because the parties were weak that they accepted a geographically nonsensical arrangement. (Notre Dame, it must be noted, was already in a geographically odd conference, the Big East; for them, the ACC has all upside. For many other reasons, the ACC was a better fit for Notre Dame than the Big Ten.)
Of course, the Gang of Five (i.e., mid-major) leagues have long ignored geography. The Big East is now the Big Everywhere. Conference USA wisely took a name attached to no fixed domicile. That they’re two of the weakest parties in FBS football hardly needs further explanation.
Applying the Axioms to the Big Five Leagues
With these axioms in mind, it is clear that the Big Five are done expanding. Let’s consider the three relevant cases:
- Teams moving up from “mid-major” status to the Big Five
- Continued exodus from the Big East
- Re-alignment within the Big Five
Teams moving up to the Big Five. In the previous round of re-alignment, only two schools managed to do this, and both were special cases. TCU joined the Big 12, but TCU was a former member of the Big 12’s predecessor, the Southwest Conference. Furthermore, the Big 12 had an urgent need to get back to ten teams, after losing Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC, and before that Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten.
After accepting Colorado, the Pac-12 needed a twelfth school, so that it could add a conference championship game. Plans to absorb several Big 12 schools fell through, leaving Utah as the only logical twelfth team available. Now that the Pac-12 has a conference championship game, the hurdle for any 13th or 14th school will be much harder to clear. The only Big Five leagues that have gone to 14 football schools had very compelling reasons for doing so—the ACC to bolster a weak football product, the SEC to get access to the Texas recruiting market.
No remaining “mid-major” is even remotely suitable for admission to the Big Five. All are academically weak (by Big Five standards), lack significant football traditions, or come from small markets that would not bring much TV revenue with them. Most are more than one of the above.
Continued Exodus from the Big East. The Big East was considered a peer league of the Big Five for many years, before the mass exodus that saw Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, Pitt, and Notre Dame, all leaving for the ACC, and West Virginia for the Big 12.
Of the Big East’s original football-playing members, only Rutgers remains. Everyone in the country knows that Rutgers would leave the Big East in a heartbeat. Therefore, the lack of an invitation from the major conferences is telling. No conference commissioner believes that Rutgers can deliver the New York/New Jersey television market. (I live in that area, and I can assure you that no one talks about Rutgers football.) Without a television audience or a large football fan base, there is simply no reason for any conference to take Rutgers.
All of the Big East’s remaining football members are arrivistes—former mid-majors who hoped the Big East was their ticket to the Big Time, only to realize that as they arrived, the league was taking a hard fall. None of them have the combination of a large market, a strong football tradition, and strong academics that the Big Five are looking for.
Realignment within the Big Five.This is the most complex case to consider. Let’s begin with some background. Except for the Big 12 and its predecessor, the Southwest Conference, no Big Five league has lost a member since South Carolina left the ACC in 1971. These leagues are incredibly stable.
The Big 12 was the one unstable major conference, due to fundamental mistakes when it was assembled in 1996 and poor management afterward. As now constituted, the Big 12 is what the Big Ten used to be, and to an even greater degree: a Big Two (Texas and Oklahoma), and a Little Eight. None of the Little Eight are useful to the remaining Big Five leagues, and the Big Two like having a sandbox they can dominate. Nothing will happen in the Big 12 unless Texas and Oklahoma want it. Both schools know that there is no other league where they would have that kind of power. Any potential new member would know that the rest of the league plays second fiddle to those two schools.
Among the Big Five leagues, only the Big 12 is leaving money on the table by remaining at ten teams, and depriving themselves of a conference championship game. As such, the Big 12 is the only Big Five league with an obvious reason to expand. Any other league, such as the Big Ten, would need a school, or more likely a pair of schools, which that brings sufficient revenue on their own, a condition that is hard to satisfy.
Texas and Oklahoma (the Big Two) strongly prefer the Big 12 to remain at 10 teams. The original Big 12 had a divisional split, but the South Division (in which both Big Two teams resided) was usually much stronger than the north, which had only Nebraska as a perennial power. In the 15 years that a championship game was played, Texas or Oklahoma represented the South 13 times, and the only other representative, Texas A&M, is no longer in the league. The South team won the game 11 out of 15 times, including the last seven times, and often by lopsided margins. Kansas State is the only team in the current Big 12, other than the Big Two, that ever won the game.
Because the Big 12 is so competitively lopsided, Texas and Oklahoma prefer to have the conference championship decided by a regular-season round robin, which they figure to dominate 75 to 80 percent of the time. Neither one is comfortable with putting a regular-season crown on the line in a conference championship game, where an upset could knock them out of the top-tier bowls. No doubt there are teams in other leagues that feel the same way, but no other league is dominated by two schools to anywhere near that extent.
Of course, the Big 12 has an additional problem. It is highly unlikely that the league would attract two powerhouse teams comparable to Texas and Oklahoma, which means that almost any conceivable divisional split would be competitively unbalanced unless the Big Two were split up. The Big Two want no part of this, as their annual rivalry is the conference’s biggest game, and they don’t want to dilute it by (potentially) playing it twice.
(I realize that the Big Ten put its two marquee teams, Michigan and Ohio State into separate divisions, a decision that many fans still regret. But Michigan and Ohio State do not dominate the Big Ten the way Texas and Oklahoma dominate the Big 12. Until the recent scandal decimated Penn State, the Big Ten had four premier programs and several others that are frequently strong, a situation the Big 12 cannot replicate.)
A while back, sources from Florida State and Clemson hinted—I stress, hinted—that they might be open to exploring a move to another conference. The FSU president quickly poured cold water on that idea, and that was before the ACC added Notre Dame and instituted a $50 million-per-school exit fee. The newly constituted ACC will probably have a TV package approaching the Big 12’s package in value, thus negating whatever merit some Florida State fans might have seen in moving.
FSU partisans might salivate over annual games against Oklahoma and Texas, but in most years they’d face only one of those teams, along with a steady diet of less desirable opponents like Iowa State, the two Kansas schools, and Baylor. Take another look at Florida State’s ACC schedule, especially with Notre Dame now in the mix, and the Big 12 does not look so good, monetarily or competitively. On top of that, the Big 12 would be a significant step down academically from the ACC, and once again I refer you to the four axioms: in the modern era, no school has moved to an academically less-prestigious conference.
If the Big Ten wanted to expand to 14 teams, he ACC is home to the only schools that might plausibly be available someday, and that might contribute enough television revenue to be considered worthy expansion candidates. But only three current ACC schools have been national powers in the last fifty years: Clemson, Florida State and Miami. Even if the Big Ten wanted them (a dubious proposition in itself), those schools are far more likely to see a path to the national championship through the weaker ACC, than to be playing November football games in places like Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
In addition to Texas—which is clearly not available—you can be sure that the Big Ten looked at every remotely possible school that met its criteria. That the Big Ten has chosen to remain at 12 teams is a pretty good indication that no team is available that the Big Ten wants.
Fans toss out realignment scenarios as if they were trading players in a fantasy football game. The conference commissioners and university presidents who make these decisions are far more ruthless. Any move has to be consistent with the four axioms: money, football, academics, and geography. It’s hard to find moves that meet those criteria, because the Big Five leagues are already very strong and stable, and have no burning need to grow.
Notre Dame was the last big prize remaining unclaimed. The Irish have now made their decision, one that suited their priorities better than any other available option, including the Big Ten. Now that all of the major programs have what they want, look for them to sit tight for a long, long time.
Some Big Ten supporters think the conference should stop scheduling Notre Dame, to "punish" the Irish for joining the ACC. They're making a fundamental error: thinking like a fan, rather than thinking like an athletic director.
Here are some basic facts:
Michigan and Notre Dame have played annually since 1978, aside from a couple of two-year hiatuses planned long in advance (1983-84, 1995-96, and another coming in 2018-19). Michigan has had seven athletic directors during that time, starting with Don Canham, who reinstated the series after a 35-year absence. You'd think that if playing Notre Dame were such a terrible idea, one of those ADs would have stopped it by now.
Even Bo Schembechler, who famously said "To hell with Notre Dame," didn't cancel the series during the three years that he was Athletic Director. Given his control over the program, it is hard to believe that Bo couldn't have put an end to it, if he'd really wanted to.
So, why does Michigan play Notre Dame?
The series has numerous benefits. It's a high-profile game that is always nationally televised. Travel costs are low. The game is competitive but winnable. Even in years that the Irish are terrible, the media always act like beating them is a Big Deal. The last three games, all won by Michigan, have created iconic moments that very few opponents could supply: Tate Forcier's coming-out party in 2009, Denard Robinson's in 2010, and Under-the-Lights last year. Since the series resumed, most of the games have been very entertaining, with 19 out of 28 contests decided by 8 points or less.
You might think that Michigan could easily replace Notre Dame with comparable opponents. You'd be wrong. A lot of those opponents don't want to come to Ann Arbor. (Dave Brandon recently tried to schedule Oklahoma, and was refused.) And outside of the Big Ten, most of the premier programs play in hot-weather climates, where a September game would put Michigan at a significant disadvantage. If you thought it was bad playing Alabama indoors, imagine what it would be like in Tuscaloosa.
In short: if Notre Dame fell off of the schedule, Michigan would be hard pressed to replace them annually with acceptable games against high-profile home & home opponents. Of course, somebody would come to play Michigan, but if you think the replacement game would regularly be as good as Notre Dame (in terms of prestige, TV viewership, excitement, or any way you measure it), you're kidding yourself.
The case for playing Notre Dame is even more compelling for Michigan State and Purdue. The Boilermakers have played Notre Dame every season since 1946. It is more important to them than any rivalry in the Big Ten, as it's the only game they play that is guaranteed to be televised nationally. No other Purdue game attracts so much interest. And there are probably no major football programs that would consider a trip to West Lafayette worthwhile. Cinncinati in 2016 is the most prestigious non-Big Ten, non-ND home game the Boilermakers currently have scheduled, supplementing a diet of directional schools, MAC programs, and the like.
The situation is quite similar for Michigan State. Remember their memorable overtime win vs. Notre Dame, which was the featured night game on ABC two years ago? They're doing it again tomorrow. Who else could the Spartans play, that would generate that kind of coverage? The Spartans have been elevating their schedule lately: they have future home & home series with Miami (YTM), Alabama, Oregon, and Boise State. But of that list, only Alabama matches Notre Dame in prestige.
I have no interest in helping Purdue and MSU recruit, but the fact is: to kids who might be considering playing football at those schools, an annual game with Notre Dame is a perk.
So I can only laugh when people suggest that the Big Ten ought to refuse to schedule Notre Dame, to "punish" the Irish for not joining the conference. It's a big like "punishing" Kate Upton for refusing to date you. Kate will do just fine, and so will Notre Dame. Oklahoma, Texas, Northwestern, and Arizona State, are among the teams that have scheduled the Irish in future years, in addition to their usual rivals (USC, Stanford, Brigham Young, Navy) and various ACC teams.
I'm not aware of any athletic director who resents the Irish for choosing to be independent. Athletic directors realize that games with Notre Dame are good business. Whether or not the Irish deserve their popularity, the fact is they are popular, because two large ethnic groups — Irish and Catholics — consider Notre Dame their de facto home team. This is why the major conference commissioners treat the Notre Dame athletic director like an equal; why they have their own network TV deal; and why they have their own entrée into the BCS, under conditions granted to no other school.
So to the extent that Big Ten schools for decades have found it useful to schedule Notre Dame, what exactly has changed? The answer is: nothing. Notre Dame always made clear that they intended to remain independent in football. All they've done is to leave the rotting Big East, as numerous other schools have done when the opportunity arose.
The match-up makes sense for both parties. As the weakest of the "Big Five" football conferences, the ACC wanted to make itself more attractive to television and the bowls. Notre Dame's strong academics are also an attraction, in the only available conference that is academically as strong as the Big Ten. Notre Dame gets access to the ACC's bowl tie-ins and a far better home for basketball and its olympic sports. It will play 5 ACC teams in football every year, but many of those teams have regularly played the Irish anyway.
Culturally, the ACC is a better fit for Notre Dame than any conference, including the Big Ten. The ACC already has five other private schools (if you count Syracuse, joining next year), including the only other Catholic school that plays FBS football (Boston College). The ACC footprint includes large Catholic and Irish populations, and Notre Dame alumni historically have tended to migrate east. Outside of the midwest, the East is Notre Dame's most fertile territory for recruiting. That's a big reason why the Irish chose the ACC over the Big 12, which was the only other major conference willing to admit the Irish on similar terms.
Numerous news stories have mentioned that the Irish will probably be re-evaluating their future schedules, now that they're committed to play five ACC teams per season, starting in 2014. If you add Navy, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue every year, that would leave the Irish with just one "flex" game, or none in the years Brigham Young is on the schedule.
So which rivals might Notre Dame play less often? The Irish consider USC and Stanford their most valuable rivalry games, because it ensures they play in Califorina every year, an important selling point for West Coast recruits. The Navy game has been contested every season since 1914, making it the oldest uninterrupted intersectional rivalry in college football. It's also practically an automatic win for Notre Dame. There's no way they're giving that up.
The three Big Ten rivalries have different costs and benefits for Notre Dame. They've played Purdue every year since 1946, and it's another game they usually win. However, very few people other than Notre Dame fans and Indiana residents care about the game, so it doesn't really help them with recruiting. Of all Notre Dame's rivals, Purdue really needs the game. Canceling it or playing it less often would really screw Purdue.
Michigan is the best known of Notre Dame's Big Ten rivalries, and the one that's the best media draw, but it's also the toughest for them. Michigan is one of the few schools (and the only one the Irish play regularly) that has a winning record vs. Notre Dame.
The Michigan State rivalry goes back to 1897, and since 1948 the two schools have missed each other just four times (1953, 1958, 1995-6). Historically, Notre Dame dominated the series (other than the 1950-63 period, when MSU was good), but since 1997 the Spartans have given Notre Dame fits, winning 10 out of 15. If Notre Dame decides that it doesn't need to play two state-of-Michigan schools, you'd think Michigan State would be seen as the dispensable game.
There is very little doubt in my mind that if the Irish want to keep playing, the Big Ten will continue to welcome them with open arms. In an interview with CBS Sports, Purdue's athletic director almost seemed to be pleading: "You have two schools in the state of Indiana with shared values -- their close proximity is a mutual benefit when it comes to travel and potential missed class time by the student-athletes -- so it only makes sense that we will continue to compete against them."
Dave Brandon told the Associated Press that Michigan wants to keep the series going, but that it would be up to the Irish. MSU AD Mark Hollis said that the school has a contract with Notre Dame out to 2031 that calls for four years on, two years off. So that ought to dispel the idea that Big Ten teams have any notion of kicking Notre Dame off their schedules.
Perhaps one scenario is that the Irish will continue to play Purdue every year, while alternating the Michigan and Michigan State series (2 years on, 2 years off). That's just one way it could play out. Because of the continuous tradition, the in-state proximity, and the fact that the Irish usually win, it's harder to imagine them playing Purdue less often.
For Michigan fans, the question isn't whether we want to play Notre Dame, but whether Notre Dame wants to play us. If the Irish are available, David Brandon will schedule them, just as the last six athletic directors that preceded him have done, over and over again.
The Notre Dame series takes a hiatus on Michigan's 2018 and 2019 schedules. I am assuming that Michigan would seek to replace with the Irish with an opponent of comparable stature.
(Feel free to insert your favorite joke about how Notre Dame really doesn't have the stature everyone assumes. The fact is, the media treats Notre Dame as if they were an elite team, whether they are or not.)
I checked the future schedules on fbschedules.com, of every opponent that could be considered a plausible replacement for Notre Dame. I even checked a few that are marginal, like Syracuse and Pitt. But I didn't check teams like Duke or Louisville that no rational person would consider a like-for-like trade with Notre Dame.
I assumed that no school would agree to schedule Michigan if they already had a tough out-of-conference game scheduled in either or both of those years. For instance, Oklahoma and LSU have a home-and-home scheduled in 2018-19. Scratch both of them off the list. (One of the premium message boards reported this week that Dave Brandon had approached Oklahoma, and was told no thanks, though it didn't say for what years.)
These are the findings:
I. Definitely Unavailable
Oklahoma and LSU (home & home vs. each other)
Texas A&M and Oregon (home & home vs. each other)
Texas (USC, @Maryland in 2018; Notre Dame in 2019)
USC (@Texas in 2018, in addition to the usual Notre Dame h/h)
II. Probably Unavailable
Alabama (hosting Georgia Tech in 2019)
Georgia Tech (hosting Ole Miss in 2018; @Alabama in 2019; plus Georgia h/h)
Stanford (Virginia in 2018; @Northwestern in 2019; plus Notre Dame h/h)
III. Possibly Available
Florida and Florida State (home & home assumed; nothing else scheduled)
Miami (only thing scheduled is Rutgers home & home)
Georgia (only thing scheduled is recurring home & home vs. Ga. Tech)
Syracuse (only thing scheduled is Northwestern in 2019)
IV. No Known Conflicts
The open question is whether Dave Brandon and Brady Hoke want to play a September game in an outdoor stadium in the south, where the weather conditions would be in the opponents' favor. If you take the southern teams out of the picture, you're left with teams like Pitt and Syracuse, which many fans would view as being less interesting opponents than Notre Dame.
It is a myth that the SEC schools never play tough out-of-conference opponents. Besides Alabama and LSU (already mentioned above), Tennessee has future home & homes vs. Oklahoma and Nebraska; and Arkansas has both TCU and Texas scheduled.
On the other hand, Georgia never seems to schedule a tough out-of-conference opponent, other than their annual tilt with Georgia Tech. Likewise, Florida seems only to schedule Florida State and occasionally Miami. Auburn is rather timid: a trip to Kansas State is the toughest future game they've scheduled.
Bear in mind that many of these schools could have conflicts due to ongoing negotiations that have not yet become public. And some of them just might not want to play Michigan. So there might be only one or two real options that would strike the average fan as an upgrade over just playing Notre Dame those two years.
In the wake of the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State, many fans are wondering what this means for the future of Nittany Lion football. Many of the forecasts are quite dire: that Penn State is now (effectively) an FCS team; that they’ll go 0-12 for four years; that no one will want to play or coach there; that the program will take a decade or more to recover; or perhaps that it will never recover its former glory.
These predictions are grossly exaggerated, and they ignore many of the basic realities of college football.
Like most of the sport's premier teams, Penn State has huge structural advantages that NCAA sanctions can't erase. Their stadium seats 106,572, more than any in the U.S. except the Big House. The rest of their facilities are top-notch, as you'd expect at such a program.
Penn State fans are loyal, just as Michigan's are. Even in the darkest times, they will continue to fill their stadium; boosters will continue to donate money. Although I pray that such a scandal would never occur at Michigan, if it did I would remain blue, and so, I suspect, would most Michigan fans. Those at Penn State are no less dedicated to their school.
Penn State benefited historically from a geographical accident. In relation to its population, the New England and middle Atlantic states are very densely populated, but they have very few football schools. New York is the third-most most populous state in the country, and it has just one school in a major football conference: Syracuse. New Jersey, the 11th-most populous state, has just one: Rutgers, and they're terrible at football.
The upshot is that there are millions of kids in the Northeastern U.S. for whom Penn State was always the best football school within driving distance, with very little real competition. For kids that cared about playing close to home, which is a lot of them, a Penn State offer always meant that they'd made it. These loyalties, built up over generations, don't just disappear because of Jerry Sandusky.
The NCAA hammered Penn State with two sanctions that affect the ability to field a competitive team: a reduction of 20 scholarships per year for four years; and a post-season ban for the same period. These are substantial penalties, no question about it — the worst the NCAA has ever imposed, aside from the death penalty. But they are not as serious as they first appear.
Penn State can still give out 65 scholarships a year, enough to give a free ride to all of the starters and many of the key backups on the football team. It's true that they can't go bowling for four years, but consider the following:
Many of the schools Penn State is now being compared to (Indiana, the MAC, the FCS), never or hardly ever go to the post-season. But Penn State's facilities are far superior to those schools, and it offers a better education than most of them. Penn State will still play a Big Ten schedule, which means it will see better opponents, and 100 percent of its games will be televised. Many athletes, though admittedly not the elite ones, will consider those advantages sufficiently compelling.
Penn State will still get a few recruits with competing Big Ten offers. How much better is it, really, to go to a school like Purdue, where you go to bowls about half the time (and usually a "meh" bowl at that)? Even kids with top-tier offers will see opportunity in the Penn State depth chart. Many will prefer the chance to be a near-certain starter at Penn State, than going to a bowl-eligible school but spending most of their career as a backup. Given the choice of starting 12 games at Penn State or the potential of sitting on the bench for 13 at (say) Illinois , some will surely choose Penn State.
Penn State has historically scheduled weak OOC opponents (notwithstanding their home & home with Alabama the last two years). In 2014, they'll face the gantlet of Temple, Akron, Rutgers, and UMass. Even with a 20-scholarship handicap, they'll probably be favored in those games. Some of their Big Ten match-ups will be favorable (e.g., Indiana and Minnesota), and some of the others could be a push (e.g., Purdue, Illinois).
Although the sanctions last four years, after the first two they can recruit kids who'll be able to play in bowls by the time they're juniors, the point in their careers when they would have hoped to be starters under the old regime. Instead, by the time the sanctions expire, they'll be juniors with two years of solid playing time behind them, instead of garbage time somewhere else. By the time the sanctions expire, Penn State's starters will have lower recruiting rankings than your typical Penn State squad, but more experience, because most of them will have started as freshmen and sophomores.
Although the next couple of years could be dire, you could easily imagine Penn State fielding a squad of mostly 3* starters in years three and four of the sanctions, with a handful of 4*'s who choose Penn State due to academics, geography, legacy ties, or because they like their chances on such a thin depth chart. Such a team would be easily capable of getting to 5-7 wins with Penn State's fairly soft schedule.
If Bill O'Brien can get Penn State up to around .500 while playing under such severe sanctions, which is very clearly possible, imagine what he can do the instant the sanctions are lifted. By that point, Jerry Sandusky will be five years in the rear view mirror, which is an eternity from the viewpoint of a kid who's deciding where to play football in college. All of Penn State's structural advantages (stadium, facilities, academics, fans, geography) will still be in place.
Of course, Bill O'Brien's ability to lead any program, much less a program with such a cloud hanging over it, are unknown. He has never been a head coach on any level, and he was an offensive coordinator in the NFL for only a short time before Penn State hired him. My point here is not to predict what will happen, but to show how Penn State could quite easily get out from under what appear to be practically nuclear sanctions.
Although Penn State's recovery might not proceed exactly as I've described, the premier programs have historically made their way back to prominence, no matter how severe the sanctions. Penn State's sanctions are unprecedented, but their overwhelming structural advantages will probably work in their favor, once they are again able to recruit a full class.