The changing face of college football

The not-so-secret reality of college football forming into distinct have and have nots has come into clear, public focus this week.

And for those who believe the Power 5 conferences and Notre Dame already get whatever they want, you’re not seeing the big picture.

The Power 5 conferences are primed to take their ball and form their own division within the NCAA structure – and most important – sell media rights to their own Playoff.

With or without the Group of 5 conferences.

“We need the authority to do and act differently,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said.

Or as Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said last week: “We don’t need 11 people to say yes to get to a solution that will be good for college football.”

Those 11 Kliavkoff is speaking about: the commissioners of the Power 5 conferences, the Group of 5 conferences and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

But let’s make one thing clear: This isn’t just about the College Football Playoff. The postseason is the easy mechanism to use for broader change.

And by broader, it’s the Power 5 leagues separating into their own division and selling – and keeping – billion-dollar media rights deals.

With each passing week, it’s becoming clear that sport’s major conferences are pulling away. NCAA president Myles Brand admitted Wednesday that he could see a time in the near future when they do.

Kliavkoff all but called out the Group of 5 prior to last week’s Pac-12 Championship Game, explaining that with the current Playoff structure, “We are in a contract with 10 other entities. All 11 must say yes to change (the format). If you look beyond the current model, you don’t start (any new model) by saying all 11 have to agree.

“What is the group that needs to agree on a model, that we can hopefully invite the rest to join us.”

That statement has so many tentacles that can drastically change the sport once the current Playoff contract is complete after the 2025 season.

It begins with an astonishing admittance that there first has to be a specific group of conferences that agrees on a future model. That would be the current Power 5 leagues, but there are realistic questions about the Big 12’s viability as a Power 5 conference.

“That question is the elephant in the room,” one Big Ten athletic director said.

That leads to what has been brewing for weeks now: The SEC and Big 12 helping each other to save the Big 12’s Power 5 status in return for Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC as soon as possible.

The second part of Kliavkoff’s statement is the red line for Group of 5 schools: “hopefully invite the rest to join us.”

The current expanded Playoff negotiations have stalled because of issues based on automatic qualification and access. One Power 5 source told me Kliavkoff’s statement was a “shot across the bow” to the Group of 5 schools: Go along with Playoff expansion now – and get to expanded revenue as soon as possible – or be left out when the new Playoff is formed.

“Or it’s simply a warning,” an industry source told me Wednesday, “that we’re moving forward without you.”

Behind Riley’s big move

Mike Bohn says Lincoln Riley was his first choice as USC coach, but a source close to the situation says Bohn vetted numerous candidates.

The reason he came back to Riley: He’s a young, dynamic and charismatic leader who has proven he can recruit (both regionally and nationally) – and has proven he can win on the big stage.

In other words, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell – whom Bohn hired at Cincinnati – hasn’t proven he can win on the big stage and hasn’t had to recruit at the same level.

For all of Fickell’s positives, Bohn couldn’t afford another miss at 1 of the top 3 jobs – and maybe the best job — in college football. He couldn’t go another 3 or 4 years of watching elite high school players leave California for other schools.

Players like Bryce Young (Alabama), DJ Uiagalelei (Clemson) Kavyvon Thibodeaux (Oregon), CJ Stroud (Ohio State), Brock Bowers (Georgia) and Henry To’o To’o (Tennessee/Alabama).

When Pete Carroll had it rolling at USC in the 2000s, he locked down elite recruits in the state from San Diego to Sacramento. That’s what Bohn wanted.

Within the first week of taking the job, Riley got 5-star RB Raleek Brown (Mater Dei) to decommit from Oklahoma and join the 2022 USC class. And got 5-star ATH Makai Lemon and 5-star QB Malachi Nelson to commit to the 2023 class. They are high school teammates in suburban Los Angeles.

It wasn’t that Bohn wanted to make a splash with the hire of Riley (he did), it’s that he needed to make a splash to shake up recruiting in California – and to convince elite high school players that USC was moving into a unique direction.

The $300 million renovation of the Coliseum, and the $100 million (at least) investment in a head coach are the first step. Winning is the next, and most important, step.

Riley went 55-10 at Oklahoma, and won 4 Big 12 titles in 5 years. He reached the Playoff in his first 3 seasons, and produced 2 Heisman Trophy winners and another finalist.

The right coach is everything

The days of not firing a coach to save a recruiting class are long gone.

USC, Florida and LSU – 3 blue-bloods of college football – are bleeding recruits for the 2022 class. LSU has gone from a top 5 class to No. 25 on the current 247Sports composite team ranking.

Florida was fluctuating in the teens to begin the season, then dropped to the 30s during the final month of Dan Mullen’s 4-year tenure. The Gators currently sit at No. 76.

USC has been struggling since September, when coach Clay Helton was fired a year after landing the No. 7 class in the 2021 rankings. The Trojans are No. 89 in the 2022 rankings.

“If you get the right coach, it’s a 1-off year,” an SEC athletic director told me. “You also might get a coach who can flip a few guys late, or can hold onto a few guys who otherwise would leave. The right guy will make up for it in the long haul – and is a good enough coach who can work with what you have and win now. Honestly, that narrative of ‘losing a recruiting class’ has zero impact on personnel moves at the head coaching position.”

To that point, all 3 blue-bloods – USC, LSU and Florida – all have enough talent on the current rosters to compete in the upper half of their respective conferences.

A State-ment

Within 24 hours of Florida hiring Billy Napier, a billboard was placed in Broward County welcoming Napier to the state of Florida.

Broward County is home to Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which has produced more 4- and 5-star players in the state than any other school over the past 2 decades.

It’s a school that Florida has struggled to recruit since Urban Meyer left Gainesville after the 2010 season. Meyer got numerous players from Aquinas (see: Joey and Nick Bosa) while at Ohio State, and Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain and Dan Mullen could never – for whatever reason — make headway at Aquinas.

One SEC source told me Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin’s top priority with a new coach was a cultural fit with the rest of the athletic department – and nearly every other qualification centered around recruiting and developing players.

He wanted a young, dynamic coach who could fix relationship problems with high school across the state, but specifically in the South Florida area – and especially with Miami in the process of changing coaches, too.