First and 10: The future of college football? The SEC vs. B1G ... and nobody else
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
There are two overwhelming winners with the final and fantastically shortsighted decision to not expand the College Football Playoff.
To no one’s surprise, standing alone and rising above the carnage of bad decisions and worse vision are the SEC and Big Ten.
Everyone else is barely alive.
“Nothing like spilling a bottle of wine on purpose,” one SEC athletic director told me this week, “and then complaining years later about the stain on the carpet.”
Let me put it in less tactful and more realistic terms: The SEC and Big Ten are betting with a full house of aces over kings. The best hand at the rest of the table is a pair of twos.
All that’s left now is to win the hand, split the pot and walk away from the table.
And for some reason, no one other than the SEC and Big Ten thinks they’ll do it.
I’d like to say this is about stubbornness, about refusing to embrace the future of college sports and charging headstrong into the great known – not unknown, known — with last gasp, misguided principles. But it’s so much more than that.
This is institutionally and purposefully reckless behavior from every president of the ACC who voted to shelve Playoff expansion for 4 more years until the end of the current deal – and to come back in a couple of years with a temperature check.
Too bad the patient – college sports as we know it — could be dead.
They tried to warn the ACC and everyone else among the FBS 10 conferences hung up on procedural issues of Playoff expansion that this would happen. No one took heed.
Now SEC commissioner Greg Sankey suddenly isn’t eliminating the idea of further expansion. Now the Big Ten is quickly walking back from the Alliance.
The fuse has been lit, everyone. Stand back and take cover.
“All options are on the table,” another SEC athletic director told me.
We should have seen this coming. Sankey has been publicly stating since a CFP management working group offered up a 12-team model last summer that his conference didn’t need 12 teams. The SEC, he said, was perfectly happy staying at 4 teams but wanted expansion to strengthen the overall collegiate model.
The Big Ten, after a few months of tantrums because Oklahoma and Texas chose the SEC over the Big Ten – tantrums that included a wildly transparent “Alliance” (see: a-LIE-ance) of “like minds” with the Pac-12 and ACC – finally shelved the nonsense of the poor pauper hanging out with his poor friends, and got down to business days before last week’s final run at locking in 12 teams.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, two days before the final no vote, held an hour-long press conference to address the state of college sports, among other things. Name, image and likeness, transfer portal, etc.
He was asked about future structure and schedule formats with the Big Ten, and the Alliance suddenly took its last breath.
“The Alliance, if we’re just looking at TV value, we’re more valuable to the ACC or the Pac-12 than they are to us,” Smith said.
Goodbye, Alliance. Hello, self-preservation.
TV – or as they now call it, media rights – is everything. It’s the lifeblood of collegiate sports. It’s the difference between winners and losers (more on that later).
Smith, with one simple statement, showed everyone who cared to listen – not hear, listen – to what he was saying, who were winners and who were losers.
Winners: SEC and Big Ten.
Losers: everyone else.
2. The schedule future
For some reason, ACC presidents simply can’t read the room.
Collegiate athletics is about two things: television dollars and football. Everything else is a byproduct of those two things.
It has nothing to do with a 3-week gambling sport (the NCAA basketball tournament) that sustains more than 1,000 basketball-playing schools (and in most cases, entire athletic departments) in all NCAA divisions.
It has nothing to do with a “basketball conference” that, frankly, isn’t that good anymore, anyway.
Football, and the treasured marquee matchups that can draw more than 4 million viewers, is everything. That’s the television gold standard, and the key to all future media rights deals.
And that underscores the critical reality on the ground: The SEC and Big Ten can survive on their own.
All you had to do was listen to Smith’s press conference last week. If kneecapping the Alliance wasn’t enough to startle those refusing to budge at the Playoff expansion table, Smith took it further.
He made it unequivocally clear where Ohio State – the bell cow of Big Ten athletics – stands with the future of college sports.
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The Buckeyes have future nonconference games scheduled with 3 SEC bluebloods (Georgia, Texas, Alabama), and Smith said Ohio State will keep those matchups instead of opting for games with Alliance members.
And then, he delivered the kill shot – which should’ve been enough to scare the hell out of ACC presidents and force them into rethinking the idea of tabling Playoff expansion.
“I just don’t see philosophically for us a scheduling model where we would be supportive of making that change (from 9 to 8 conference games),” Smith said. “I’m not so sure we’re going to carry the load for the conference and schedule Pac-12 and ACC schools.”
Yet somehow, after hearing all of that – and after watching the SEC win its 3rd straight national championship and 12th in the past 16 years – the ACC decided to dig in and end Playoff expansion.
It took George Kliavkoff, the new Pac-12 commissioner, all of 7 months on the job to realize the future of his conference, tweeting in December that Pac-12 presidents were good to move forward with any expansion model.
Kliavkoff also took it a step further, declaring during the Pac-12 Championship Game press conference that if expansion doesn’t happen because it needs a unanimous vote, it will happen in 4 years when the contract won’t call for a unanimous vote – and you’re either with us or you’re not.
It’s almost as if – and I don’t want to sound the bullhorn of hyperbole – everyone is telling the ACC to get in line or you’re out. And the ACC isn’t listening.
3. The SEC/Big Ten future
Here’s where it gets dicey, and potentially devastating to those who cling to the idea of college sports as it has always been.
The SEC and Big Ten don’t need the other conferences, and at some point will see them for what they are: a small collection of football-playing schools in each of the other 3 Power 5 conferences available to strengthen their own leagues.
That’s right, expansion.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told Sports Illustrated last week expansion isn’t off the table. An SEC athletic director told me this weekend: “The landscape is constantly changing. Our presidents have made it clear to (Sankey) that we will do whatever it takes to ensure opportunity for our student-athletes and our future financial stability:”
The SEC and Big Ten don’t need the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 to hold a Playoff.
They might need USC, UCLA, Clemson, Miami, Notre Dame and Florida State to make their product deeper and stronger.
The rules of engagement will change in 4 years. Kliavkoff knew it, and so did Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who quickly got over the hurt of Texas and OU leaving for the SEC when it became clear the alternative was no Power 5 conference at all.
The ACC – and I don’t place all blame on new commissioner Jim Phillips; this ultimately is a presidential-level decision led by a commissioner – is still living in the last century when basketball meant something more to television.
The ACC had a chance to keep – at least for the near future – college athletics intact. Now everyone is in self-preservation mode. Guess who wins there?
The SEC and Big Ten – and anyone they decide to carry along for the ride.
4. Home base
He hasn’t coached a down at Florida, but Billy Napier is doing exactly what Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin envisioned: quietly expanding and strengthening the brand.
That fact is no more evident than the recent revelation that QB Arch Manning, the No. 1 player in the class of 2023 and a Trevor Lawrence-level recruit, has added the Gators to the shortlist of teams he’s considering.
Manning adding Florida is more than the Gators’ new state-of-the-art football facility that will be complete in the summer, or that Manning could forge a path in the mighty SEC outside of his famous family. It’s all about Napier, and how he connects with high school players and how he sells the program.
Manning is also among the rare percentage of players Florida will recruit under Napier outside a specific geographical footprint.
When he arrived at Florida, Napier and his staff did a deep dive on the program’s recruiting history, and found that every year the Gators won an SEC or national championship, the roster makeup was at least 65% from within 4.5 hours of Gainesville — and as much as 80%.
In other words, locking down the state of Florida is the foundation of Napier’s plan. When he arrived at Florida, the Gators and former coach Dan Mullen had 1 commitment from the top 20 players in the state.
The Gators finished with 4 signees among the top 50 players in the state of Florida, according to the 247Sports composite ranking.
Georgia (7) and Alabama (5) had more top-50 signees from the state than Florida, and Texas A&M landed the top 2 players in the state. That can’t happen in the future.
Of the top 10 players in the state, 4 signed with Georgia, 2 with Alabama, 2 with Texas A&M and 1 each with Florida and Florida State.
“That has to be our focus,” Napier said. “We’re trying to create a culture that maximizes each one of our players as people and players. When (players) see you have an authentic plan for them, it helps. Relationships are important.”
5. The Weekly 5
Five ways Playoff expansion plays out.
1. A double-secret meeting in the next few months where all sides agree on a 12-team Playoff.
2. The ACC digs in and refuses to budge, the SEC and Big Ten make expansion moves to further weaken the remaining 3 Power 5 conferences.
3. The Pac-12 and Big 12 form a super conference, trying to maximize games that can draw 4 million viewers.
4. The ACC, nearly left for dead during the last round of major expansion before poaching the Big East, can’t fend off the SEC, Big Ten and newly formed Pac-12/Big 12 super conference.
5. Status quo in 4 years.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Kentucky OT Darian Kinnard.
“Just a massive, massive guy. Big and long and carries the weight well. For a guy with that type of size and bulk, he can move. He has good feet and reach, and he has a nasty streak to him. My concern is he doesn’t use his hands well, which means he only gets a clear advantage when he’s locked up and in good position.
“Because he has problems with his hands, he stands too tall and opens himself up for more athletic guys. Those things can be coached and refined, but I really thought he would take a big step this season and it was really more of the same. Does he become a guy who slides inside? Maybe, but someone that size with that athletic ability, you’d love to be able to make it work on the outside.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: 3-team dream pod in 16-team league (think: 4 million viewer games):
1. Alabama: Auburn, LSU, Texas.
2. Georgia: Florida, Auburn, Tennessee.
3. Texas A&M: Texas, Oklahoma, LSU.
4. Kentucky: Florida, Alabama, Tennessee.
5. Arkansas: Texas, Texas A&M, LSU.
6. LSU: Florida, Alabama, Texas.
7. Florida: Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma.
8. Ole Miss: Mississippi State, LSU, Alabama.
9. Mississippi State: Ole Miss, Texas, Florida.
10. Tennessee: Alabama, Florida, Georgia.
11. South Carolina: Florida, Tennessee, Alabama.
12. Auburn: Alabama, Georgia, LSU.
13. Missouri: Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M.
14. Vanderbilt: Tennessee, Florida, Alabama.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Where does Notre Dame fit in any potential expansion down the road? Is it possible the SEC could land the Irish? — Kurt Fleming, Chicago.
Kurt: The more I talk to industry sources, the more it looks like Notre Dame has two chances to stay afloat as an independent: an expanded Playoff that gives the Irish more access (like the 12-team plan would), or CFB staying status quo (which won’t happen).
The next question: What happens if the 12-team Playoff doesn’t unfold? Notre Dame has two options: the SEC or the Big Ten. Clearly, the Big Ten is a better geographical fit.
There are more natural, traditional rivals in the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue), and the Irish already recruit heavily against the Big Ten. A move to the SEC, while fiscally advantageous (but not by much), would mean a significant geographic change in recruiting philosophy, loss of traditional rivals and, on average, a more difficult road to the Playoff.
The fanciful idea of the SEC going to 20 (or more) teams and having its own Playoff won’t happen. But the SEC and Big Ten adding teams and restructuring a Playoff that fits their needs is absolutely a reality – and one television will pay top dollar for.
If an SEC/Big Ten combo looks more like a mini NFL – remember, pay-for-play still must be addressed beyond NIL – and includes multiple division winners and at-large teams (see: wildcards) in the Playoff, conference choice will be critical.
Look at an SEC/Big Ten combo much like you would look at the AFC and NFC in the NFL. Similar ideas.
28. If you’re looking at the impact of USC transfer QB Jaxson Dart, look to Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin’s recent history of first seasons with new quarterbacks at Power 5 schools.
— Matt Barkley, USC, 2010: 2,791 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs, 62.6 completion percentage.
— Blake Sims, Alabama, 2104: 3,487 yards, 28 TDs, 10 INTs, 64.4 completion percentage.
— Matt Corral, Ole Miss, 2020: 3,337 yards, 29 TDs, 14 INTs, 70.9 completion percentage.
That’s an average of 28 TDs for first-year staters under Kiffin, and a completion percentage of 66.
10. Quote to note
Florida coach Billy Napier, on the Gators’ quarterbacks heading into spring practice: “We have a really strong QB room. We have 5 players on campus that I think have ability. Anthony (Richardson) has certainly made some wow plays, and Emory (Jones) has done some nice things. I’m confident we can get that room to play winning football.”