Tomorrow Isn’t As Bad As It Seems (College Football Edition)
“The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems” — Billy Joel, Keeping the Faith
By now I’m sure y’all know that USC and UCLA will be departing the Pacific 12 Conference for the Big Ten (aka B1G) in 2024. (Someone smarter than me started calling the Big Ten the BIG LIV, so I do now too.). Setting aside the move won’t happen for over two years, it has dominated discussions in social media, and The Athletic even has it as one of its featured sections along with NFL, MLB, etc. (It also is a story because the World Cup isn’t going on right now, as it should be, which I covered in a story earlier today)
To hear people talk about it, it’s the end of college football, and college sports, as we know it. “College Football is turning into NFL JR”. “It will be two conferences and everything else.” My favorite, “Basketball doesn’t matter and March Madness will die, or be strictly against the bluebloods.” And on and on and so forth. Last year, it was giving players NIL rights (in effect, the right to make money on their likeness), this year it’s this.
And it’s all premature all poppycock.
First. “No one is going to be able to win except a few teams.” As much as I hate “that’s the way it’s always been,” college football has always been top heavy. Teams like Michigan, Alabama, Notre Dame, USC….when they’re on, few are better. But guess what, they have down years. Until Nick Saban went to Alabama, that was a team that was largely in the wilderness, with a low coming when they hired Mike Price, who never coached a game because he was caught with a hooker in some low rent motel. (“It’s rolling, baby, it’s rolling?” His replacement? David Shula, who did nothing. USC has also had their difficulties, last year they were 4–8 and the athletic department was a mess. For a while Ohio State couldn’t get past Michigan; then, Michigan couldn’t get past Ohio State.
Meanwhile other teams emerged. Miami of Florida damn near shut the program down before Howard Schnellenberger saved it and won a National Title in 1983. Then Jimmy Johnson took it to yet another level, establishing it as a national power. Clemson was another team that was good, not great; but now they’re a national contender year in year out and have played for national titles. Virginia Tech, same thing.
Even a team like Kansas State — they were among the worst college teams in the country. Then Bill Snyder comes in and they become, if not a national power, an excellent team year after year. Oregon is another one — a long-time also ran in the Pac-10/12, Phil Knight puts money into the program, they get these crazy uniforms, and THEY are playing for national titles! Need more proof? Rutgers. A team that like Kansas State was completely irrelevant. Then when they hire Greg Schiano (the first time), they got as high as Number 3 and made college football a thing in the Northeast (which it isn’t). And there are other stories like that, and will be other stories like that. It’s lightning in a bottle, but with the right coach and the right support and the right players, anyone can rise up. Yes, the bluebloods will always have an inherent advantage, but it’s not like other teams can’t rise up.
“This will be the end of March Madness as we know it.” Doubtful. Yes, conference realignment is going to make things unwieldy. But most football schools are only so-so basketball schools (USC and Alabama, perfect example). Few schools have been championship level at both — Florida was once, Michigan and Ohio State have good basketball and football programs- but by and large it’s pick one or the other. Who are the best college basketball teams? Duke. North Carolina. Villanova. Kansas. Duke and UNC will not be competing for national football championships anytime soon. Kansas has been sorry for the last decade in football. Villanova is good; although they’re in FCS. That doesn’t even get into teams like Gonzaga, that don’t even HAVE football teams.
Plus, March Madness has a number of stakeholders. CBS and Turner, for one. For them it’s guaranteed ratings for March. It’s the one time of the year people know what TruTV is (Impractical Jokers aside). The NBA for another. Players can lift their brands and go from undrafted or unknown to lottery picks. Who knew Jamaal Suggs before he hit the game winner for Gonzaga against UCLA in 2021 and jumped on the scorer’s table? And it builds interest in basketball in general — the NBA playoffs start not long after March Madness ends. And the NBA typically will not schedule any games on the day of the final, letting the NCAA have its day.
Plus fans love it. They love the bracket unveiling. They watch the games. They LOVE the upsets — and how great was it when St. Peter’s — a 15 seed — made it to the Regional Final? And before that in 2013 Florida Gulf Coast — OMFG-CU-made the Sweet Sixteen, also as a 15 seed. There’s always a bunch of upsets in the first round — and often against bluebloods — and that creates interest. People love upsets.
And in March Madness, the bluebloods have the advantage but other times teams you wouldn’t expect sneak in. Wisconsin made the National Championship in 2013. Butler made the Championship Game two years in a row and damn near won one on a miracle half court shot. Stephon Curry in 2008 took Davidson, a mid-major from the Southern Conference, to a Regional Final and damn near beat eventual champion Kansas by himself. George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth both made the Final Four as 11 seeds out of mid-majors. UConn has won four national titles — as much as anyone except the legendary programs. March Madness is filled with great stories, great what might have been stories, and every once in a while the dog has its day.
Plus other than fantasy football nothing generates as much excitement as bracket pools. Someone once said the NCAA March Madness bracket was the best marketing in the history of sports wagering. Simple, easy to fill out. Most wagering is still in pools although more are online and through legal sports betting sites. And again, who wins? The ones that pick the upsets early on. And how many people get killed because their champion gets knocked out in the first or second round.
College basketball may not be driving realignment, but it doesn’t not matter. It’s called a “revenue sport” for a reason. Many conferences and athletic departments operate on a deficit, the money they get from March Madness can only help. And a March Madness that only involves power conferences just isn’t going to happen. Too many important TV markets would be lost, interest would be lost, and most of all it wouldn’t generate as much money as it does now. The contract already brings in a billion dollars a year, and as a blue chip annual sports property, this will only grow as time goes on.
In the end, it will be the new teams, the dark horses, that will keep college football fun, will keep it fresh. There is nothing that says Alabama and Georgia and the SEC will be dominant forever. They have strong teams, but they also have underachievers like Missouri and Mississippi State, and teams that will always be at a disadvantage, like Vanderbilt. Even more so with the new Big LIV: Indiana football is, by far, the worst Power Five revenue sport program, and it’s not close. And it’s hard to see teams like Rutgers and Maryland getting any traction in future years. Maybe a team like Minnesota (who hasn’t been to the Rose Bowl since 1961, which is longer than Indiana) might emerge. Maybe Purdue will have a run. And UCLA, for all they bring to the table, football wise they haven’t done much the past decade or so. Add to that logistical problems for the non-revenue sports — how is this going to affect UCLA’s and USC’s volleyball and baseball teams, both very good? How is this going to affect travel? Maybe it will drive football, but there’s still going to be a lot of matchups no one is going to care about. And the same for basketball, and the same for other sports.
One thing for sure: the Pac-12, as we know it, is dead. There are no teams that can fill the hole left by USC and UCLA. The names I’ve heard — San Diego State, New Mexico, UNLV, Boise State — no. Most likely, teams like Oregon and Washington leave, and the Pac 12 merges with the Big XII. But who knows.
Whatever. Change is certain. I don’t rue “the good old days” of college sports because back then it was pretty much was people think it is now: a few good teams and a lot of also-rans. It’s like anything else: good teams come and go, and there’s no guarantee that who is dominant today will be dominant tomorrow. Perhaps the way these teams are aligned will change, but the game — and what we love about it — will not.
By the way, non-revenue sports (tennis, baseball, gymnastics, volleyball, etc.) — will be fine. If nothing else they are loss leaders, they attract outstanding student athletes who wind up giving back to the universities they attend, in many, many ways.
Fear not change. Embrace it.