Prepare for return to parity after Year of Predictability; more mail
Competitive leagues, departure of QBs means 2010 won't be as top-heavy as '09
If agent probes lead to loss of eligibility, it'll serve as a major deterrent for players
USC is distancing itself from the Bush years, but it's too little, too late for NCAA
Longtime Mailbag readers know well the select group of buzzwords I tend to frequently recycle when discussing college football -- words like "cyclical," "spread-option" and "Jordana." (That last one's in honor of My Boys returning.) And of course, there's this oldie but goodie:
A couple of years ago, you couldn't go anywhere without seeing the word "parity." But I barely remember that word being used last season. Indeed, the only real parity we saw was from the Pac-10, with USC falling. All things considered, do you expect the "Age of Parity" to have a resurgent year? Or will it be a pretty clear Top 25 by the time December rolls around?
-- Vince, Washington D.C.
Indeed, if 2007 was The Year of Parity (from Appalachian State-Michigan right up through a two-loss national champion), 2009 was The Year of the Predictability. Before the season even started, most prognosticators -- including this one -- predicted a Florida-Texas collision course, and everything but the SEC Championship Game score played out pretty much as if scripted. The hierarchy was so clear-cut that by late November, we had six undefeated teams (Florida, Alabama, Texas, Boise State, TCU and Cincinnati) ... and a bunch of two- and three-loss teams. Even the seemingly wide-open Pac-10 race ended with Oregon finishing two games ahead of everyone else in the standings.
But I don't see 2010 being nearly as top-heavy, for several reasons. For one, the defending national champion, Alabama, doesn't look quite as loaded as Florida or Texas did heading into last season. The Crimson Tide should still be very good, but they've got enough kinks to leave them susceptible to an upset or two. Remember, last season marked the first time in four years that the national championship game featured two undefeated teams. My guess is this year will see a return to the recent trend of one-loss participants.
Secondly, we've had a massive changing of the guard at the quarterback position, with recent staples Tim Tebow, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford all gone. Whenever some of the top dogs are facing uncertainty at quarterback, there's the chance for accompanying upheaval. USC found that out last season when it started a freshman quarterback for the first time under Pete Carroll (though offense was hardly the Trojans' only problem).
But mostly, I think we're going to see a lot more competitive conference races. When I look at Ohio State, I see a team, on paper, that's talented and experienced across the board and an obvious national-title contender. But the Buckeyes will also be facing at least two other very good teams (Wisconsin and Iowa) on the road during conference play. They may still win the Big Ten, but I don't see them running away with it.
In the ACC, I've seen three different teams -- Virginia Tech, Miami and North Carolina -- picked to win the Coastal Division, and that list does not even include the defending champ, Georgia Tech. (Never underestimate Paul Johnson's teams.) In the SEC East, there's a sense that Florida is vulnerable, but so, too, is everyone else in that division. And the Pac-10 is so deep and even, in my opinion, that any of nine teams (sorry, Wazzu) could beat any of the others on a given week.
Finally, it's worth noting that just because last season wasn't littered with upsets doesn't mean the overriding trend of parity in the sport has dissipated. The pool of competitive programs around the country is deeper than ever, with last year's TCU-Boise State Fiesta Bowl serving as a pretty telling illustration. Not a soul would have dreamed that scenario possible a decade earlier. Meanwhile, before they went on to win 11 games and an Orange Bowl, the Hawkeyes needed two blocked field goals to survive I-AA Northern Iowa in their opener. Houston beat two respectable Big 12 foes. Longtime doormat Temple won nine games last year. Duke even won three ACC games.
But it's also true that the sport's richest powers -- Florida, Texas, Alabama, Ohio State, etc. -- will always have an inherent advantage over the rest of the country, so long as the right coach is in place. Alabama, so dominant for decades under Bear Bryant, was on the wrong end of parity for most of the 15 years prior to Nick Saban's arrival. Now it's one of the teams perennially capable of squashing it.
Stewart, with all of these agents going around giving money to college athletes, couldn't the NFL, NBA, etc. put some enforcement on these agents and de-certify them or otherwise punish them? I understand the NCAA has little influence over the agents, but certainly if an agent is going to be suspended by one of the professional leagues, he'd think twice about paying these college athletes.
-- Bob, New Philadelphia, Ohio
What incentive does the early NFL draft-bound student athlete like Reggie Bush, Maurkice Pouncey, etc. have to comply with NCAA regulations? Other than caring about his own reputation, school pride or guilt, what is the downside of accepting money and gifts from agents? Do these guys really have anything to lose?
-- Sharon, Boston
One of the big frustrations for colleges, the NCAA and the many rule-abiding agents out there is the fact that the pro leagues show so little interest in investigating and/or punishing agents as pertains to the recruitment of college players. Unfortunately, in both the NFL and NBA, that responsibility rests in the hands of the leagues' respective Players Associations, which are obviously far more concerned about the welfare of their current constituents than about potential future pros. Therefore, the onus falls largely on the NCAA and individual schools to monitor a sordid and tangled world of individuals who largely fall outside their realm.
As for Sharon's question: The truth is, there isn't much incentive for players to follow the rules -- if they're confident they won't be caught. That's why these current investigations at North Carolina, South Carolina, et. al., are so intriguing. If it turns out the NCAA actually caught one or more star players in the act while still in college, and if it ends up costing those players a season of football -- it'll serve as a pretty significant deterrent. A cash-strapped athlete who's suddenly tempted with money, cars or plane trips to exotic locales probably isn't giving much thought to "guilt" or "school pride," but he sure as heck wouldn't want to miss out on playing the sport he loves. So far, however, players have been given little reason to believe such consequences are a real possibility.