Breaking down the new Big Ten divisions; more mail
More Mailbag (cont.)
Well, congratulations are in order. We did it. Other than an initial mention of the names shortly after their December 2010 unveiling, I believe we've managed to keep the Big Ten's Arrogant and Idiotic division titles out of the Mailbag entirely. And now that the conference has finally come to its senses and is shelving those monikers, this will soon be a concern no more.
Kudos to Jim Delany, who, contrary to popular perception, does have a sense of humor. When asked about the name of the new College Football Playoff at the BCS meetings last week, the first thing Delany said was: "I'm not great with names, obviously."
As for the new East/West divisions that go into effect in 2014 ...
The Big Ten has decided to change its divisions and division names. Are the new divisions very evenly balanced?
-- Jon O, Palatka, Fla.
Stewart, which teams benefit the most from the Big Ten's division realignment? I would think Nebraska or Wisconsin, as the West division (on paper) appears to be an easier route to the conference championship game.
-- Josh B, Deltona, Fla.
Back when the conference first expanded, I was all for putting competitive balance ahead of every other factor in determining the division makeup. I don't think it's healthy to wind up with a situation similar to what the Big 12 had for most of the past decade, where the South was so consistently dominant over the North. However, there were a few things I didn't see coming. One was the conference placing Ohio State and Michigan in opposite divisions. That never should have happened. Also, the divisions were impossible for all but the diehard fans to keep straight (and the names didn't help matters), and the addition of Rutgers and Maryland has made splitting along an East/West line much more feasible. (Hey, we've finally discovered a football benefit to adding those two teams.)
The new divisions are certainly not balanced, currently or historically, but I'm OK with that. In an ideal world, you'd want things to play out the way they have in the SEC over time. There are years when the West is decidedly stronger than the East and vice versa, but circumstances never stay the same for long. If you look at the Big Ten's new lineups over five-year cycles (which is an inexact science since three of the schools played in other leagues), the disparity is fairly consistent, but not entirely alarming. From 2003-07, the East had a combined winning percentage of .592 and the West had a mark of .547. From 2008-12, the East checked in at .578, the West at .552. However, Wisconsin, from the West, has won the past three conference titles. And Nebraska, also from the West, reached last year's league title game.
Of course, many think that Ohio State and Michigan, under their current coaches, could soon exert the kind of one-sided dominance Oklahoma and Texas did in the Big 12 from 2000-09. If that's the case, the biggest winners to me are teams like Northwestern, Iowa and Minnesota that benefit simply from being in the opposite division. While those teams still have to compete with Nebraska and Wisconsin, they have a better chance of occasionally getting to Indianapolis than Indiana, Maryland and Rutgers. I have a feeling that trio could be perpetually stuck in fourth place or lower in the East.
Stewart, let's say the SEC continues to dominate college football. Does this hurt the overall product? Will fans of the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and every other conference keep their interest in a sport where they have next to no chance of winning a title? What happens if TV viewership declines everywhere but the in the South? Does the SEC need competition to maintain interest? Or just the illusion of competition?
-- Pete, Cincinnati
Those are good questions, and they center on an issue I'm curious to keep an eye on over the next couple of years. It's one thing for one conference to keep winning national titles. The regional smack talk, the assorted backlash -- that's all part of the sport. But as I wrote on Monday, looking at last weekend's draft numbers, we've reached a point where the SEC isn't just the best conference; one can now rationally argue it's playing at an entirely different level than everybody else. The discrepancy in NFL-caliber talent between the SEC and all other conferences this year was mind-boggling, and not even the staunchest SEC skeptic should even bother trying to spin it otherwise. Yes, we in the media get caught up in false hype from time to time. And no, the NFL evaluation process is hardly scientific. But when one conference is pumping out twice as many draft prospects as any other, it's almost like the SEC is in the big leagues and everyone else is in Triple-A.
That said, the national championship race will always be exciting, even more so with the coming four-team playoff. I don't think, say, an Oregon fan, would be less excited or confident about his 9-0 team just because a matchup with an SEC opponent possibly looms down the road. But does it become disillusioning over a longer period of time if the rest of the country feels like they're watching an inferior product? My hunch is maybe a few casual fans who aren't particularly wed to college football in the first place could be lost, but diehards are going to follow their teams no matter what. And a key part of being a fan involves hope. With their recent recruiting performances, Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke have given their fans hope that Ohio State and Michigan will soon be able to compete at the highest level again. The four-team playoff gives other teams hope that -- without the extra four weeks to prepare -- maybe Nick Saban can, in fact, be defeated in a championship game.
Ultimately, it's probably not healthy for one conference to tower over all the others for an extended period of time. But remember, that's one of the reasons we finally have a playoff. The LSU-Alabama rematch put some commissioners over the edge. Even if the SEC as a whole continues to produce superior talent, all it will take is the first non-SEC national championship for the rest of the country to feel like they're back on a level playing field.
Hi Stewart, a couple of College Football Playoff questions. First of all, when the Orange Bowl hosts a playoff, does the SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame team that would have qualified for it get placed into another bowl automatically, or does the auto-bid for that group disappear? Secondly, is the Cotton Bowl a "loser" in the bowl pairings given that it is guaranteed to end up with the Group of Five automatic qualifier in years three, six, nine and 12?
-- Matt M., Chicago
Those of us who covered the playoff meetings last week spent a good chunk of time grilling Bill Hancock about various scenarios just like these. And while the portion of the event surrounding the top four teams is pretty self-explanatory, the process for selecting the other BCS-type bowls could be so confusing as to make the old BCS system seem orderly. But one basic principle to keep in mind is that only the five conference champions with contract bowls -- ACC (Orange), Big Ten and Pac-12 (Rose) and Big 12 and SEC (Sugar) -- are guaranteed spots if they're not in the playoff and their contract bowl is hosting a semifinal. So in your first scenario above, no, that spot opposite the ACC in the Orange Bowl is not relevant in years the Orange hosts a playoff game. However, that doesn't mean the same SEC/Big Ten/Notre Dame team wouldn't qualify for an at-large spot if ranked highly enough by the committee.
The second point you bring up kind of flew under the radar last week. The Cotton Bowl is thrilled just to return to the elite tier of bowl games after a nearly two-decade absence, so officials there probably aren't looking to lodge any complaints. But yes, the way the rotation breaks, in year three of each cycle, the Fiesta and Chick-fil-A will host semifinals and the Rose, Sugar and Orange will have their regular matchups, leaving the Cotton as the only available landing spot for the Group of Five (American, Mountain West, C-USA, et al.) participant. Cotton Bowl organizers better hope SMU goes on a tear really soon.
How do I apply for the College Football Playoff selection committee? Who do I send my résumé to?
-- Richard Whitby, Birmingham, England
Send it to Bill Hancock and CC each of the FBS commissioners. Be sure to tout the fact you're a "football person," that you "conduct yourself with integrity," and that you're absolutely positively sure your phone number is not listed. Being out of the country is probably a plus for safety purposes.
I realize there's absolutely no chance of it happening, but wouldn't the CFP selection committee be better if it were comprised of those in the media who cover the game nationally and watch more of the sport than any athletic director or coach (active or retired) does? I would think a committee with you (SI), Ivan Maisel (ESPN), Pat Forde (Yahoo! -- though Dan Wetzel would be poetic), Dennis Dodd (CBSSports.com) and Matt Hayes (Sporting News), along with the more prominent guys who cover the sport regionally, would be tremendous. With the money coming in, I'm sure they could make it worth your while.
-- Raman, Elkins, W. Va.
First of all, if we were to throw reality out the window and pick the group of people most likely to be informed as to which are the four best teams in the country, without question, the committee should be made up of Vegas oddsmakers. These guys' livelihoods depend on an accurate assessment of the teams, and as any frequent gambler can tell you, they're right far more often than they're not. Beyond that, NFL scouting personnel presumably watch more tape of these teams than anybody, but I'm afraid if they picked the teams no spread-option quarterback would ever be allowed into the playoff.
After those two, yes, I do believe the media members you mentioned, as well as many others, would be best equipped for the job, especially if they were working hand in hand with some smart analytics guys. But that's never going to happen. I can't imagine a bigger conflict of interest than if those of us who cover the playoff were to pick the teams that play in it. Some might wonder how that's any different than sportswriters voting in the AP Poll; well, there's a reason the AP begged out of the BCS standings in 2004. The conflict became too significant when the sport moved from having a mythical champion to an official-but-not-universally-accepted title game. Now that it's a full-blown playoff, no reputable media outlet would let one of its reporters pick the teams. We have to write and comment about the people who do.
It's important that we name the selection committee now. The game is less than two years away. Sportswriters need as much time as possible to denounce the selection committee, the process and the teams and claim they could do a much better job.
-- Terry Shirrey, Sr., Nashville
Don't be silly. We can do that on 10 minutes' notice.
In regard to the whole Oregon mess, I disagree that the Ducks will get a bowl ban, but let's just say for the sake of argument that they will. When do you think it would go into effect? Would Oregon play in a bowl game after this season?
-- Rick, Southern Oregon
First of all, by no means do I think it's certain Oregon will get a bowl ban. Committee on Infractions decisions are impossible to predict. I do believe, however, that based on the violations, it's within the realm of possibility. To that end, significant and surprising news came out last week that Oregon has, in fact, already had its hearing. We had no idea the process had reached that point. The school apparently managed to keep that a secret by delaying and dodging the media's open records requests. As a result, the penalties will be known this summer, which means that if there is a bowl ban, it would be for this season. However, the school could appeal the decision, which would effectively drag out the process long enough to likely delay it until 2014.
BYU's defense was ranked third in the nation last year, trailing only Alabama and Notre Dame, but lost several important starters. The offense, to say the least, struggled and likely cost BYU several big wins. With Ziggy Ansah and other defensive starters gone, but with Kyle Van Noy opting to return, can the defense and revamped offense lead BYU to an outstanding year?
-- Taylor Action, West Jordan, Utah
I was a sucker last season for two teams, BYU and Michigan State, both of which had championship-caliber defenses but painfully anemic offenses. Remember that 7-6 Thursday night loss at Boise State last September? Consider yourself lucky if you don't. But I certainly think the Cougars can improve on last year's 8-5 performance. Van Noy -- who had one of the most dominant individual defensive performances I've ever seen in last year's Poinsettia Bowl -- should be a prime candidate for the Butkus Award. Losing a top-10 draft pick would normally be daunting, but Ansah wasn't even a major contributor for the first part of last season. The defense won't likely be a top-10 unit again, but it should still be very good.
The question is whether offensive coordinator Robert Anae -- back after a two-year exile -- can get more production out of that offense. Taysom Hill is the clear-cut starting quarterback now, and I was impressed with his athleticism last year from the get-go. Cody Hoffman is already being billed as one of the top receivers in next year's draft. The pieces are there. If the Cougars can get things going quickly, they've got a chance to make an early statement on Sept. 7 against Texas.
Last season, you mentioned that you took your first trip to Mizzou to cover a home Tigers' football game (Georgia/Mizzou). That begs the question: Which other venues that you've yet to cover a game at would you like to visit in the near future?
-- Dan Smith, San Diego
Believe it or not, I've never covered a game at Washington. I attended a practice at Husky Stadium in 2010 shortly before it closed, but I've never had the pleasure of attending a game on the lake. Hopefully that will change now that I'm on the West Coast, but it's going to take the Huskies becoming something more than a 7-5 team -- which is going to take the return of 2011 Keith Price and the permanent exile of 2012 Keith Price.
How hot is Randy Edsall's seat at Maryland? The Terps have had a rough couple of years, but they've had understandable excuses for being bad.
-- Dan, Washington D.C.
Edsall certainly had understandable excuses last year after the Terps went through a Spinal Tap-esque crisis of quarterback attrition. It's hard to hold a 4-8 record against a coach when he's starting a linebacker at quarterback by season's end. However, there's still no good explanation for why Maryland imploded from a nine-win team during Ralph Friedgen's final season to a dysfunctional two-win team during Edsall's first campaign in 2011.
Edsall is certainly on safer ground today than he was a year ago, particularly after a very young team showed noticeable strides before the string of quarterback injuries hit. Receiver Stefon Diggs is a bona fide star, and playmakers started to emerge at other positions. Hiring D.C. native Mike Locksley as offensive coordinator has helped boost recruiting. But there's no question this is a critical year for Edsall given Maryland's move to the Big Ten next season. If the Terps don't get to at least .500 in the coach's third season there will be serious doubts as to whether he's the right guy to take that program into a division with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.
Your continuing comments on realignment -- from the beginning through the ACC Grants of Rights column -- show how naïve you are. You write about a topic you seem to know little about.
-- Tom Dugan, Richmond
And yet it doesn't seem to stop people from continuing to ask about it.
With the new Grant of Rights accepted by the ACC schools, is there any way that Maryland reneges on their Big Ten move and stays with the ACC to make it 16 teams?
-- Jason, San Diego
No. But I might be naïve.