A few thoughts to jump start your Thursday morning:
NATIONAL TITLE GAME RATINGS TANKED … EXPANSION IS SOLUTION
Following the first NCAA basketball championship in University of Florida history in April of 2006, Billy Donovan remarked, “I’m not sure we were the best team for the whole season but we were the best team for three weekends.” The 2006 team certainly wasn’t the best in the country for an entire season but for six straight games, the Gators beat every team in their path including a UCLA team that was favored in the final for the title. A year later, when the Gators became one of the few repeat winners in college basketball history and the first since Duke in 1990-91, Donovan had the best team from day one until they played “One Shining Moment.”
When the 2006 tournament began, all eyes were on No.1 seeds Duke, Memphis, UConn and Villanova and the 2005 national champ North Carolina. Nobody was paying much attention to the likes of Florida (No. 3 seed in the Minneapolis Regional), LSU (No. 4 in Atlanta) or George Mason (No. 11 in Washington, DC). Yet, Florida poleaxed Villanova to earn its spot in the Final Four, LSU put the whammy on Duke and 2nd seed Texas, and George Mason beat North Carolina and UConn. UCLA beat Memphis in one of the ugliest NCAA Tournament games in history to make it to Indianapolis as the highest seeded team.
The 2007 Final Four saw two No. 1 seeds (Florida and Ohio State) and a pair of No. 2s in UCLA and Georgetown. Florida beat Georgetown in the semifinals and Ohio State to win the championship.
In both 2006 and 2007 the Gators went 6-0 when it counted. One year they were a legitimate Cinderella story in which Joakim Noah’s personality sucked the air out of every arena. The next year the Gators went 6-0 again, methodically knocking off every team in their path.
Florida’s two national championship basketball teams are the perfect example of why the College Football Playoff has to expand, the sooner the better. What makes the NCAA Tournament so compelling is the chance the clock will strike midnight and the team we least expect turns out to be the belle of the ball. In most years the Final Four is loaded up with teams who have been on every championship radar since the season began, but we get those years like 2011 and 2012 when Butler made it to the championship game only to lose to basketball bluebloods Duke (2010) and UConn (2011). How many of you remember holding your breath and praying that Gordon Hayward’s 40-footer at the buzzer would go in to keep Coach K from winning another title?
There are no Cinderellas in college football, which is one of the reasons Monday night’s Alabama-Ohio State game drew below average ratings. Some are saying that it’s Alabama overload while others are saying it’s the same old, same old with the College Football Playoff, that it has become an invitational tournament for four blueblood powerhouses. Year after year, it’s the exact same teams who make the Final Four. In the seven years of the playoff, Alabama and Clemson have made the Final Four six times. Ohio State and Oklahoma have made it four times each with Notre Dame getting in twice.
The SEC has had eight teams make it with Georgia (2017) and LSU (2019) as party crashers. Florida State made it in 2014 so the ACC has been represented all seven years. Michigan State (2016) is the only Big Ten team other than Ohio State to get in. No Big 12 team except Oklahoma has made it. The Pac-12 has had two get in (Oregon 2014, Washington 2017).
At the convention of the American Football Coaches Association Tuesday, there was what is being described as overwhelming support to expand the playoff. ESPN has to know that if it stays with its current four-team format that ratings will continue to decline but with another five years remaining on the original 12-year contract, the network doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to make adjustments. Some suggest a walk before you run proposal that would see the playoff expand to six teams before eventually moving to eight. The Pac-12 would support that plan if it guaranteed all of the Power Five conferences get their champions in but with one spot held out either for a wild card or Notre Dame. Six teams would still make it next to impossible for Group of Five teams to have a chance to play for a national championship.
An 8-team playoff could possibly guarantee that at least one Group of Five team gets in. A 16-team playoff could allow for all 10 Division I conferences to get their champion in with six wild card spots available. Some say that kind of expansion would guarantee more blowouts than the two we routinely have in the 4-team format but think basketball for a moment. Wasn’t it just 2018 when 16th-seeded UMBC not only sprung the upset on No. 1 seed Virginia, but blew the doors off the Cavaliers in the process? Now think football and back to September of the 2020 season when Louisiana of the Sun Belt clobbered Iowa State, which played for the Big 12 championship and finished 9th in the final Associated Press Poll. Back in 2017, UCF completed an unbeaten season by whipping Auburn in the Peach Bowl … the same Auburn team that beat Georgia and Alabama when both were ranked No. 1 in the country.
One sticking point to expansion will be adding another game to the current 12-game schedule. When you throw in the conference championship games, a champion in an 8-game tournament would be playing 16 games. In a 16-game tournament, there would be 17 and no one is going to agree to that. The conferences are not going to give up their lucrative championship games so the answer is to scale back the regular season.
On the surface, the easiest solution would be to eliminate all games with D1AA teams. In 2021, for example, every SEC team plays at least one D1AA opponent. Athletic directors say the cupcake game helps them balance the budget. Coaches claim that game allows them to play the kids who might not otherwise see the field except in mop-up duty.
Fans hate the games. Honest network people would tell you that these games kill their advertising revenue. D1AA teams are willing to take a beating for a paycheck that will help them balance their budgets so eliminating these games would result in programs being dropped and kids losing out on scholarship opportunities.
I’ve always advocated moving the games with D1AA teams to the spring. I think fans would prefer to see a game in which real football is played rather than the glorified scrimmages that spring games have become. There will be opposition to that from coaches who say that a real game might result in injuries as well as from those who thought college football got along just fine without spring football in 2020.
So here are my thoughts: 1. Tell ESPN to either tear up the current contract or else the playoffs will be broadcast by CBS, Fox, NBC or some live streaming service as soon as the contract is up.
2. Expand to eight teams no later than 2022 and to 16 teams no later than 2025. The sooner there is expansion, the fewer players will opt out rather than play in bowl games. Either make the bowls part of the process or eliminate them altogether.
3. Reduce the regular season to 11 games. The 11-game schedule worked just fine for more than 30 years. It will work fine again.
4. Allow a game with a D1AA team in the spring, one that won’t count against the standings for either team. For a Division I team with championship aspirations the D1AA game won’t count against strength of schedule. For the D1AA team, they won’t risk getting massacred and losing players to injury against the Division I team during the regular season. It’s win-win.
If ESPN and the people who are in charge of the College Football Playoff can’t accommodate expansion rather quickly, we’re going to see the game go into a downward spiral that it may not recover from. If you don’t believe that’s possible, then look at what is going on with the NFL, once the bell cow for all sports programming. The NFL ratings have been nosediving for five years and the end is not in sight. It’s only a matter of time that the college game starts a decline from which it can’t halt.
The NCAA Basketball Tournament rivets the entire country to television sets for those three big weekends starting in March every year. In my lifetime, I’ve seen the tournament expand from 24 teams to 32, then 40, then 48. Now it’s at 64 with play-in games that allow a few bottom feeders earn a chance to become Cinderella. Expansion has been good for the game and even though fans understand that it’s more than likely the same bluebloods will wind up in the Final Four every year, it’s the chance for upsets in the early going and the possibility of a Cinderella actually winning that keeps interest high.
College football desperately needs to take a long look at what makes basketball successful and adapt unless it wants to go in the tank.
SEC Wednesday Night Scores LSU (9-2, 4-1 SEC) 92, Arkansas (10-3, 2-3 SEC) 76 Auburn (7-5, 1-4 SEC) 95, Georgia (7-4, 0-4 SEC) 77 Texas A&M (7-4, 2-3 SEC) 56, Mississippi State (8-5, 3-2 SEC) 55
SEC Saturday Games FLORIDA (6-3, 3-2 SEC) at Mississippi State (8-5, 3-2 SEC) Kentucky (4-7, 3-1 SEC) at Auburn (7-6, 1-4 SEC) Arkansas (10-3, 2-3 SEC) at Alabama (10-3, 5-0 SEC) Georgia (7-4, 0-4 SEC) at Ole Miss (6-5, 1-3 SEC) #17 Missouri (7-2, 1-2 SEC) at Texas A&M (7-4, 2-3 SEC) Vanderbilt (4-5, 0-3 SEC) at #10 Tennessee (9-1, 3-1 SEC) South Carolina (3-2, 1-1 SEC) at LSU (9-2, 4-1 SEC)
OVER, UNDER, AROUND AND THROUGH THE SEC ALABAMA: It’s not yet a done deal, but it would take an upset of monumental proportions for anyone but former Penn State and Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien to be Nick Saban’s next offensive coordinator … O-line coach Kyle Flood is leaving the Bama staff to work with Steve Sarkisian at Texas.
ARKANSAS: Defensive back Myles Mason is transferring to Louisiana Tech.
AUBURN: Linebacker T.D. Moultry will be returning in 2021. He had nine tackles and a sack in 2020.
GEORGIA: Running back Zamir White, who had 779 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2020, is returning in 2021.
KENTUCKY: Chris Rodriguez, who led the Wildcats with 785 yards and 11 touchdowns is returning. He averaged 6.6 per carry in 2020.
LSU: Running back Chris Curry has transferred to Utah. He gained 336 yards in three seasons at LSU.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: Brandon Ruiz, who was 10-12 on field goals in 2020, is returning for 2021.
MISSOURI: Marcel Yates, the Cal DB coach who worked with HBC Eli Drinkwitz when the two were coordinators at Boise State, seems to have the inside track to become the defensive coordinator at Missouri.
SOUTH CAROLINA: Jordan Strachan, who tied for the nation’s lead in sacks with 10.5, is transferring from Georgia State to South Carolina.
TENNESSEE: Starting left tackle Wanya Morris, a former 5-star recruit, put his name in the transfer portal.
VANDERBILT: Inoke Brecketerfield is leaving Wisconsin after six seasons to join Clark Lea’s staff as the D-line coach ... Aaron Henry, who coached the corners at Vandy last year, is joining Bret Bielema’s Illinois staff.
ONE LAST PITHY THOUGHT: Alabama just won its sixth national championship since 2009, largely because a bunch of seniors who could have been playing for yankee dollars on Sundays elected to stay in Tuscaloosa for one more year. Do you think for even a second Devonta Smith regrets coming back for his senior season? He’s got a college degree, a second national championship ring, a Heisman Trophy and has gone from a second rounder last year to a surefire top five pick in April. I’m of the opinion every one of those Alabama kids who came back benefitted from their decisions. I’m hoping more kids at more schools elect to return for one more season in the future. I can dream, can’t I?