A few thoughts to jump start your Tuesday morning:
1. Phil Steele, whose preseason football magazine is a few hundred pages that combines information you can’t get anywhere else – not that you actually think about even a tenth of it – and what seems to be 50 pages of self-promotion, has picked the Florida Gators 13th nationally in his just-released top 25. A year ago he had the Gators 8th and they finished 6th. He had LSU 7th in the preseason and the Tigers ended up running the table and winning the national championship. He’s got LSU 6th this year. Georgia, which he picked 7th last year (Poodles finished 4th), is 7th for 2020. The top two teams from the SEC are Alabama 3rd and Texas A&M 5th. Personally, I’m not reading too much into this year’s preseason predictions largely because we’re likely to see a whole lot of shuffling when it comes to scheduling due to the covid-19 virus. No matter how the scheduling plays out, however, I remain convinced that Florida will end Georgia’s 3-year run at the top of the SEC East and that Dan Mullen has a team that is good enough to challenge whoever emerges from the SEC West for the league championship in Atlanta. I think Georgia’s season goes in the tank in what will probably be the Poodles opening game of the season in Tuscaloosa against Alabama. I also think the transfer into Georgia by former USC quarterback J.T. Daniels is only going to create controversy. Instead of one new QB (Jamie Newman) who didn’t get a spring practice under a brand new offensive coordinator you now have two. Newman didn’t transfer to Georgia to be a backup. Neither did Daniels. I wonder what Carson Beck is thinking about now?
2. Although the Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten have gone on record for a 9-game, conference-only schedule, I expect there will be compromise. The Big 12 is already on the path to a plus-1 format that will allow some intersectional games. I think it’s only a matter of time before the Big Ten and Pac-12 choose to ditch their conference-only, 9-game schedule to go with a plus-1 also. The SEC and ACC, seem likely to go with a plus-2. When it comes to coming up with a schedule that works for the Power 5, I believe the two most powerful voices will be SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who not only speaks for the conference but all of the Power 5, and the TV networks. Sankey will insist on everybody playing the same number of games and it’s going to take a 10-game schedule to accommodate Notre Dame plus preserve some important rivalry games like Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Clemson-South Carolina. The networks will insist on some inter-conference matchups as well such as Texas (Big 12)-LSU, Notre Dame-Southern Cal and Ohio State-Oregon. The combination of Sankey and the networks will be putting the squeeze on the Big Ten and Pac-12 to compromise and add one non-conference game. If they cave, which I think they will do, it will be because money talks. Especially this year.
3. It is probably in the best interests of the Group of 5 schools to switch their schedule to the spring and that, also, has everything to do with television revenues and exposure. With the Power 5 conferences playing in the fall, there will be no head-to-head competition with the big boys. The Group of 5 can get exposure they’ve only dreamed of by getting the 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. time slots for key games that go to the Power 5 conferences in the fall. While they might lose some paycheck games against Power 5 schools, they might come out far ahead if their conferences are able to negotiate the kind of deals with the networks they’ve never had a chance at before. After the beating the networks have taken these last few months, they will be more than ready to fill up their weekend schedules in March, April and May with college football. If there is a Group of 5 playoff, that will be another money maker that won’t exist in the fall.
4. If the Power 5 conferences don’t play football in the fall, we could see a number of programs forced into bankruptcy. What happens with the Group of 5 remains to be seen but D1AA, DII and DIII all seem to be trending toward football in the spring but spring football is an absolute last resort in the Power 5 leagues. Football in the fall will provide immediate revenue streams to programs in financial freefall and too much money stands to be lost if they are forced to wait until the spring. And, this is even with the prospect of no fans in the stands. Losing game-day revenues would be a financial hit, but they can survive an empty or severely limited stadium. In what might be a best case scenario, Texas, for instance, is already planning to play with 50 percent of the seats occupied. If Texas is doing it, bet the farm nearly everyone else has that in contingency, too. What they can’t afford is to go another few months without some television revenue to grease the skids. Illinois, for example, which has a mere $323 million-plus of athletic department debt, needs every fan it can cram into Memorial Stadium but given the choice between fans in the stands and no TV revenue or TV revenue with no fans in the stands, Iowa would do the prudent thing and choose TV money. It’s that way throughout the Power 5, even in the financial bottom feeder leagues like the Pac-12 and ACC. If the Power 5 conferences have to go with a made-for-TV schedule with no fans in the stands, they’ll say yes and won’t even blink. One other thing: It’s a whole lot easier to test 250 or so players, coaches, managers, training staff, broadcasters and technical help plus a few sports writers than it is to test 25-50,000 fans. The TV money will ease the pain. If there is TV money, there will be football and you can bet the ranch TV is desperate for college football to be played this fall.
5. Back in the 1980s, Dick DeVenzio, a former Duke point guard who played for Vic Bubas and Bucky Waters and never blossomed into the star he was predicted to be when he came out of Ambridge, PA, tried to organize college athletes to unionize against their oppressive masters. It failed, just as Ed O’Bannon’s attempt to unionize college sports six years ago fizzled. Now, we have athletes from the Pac-12 threatening to sit out the season if their list of demands aren’t met. Tops among them, a 50-50 split of revenues and better insurance after their playing days are over. I could see the league caving on insurance – I think that long term insurance past playing days should be mandatory – but there is no way there will be a 50-50 revenue split, particularly when football has to pay the freight for just about every sport on campus. Most schools in Division I don’t make a profit. Throw in also the idea that a revenue split would make college athletes nothing more than paid professionals. Why not, if that’s the case, have the Chico’s Bail Bonds Tennessee Vols or The Cheetah Lounge Georgia Poodles? When a school like Stanford which is endowed up the wazzoo with billions, is cutting sports because of the combination of the covid-19 virus, uncertainty about the future and revenue shortfalls because the Pac-12 revenue sharing is woeful compared to the Big Ten and SEC, you can bet the league’s higher-ups are going to look the players square in the eye and say, “Nice try but no thankee.” Whoever is advising the Pac-12 players is an idiot.
6. Consider me one who questions this notion that college athletes are exploited. Could there be some concessions that could make things better? Of course there could and there are numerous issues that need to be addressed, but consider what a full scholarship athlete gets at a school like the University of Florida: (1) Not counting summer school, room, board, tuition, books and fees for the fall and spring semesters runs about $40,000; (2) most athletes qualify for a full Pell Grant which is more than $6,100; (3) thousands of dollars of shoes and clothing; (4) cost of attendance checks for expenditures that go beyond the basics that run somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000 (or more); (5) computers, iPads and the like; (6) free tutoring; and (7) free medical care. Let’s go conservative here and figure it’s all worth somewhere plus-or-minus a few thousand dollars perhaps $60-65,000. Stick it out four or five years and the benefits are somewhere around $250,000, plus – if the athlete graduates – a degree from a world-renowned university and no student loan debt. That’s a pretty decent start in life if you ask me.
PARTING SHOT: In an era when it’s hard to find many good sports writers who can string together two or three coherent sentences, Jason Whitlock of Outkick the Coverage has become must read for me. He’s not afraid to stand up for what he thinks is right even if the stance he takes goes against the politically correct grain. He appreciates how sports have provided thousands up thousands of kids from deprived backgrounds with an opportunity at an education and a better life and he sees how sports have helped bridge racial divides as well as giving gifted athletes an opportunity to become multi-millionaires. In a recent column in which he torched Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, Whitlock penned this: “I am a passionate defender of sports culture and football. Their ability to close the racial divide is, in my opinion, only surpassed by an authentic religious faith.” Let that sink in.