All posts by markfried

Home Sweet Neutral Site?

Opening week of the 2016 season was dubbed to be the best in the history of the sport. It delivered in a way that made the long offseason worth it. Upsets, overtimes, drama.

But, the made-for-TV, neutral site settings must go. They are a blemish on the sport that rob the die-hards from the best of what college football has to offer. While the games in question matched up good programs, the fact they played in an NFL stadium made them less than what they could’ve been.

College football Saturdays produce a mental image of campus, collegiate landmarks, alums coming home and the stadiums, those stadiums. Not the whitewashed, corporate arena that just so happens to host a football game on that particular day.

With the quality of teams on the slate, the probability of good contests was a virtual guarantee. Houston’s convincing upset over Oklahoma, Wisconsin’s slobberknocking win over LSU, Georgia’s rally to top North Carolina, all were competitive games in NFL environments.

Those contests were indeed entertaining, but they didn’t come close to providing the atmosphere that we witnessed during Auburn’s 4th-quarter flurry. Texas A&M and 100,000 strong Aggies welcomed in the new season by downing UCLA in a raucous Kyle Field den. And, was there a more energetic environment than in Austin as Texas knocked off Notre Dame in overtime? All three games were on campus, in front of the student body and die-hards, in those storied stadiums. That’s what we think of when we envision the sport.

With that said, there is a distinct difference between the ones we just watched last weekend and the traditional neutral site games like Florida-Georgia and Army-Navy. When an annual matchup has been played at a neutral site for decades, that’s not a neutral site game. That’s just where the game is played. Ole Miss-Florida State in Orlando is not the same as Oklahoma-Texas in the Cotton Bowl.

All About the Benjamins

Look, I’m not naive. I understand why the bean-counting bureaucrats choose to allow the networks to play the role of love broker. The administrators want to hoard as much money as possible and this approach allows them to do so without having to work at it. In essence, they look to their TV partners as an escort service – no effort to get the desired results.

Just call a TV executive and tell them you want to make some money and you’re willing to play anyone, as long as it’s a one-night stand. The exec then sets out to find an NFL stadium owner who wants to make some dough (hint: all of them). They agree on a catchy game title and then collaborate to lure a corporate sponsor to put their logo on it. Time to leave the money on the nightstand.

Here’s where things get contorted, though. During the constant athletics arms race, it’s difficult to find a school that hasn’t unveiled its pricey facilities upgrades. They are pouring millions of dollars into stadium improvements so fans will want to continue to attend campus home games.

As they expand seating capacity and add video screens the size of a city block, they fill their home non-conference schedules with teams I wouldn’t watch for free even if they played in my front yard. This philosophy reveals their devotion to revenue above all.

What about the customers – the fans?

There’s not a single fan who would attend or watch a game played in a sterile NFL stadium over a showdown on campus. The fan interest generates the existence for this entire spectacle and there is never a single decision made with them in mind. The bureaucrats only think about what they can milk them for.

There’s not an Alabama fan on the planet who wouldn’t have preferred for the Tide to take on USC in Bryant-Denny or the L.A. Coliseum. LSU and Wisconsin fans would rather have played their two-game series in Death Valley and Camp Randall. Georgia fans taking over Chapel Hill? How about a return game of the Heels going between the hedges?

Non-conference matchups provide schools the opportunity to showcase the university and the college town to a national TV audience. Neutral site games are primarily a chance to promote tourism to a big city.

The ones who make the biggest sacrifice are the tens of thousands of devoted fans who aren’t given the thank you of watching a big name opponent in their own stadium – or travel to a unique opposing school’s campus setting.

The Biggest Obstacle

At the heart of this issue is fear. Coaches act like rugged survivalists and are molders of men, but when it comes to scheduling, they are cowards.

For all of their postings of memorable mottos about adversity and perseverance, most coaches instruct their ADs to go out of their way to take the path of least resistance. They schedule as many cupcakes as possible because they’re afraid to face tougher competition and possibly lose. Then, when they do play a worthy opponent, they opt to limit the risk by playing at a neutral site.

Let’s look at Nick Saban, for example. He gets credit for playing Power Five opponents and everyone cheers him and Bama for their willingness to play those games. However, it’s empty praise. He’s only willing to play a Power Five regular season game if it’s a one-time thing at a neutral site. And, it’s always opening weekend, so he has 8 months to prepare his team. That’s a lot of “only ifs” for a guy who touts “the process” and a fan base that proclaims to be the standard.

If coaches demand to their athletic directors that they want to play a home-and-home series with a Power Five team, the ADs will absolutely make it happen. It would be good for the sport if Saban would man up and take that stance.

A Potential Solution

Coaches’ contracts are filled with incentives. Why not take this approach: Incentivize TV deals and/or coaches’ contracts based on the quality of the opponent and the location in which they play.

Schedule a Power 5 non-conference game – get paid. Play it in a campus setting – up the incentive. Make it a home-and-home – max the payout.

The Worst Is Yet to Come

The matchups that the neutral sites produce are better than the alternative of the cupcake non-conference slates that fans are forcefed. So, even though there is a better option for where most of the Week 1 spotlight games were played, at least they’re actually being played.

For as much as I dislike the NFL stadium setting, it’s far better than the stupidity of playing in a NASCAR venue. This week’s Tennessee-Virginia Tech game at Bristol Motor Speedway is even dumber than the games that are played overseas. More isn’t always better. Sometimes more is just more, which is what we’ll have on Saturday.

Labor Day Weekend was all that we envisioned. Competitive matchups between ranked opponents and traditional programs is how it should be. But, because the love of money is at the root, the bureaucrats will continue to give us the table scraps of what should be a gourmet meal.

E-mail Mark at mark[dot]fried[at]campuspressbox[dot]com or follow him on Twitter at @MarkCFried.

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Photo: thatlostdog–/Flickr.

 

Playoff Selection Process Starts Labor Day Weekend

This year’s Week 1 provides the single greatest opening week of games in the history of the sport. From showdowns like USC-Alabama and Florida State-Ole Miss to the glorified scrimmages between Michigan State-Furman and SE Louisiana-Oklahoma State, it is best to follow our advice: “don’t lose.” 

Because of the quality of the slate of games, it highlights the most flavorful aspect of this grand ol’ game. The regular season is a time for men, not for the faint of heart.

Am I overstating? No. It’s the only sport on the planet where what you do in Week 1 is important in determining who qualifies for the championship round. This has been true since the inception of the BCS and the intensity has been ratcheted up with the College Football Playoff.

Here’s the deal. The playoff committee’s job starts Labor Day weekend. For the perceived contenders with expectations of the CFP, they’d better bring it right away. To the teams starting the season with modest expectations but want to shock the world? Their road to Tampa kicks off in Week 1. There is little room for error in college football and that is a great thing.

If Oklahoma falls to Houston on Sept. 3, they’re on the brink. Can’t lose again. If Houston wants consideration for a playoff spot, the Coogs must beat OU and Louisville and everyone else on their slate.

If Wisconsin beats LSU at Lambeau Field, the expectations and possibilities open up. If Tennessee wants this to be a special season, it can’t lose to Appalachian State.

We may disagree on many points. For instance, I believe that college football produces the best regular season of any organized sport in the world. I also believe that staying at four teams is critical for the sport’s long-term, year-round health.

The people that disagree with me on those issues have a right to their opinion, even if they’re wrong. Those folks are the guy who attends the Rose Parade but spends his whole time checking Twitter so people at home can tell him how beautiful it is. They’d see it, too, if they’d just bother to look up.

The nature of the sport is very clear. If a team plays a good schedule from top to bottom and wins them all, they’ll be there. If they lose one, they’re taking their chances. Lose two and the stars will need to align. And, if you go out of your way to take the path of least resistance to earn a spot in the playoff, do it at your own risk (we’re all looking at you, Baylor 2014).

Most fans will enjoy the games this weekend because football is back. But, it’s more than that, much more. Stuff gets real this week, people.

For college football to be enjoyed to its fullest, it’s a must to recognize the significance of each week. Because what happens Labor Day Weekend will impact who the selection committee chooses in December.

Sooners Must Find Escape Hatch

In the almost four decades of me being a college sports fan, nothing compares to the stupidity and chaos of conference realignment. And, while the musical chairs exercise from six years ago has mostly died down, the Big 12 continues to keep the music going for indefensible reasons.

I write this as a born and bred Sooner raised just a short drive from Norman, Oklahoma. My childhood shaped my worldview that the University of Oklahoma and its football program are, without question, college football royalty. Regardless of this indisputable fact, OU’s membership in the Big 12 can’t come to an end fast enough.

Someone, please make this nightmare stop because the administrators leading this absurd parade are sucking the ever-loving joy out of my passion for college football. So, you want a solution?

Let’s take a look at the options OU is facing in the Big 12-4+2=10.

Option 1: For the love of Bud Wilkinson, EJECT!

The least likely – but most coveted – scenario is the one where OU leaves for either the SEC or Big Ten as soon as possible. Staying here is a losing situation and, frankly, OU’s resume and those conferences’ histories make the prospect worthy of marriage. Simply put, the Sooners would fit nicely with either conference and add competitive value.

The question has been posed to me: “what value does OU bring to either of those conferences?

Simple. They’re winners. A history of national hardware rivaled by only a handful of other schools in the country. In this century, the Sooners have won a national title, played for three more and were in the College Football Playoff last year. This is a program that has played top-tier opponents and beat them. In last six years alone, OU swept two-game series with Florida State and Tennessee and split with Notre Dame.

What about the other sports?

OU competes at the elite level in sports throughout the athletic department. But, realignment is about football. Everything else is superfluous, so I’m not going to run down the rather impressive list of accomplishments in hoops and the Olympic sports.

Would OU offer TV sets and revenue opportunity?

Let me say this clearly. WHO CARES? At some point, college administrators were able to convince fans that the possibility of a more lucrative TV contract was important…to the fans. The bean counters were able to get fans to buy into the idea that “expanding a conference’s digital footprint” was logic enough for adding a team to a league’s roster.

I am an OU fan. I want to watch the Sooners play in a league that is fun and worthy. How much money OU makes from a conference TV contract couldn’t mean any more to me than the premier date of the next Bridget Jones movie. OU needs to be connected to those who view college football with the same level of intensity.

SEC fan bases would be kindred spirits to those who don the crimson and cream. Fans down South are passionate. They’re committed. They’re irrational. They have it all! OU would be a cultural fit and would bring a football tradition that would be second only to Alabama. An SEC West slate that included home games against LSU, Ole Miss, Auburn and Arkansas, offset by road trips to Tuscaloosa, College Station and Starkville? Sounds like Heaven.

The Big Ten would also be an incredible step up and would also surround OU with schools whose fans care about football year round. While being in a league with Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State would make my heart skip a beat, the thought of renewing the Nebraska rivalry makes me want to drive across town and pop open a Pearl Beer on Barry Switzer’s patio.

Option 2: Dilution by Expansion

Currently, at least 20 mid-major schools have sent candygrams and gift cards to the Big 12, hoping to win their hearts, affection and an invite. A list that includes Houston, BYU, New Mexico, Arkansas State and Tulane make up the cast for the worst season of The Bachelor ever.

This whole laughable display is the equivalent of your buddy telling you that he can set you up with a prom date. Your immediate question is, “is she hot?” and his reflex response is “dude, she really rocked last week’s biology quiz and I hear she’s a good dancer.”

Adding some mid-level programs to an already porous conference membership would be the most Big 12 thing ever. As a lifelong Sooner, nothing sounds more ridiculous than being in a conference with Central Florida or Cincinnati.

So, if OU isn’t going to leave immediately, then the next best thing is for the Big 12 to stand pat at 10 teams and then seek another destination when the current TV agreement ends in 2025.

Option 3: The Pipe Dream

There are scenarios that have been suggested where the Tiny 10 steals a notable from a Power 5 conference. While it would be absolutely fantastic for Nebraska to come back to the conference and join Florida State as Teams 11 and 12, that is not a realistic view of the world.

Any Power 5 school that would want to jump into this dumpster fire would be out of their minds. The Big 12 is a constant, dysfunctional, open-air catfight and the people in charge show no desire to operate with respect or self-awareness.

I have yet to meet anyone who wants this university to stay here for one more second, much less wait until the broadcast grant of rights agreement runs out in a decade. As someone with a front row seat to this horror show, it’s not a place that any other Power 5 school wants to be a part of.

How did we get here?

Six years ago, OU had an invitation to join the SEC in tandem with Texas A&M. But, the university leadership turned it down because they only would go somewhere if an invite included Oklahoma State. Turning down the SEC – especially with the OSU attachment stipulation – was an insane decision then and it has proven to be even dumber now.

The University of Oklahoma brings significant value to the reputation of any conference. From historical success to being a current elite, OU football is a product that the SEC and B1G would want to have. It’s time for OU to load up the schooner and find another place to call home.

E-mail Mark at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @MarkCFried.

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Welcome back, old friend!

These are the dog days.  The weather is overbearing in a way that makes us simply want to wave the white flag.

But, college football doesn’t allow for that.  It doesn’t allow us to give int.  College football offers hope at the end of this hot, desolate wasteland that we know as the “offseason.”

As the calendar flipped to August, I was reminded of one of my favorite football movies, “The Best of Times,” starring the late Robin Williams.  You should put this on your list if only for the poetic diatribes and quotable lines.  When describing the anticipation of the annual rebirth of football, Williams encapsulates the anticipation, the hope of a new season.

“It’s that time of year again…when the first leaf of autumn falls forlornly to the barren ground below.”

The hope he speaks of is found in an ideal unique to college football.

Tradition. A three-syllable word that defines the phenomena that is the sport we love. It’s more than just what happens between the lines. Coaches and players come and go, and the sport encompasses more than Xs and Os.

It is tradition.

It’s the Vol Navy sterngating in the shadows of Rocky Top. It’s the Sea of Red releasing balloons when their Huskers score for the first time. It’s Army and Navy desperately trying to “sing second.” It’s doing the Hokey Pokey at halftime in Blacksburg. It’s dotting the ‘i’, screaming “Bear Down,” “Boiler Up,” and striking the Heisman pose.

It’s the sight of beloved mascots like Ralphie, Tusk, Cam the Ram and Mike the Tiger. It’s the smells filling the State Fair on Oklahoma-Texas weekend, permeating from Dreamland on Friday afternoon, and wafting across The Grove on Saturday morning. It’s the deafening cheers in The Swamp, The Horseshoe, The Doak, “between the hedges” and down on The Farm. It’s the driving melodies of Texas Fight, Fight Tiger, Tiger Rag and Ragtime Cowboy Joe.

The autumn spectacle makes this sport special. It has survived world wars, financial recessions, and national tragedies.

The passion and traditions are cultural – inherited at a young age, carried through tenure as a co-ed, embraced as a seasoned alum, and then taught to the next generation.

No other sport offers the color and pageantry quite like college football. Lucky for us, it’s that time of year again…

The Sooner Schooner serves as the live mascot for the University of Oklahoma and it rumbles across the field after Sooner scores. Photo taken from a message board and used by permission by the unnamed photographer.
The Sooner Schooner serves as the live mascot for the University of Oklahoma and it rumbles across the field after Sooner scores. Photo taken from a message board and used by permission by the unnamed photographer.

Upon Further Review, Scrap College Football Replay

As we stand upon the brink of the 137th year of college football, there are few things that could be changed that would make the game itself better.  But, no single game-centric issue needs more fixin’ than the system for college football replays.

We love the college game and it is simply better than the NFL in most ways.  However, the college football replays system should, without question, be conducted the same way they do it in professional football.

Two Scenarios That Capture the Shortfalls of College Football Replays

It’s first and goal at the 2-yard line when a powerful tailback goes off tackle and into a pile.  The officials can’t tell if the ball crossed the goal line because of the mass of humanity mashing against each other.  When the dust clears, the officials make a call…

Whether the refs ruled a touchdown or not is irrelevant here.  Why?  Because you can guarantee that play will be stopped and we’ll all lose patience watching the different angles to see if the guy got in.

The next scenario looks like this.  The offense faces 2nd & 9 at their own 32 late in the first quarter when the QB completes a three-yard pass that may or may not truly have been complete.  When the initial replay is shown, it’s unclear as to whether the nose of the ball hit the ground or if the receiver got his hands under the ball.

No matter.  The “genius” eye in the sky stops play to look at the play from every angle except the receiver’s helmet cam.  Four minutes go by when the ref pulls off the headphones and announces that the call on the field stands.  The result?  It’s now 3rd & 6 instead of 3rd & 9.  Wow!  That’s progress, right?

Upon Further Review…

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going back to the way it was for over a century.  No replay.  The refs make the call and the call is final.  Now, get to the line of scrimmage and let’s play.

But, that will never happen and continuing this system makes us bleed from the eyeballs.  So, here’s a solution.

The NFL system puts the decision on the coach.  In both of the aforementioned scenarios, the coach of the defensive team probably never would’ve wasted his challenge on those plays.

If he challenges scenario A and wins, there’s still a good chance that the QB will score on a sneak from the 3-inch line on the next play anyway.  He’d save his challenge for a different scenario.

If he challenges scenario B and wins, the offense is just as likely to convert on third down whether they need six or nine yards.  Again, he’d save his challenge.

In the college system, there are already stoppages in play that destroy the flow of the game and the involuntary replay stoppage makes the games almost unbearable for the fans inside the stadium.  If coaches were given one challenge, they would be likely to use them carefully and then the fans would not be subjected to the endless delays that disrupt the flow and, ultimately, make the games longer.

Instead, the Rules Committee chooses to completely ignore the flaws in the replay system.  The inherent flaw with their approach to their decisions is that millionaire head coaches are the Rules Committee and the last thing they want is more accountability.  So, they leave it up to the replay official to remove the burden.  To boot, this change to the system would result in fewer replays and speed up the game, which will give the networks more dependable windows of time for their broadcasts.

Again, college football is the greatest sport on the planet and I hate to seem like I’m bashing this thing I schedule my year around.  But if I were Czar, I’d make this change to make it that much better.

E-mail Mark at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MarkCFried.

Photo courtesy of Brian Cantoni on Flickr.