Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has all but waved the white flag of surrender when it comes to competing for national championships. Not that he’ll ever admit – recruiting suicide. His reported recent proposal for BCS “radical change” however is the latest, and most unmistakable, sign of concession.
Here’s the thing with the BCS: Unless you play in the SEC, the only way to secure a spot in the BCS title game is to go unbeaten. The one-loss debate will likely always favor SEC teams. This year we could have two one-loss teams from the SEC (perhaps with neither even winning its conference title).
That’s the reality of the BCS. Not saying it’s right, just saying it is.
The only sure path for teams from every other conference is the perfect season.
Yet over the past two years, Delany has made a number of bold moves – expansion, title game, a nine-game conference season – that will make it increasingly difficult for a Big Ten team to ever run the table.
It’s obvious he is focused on building a strong and highly profitable regional league that looks inward, not outward. He’s willing to leave the national stuff to everyone else.
There’s nothing wrong with that. It is, in many ways, both smart and refreshing. Legend (Bo) and Leader (Woody) would probably be proud – Rose Bowl or bust, old school stuff.
If Delany wanted a league that competes for national titles, if he believed that the best of the Big Ten could beat the Alabamas and LSUs and Oklahomas and USCs, he’d work to create a league, and/or a postseason system, that helps provide the opportunity to prove it.
Maybe he’d back a Plus One, which would only require a Big Ten team to be ranked among the top four, not just two (with at least one of the slots all but guaranteed to an SEC team). Maybe he’d conceive of a small playoff with an automatic bid for his league champ. Maybe he'd reject various moves that make achieving an unbeaten regular season more difficult.
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That’s the course followed by SEC commissioner Mike Slive, who has long favored allowing his teams to settle things on the field. They’ve won five consecutive titles … with No. 6 all but certain.
Instead Delany has called, according to CBSSports.com, for the BCS to administer a championship game between the teams it deems No. 1 and No. 2 and that’s it. No more “BCS bowls.” No more “automatic qualifying conferences.”
Most importantly, no expansion of the “playoff” field even as he’s made it dramatically less likely one of his clubs can reach the top two.
In this case, standing pat is akin to giving up.
Delany’s plan is terrible for college football as a whole. It does, however, provide benefits for the Big Ten.
By no longer obligating major bowls to take champions from the Big East and ACC, plus strong teams from lesser leagues, more slots are open. Bowl directors admit they don’t care about on-field success. They covet schools with large fan bases and larger television markets that can make them money.
In other words, Big Ten teams.
Other than ending the threat of an expensive, invasive and time-consuming anti-trust lawsuit, the plan is a loser for almost everyone else. The Big East is essentially done; only Boise State (if it’ll join) has much appeal to a major bowl game. The ACC isn’t in much better shape. Rose Bowl tie aside, the Pac-12 won’t find the selection process very palatable either – 11-1 Stanford or 9-3 Michigan is an easy choice for a bowl exec.
That’s not Delany’s concern however; he’s always been unapologetic about doing what’s best for the Big Ten and the Big Ten only.
That includes honestly assessing the landscape of college football.
Rather going with the low percentage play of trying to prop his teams up in the hope they can win a national title, he’s acknowledging that the Big Ten is full of a lot of really good programs, just not any that can be reasonably counted on to beat the best of the South or West Coast.
Consider his decisions over the past few years – most of which were admirable.
• Expansion: Delany did not push for a super conference of 16 teams, although he could’ve picked off five programs with ease. He added just one, Nebraska, which fit almost perfectly with the Big Ten geographically, philosophically and competitively.
It was a great move, in part because what it wasn’t – a straight money grab or obvious ploy to expand the league’s recruiting turf, while sneakily bringing in teams that its current powerhouse programs should beat most years.
That’s the blueprint for how a conference that wants to dominate. What’s the best thing Texas A&M brings to the SEC? It makes it easier for Nick Saban and Les Miles to pluck five-star recruits out of the Lone Star State. The SEC’s best should get even better.
Nebraska has just 1.8 million residents and very few of them are elite high school football players. Delany could’ve made a play for bigger (more Big Ten Network subscribers) and more talent-rich areas such as New Jersey (Rutgers), Missouri, New England (Connecticut), New York (Syracuse), Maryland, Virginia, Texas (any number of schools) or who knows where else.
He didn’t. He added a storied program that made sense. It certainly doesn’t help the league competitively, though.
First off it’s one more difficult game. Nebraska is always going to be good. Second, it doesn’t expand the recruiting base. It actually contracts it. Now Bo Pelini is demanding his share out of Ohio, Chicago and Detroit (where most players sign with the Big Ten anyway). Midwest talent gets further diluted.
This was about culture, not national strength.
• Title Game: The Big Ten will host its first championship game on Dec. 3. The move is exciting for the league – the current race for division titles has reinvigorated the month of November. Fans love it. Players will too.
It also makes it more difficult for a Big Ten team to finish the season undefeated. Now you have to win 13 games, not 12, the last one coming against an excellent opponent on a neutral field.
The Big 12 has been through this and now wants no part of it. Texas, Oklahoma and the others realize the easiest route to the BCS title game is fewer games, not more. That’s the move you make if you’re goal is winning it all (the SEC can afford the risk, if LSU beats Arkansas on Friday, it can lose the SEC title game and reach the BCS anyway).
The Big Ten went the other way.
• Nine-game conference season: Delany has long complained about his league’s non-conference scheduling. When the NCAA expanded the season to 12 games, he watched as his schools added another cupcake from the old Division I-AA or the Mid-American Conference.
It’s a likely victory and, again, the easiest route to the necessary perfect season. It doesn’t do much for fans who are forced to pay full-price tickets or television partners that are stuck with largely unwatchable blowouts.
[Huguenin: Breaking down the league races]
In August, Delany announced that against the wishes of a “vast majority” of his coaches, the Big Ten would play nine league games, up from the current eight. In most cases that’s means a body bag game is replaced by tough league opponent, perhaps even on the road.
That’s a tougher route to perfection and guarantees at least six additional cumulative losses within the conference.
The Big Ten doesn’t boast the ultra elite of the SEC, but it has a lot of very good teams. Currently seven programs are strong – Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Iowa.
Trying to get through that meat grinder unscathed is extremely difficult – maybe even more difficult this year than the top-heavy SEC. This season is a perfect example; everyone’s beating each other up. That’s the new normal in the Big Ten; this isn’t the Big Two and Little Eight anymore. It makes for a fun race in the Midwest, but under the “two-team playoff” format, the league is irrelevant nationally (Its highest BCS ranked team: Michigan State at No. 14).
Two years ago Big Ten teams needed to play nine major conference opponents (eight league games, one big non conference) to all but ensure a spot in the BCS title game. Going forward they’ll have to beat 11, including an additional neutral site game, perhaps a road game and perhaps against Nebraska.
Good luck with that. Even with 14 teams in its league the SEC is sticking with eight conference games and, thus, a less grueling route to the title game. It also provides for its traditional week's mid-November breather against an easy non-conference opponent (the SEC-Southern Conference Challenge).
Slive listened to his coaches, who want to win it all.
“When everything was evaluated, in terms of what a conference was supposed to be, the value to our fans, the building of the brand, the change made sense,” Delany told ESPN.com.
Now comes this, a BCS reform proposal that would make it easier for Delany to place his two-, three- and four-loss teams into bowls deemed “big” (or bigger than maybe the record deserves) because he can tout sizeable traveling parties and lots of snowbound TV sets back home.
For his purposes, it’s a good plan.
His purposes, however, clearly aren’t winning national titles. While some of the Big Ten programs are certainly capable of reaching, and then winning, the BCS title game, they’ll have to do it in spite of their commissioner, not because of him.
No one interested in winning a race voluntarily adds hurdle after hurdle after hurdle. The SEC resisted many of those traps and has pushed hard for a Plus One anyway.
Maybe, as some of his fellow commissioners suggest, Delany has watched too many SEC teams blow out Big Ten clubs in bowl games. Maybe he found out he didn’t have the stomach for the ultra-competitive after he embarrassed himself by lobbying the NCAA to allow Terrelle Pryor, et al to play in last season's Sugar Bowl.
Maybe he’s just looking at the percentages and doing what’s smart for the Big Ten – be a great regional conference that considers a national title a nice concept, but hardly the main goal.
Whatever it is, it is. Delany’s actions say he’s all but given up.
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