Monday, September 29, 2014

Preseason Over, Now It Gets Real

While there are 17 teams still unbeaten in FBS, only about a dozen or so realistically remain in the hunt for a spot in the four-team playoff field. The SEC West, with six of its seven teams ranked in the top 15, takes up almost half of the list of the contenders.

But that does not mean multiple teams from that division will get into the playoff. The possibility does exist, though it's a longshot. The SEC West will begin in earnest its own elimination process this weekend as three divisional showdowns take place as Alabama visits Ole Miss, Auburn hosts LSU and Mississippi State welcomes Texas A&M.

None of the other conferences are likely to land more than one team in the playoff field and they will now go through their own internecine battles. So here's a look at where everyone stands at the end of the "preseason" phase:

COMPLETE CFP STANDINGS


The Playoff Teams

1. Oklahoma
The Sooners remain on top of the standings but will now enter the most challenging portion of their schedule, beginning with a visit to unbeaten TCU. OU's solid strength of schedule will keep it in the playoff field as long as it keeps winning. (Projected bowl: Playoff at Sugar Bowl)

2. Auburn
The Tigers will enter the most brutal six-game stretch of 2014 beginning with the LSU game. After that, they'll play five more teams currently ranked in our top 25, including road games at both Mississippi schools and Georgia. And if they get through all of that unscathed, they still have to visit Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl at the end of the regular season. (Projected bowl: Playoff at Rose Bowl)

3. Florida State
A second consecutive narrow escape doesn't affect FSU's place in the playoff but it might influence its seeding. Because they're the defending national champions, the 'Noles will make the playoff field as long as they win the ACC undefeated, or perhaps even with one loss. (Projected bowl: Playoff at Rose Bowl)

4. Alabama
Even though they're also in the SEC West, the Tide somehow have an easier schedule than most of their divisional foes. They avoid the better teams in the SEC East and have likely their toughest two games (Texas A&M and Auburn) at home. (Projected bowl: Orange Bowl)


First Four Out

5. Oregon
Don't let the heading fool you: The Ducks are in the playoff field if they win out, no ifs and buts. Even with one loss, Oregon likely will have a shot to get into the playoff as long as it wins the conference title. It will help their chances as the Ducks host Stanford this year. (Projected bowl: Playoff at Sugar Bowl)

6. Texas A&M
The Aggies can still play their way into the playoff field, thanks to last week's overtime escape against Arkansas. But for them, it's likely one (loss) and done because of their atrocious nonconference schedule. (Projected bowl: Cotton Bowl)

7. UCLA
The Bruins did themselves a huge favor with an emphatic win at Arizona State last Thursday. That was enough to wipe away a rather unimpressive nonconference portion of the season in which they barely beat three middling teams in Virginia, Memphis and Texas. But things are just getting started for UCLA, as it must navigate through perhaps the top-ranked schedule in FBS this year. (Projected bowl: Fiesta Bowl)

8. Ole Miss
The Rebels might not be in this spot for long after getting by September against subpar competition, struggling against Memphis for three quarters in their last game. The upcoming game against visiting Alabama arguably will be the most important in program history in at least a quarter century, or more. (Projected bowl: Non CFP bowl)


Other Fun Facts

* At the moment, there does not appear to be a spot for BYU in the six CFP bowls. The Cougars' independent status is not helping their cause as there is no guarantee of any sorts for them. Complicating things is that the ACC has a guaranteed second spot in the Orange Bowl should Florida State qualify for the playoff, and right now that belongs to Clemson (ranked at No. 26).

* The other independent, Notre Dame, likely will not be squeezed out as long as it either wins out or finishes the season with just one loss. The Irish can play their way into the playoff field if they can knock off Florida State and essentially grab the ACC's place for themselves.

* East Carolina remains in the driver's seat for the "Group of 5" guaranteed bowl slot. It's likely that the Mountain West, MAC and Sun Belt are already eliminated, leaving just Marshall from Conference USA and the winner of the East Carolina-Cincinnati game (if it wins the American title) as the only contenders for that bowl slot.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Oklahoma New No. 1; Oregon Out

Several top-ranked teams had close calls this past weekend, but every one of them managed to survive with the exception of LSU. Nevertheless, there was still a bit of a shakeup at the top of the new mock College Football Playoff standings from last week.

With most of the early-season cupcake fest out of the way, the playoff picture will begin to take shape in earnest with conference games, which essentially serve as elimination games in the coming weeks as pretenders are weeded out.

There are only 25 unbeaten teams in FBS (out of 128) through the first four weeks of the season, including two independents (Notre Dame and BYU) and just two from the non-power five conferences (Cincinnati and Marshall). The race for not just the four playoff spots but also for the New Year's Six bowl berths should be extremely fascinating and closely contested.

COMPLETE CFP STANDINGS

The Playoff Teams

1. Oklahoma
The Sooners used a big second half to finally overcome a pesky West Virginia team that also gave Alabama fits in the season opener. With the Big 12 being the only power five conference without a championship game, OU must now navigate a treacherous schedule realizing that one loss might be enough to knock it out of the playoff race.

2. Auburn
The Tigers managed to escape Manhattan thanks to three K-State turnovers and three missed field goals. And now comes the hard part. After next week's game against Louisiana Tech, Auburn will play six consecutive ranked opponents. This could be the most difficult stretch of games in college football history.

3. Alabama
The Tide labored somewhat before finally pulling away from Florida to win their SEC opener. But unlike Auburn, Alabama's schedule is much more user-friendly and manageable. The Tide once again avoid all the SEC East heavyweights and even their games against SEC West foes are conveniently spaced out. Alabama will be tested this way though: Four of its next five games are on the road.

4. Florida State
The selection committee breathed a sigh of relief after Florida State survived Clemson in overtime. Why? Because had FSU lost without Jameis Winston and then gone on to win the rest of their games, the committee would have to weigh such a mitigating circumstance. But now that the 'Noles have won, the rest of their schedule shouldn't pose much of a challenge.

First Four Out

5. Oregon
With Florida State struggling, Oregon had a chance to seize the top ranking in the polls. Instead, the Ducks unexpectedly struggled against Washington State, whose QB Connor Halliday gashed them with 436 passing yards. Things won't get any easier from here, as the Pac-12 leads all conferences with seven unbeaten teams, including Oregon's next three opponents.

6. Texas A&M
If the Pac-12 is the toughest conference, then the SEC West is the toughest division, with five teams still unbeaten. Texas A&M had an easy go of it early in the season after a resounding opening win at South Carolina. Now the Aggies will be tested by four consecutive division foes in as many weeks.

7. Ole Miss
Whereas their in-state rivals grabbed the headlines with an upset win over LSU in Death Valley, Ole Miss is still the highest-ranked team in Mississippi. Of the five unbeaten SEC West teams, the Rebels are the least tested so far, but they don't figure to be exposed quite yet with a game against Memphis this week.

8. UCLA
Memphis, of course, gave UCLA fits at the Rose Bowl, losing by seven on a late touchdown. The Bruins have looked highly unimpressive so far, also barely squeaking by Virginia and Texas. Yet, thanks to lofty expectations from the preseason, they're still ranked highly in the polls. This Thursday's Pac-12 opener against Arizona State will reveal whether they're overrated.

Other Fun Facts

* East Carolina made a quantum leap in the polls, thanks to back-to-back wins over ACC opponents, including Saturday's 70-41 thrashing of North Carolina. The Pirates have the looks of a New Year's Six bowl contender, especially with their high-octane offense. Look for the Nov. 13 matchup at Cincinnati to potentially decide not only the American Athletic title, but also the "Group of Five" bowl berth.

* Does the Big Ten's rebound this week help Michigan State? After going 12-1 - 4-1 against the power five conferences - the conference somewhat repaired its reputation, though it might come a little too late. The Spartans are still only 16th in the mock standings and with few conference foes currently ranked, it's hard to see how they can make it all the way into the top four.

* Whereas most other teams are beginning their conference schedules in earnest, independent BYU will be playing four Mountain West opponents in its next six games. With the MWC considerably weaker than in the past, it won't help improve the Cougars' prospects of either landing a playoff spot (highly improbable) or a New Year's Six bowl bid (somewhat of a longshot).

Monday, September 15, 2014

SEC Crowds Top of CFP Standings

With the advent of the College Football Playoff, the BCS and its standings have been consigned to the ash heap of history. The 13-member selection committee will make all the decisions. Polls and computer rankings (supposedly) will no longer matter. There will be no more standings and no more projections ...

But that just can't be. College football has always been about rankings, from the preseason to the postseason. There's no way we should have to wait 'till the last week of October to find out where everyone stands. And there is a lot at stake here.

Besides the top four teams that will advance to the Playoff, there are eight other slots up for grabs for the 'New Years' Six' bowl games. The highest-ranked champion of the non-power "Group of Five" conferences is guaranteed one of the spots.

Back in the spring, we experimented and tinkered to come up with a methodology that will generate a rankings system similar to what the committee might produce. Beginning this week, we will unveil our rankings every Monday morning to show you where everybody stands:

COMPLETE CFP STANDINGS

The Playoff Teams

1. Florida State - The Seminoles barely edged Oregon for the top spot and they have an inviting path to repeat as national champions. All of their toughest remaining opponents - Clemson, Notre Dame, Boston College and Florida - are at home. And even with the addition of Louisville, the ACC doesn't look like it will provide much of a challenge.

2. Oregon - The Ducks really have looked the most impressive so far among the top teams, especially with the second-half destruction of a good Michigan State team two weeks ago. The Pac-12 will not be a cakewalk, but with USC and Arizona State absent on the schedule, it enhances Oregon's chances to run the table.

3. Oklahoma - The Sooners defeated a pedestrian Tennessee team to wrap up their non-conference schedule without a blemish. Because there isn't a Big 12 title game, Oklahoma will have less margin for error than other big 5 conference contenders. For OU, it could be one (loss) and done.

4. Auburn - The top four teams have separated themselves from the rest, which means there's a significant gap between No. 4 Auburn and No. 5 Alabama. But the Tigers have a brutal schedule ahead, with seven teams currently in the top 25 of our rankings on tap, beginning with this Thursday's non-conference game at Kansas State.

First Four Out 

5. Alabama - Don't fret, Tide fans, your team can easily play its way into the Playoff, but first and foremost it must win the Iron Bowl. Alabama's schedule isn't nearly as challenging as Auburn's, as it will play neither South Carolina nor Georgia, likely the two best teams in the SEC East.

6. Texas A&M - The Aggies shot up the rankings with their season (and SEC Network) -opening rout at South Carolina and have been flying under the radar for a bit with a cupcake-y tour through Texas' lesser teams (Lamar, Rice and SMU). If A&M can somehow win the SEC West by getting by Auburn, Alabama and LSU, it'll be in the Playoff.

7. LSU - Four teams in the SEC West are among the top seven teams in our rankings, that's what makes this the most competitive division in college football. The Tigers opened the season with a resounding win over Big Ten power Wisconsin, but most of their work are still ahead.

8. Baylor - Nobody really knows how good the Bears are after they rolled through their first three opponents by a cumulative score of 178-27. But this joke of a non-conference schedule might come back to haunt Baylor unless it can run through the Big 12 unscathed.

Other Fun Facts

* The SEC is dominating the standings, with five teams in the top nine and eight in the top 15. But that does not necessarily mean that it will land multiple teams in the Playoff, as the intra-conference fratricide will soon kick into full gear.

* After the second Saturday debacle, the Big Ten's chances of making the Playoff field looks pretty bleak. Michigan State, the highest-ranked B1G team at No. 13, might be the only one with a slim shot if it can win the conference. No other Big Ten team is higher than No. 20.

* Notre Dame is currently 10th, and with a remaining schedule that includes Stanford, Florida State, Arizona State and USC, it has a chance to crash the Playoff field if it can go undefeated.

* BYU, at No. 18, might earn one of the New Years' Six bowl slots, though nothing is guaranteed for the independent team. Though they have a benign schedule that gives the Cougars a great shot at going undefeated, it remains unlikely that they can earn a spot in the Playoff.

* As has been the case since the latter years of the BCS, conference realignment has sucked almost all the oxygen out of the lesser conferences. Of the 44 teams ranked in our standings, only three come from the "Group of Five" conferences and just one in the top 25: No. 24 East Carolina (American), No. 34 Cincinnati (American) and No. 44 Marshall (C-USA).

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Oregon Vaults to No. 1 After Impressive Win

By scoring the final 28 points in a 46-27 rout of Michigan State last week, Oregon has supplanted defending national champion Florida State in our CFP weekly rankings.

(See our explanation for the methodology of our standings.)

The Ducks jumped from No. 3 to the top spot, thanks to a massive increase in vote shares in the AP poll and the top spot in the composite computer rankings. Florida State dropped one spot to No. 2, followed by Auburn and Oklahoma.

Five of the top nine teams are from the SEC, though only one among the top four to qualify for the playoff. USC made the biggest jump, gaining seven spots to No. 7 after last week's close win at Stanford, while Notre Dame moved up six spots to No. 10.

After last week's bloodbath, the highest-ranked Big Ten team is Michigan State at No. 13. The Spartans, the defending conference champions and last year's Rose Bowl winner, still have the best shot of reaching the four-team playoff. But with the collective weakness of the conference, that will be a difficult task.

The Power 5 conferences, continuing a trend from the final years of the BCS, are dominating the standings. Of the 44 teams ranked this week, only two are from the "Group of Five" conferences, with American Athletic's Cincinnati at No. 35 and Conference USA's Marshall at No. 43. No team from the Mountain West, Mid-American or Sun Belt is currently ranked.

Friday, September 5, 2014

What Playoff Standings Should Look Like

There will be no more BCS standings. In fact, there will be no standings with a formula that we can reliably project when the College Football Playoff era begins in the 2014 season. The 13-person selection committee will have sole discretion on which teams make the four-team playoff field.

A few months ago, we introduced a standings model for the committee, and asked for readers' suggestions and comments. We received a healthy amount of responses, most of which were very helpful. After taking much into consideration, we have revised our proposed standings for use by the playoff committee.

We're not arrogant or foolhardy enough to think the committee will necessarily adopt our formula, or admit it publicly. But we do hope that by starting this discussion, we'll move into a more transparent process where we won't be greeted with major surprises come football's version of Selection Sunday.

We more or less stuck to the main criteria, which the committee has emphasized as crucial in its selection process. But we have made major revisions to the distribution of each category:

1) AP poll (40 percent): The eyeball test has to mean something, and the AP poll is the only poll that's completely transparent, with each voter's ballot available for the public to scrutinize each week. It's also the most prestigious poll that's widely used by the media. (Increased from 20 percent)

2) Computer rankings (40 percent): Kenneth Massey compiles the median and mean rankings of each team from more than 100 computers each week. It's less biased than the human polls, and the large sample size removes undue influence by outliers. (kept at 40 percent)

3) Strength of schedule (10 percent): While there are many models to choose from, Jeff Sagarin has the most time-tested SoS formula—including results from all Division I games, FBS and FCS—that's meticulously and promptly updated each week. But since SoS is a component in every computer ranking, too much influence by the SoS would create a double-jeopardy redundancy. (Decreased from 30 percent)

4) Conference championship (10 percent): Only teams that win their conference championships will get the bonus, and it has to be a significant one. A team that fails to win its conference must be so highly-ranked in every other aspect to jump champions from other Big Five conferences. (kept at 10 percent)

With that in mind, check out what the standings would've looked like after Week 1.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Welcome to College Football's Playoff Era

Playoffs? You want playoffs, and finally, you've got playoffs.

Nearly a century-and-a-half after the first college football game was played in 1869, a playoff will decide the national champion in college football's highest division. In this, the inaugural season of the College Football Playoff, a four-team tournament will be held at the end of the season to determine the 2014 champion.

Bill Hancock, the executive director of the CFP, is understandably stoked.

"The playoff will be extremely popular, the fans will love it," Hancock predicted when he spoke to Bleacher Report. "It's a joy to be involved in something that will be an iconic event."

A New Era:

Hancock mentioned the "bracket" aspect of the CFP, which is no doubt foreign to top-division college football but familiar to all NCAA championships, particularly the men's basketball tournament, which he ran for more than a decade. The CFP won't be March Madness, as it's only a four-team, three-game tournament, but it's a significant departure from what decided the mythical national championship in the past.

College football is used to having polls crown its annual champions. The Associated Press writers poll was founded in 1936, followed by the coaches poll with its various sponsors beginning in 1950. The Bowl Championship Series, which began in 1998 and lasted 16 years, pitted the purported top two teams in the regular season in a one-game championship showdown.

The BCS used a combination of polls and computer rankings to determine its top teams, a practice that will be discarded by the CFP. Instead of 170-plus voters and six computers, a 13-member selection committee will decide which four teams play in the playoff, as well as eight other teams for the four prestigious CFP bowls.

The Committee: 

The 13-member committee includes five current athletic directors representing the five power conferences as well as retired administrators, coaches and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. They are to serve two- to four-year terms, as the committee membership will eventually have turnover on an annual basis.

How It Will Work:

A protocol has been set up for the committee members, who will vote each week beginning the last weekend of October to determine their collective rankings. These rankings will be made available to the public each Tuesday until the final weekend of the regular season, when the playoff field as well as the other CFP bowl participants are announced.

"I feel very comfortable with the selection process and the transparency of our setup," said Hancock, who along with committee chair Jeff Long will be the lone voices of the committee during the season. "I really believe the committee's protocol is excellent and our recusal policy is even a little more stringent than for the NCAA tournament."

Nine committee members must recuse themselves when their respective institutions are discussed during their weekly meetings in Dallas. The committee will take a series of votes to settle on the pecking order of the teams under consideration each week.

The actual process is a bit complicated and perhaps unnecessarily convoluted:

Every week, each committee member will submit a "best 25" ballot in no particular order, then another series of balloting will narrow that down to six, and finally three. These steps will be repeated until all 25 teams are seeded.

The committee members will be tasked to pay close attention to all major matchups each week in order to be prepared for the balloting. While no computer rankings will be used to determine the rankings, the CFP has contractually enlisted the services of SportSource Analytics, which will provide numerous data sets at the disposal of the committee members.

But ultimately the final choices will be at the sole discretion of the 13 members, whose balloting each week will be anonymous and each is sworn to secrecy on how he or she voted.

This year, the final pairings will be revealed on Dec. 7, and there will be controversy. Whereas during the BCS era the No. 3-ranked teams were usually the aggrieved, in the CFP regime that snub will be keenly felt by No. 5 instead.

That's OK, Hancock said, as the committee will be fully prepared to defend its decisions. Besides, debates and arguments are simply part of the very fabric of college football.

"We wouldn't have it any other way," Hancock said. "Sure, teams will be disappointed, especially those that came very close, but there will always be debates, as that's a reflection on the popularity of college football. That'll never change, and we don't want it to change."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Where Does FSU Rank on Secondary Market?

By Jesse Lawrence

Under the direction of star quarterback Jameis Winston, the Florida State Seminoles won their third national title in school history against the Auburn Tigers last season. The Tigers, who garnered several notable accomplishments last season despite their championship loss, are expected to have another dominant season at Jordan-Hare Stadium and demand on the secondary ticket market for home games has remained consistent since last season. 

Though Florida State enters the 2014 season as national champs, the school’s season average does not break the 25 most expensive college football programs on the secondary market. Winston will certainly attract the masses to Doak Campbell Stadium this season, but his team currently holds a season average that is lower than their championship opponent in Auburn, who ranks as the 21st priciest school in college football.

The Tigers will begin their season at home against Arkansas on August 30. While the game serves as their third highest-priced home game of the season at an average price of $149.21, the season average for Auburn football tickets is currently $122.65, down 14.5% from last season’s average of $143.58. Despite a ticket decline on the secondary market for the upcoming 2014 season, the Tigers still find themselves among the top 25 most expensive college football programs.

The 2014 Auburn football schedule has penned home games at Jordan-Hare Stadium against Arkansas, San Jose State, Louisiana Tech, LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Samford. The Tigers’ most expensive home game will be played against South Carolina on October 25 as the average price for Auburn vs South Carolina tickets is currently $176.98, 44.3% above the season average on the secondary market, with a get-in price of $72. Auburn’s cheapest game is aSeptember 6 matchup against San Jose State as Auburn vs San Jose State tickets are currently $56.34, 54% below the season average, with a get-in price of $11.

With a national title to defend and one of college football’s most dynamic players in Winston, the Seminoles will certainly be the in the forefront of national media coverage this season. Winston, who is considered a top candidate in next year’s NFL Draft pending his decision to leave Florida State, is expected to have another spectacular season under center and has continued to improve his name among the media following several off-the-field blunders. With Florida State likely to pick up where they left off after a flawless 14-0 season last year, the season average on the secondary market has also increased in comparison to last year, though the team won’t be among the top 25 most expensive colleges. Florida State football tickets for the 2014 season currently average $115.80, up 4.15% from last season’s secondary average of $111.18.

The Florida State football schedule will have the Seminoles welcome Citadel, Clemson, Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Virginia, Boston College and Florida to Doak Campbell Stadium this season. While the team’s most expensive home game on the secondary market will be on October 18 against Notre Dame with an average price of $235.83, Florida State will play its priciest game at AT&T Stadium against Oklahoma State to open up the season on August 30. The average price for Florida State vs Oklahoma State tickets is currently $259.03, 123.6% above the season average, with a get-in price of $79.  The school’s cheapest game is aSeptember 6 matchup against Citadel, which has a current average price of $38, 67.18% below season average.

Last year’s national championship teams will experience differing ticket price trends on the secondary market but both are expected to retain their championship-caliber play during the 2014 season. With Florida State looking to improve on its perfect record from last season, Auburn will take the field with the higher secondary season average between the two teams but with a chip on its shoulder following a heartbreaking loss in last year’s championship game. As the two teams hit the gridiron next month, excitement will surround each all season long in their hunt for another national title.

Jesse Lawrence, who covers the business and emotion of the ticket market. is the CEO of TiqIQ.com, the leading ticket search engine online.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

SEC Can Thank UCLA for BCS Dominance

The SEC dominated the second half of the BCS era, winning seven championships and firmly establishing itself as the premier conference in college football. That has led to an expansion of its footprint, added riches from television contracts, and a nascent network to be launched this August.

But none of it happens without the biggest upset in BCS history, a game that took place on the West Coast on the final day of the 2006 regular season. The end of one dynasty beget another.

USC entered its annual rivalry game in 2006 ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings. The Trojans were poised to appear in an unprecedented third consecutive BCS title game and all they had to do was handling their downtrodden, 5-6 crosstown rival. And why not? USC had won seven straight in the series and mauled the Bruins the year before, 66-19.

A simple USC victory would've set up a BCS title game against Ohio State, leaving Florida (and the SEC) on the sideline. It would've been an eighth consecutive season without an undisputed national title for the conference. After Tennessee won the first championship of the BCS era in 1998, the SEC only appeared in one title game in the subsequent seven seasons, and that resulted in LSU's split title with USC in 2003.

There was little doubt that USC would go on to trounce the Buckeyes in the BCS title game as Florida eventually did. The Trojans would've won their third national title in four years and left little doubt as to who truly rules the BCS. They likely would've gone to another one or two BCS title games in the following two seasons.

But that dynasty inexplicably got derailed on that December afternoon at the Rose Bowl by the underdog Bruins. USC's high-powered offense was totally stifled and shut out in the second half. It was the only time in Pete Carroll's final eight seasons at USC that his team would be held under double digits.

USC's 13-9 loss not only opened the door for the SEC to return to the BCS title game, but it gave birth to a new narrative. After Florida ascended to No. 2 and then routed undefeated Ohio State for the national championship, the argument that the SEC as "the toughest conference" began to take hold.

That in no small part contributed to the SEC's earning a spot in the BCS championship game for both 2007 and 2008. In both seasons, the SEC won the title after sending a second-ranked team that edged teams from other conferences with the same number of losses.

In both seasons, one of those teams was USC. Had the Trojans won the 2006 title, it's easy to see how the narrative and argument would've gone very differently. USC probably would've been the one that beat out the other two-loss teams for No. 2 in 2007. And in 2008, the one-loss Trojans might've gone on to play in their fifth consecutive BCS title game.

The SEC can thank Karl Dorrell and DeWayne Walker, whose game plan in that fateful 2006 game teed up the conference's enduring run in the second half of the BCS era. They're both actually working in the neighborhood now as Dorrell is now the offensive coordinator at Vanderbilt and Walker the defensive backs coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Success of SEC Network Is No Sure Thing

The SEC had another banner season at the bank, as its members reeled in around $21 million per school during the fiscal year of 2013.

That puts the SEC well ahead of everybody else and just behind the king of cash Big Ten, which distributed $23-$26 million per school in the same fiscal year. And the SEC has reasons to be bullish on the future, as its own SEC Network is scheduled to launch Aug. 14.

But any prediction that, with the SEC Network, the conference will out-pace the Big Ten in earnings would be premature. There are still a number of issues involving the nascent network, not the least of which is that it has yet to reach agreements with some of the nation's biggest TV carriers.

With an asking price of $1.30 per subscriber within the conference's 11-state footprint, the SEC Network is demanding significantly more than either the Big Ten ($1) or the Pac-12 ($.80) for their networks. As a point of comparison, the NBC Sports Network, which carries the Stanley Cup playoffs and the English Premier League, costs merely 31 cents per subscriber.

So far, DirecTV (20 million subscribers) and Comcast (22 million) have not caved to the SEC's demands. DirecTV in fact has not carried the Pac-12 Network since its inception two years ago and the impasse is expected to continue into a third season this fall.

Even with the SEC fans threatening to make a switch, these providers might not budge so easily as the sports television landscape has changed dramatically over the past five years. The proliferation of regional sports networks and their exorbitant fees have forced the providers to re-evaluate their business model.

In Houston, the Comcast regional sports network that carries the Astros and Rockets recently filed for bankruptcy after it was unable to get on any carriers other than its parent Comcast. In L.A., the popular Dodgers—even with the legendary Vin Scully in the booth in perhaps his final season—have been blacked out this season on virtually every carrier other than Time Warner, which owns the new sports network that broadcasts the team's games.

The SEC Network, of course, has one advantage over the others as it's part-owned by ESPN, which is the most expensive and perhaps the most indispensable cable network. ESPN has already made sure that the SEC Network will not be stuck only with third-tier football games involving FCS schools. South Carolina-Texas A&M has been chosen to debut the network's lineup in the 2014 season.

But even with ESPN's clout, there is no guarantee that these carriers, facing considerable consumer backlash over rising cable bills, will play ball. For as popular as sports is in general and in particular in the South, there is still a considerable number of people who don't care and don't want to pay for something they won't watch.

"A lot of the households would assign a very low value to an SEC regional sports network," Andrew Zimbalist, a noted sports economist recently told USA Today. "There is a real structural question of how important it is for a cable distributor to carry this, particularly in light of the fact the bottom income earners have had their wages stagnate over the last decade and cable bills keep going up and up and up.

"I think we've been in a bubble and there has been a lot of over-bidding, and these little fracases we're seeing are harbingers of sustained battles that will be happening."

SEC has quite a bit of brand power and fan loyalty. But given the current business climate, the success of the SEC Network is hardly a certainty.

Friday, May 30, 2014

College Football Should Dump Divisions

With all the bellyaching about the recent decisions by the SEC and ACC to keep eight-game conference schedules, a most important point was largely missed. The scheduling setup makes competition within those conferences unfair.

Whenever there's an imbalance in the strengths of the conference's divisions, the race for the championship will become lopsided. Essentially, you'll rarely get the two best teams to play in the conference championship games.

And on top of that there's also the issue of preserving the familiarity and cohesion within the conferences. When the SEC decided to adopt the 6+1 model, with seven of the eight conference games permanently set, it means that six teams within your own conference won't set foot on your campus for an entire decade. In the case of the ACC, teams will see Notre Dame—technically not a member—more often than a few actual member schools.

There is an easy way to fix this, and it's already been put on the table: College football should dump divisions.

College basketball has been getting along just fine without divisions, even though some leagues have as many as 16 teams. Only three of the 32 conferences employ divisions, and none of the major conferences.

The divisions came into existence in 1992 when then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer exploited a little-known NCAA bylaw in order to stage a conference championship game after the SEC expanded to 12 teams. All other major conferences followed suit. But as realignment made conferences bigger—beginning in 2014 the ACC, Big Ten and SEC will all have 14 teams—the divisional setup has become more unwieldy.

In March, the ACC in collaboration with the Big 12 submitted a proposal to drop divisions while allowing conferences to continue staging championship games. It was tabled during the NCAA's April meetings but may be considered when the board convenes again in August.

The 10-team Big 12, currently the only one of the five major conferences without a divisional setup or a title game, believes dumping divisions only makes sense as we move into the College Football Playoff era this fall.

"You wouldn't any longer have to have 12 (teams)," Big 12 commissioner Bowlsby told Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports in March. "You wouldn't any longer have to play a full round-robin in your subdivision. That would actually afford us the opportunity to have a playoff between two selected teams by whatever process we would want to select.

"Theoretically, we could say we're going to take the two highest in the BCS rankings and have them play at the end of the season."

In fact, the Big 12 has already taken steps toward making that a reality. This week the conference formally adopted a new tiebreaking procedure, tying it to the CFP poll as released by the selection committee. The same procedure obviously may be applied should it become necessary to determine the two teams to play in the conference championship game.

There is one other peripheral, though not unimportant, benefit to dumping the divisions. It is widely believed that the Big 12 will eventually expand back up to 12 teams in order to stage a conference title game. If that's no longer a prerequisite, then we might have some stability with conference memberships for awhile after five years of constant realignment maneuvers.

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