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BCS Chaos: Cases for Auburn, Missouri, and Ohio State

It’s only fitting that BCS goes out with a bang, or some other big controversy, and thanks to Auburn’s win over Alabama, we’ve got one. Now all the SEC lovers are out there telling us how daunting it is to go through the SEC, how the Big 10 has fallen completely off the map. But in the case of Auburn, I’m not buying it.

Yes, the SEC is still the best conference, although I don’t think they run nearly as deep as they have over the last few years. (Still, they have four BCS-bowl worthy teams.) But if you are going to buck tradition and put an one-loss team in the national title game over a multi-loss team, it better be pretty obvious that the one-loss team is better than the undefeated. And that’s not the case when you comare Auburn and Ohio State.

If we’re going to ask who has Ohio State beaten, just look at Auburn’s best wins: every bowl eligible, major conference team that Auburn has played stayed within one score of the Tigers, including the dregs of Washington State, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State, arguably the twelfth best team in the SEC. LSU was up on Auburn 21-0 early in the second quarter, and led them 35-14 in the fourth quarter. And you have the matter of their two miracle wins. If Auburn deserves to be number two in the country, they should have beaten a really good team soundly, and they haven’t.

Having watched both teams, I would say that, if Auburn and Ohio State played on a neutral field on equal rest, the game would be a coin flip, with a slight edge to the Buckeyes because they have the more dynamic quarterback. Granted, Auburn has a very good defensive line, but they lack the down field passing game to press Ohio State to match them score for score. And let’s not forget Auburn’s history: they have not exactly dominated their non-conference matchups and bowl games. Of their last eight bowl games, they have only two wins by multiple scores, and even their national championship team struggled Oregon, Clemson, and from the SEC, Mississippi State. Clemson in fact has beaten Auburn twice in non-conference play, West Virginia once LSU, Alabama, Florida, and South Carolina under Steve Spurrier mowed through their bowl games and important non-conference games; Auburn does not.

The lamest case for Auburn is on the SEC’s history. Everyone making that case should be remind of how Notre Dame campaigned on its history a year ago. If you’re going to crack Notre Dame for close home wins against BYU and Pitt, you have to crack Auburn for close home wins against Mississippi State and Ole Miss.

Missouri, on the other hand, can be seriously considered for the number two spot over Ohio State. Even though some may make the case that they lack seniority in the SEC, just look at the Tigers’ resume: they have crushed three good SEC teams on the road in Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Mississippi, dominating the Commodores from the first snap of the game. Missouri has beaten ten of twelve teams by at least thirteen points. They only teams that have been closer are Texas A&M and South Carolina. And Missouri led the Gamecocks 17-0 in the fourth quarter before Connor Shaw stage a late comeback and the Tigers lost on a missed field goal in overtime. That is a resume worthy of a National Title Game.

Still, when I watch Missouri, I don’t know that they are vastly better than Ohio State. Earlier this year, I thought they were one of the most compelling football teams I had ever seen on television, the way they just flat out whipped Georgia and Florida. They don’t pass the eye ball test the way that Alabama and LSU do, but they execute like no one’s business.

If I was compelled to vote an SEC team into the National Title Game, I would choose Alabama, because I feel their best is better than anyone else best, except maybe Florida State’s. If they had a few field goals against Auburn, they could have beaten the Tigers going away. They lost to LSU in 2011 for virtually the same reason, and, as the rematch proved, they were clearly the better team. If I were a voter, I don’t know right now who I would choose as my top two, but I would take the week to think about it. The one thing that has changed for me is that I wouldn’t feel as bad voting Ohio State number 2 as I would have three weeks ago.

SEC’s New Scheduling Model: Dragging its Feet to Change, Par for the Course in the CFB Universe

Last week, the SEC did what the SEC does: put winning ahead of everything else. Ignoring the trend in college football, the SEC kept its eight-game conference schedule, even though it means there will only be one rotating opponent on each team’s schedule every year. So much for being a “conference”, the SEC is now two small conference with a scheduling alliance and a championship, basically what the Mountain West and Conference USA are.
While I won’t consider myself an expert on SEC politics, I understand that of the seven permanent cross-division rivalries, two are historically important: Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia . The newly christened MissouriArkansas border rivalry is also an important game to play every year, even though the two schools don’t have much history. While the four other rivalries are all well matched (Florida-LSU, Texas A&M-South Carolina, Mississippi State-Kentucky, Vanderbilt-Ole Miss), but aren’t as essential to the respective program’s history. Each of these schools could just as well play a two rotating non-division games a year.

New found rivals

I’m not saying that the Third Saturday in October and the Deep South’s Oldest rivalry shouldn’t be played every year.  I’m not saying that Arkansas and Missouri can’t start up a good border war. The team of my heart, the Nebraska Cornhuskers, had their top rivalry ripped away by Big 12-Texas politics, so I’m sympathetic to their plight. What I am saying is let’s not have Mississippi State and Kentucky play every year just because four other schools have to have cross-division rivals (When I googled “mississippi state kentucky” I got one football image in the first two pages).

Vital that these two teams play every year?

Not as vital as keeping these rivals together

To be a real conference, the SEC needs to play a nine game conference schedule, like the ACC will when they go to fourteen. The Big 12 and the Pac 12 already play twelve, and the Big 10 and Big East will likely both go to nine soon. (Of course, part of the motivation for the ACC, Big 10, and Big East to play nine conference games is to get Notre Dame to join a conference.) If you are only going to have one rotating opponent every year on the schedule, you are no longer a conference. The possibility now exists for a massive imbalance between the divisions of the SEC.

The SEC gave the typical reasons for not wanting more than eight conference games: Florida and Georgia, who play at a neutral site, would be disadvantaged because they would only have three home games every other year (which already happens). Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, and South Carolina want to keep their in-state rivalries together. But I hear the bragging by SEC fans: our conference is so tough, we only need eight conference games a year. To that I say, if your conference is so tough, why are you always teasing Texas for being too soft to play in it?

But I get it in this regard: the SEC is about winning championships, not just conference but national. While I’m not a fan of this decision as a whole, I do respect the drive to win, which is hard enough to do in college football as it is. The SEC is so great as a conference, they can only play eight conference games a year, and yet, it still gives fans quality games at home. Hopefully, the SEC will get so add two more teams and establish four four team divisions, so scheduling can be a little easier.

Bowling Issues and Cold Field Advantages: Missouri in the SEC, continued

Yesterday, I shared my initial thoughts on Missouri’s move to the SEC and why the move didn’t make sense to me. Today, I want to tackle two specific issues in the Tigers’ conference switch. First, I want to speak directly to Missouri fan on the bowl selection process, and second, I want to address the potential home field Missouri would have in the SEC.

During Missouri’s initial process of leaving the Big 12, they questioned the league on the bowl selection process which often rendered the Tigers a lesser choice in bowl games. The process always seems to work Missouri’s media; the day after Iowa State upset Oklahoma State to become bowl eligible, the Columbia Daily Tribune published an article that was already bemoaning Missouri’s bowl prospects three weeks before the selections were made. I know that it’s not fair, Missouri fan, but you have to get over be relegated to bad bowls. It’s not about your season, it’s about your fan base. And it’s not going to get better in the SEC.

For starters, the bowl selection process isn’t like the NCAA tournament selection, so don’t make that comparison. the NCAA tournament picks teams based on merit, and even that process is subjective and gets tweaked every year. That is a process to select teams to play in a national championship tournament, so complaining about seeding, while petty, is reasonably fair. The bowl selection process, while it considers records and tries to reward the teams with the best season, values your fan base and whether or not they can be counted on to travel and spend their tourist dollars in the city where the bowl is being played. Missouri has a poor record for doing that.

I know Missouri list of bowl disappointments: getting passed down to the Independence Bowl multiple times; the Insight Bowl picking Iowa State over Missouri in 2009, when Missouri had two more wins and beat Iowa State; and last year getting passed on by the Cotton Bowl when Missouri had dominated Cotton Bowl-invitee Texas A&M in College Station. Complain if you will, but the reason the Tigers are in these games is the 2008 Alamo. The year before, Missouri fans had traveled en masse to the Cotton Bowl after their team had gone 11-2 in the regular season and watched the Tigers crush border-rival Arkansas; the attendance even surpassed that of the previous’ years Nebraska-Auburn game (attended by yours truly). This was a great opportunity for Missouri to build on momentum, but David Ubben pointed this out in his Big 12 blog for ESPN following Missouri’s drop to the Texas Bowl in 2009: the 2008 Alamo Bowl had the worst Alamo Bowl attendance in five years by 10,000. Yes, the other team was Northwestern, whose alumni are less passionate about football than Missouri’s, but come on. The Alamo Bowl is in one of America’s best recreational cities, not Shreveport, Louisiana.

And as a Nebraska fan, let me point something out to you: this system has worked in your favor, and you didn’t complain about it. Last year, when Nebraska was the school leaving the Big 12, the Insight Bowl took you over them, because it already had Iowa, who they knew would sell tickets. Nebraska crushed you and won your division, reasons you were pointing that you should gotten to the Insight bowl in 2009 over Iowa State. Now, to your credit, the Insight Bowl did have record attendance that year, more than Iowa State-Minnesota did the year before. But when the system works in your favor, don’t complain when it doesn’t. And by the way: you have only yourself to blame when a regional school in a small state gets picked over you to go to a bowl game.

By the way, how in the world do you expect the bowl selection process to be any better in the SEC? As I’ve said yesterday, every fan base in the SEC (even Mississippi and Mississippi State) care more passionately about their teams, and pretty much all of them have travel advantages over you to most of the bowls in Florida. If you do manage to make it to a bowl game most years, get ready for a lot of trips to Nashville, Memphis, and yes, Birmingham, Alabama’s falling-down Legion Field, what Pat Forde considers the worst bowl site in all college football. At least the two of the Big 12’s worst bowls are played in Houston’s Reliant Stadium and New Yankee Stadium.

One of the obvious things that may benefit Missouri football in the SEC is weather. With its northern locale that gets nippy in November, Missouri may benefit from getting Florida, Georgia, or Texas A&M up on their tundra in 40 degrees and a blustery wind. Look at Oklahoma State’s game at Iowa State: the Cowboys play in Ames on a short week, at night in the wind, and looked like they didn’t want to be there. During Nebraska’s famous game in the rain at Missouri in 2009, Jayson Whitlock speculated to Lincoln Journal-Star reporters that players were too used to practicing in nice indoor practice facilities, and even a little bad weather gets them off-target.

But Missouri’s November home field advantage in the SEC may not be the boon that Iowa State’s has the potential to be in the Big 12, or that what Missouri’s was in Big 12 for that matter, when the Tigers beat Texas and Texas Tech in their final two home games. First, the Big 12 is more a finesse, timing league that can be easily upset by conditions. The SEC is a league built on toughness, defense, and straight-ahead running, all things that travel to cold weather well. In an snow-game in November, Georgia or South Carolina could come into Columbia and run 50 times, while Missouri struggles to run its spread, the definition of getting embarrassed in your own house.

And unlike Iowa State, Missouri isn’t well-suited to play an underdog, fly-in-the-oinment roll in the SEC. Paul Rhoads can rant and rave to his Iowa State team about how all the down-south Texas and Oklahoma schools overlook them, and how they have they have the backing of an entire fan base. Pinkel could do the same with Missouri, but they barely have the backing of their state, who’d rather go to Cardinals game in September than drive to Columbia to watch the Tigers play a cupcake.

But the weather in Columbia is what it is, and Missouri will have to maximize every advantage it has in its new, super competitive league.

The Kansas City Star has been largely neutral on Missouri’s move and more concerned about keeping their precious basketball tournament in town. (Shades of Omaha getting paranoid over loosing the College World Series, Ugh.) The St. Louis Post-Dispatch has at least seemed reasonably honest about the challenges Missouri will face in the SEC and leaves the impression that the Tigers will have to step their game up in the new league.

Finally, I have to commend Missouri for at least talking about keeping their rivalry with Kansas intact. Even though the Jayhawks are angered by Missouri’s move and want to end their long series (even in basketball), Missouri seems to be making the initiative to keep the series together, as they should. Missouri and Kansas share a city together, and it would be too bad to see another longtime rivalry go by the wayside as Missouri moves on.

Missouri’s Move to the SEC: Is this really who you think you are?

Over the last, I have followed the realignment of college conferences closely, given that it has involved my team (Nebraska) and my favorite sport. The most interesting move to me has been Missouri going from the Big 12 to the SEC. Many thought that Missouri would eventually join in the Big 10, but instead, the Tigers choose to cast their lot in the toughest football conference in America, leading them on a path to play new rivals and leaving their two most natural rivals (Illinois and Kansas) behind. An audacious move for a school that doesn’t care passionately for the SEC’s number one sport: football

Missouri’s move is one that frustrates me because it could have made a move that promoted rivalries instead of destroying them. College football realignment has taken out some of the great rivalries in the sport, such as Nebraska-Oklahoma, Virginia Tech-West Virginia, and going back twenty year, Arkansas-Texas. Not to mention having ended good regional series (Nebraska-Iowa State for example) in favor of more sparse conferences. Missouri could have waited and tried again to get into the Big 10, a league that many expect it to get into in the spring of 2010, until the Tigers ran their mouths about the move and Jim Delany choose the more modest Nebraska for the rust belt league. Unlike many other conference realignment moves, this one would have maintained Missouri’s border rivalry with Illinois, and restarted their series with Nebraska. Missouri fits in with the more modest intensity in the Big 10, and would only be out-resource by a handful of schools. Instead, Missouri goes to a league where they won’t even play their primary border state Arkansas.

Missouri really did fail to realize their own power in the realignment scheme. After the ACC invited Pitt and Syracuse, the Big 10’s candidates were dwindling. Missouri would give the Big 10 a new TV market in Kansas City, and as I said before, promote rivalries that the Big 10 values. Right now, the Big 10, with its TV network and its coupe of landing Nebraska a year ago, thinks it should only expand if it can land the big fish of Notre Dame, even though the Irish would rather go to the easier ACC now. If Missouri had just waited it out, the Big 10 would have moved on from Notre Dame, and there’s no way the Big 10 would take Louisville or Rutgers over Missouri.

Don’t get me wrong; I understand Missouri’s move to a degree. Even though the Big 12 has some mild stability now with Chuck Neinas as commissioner, a pledge of TV rights, and equal revenue sharing, there still is an albatross hanging over the league as long as Texas could go independent. I understand the frustration of having to go through the conference realignment mess two years in a row and wanting to be in a league that’s stable. I get all that, and if the SEC was out there, there could be stability in a conference that will be around and the one of the top revenue stream in college sports. And the SEC will likely continue to give teams four non-conference games a season, meaning that the Tigers can easily schedule four wins a year and only need two conference wins to get to a bowl.

But when it comes to passion, Missouri does trail every school in the SEC except for Vanderbilt. Every other school in the SEC has mad passion for their their teams; even basketball-first Kentucky draws 60,000-70,000 fans a game in a state with another major university. Meanwhile, Missouri drew around 54,000 for its final home game against Texas, a game that a smart marketing department could easily sell to it fans, and has averaged between 50,000-60,000 even when they’ve had only six games in Columbia. It isn’t that it’s Missouri’s fault that their state has other pro sports their fans care about more, but it is the reason their program is going to be looked down upon in the SEC. Arkansas, who had more significant success than Missouri before joining the SEC, is still looked upon like a step-child among the leagues’ major schools; how bad could it be for Missouri?

Recruiting may also be an area where Missouri might be a little naive. Yes, Missouri is going to the best football conference in America, which produces more NFL players than any conference. But perhaps they’re forgetting what recruiting at Missouri used to be like. Gary Pinkel said in a radio interview with Jim Rome in 2008, when he took over the program, he went into Missouri high schools that wanted nothing to do with the Tiger football program. Even though Missouri produces 20-25 FBS prospects a year, St. Louis and Kansas City are constantly getting hit hard by other programs from the Big 12 and Big 10 who don’t have enough players in their own states. Now the players in Kansas City have to choose between playing at Kansas and K-State, with road games against teams they’ve grown with, or playing in Columbia against teams from the South. Likewise, the players in St. Louis can either go to the familiarity of the Big 10, or choose the fanaticism of the SEC. Yes, Pinkel will probably win some if not most of those battles, but he’s only got so many years left.

That leads to the question of what Missouri football really is: are they a really good program, or have they been elevated by one coach? History would suggest the later, that they’ve been elevated by Gary Pinkel the last ten years from being a poorly manged program the previous thirty. In the end, Missouri football will probably end up like Minnesota football: a program that could be dominate, but ultimately wasn’t because their fans didn’t care as passionately about it when they got pro sports. Yes, perhaps the program could continue to be successful if they make a good hire after Pinkel retires. But Missouri has more margin for error. Florida made a disastrous hire (Ron Zook) but even still was able to hire the best young coaching prospect in the country, Urban Meyer. If Missouri were to make such a disastrous hire, could they still land a good coach after they fired the mistake?

On the basketball sid, there might be a chance that Missouri gets out of Kansas’ shadow. Even though Kentucky is basketball king in the SEC, Missouri could get make some headway in the league, given that many of the schools don’t care about basketball with any kind of passion. It is the reason I often thought that a school like North Carolina State should join the SEC, because they would instantly go right to the top in basketball. Such success may not offset losses in football, but it’s good to make hay nonetheless. And there should be a great basketball rival with Arkansas whose head coach Mike Anderson bolted Columbia last year for what ended up to be only a marginal raise.

The odd irony is, West Virginia, the school that is replacing Missouri in the Big 12, would have been a much better fit in the SEC. Like the other schools in the SEC, West Virginia has fans that push their football program first. They could have a nice border rivalry with Kentucky, and the already have recruiting ties in Florida, and their current leadership has ties to Texas, where they would likely play Texas A&M every year. The Mountaineers may have struggled the first few years, but eventually, they would have gotten a great coach and the recruits to match, just like Arkansas eventually did. West Virginia in the SEC could have been a great fit if someone actually ran realignment. But no one runs conference realignment; it’s just a free-for-all as to who get themselves in the best position to make the most.

So those are my initial thoughts on Missouri’s move to the SEC. I was surprised when I dug into how much there was to process, and later this week, I will deal with at least two specific issues created by the move: whether Missouri could become the tough outlying, northern school of the SEC, and why the bowl selection process was a bad reason to leave the Big 12.

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