Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Newest Game Changer

By Jean Neuberger

When you first heard it, it didn't sound right. It was surprising.

The SEC, fresh off of prying two programs away from the Big 12, goes back to the scorned conference and makes a deal that sent ripples across the college football nation.

On paper, it seems simple. The SEC and Big 12 agreed to have their champions meet in a bowl game should they fail to be the four teams selected in the soon-to-be official playoff system. If the conference champion was in the playoff, the next highest squad would be chosen. That didn't seem entirely a huge deal. In fact, take the top four teams in 2011 into discussion (Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma State and Stanford) and the Cotton Bowl was the exact game between the next highest SEC squad, Arkansas, and Big 12 squad, Kansas State.

This agreement, though, means much more. First, the SEC and Big 12 called out the remaining four (while I can say it) AQ schools and one-upped them all. Second, it became more than evident that the Big 12, who was inches away from the athletic graveyard, has landed solidly on its feet.

It became obvious, that, with the never-ending demand by the Pac-12 and Big Ten to keep the Rose Bowl traditions alive, the two conferences were very lukewarm towards the playoff system. They had a bowl game that still had the mystique, the parades, the pomp and circumstance that demanded national attention. And, given the dominance of the SEC in recent years, one couldn't totally blame the two conferences for clinging to a piece of football lore that was uniquely theirs.

But, for the old school, Rose Bowl tradition of the Pac-12 and Big Ten, the SEC and Big 12 introduced the new school way of things. Having been the two top conferences in the short history of the BCS, they would create a new legacy by duplicating the Rose Bowl standard, but putting cities on alert: the bowl game was up for bidding. So, while the Rose Bowl sticks to what it does, New Orleans, Dallas, and Atlanta stockpile war chests, ready to play the biggest college football bidding game yet.

The edge, for now, goes to New Orleans, given the history of the Sugar Bowl with the SEC and the fact the Big 12 champion headed to the Fiesta Bowl, which now is geographically a bad scenario for both conferences. However, given the way Paul Hoolahan and company have run the Sugar Bowl over the last couple of years, it would be no surprise if the far more shrewd Jerry Jones made the Cotton Bowl Classic in Cowboys Stadium the site of the big showdown, thus adding facilities into the old school/new school debate.

Meanwhile, while the Big East remains struggling and gasping for breath (as you read this, Boise State has still yet to officially withdraw from the Mountain West), the news of this game was a punch in the stomach to the ACC. The hoops-crazed league bet on the wrong sport financially and now, face a troubling future of being left behind by the other four conferences (let's face it, no one considers the Big East that big at the moment). While it seemed at first that Florida State's earlier vent at the ACC for being too Carolina and basketball centric was just a small tale of sour grapes, now it seems as if the Seminoles were steps ahead of their conference brethren. The powers that be in Tallahassee have to really take a step back and tread carefully to see where their best future lies (and don't think Miami and Virginia Tech aren't doing the same).

The rise of the Big 12 is amazing, and Chuck Neinas deserves some praise for an incredible job in lifting the conference from the depths of despair. The potential suitor list to join the once embattled league is growing, much to the delight of Neinas and everyone at the Longhorn Network. Along with Florida State, one can't ever count out BYU as a potential member as well. The Cougars, who went independent only because rival Utah joined the Pac-12 without them, bring a large fan base and their own TV network, which of course is no problem with the Big 12.

Now that college football is becoming more centered around four conferences, BYU has to strike now or face a challenging road ahead. So does Notre Dame, whose stubborn refusal to join a conference in football cost the Big East dearly. The Irish could be left behind if they don't act soon and find a conference for its football program. Meanwhile, West Virginia is breathing massive sighs of relief from their fortunes. Those same sighs can be heard in Ames, Iowa, Lawrence and Manhattan, Kansas and Waco, Texas.

It was just an announcement of a bowl game. Yet, in this never-ending maze of realignment in college athletics, it was a day that could possibly live in football infamy.

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