5 Thoughts - Why The Big Games Matter

Posted Sep 12, 2011

Why the big games on the field translate to the business side of the story off it.

CFN Analysis 

5 Thoughts, Sept. 12

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Week 2 Thoughts  2010 5 Thoughts | Week 1

- Fiutak: The business on the field matters more than ever
- Cirminiello: The Big Ten's disaster 
- Zemek: Coaching evaluation after two weeks
- Sallee: South Carolina is legit
- Zemek: What's with all the Irish mistakes?   

E-mail Pete Fiutak

When Notre Dame and Michigan waged its battle for the ages in one of the most thrilling regular season games ever played, it was obviously big because it was Notre Dame vs. Michigan.

But it meant even more.

When Oklahoma plays Florida State this weekend, it'll be to see if the Seminoles are ready to get back to the elite level. When Ohio State goes to Miami, it'll be to see if the Canes can somehow recapture their past glory for one more moment, and to see if it's business as usual for the Buckeyes.

But more than anything else for the two big games coming up, it's about jockeying for position when it comes to reshuffling and reestablishing who the real superpowers are, just as the conferences are scrambling to set up their superconference scenarios.

It's impossible to become a college football superpower; it's even harder to stay one; and it's truly tough to try to get back after falling. As the business news of college football changes by the day, and programs don't know what other programs in the conference are thinking in this multi-billion dollar cat and mouse game, being a superpower right now, more than ever, means everything. Being a superpower means winning the biggest of the big games on the biggest stages and holding the most cards in the court of public opinion and perception.

These big games really, really, really matter during the backchannel discussions and the negotiations currently going on. Conference realignment is a business story, not a sports story, but on-field production makes the sports story part of the business story. When it comes to the TV dollars about to be involved for the next few decades, and when it comes to where teams want to be and what the best fit might be financially, perception on the field is perception in the boardroom.

It's all tied together. The better the conference deal, the more money will come in. More money means better facilities. Better facilities means better recruits, and with the better teams means more money to keep the cycle going. That's what the Pac-12 has figured out better than anyone, and that's why several of the league's programs want to expand even further to bring in the bigger paydays to be able to upgrade the facilities to an Oregon or SEC-like level of plush. But that money comes from TV, and TV likes the biggest of the big name teams. 

Despite the two losses to open this season, the signs are there that Brian Kelly has the pieces in place to make the Irish real, live players in the national title discussion down the road, while Michigan has the right guy at the right time in Brady Hoke. That's why last Saturday night in Ann Arbor mattered; it felt like it was the reemergence of two superpowers, even if they don't quite reach their expectations or goals for another year or two. A strong Michigan does wonders for the Big Ten, while a great Notre Dame does wonders for all of college football. When the star programs are good, everyone gets fat, and being able to sell exciting and talented Michigan and Notre Dame teams ups the ante that much more.

And this weekend, other big names are auditioning to show whether or not they can be counted on to bring in the big audiences down the road, too.

Miami hasn't been a superpower for years, but there's still the name recognition and the belief that it can be back to the way things used to be with the right coach and the right recruiting classes. The problem is that the game has changed for the football program, and Al Golden can't do the things Butch Davis was able to during the reconstruction. If Miami gets blown away by Ohio State, considering the possible NCAA sanctions coming up, it's going to be hard to think the program can ever get back to being a superpower. A mediocre Miami hurts the ACC, and a hurt ACC might make Florida State and Virginia Tech more interested in taking off. Again, it's all about the perception at the immediate moment, because that's what most of the conference big-wigs are going by when it comes to TV deals.

For Florida State, if it beats No. 1 Oklahoma, combined with the rising stock under head coach Jimbo Fisher, the school's stock will shoot through the roof, giving the school even more leverage to try to get a better deal either as the anchor of the ACC or as part of the SEC. A win over OU suddenly makes FSU even more attractive to a conference's TV package, just like having a down Miami hurts whatever deal the ACC comes up with next.

For Oklahoma, if it rocks Florida State and is even more firmly entrenched as the top team in the country, watch how the Pac-12 really starts to drool. Don't think that perception doesn't matter at the immediate moment when it comes to all the talks and all the discussions, because that's the way OU is playing it. Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma administration are selling the on-field success of Sooner football, and they're going to try to strike when the iron is hottest. If you think Oklahoma has the Big 12 over a barrel right now, watch what happens if it comes back from Tallahassee with a win.

And then there's Texas, who appears to be lousy again at the worst possible time.

Texas is a whale for any conference to land no matter what the record is at the end of this year. However, if the team really is as average as it looked against Rice and BYU, and if Mack Brown is in for another rough season, the bargaining power could change just enough to alter the negotiations. It's hard to be an arrogant superpower after coming off two lousy years. and while the Pac-12 and Big Ten would take Texas in a heartbeat, the dynamics would change since it's not always a given that a national title-level program will rebound right away.

A Big 12 anchored by a Texas that's merely above average isn't going to cut it, especially if Oklahoma and Oklahoma State bail to the Pac-12. The Big East is just itching to take the Big 12's also-ran programs, and if Texas appears wounded and on a downward track like Michigan after Lloyd Carr retired, or Florida State in the 2000s, or USC after its sanctions, or Miami after Larry Coker, or Oklahoma after Charles Thompson, or Nebraska after hiring Bill Callahan, or Notre Dame after Lou Holtz lost it, then Missouri, Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State will be that much more interested in bailing.

More than anything else, and beyond all the business talk, college football is better when there are lots and lots of great big-name programs. It's better when Notre Dame and Michigan are good. It's better when Oklahoma vs. Texas means something. It's better when Florida State vs. Miami is good enough to stop the world.

The conferences know that, the networks know that, and the advertisers know that. The stakes are high on the field this weekend like never before. Now let's hope we get another Notre Dame vs. Michigan type of game to match the importance off the field – but maybe with a little better defense.