Mitchell: The Unlevel Playing Field
Alabama's Nick Saban
Until we have a truly unifying body for college football that levels the playing field for all, this is only half a sport
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
There has been considerable and heated debate recently about the need for a college football playoff to more equitably determine our sport's national champion. CFN has been just as guilty as the rest in this regard. Indeed, we have been long and vocal advocates of even a simple "+1" format over the current bowl - payola - structure.
However, before you start thinking a playoff of any variety will accurately determine college football's best team, it's more important to recognize that our sport has a far deeper problem: there isn't a level playing field.
This is hardly surprising. Regional biases and traditions, executive egos and a ridiculously untenable 120+ FBS teams all make herding cats look simple. It's also far easier to just talk about the need for a playoff than to address these imbalances, as it has become painfully obvious that the current system is deeply flawed. When the Athletics Director of tOSU argues that football was meant to be played where it's warm, you know something is fundamentally amiss.
However, today each conference has far too much authority over how college football is managed, both on and off the field. Until that changes, until we have a truly unifying body for college football that levels the playing field for all, we are half a sport.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
As important as on-field rule differences might be, take a quick look at something far more material: scholarships, and how they are offered, applied and/or rescinded.
Last year's BCS champion, Alabama, is often cited as a poster child for running amok in this regard. However, the Tide is only executing on every possible loophole permitted by the Southeastern Conference.
From stretching the gray-shirting rules, to liberal applications of medical hardships, to mailing 100+ items of correspondence to a single recruit on one day, the SEC is far more liberal in terms of how it handles recruiting/scholarships than many other conferences.
Want a more concrete example? Compare Bama to a team from its 2011 schedule - Penn State of the Big Ten.
Since Saban's first recruiting class about a month after his hire, Bama has averaged 27 signing day scholarships per year for six years, including a staggering 32 in 2008. Over that same six year period, Penn State averaged just 19 signing day scholarships per year.
That's a difference of eight signing day scholarships per year, for six years. Or nearly 50 additional signing day scholarship football players. You simply don't understand the sport if you fail to recognize what a material advantage this is.
Yes, the NCAA caps all teams at 85 scholarship players per season, but the above illustration highlights how some conferences juggle the rules beneath the rules differently, and in so doing provide their member institutions with a material, unequal advantage.
PEELING BACK THE ONION
It's not just Alabama – many SEC schools have taken advantage and stretched these scholarship rules ... particularly over the past decade. The SEC is playing the best football in the nation right now, and there are many factors to that beyond the number of players signing scholarships on the first Wednesday in February.
Still, it's difficult to argue that having more players from which to select your final 85 gives a team a significant advantage.
It's not just the SEC, and recruiting variances are just the tip of the iceberg. For example, it's quite common for an athlete to be ineligible to play in Conference A because his Biology or English credit doesn't transfer, so he goes to Conference B … while another player can't sign with a Conference B school because a History or Math credit doesn't apply, so off he goes to Conference A.
There is no easy answer, especially since it's not by accident that we have the convoluted situation we do. Some conferences place higher requirements on a host of different, contributing factors, based on regional and/or organizational standards/traditions.
But more common ground across all conferences must be found if we are to have a truly equitable sport.
A FIRST STEP
Paring down the ridiculously unmanageable FBS from 120+ teams to 64 would be a good start. Buffalo has no business being considered at the same football level as FSU or USC. That's no knock on Buffalo ... or San Jose State. Or even Temple.
Harvard doesn't have any business being considered at this level either, and Harvard's feelings aren't hurt, trust me.
Too many teams creates too many opportunities for imbalance, irrespective whether or not that imbalance is just.
Now is the time to do it, as well. Our sport is in the midst of a growth spurt that is fostering significant reorganization, and we're only at the beginning stages. As much movement as you think you've seen in the past three years, this is only the start.
You're either a noob or the "g" in gullible if you think Missouri is playing all of its conference sports in the SEC East forever, that West Virginia is "well-suited" for the Big 12, or that the SEC, Pac-12 and B1G are stopping at 14, 12 and 12 teams, respectively. There's simply far too much money in it not to grow to 16. Think Wall-Street-trophy-wife money.
Moreover, we're about to enter uncharted waters. Offering players Cost of Attendance stipends - legitimately vs. the $100 handshake - is coming, and with it the likelihood for massive disruption of whatever balance we pretended to have in college football, if these changes aren't rolled out nationally.
Again, the answers aren't easy, but they are necessary to ensure a healthy sport absent the perception of disproportionate advantage. The leaders of college football are well aware of what needs to be done to level the playing field. If they are brave, they'll tackle these matters in the near-term, for the betterment of our sport.
Follow Russ Mitchell on Twitter @russmitchellcfb