Mr Pac-10's 2008 Lookback - Part Two

Mr Pac Ten
Posted Jul 29, 2009

Collegefootballnews' Matthew Smith Looks Back at 2008, Part Two: What can Utah and the Mountain West do?

In part one of the 2008 Look-back, I examined the question of whether Utah should have been part of the national title game. And while I think it's clear that they simply didn't have the same resume as Florida and Oklahoma, that doesn't change the larger problem that the 2008 title race made clear: regardless of merit, even when they do deserve title shots, non-BCS teams aren't going to get a fair shot, except in extraordinary circumstances (had Utah made their 2008 run in 2007 instead, for instance, it might have been possible given how extraordinarily poor the group of title contenders was). The question then becomes, what can they do about it? Speeches in Congress aren't helping, threat of litigation isn't helping, so what's left? This column focuses on the Mountain West and their options, mainly because they're the most relevant league; they have three of the four elite non-BCS programs (BYU, Boise, TCU, Utah), and they have the two teams (2004 Utah, 2008 Utah) with the best argument for deserving some kind of shot at the title. Some of the points raised here would apply to other non-BCS leagues; however, their positions are simply too different for their interests or best strategies to converge in a meaningful way.

Before I go further, I think it's a good idea to lay out the problems that the Mountain West faces, both in terms of national title game access and BCS game access:

1: They have virtually no bargaining position

Many Mountain West supporters want to believe that a sizable portion of the public strongly supports their positions, or that they have the ability to get the courts to force the BCS to bend to their wills. Both of these ideas are completely wrong.

For the first, there are certainly many people who'd like to see more access for non-BCS teams, but other than those with a vested interest, few would bother doing much of anything about it. The general public isn't going to stop watching games, isn't going to vote based on this issue, and isn't going to devote time and/or money to changing the system. They may (or may not) sign online petitions and do other things that require zero commitment, but that's about the limit. Relying on the general public to affect change is almost certainly a dead end.

Similarly, it's not likely that the courts will do much to help. Yes, it's quite possible that a sympathetic judge somewhere will play ball, but any ruling that would do anything substantial would almost certainly affect the ability of the professional sports leagues to conduct their business (or at least set the precedent), which means that they'd basically be fighting the entire sports establishment in this country, perhaps not in the original case but almost certainly on appeal. The long-term effects of pissing off the NFL, NBA, MLB, and all of the other leagues would almost certainly more than make up for whatever short-term legal victory might possibly be won.

2: They have zero allies

I don't think this point can be emphasized enough. Right now the Mountain West more or less stands alone, having pissed off the other non-BCS conferences by emphasizing that they want to become an auto-bid conference rather than emphasizing more access for any deserving teams. They've pissed off the BCS conferences by pushing the idea of splitting revenue equally among all leagues (which is pretty much the definition of a non-starter). And they haven't managed to find any noteworthy allies anywhere else. It's no wonder they were reduced to the embarrassing position of being forced to sign an agreement that they hated.

3: The BCS schools still have the nuclear option

This is one of those things that people generally don't want to talk about, but it's a fact: the BCS schools have the ability to pack up their bags, leave the NCAA and form their own organization. It's a nuclear option for a reason: the amount of ill-will it would generate would be enormous, the logistics would be a nightmare, and a boatload of tradition (such as the NCAA basketball tournament) would go out the window. But if push comes to shove, and enough of the established powers get forced into a position they feel they cannot abide, it's on the table.

I have no idea what set of circumstances would create enough of a rift for this to happen, but I'm virtually certain that there is such a point, somewhere along the line. Equal revenue-sharing among all conferences, or among all schools, regardless of whether the schools or conferences are a legitimate part of the national title race, would probably be enough. If North Texas and Idaho get as big of a check as Alabama and Oklahoma, at the least there will be very serious discussions about breaking away from the NCAA, at least in football and quite possibly across all sports. In the end, there may not be enough support, or the schools may decide it's not worth the substantial downsides, but it would be very possible that they would go through with it.

4: They aren't as good as any of the BCS conferences

It's certainly true that the gap has substantially closed from where they were in, say, 2000, both because Utah and BYU have both greatly improved and because they added TCU. However, the fact remains that as a whole the conference still isn't very good, mainly because the teams at the bottom are severely dragging it down. All conferences have weak members, but the Mountain West has more weak members and they tend to be really bad. Even in a generally good year for the conference, they still had one completely abysmal team (San Diego St), as well as a bad team (Wyoming; the win at Knoxville aside they were really bad, going 1-6 in conference play, barely pulling off home wins against Ohio and a AA team and getting destroyed at home by Bowling Green).

One thing that Mountain West proponents like to do is compare their conference to the Big East. However, even though many perceive the Big East as being the weakest of the BCS leagues (over the past two years, that's probably unfair, as the Big Ten was probably the worst of the six both years, given their high number of bad losses and dearth of good wins), even they do fairly well in comparison to the Mountain West. Of course, if we're just looking at last year, the Mountain West had better teams at the top (Utah and TCU were certainly better than whoever you think were the two best Big East teams out of Cincy, Pitt, WV and Rutgers), but the rest of the Big East compares much better (BYU and team #3 is a decent matchup, and the bottom falls out of the Mountain West after that; Air Force is much worse than team #4, UConn and USF would dominate the middle of the MWC; and Louisville and Syracuse at the bottom were much better than Wyoming and SD St). And that was one of the Mountain West's best seasons in recent memory; the comparison gets worse for many other seasons on record, which is true not just comparing to the Big East but for the other BCS leagues as well.

This situation creates obvious problems when Mountain West proponents try to argue that they should replace one of the current BCS conferences; without a clear case that they actually are better than one of the other leagues, it's pretty much a dead end; you can certainly make a case that my conclusions are wrong (if you focus just on the top of the league and just on 2008 you can make a somewhat compelling case), but there's just not enough evidence to actually win the argument.

5: They're a small conference

At nine member schools, the Mountain West is three smaller than the ACC, Big XII and SEC; two smaller than the Big Ten; and one smaller than the Pac-10. This acts against them when it comes to making an argument that they deserve an equal place at the table; if you completely ignore any issues regarding quality of programs, they still have to overcome the fact that smaller leagues generally have less power, as well as the fact that the larger leagues would most certainly resent having to give up a BCS check to a league that only splits it nine ways where they have to split their own checks ten to twelve ways.

Of course, the Big East is even smaller than the Mountain West, but "we're not the worst in this category" isn't the argument to make when it comes to having an equal place at the table. Most likely, the Big East will add another member or two within the next five years or so (at least they really should, given how bad it looks to have an 8-member league with an auto-bid, and how bad it looks for teams like Rutgers to be able to schedule four OOC games that are cakewalks, with the fifth not that tough either), but again, just because someone else has the same issues doesn't diminish the fact that the Mountain West has this problem. When it comes to promoting their league, they need to diminish the arguments others can come up with, and right now, even if quality of play improves, even if non-conference schedules get tougher, they still have this problem, and it's not going to go away until and unless they fix it.

So what is there to do? There are a number of things that can be done to give the Mountain West a much better chance of getting more access, both for the next few seasons and especially for the next round of BCS negotiations.

1: Jump into bed with the Cotton Bowl

This one's a no-brainer. On a fundamental level, improving access to both the national title game and the at-large BCS games gets a whole lot easier if there are more BCS games. The established BCS games really don't want this, because it affects their bottom lines. But they don't want non-BCS teams to have access anyway, because they tend not to fill stadiums and have as many TV viewers, so worrying about what they want is probably just a big waste of time.

But, the Cotton Bowl wants to be a BCS bowl, they've got a boatload of money and influence behind them, and they'd almost certainly be willing to find common ground in exchange for more support for their membership. Politically, they can probably get the support of the Big 12, given that they have a lot of influence in Texas and Oklahoma, where the entire Big 12 South is. However, that's probably their only strong source of support, though they probably do have some influence with the SEC, mainly the West teams. Because of that, they need allies pretty much wherever they can find them, because they definitely don't want to miss out on the next round of BCS assignments. Turning the Cotton Bowl into a fifth BCS bowl suits both parties very well, and it would be a lot easier to muster support if both parties worked together.

2: Schedule Tougher

To a certain degree, they're already moving in that direction. There's been an intentional push by the league to have more games against BCS teams, from any conference, which is why this year TCU plays Clemson and Virginia, BYU plays Oklahoma and Florida St, Utah plays Oregon and Louisville, and all of the other teams play at least one BCS opponent. This is good, but it's still not enough. The scheduling philosophy for the lower-level schools is probably fine, but the top three schools need to do more. Each may play two BCS opponents, but TCU also plays Texas St and SMU, BYU also plays Tulane and Utah St, and Utah also plays Utah St and San Jose St. One non-conference layup is fine, but two just won't cut it. Every year there will be at least two Mountain West that a legitimate top 15 team would consider cannon fodder, so to be taken seriously as a title contender there can be no more than one non-conference layup.

When setting a schedule, the standard should be whether or not they'd deserve a shot at an at-large bid with one loss. If the answer is either "no" or "it depends on whether the conference is unusually good this year", that's not going to cut it. Fair or not, the burden of proof is on the Mountain West to prove they belong, not on everyone else to prove they don't.

3: Schedule Major Non-BCS Programs

The second the Poinsettia Bowl was over, TCU should have been on the phone arranging a home and home with Boise for 2009 and 2010. It was one of the most exciting bowl games of 2008, and not finding a way to follow that up was a major missed opportunity for both programs. Moreover, it probably could have been done. On October 3rd, TCU hosts SMU, and in Sept 19th, they host Texas St. They could have dropped Texas St, moved SMU to opening weekend, and slotted Boise into October 3rd, the day Boise was supposed to play UC Davis (who they probably could have dropped). They could have signed with ESPN, marketed the hell out of it, made enough revenue to overcome the loss of one home game in two years (assuming both years they'd slot out a AA game), and created a lot more excitement around their program.

In fact, it's crazy that the Mountain West ever goes a year without having at least one of their "Big Three" play Boise. Both groups want to prove that they're better than the other, and both groups want to be sure that they wouldn't be left out of the BCS if they ran the table (which even now is possible – just ask Boise last year). If Boise is willing to do home and homes with MAC teams they're probably willing to do it with a high-level Mountain West team, and if TCU is willing to play cash games at Virginia and Clemson they ought to be willing to do a home and home with Boise.

And while we're at it, BYU is playing the wrong C-USA team this year. Why do a home and home with Tulane when you could try and hit up Tulsa again? There's nothing wrong with going back to the well and having another home and home with the same program, and doing so would give BYU a chance to get a credible win, as opposed to essentially a bye.

4: Figure out a Strategy

Maybe I'm wrong, but right now I just don't get the sense that there's any overriding strategy to what the Mountain West has been doing. Yes, there are goals, but there really doesn't seem to be any idea about how to get there. Ultimately, they're going to have to make conscious decisions about how to proceed, and they're going to have to prioritize their goals. Writing a "we want everything" letter and hoping something will stick didn't work this past round, and I can pretty much guarantee it won't work in the next round either.

Serious questions are going to have be asked and answered, starting with how they want to look for allies and strengthen their political position. If they decide to get serious about trying to find allies, they'll have to decide which ones they want and how to co-ordinate interests. If they decide that they want to ally themselves to the Cotton Bowl, for instance, they would probably want more of a presence in that area, which might mean trying to poach Tulsa, Houston, or UTEP from C-USA (Tulsa would be the best program, but it might be politically better to take a Texas school, especially given that Houston has access to the biggest market of the three, though they don't dominate the market in the way that would make them a no-brainer).

Moreover, they might be interested in adding three rather than one team, split into divisions and do a championship game, though that has its own set of pluses and minuses. That type of goal would mean that there would be a serious case to be made for looking at more than just Texas-area teams, with the obvious next one on the list being Boise, though others worth at least thinking about might include Nevada (monopoly on the state), San Jose St (lousy program, but would substantially increase their California presence, good for both television and recruiting), and perhaps Fresno (much the same reasons as SJ St, though a better program and worse location).

In the case of Boise (and Fresno as well, though to a lesser extent), there are serious downsides to bringing them in: they're well out of the way compared to the current league teams, they're not near a major market, and they will always be at risk of dropping back into the pack when the next coaching transition occurs; Koetter to Hawkins to Peterson has worked well, but at some point someone won't excel in the role. On the other hand, the positives are substantial as well, though mainly short-term; bringing in Boise would significantly enhance the credibility of the league, and give it a total monopoly on all of the good teams who've crashed the BCS. If the goal is to become a BCS league, the pros could very well outweigh the cons; once again, there should be serious consideration, as opposed to the current "we're not going to worry about this right now and instead focus on complaining about the system" mindset that seems to be in vogue.

Of course, any type of expansion, no matter how many teams and which ones they would poach, would seriously antagonize the other non-BCS conferences, but that might not matter if they decide to push to become a BCS conference as opposed to work for more access for everyone.

Alternatively, they could decide to co-ordinate efforts with other non-BCS leagues to gain access for any deserving team, as opposed to the "just us" approach. This would certainly widen their base of support, but it could also prevent them from becoming stronger as a conference (obviously poaching teams is out if they want to seriously make nice to the other leagues), and depending on how they approached the issue, they could increase the number of interests who stand in opposition. It's a trade-off, and they have to figure out which way they want to go, sooner rather than later if they want to be prepared for the next round of BCS negotiations. The two approaches (become a 7th BCS conference vs creating more access for everyone) are fundamentally different, and if they want to succeed on either front they'd need to put a lot more effort into paving the way for success.

Just as importantly, they've going to have to decide whether it's more important to have greater national title game access or greater BCS at-large game access. Either one would be a substantial change, and both have interests that would push strongly against change. Sure, it might be possible to change both, but it would be a lot harder, and would more likely ensure that neither changed. It's another area where they need to have a clear goal, and then put together a plan to achieve that goal, whichever one they choose.

Ultimately, there are a lot of things that they can do if they want to strengthen their position and get more access, both to the BCS and the national title game. I'm not arrogant enough to pretend that I've found all of the good ideas out there, or even close to all of the good ideas. However, I do think that these ideas are a solid starting point, and something that can be built upon.

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