Coming at you a day late, but I didn't forget ...
Steve R. from Chicago writes: Hey Adam. I'm a huge Illinois fan and expect to be one for the rest of my life. That being said, in your professional opinion what percentage chance do the Fighting Illini have of winning a national championship any time in the next 50 years? It might make for an interesting series of posts if you give similar guesses for each of the Big Ten teams, based on factors such as size of school, amount of regular donations from alumni, desire to win by school leadership, annual spending on football, historical success, fan attendance at home games, etc.
Adam Rittenberg: Steve, I have a tough enough time predicting what will happen next week, much less in 50 years! But you bring up an interesting topic: Which Big Ten programs are equipped to compete for national titles right now or in the near future? One criticism I've made about the Big Ten -- especially in relation to the SEC -- is the lack of depth at the very top. Ohio State has been the only Big Ten program to consistently compete for the national title during the BCS era, winning one championship and appearing in three title games. Three other Big Ten programs have fairly recent national championships (past 30 years) -- Michigan, Nebraska and Penn State. Wisconsin hasn't been far away from competing for national titles, but the Badgers aren't perceived as an annual contender for the crystal football. Other programs have had very good teams in the past 20 years -- Iowa, Northwestern, Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State -- but none would really be considered a national title threat.
It would take a lot for Illinois to elevate its program to that "national" level. The program would have to take several steps before even being in the discussion, like winning consistently. Illinois has shown it can have breakthrough seasons --2001, 2007 -- but the Illini have endured many more extreme downs (2005, 2006, 2012) than ups. The program needs the right coach and the ability to keep him in place. Although Illinois' recent facilities upgrades were really nice, there has to be a much stronger commitment to compete with some of the Big Ten's traditional powers. Illinois must become a destination program for the top Chicago-area players and those from other surrounding cities (St. Louis, Indianapolis). And it would need some good fortune. The 2010 Auburn team is more the model for a program like Illinois than, say, the recent Alabama teams. You need that one transforming player and a team that puts it all together. Could it happen in sometime in the next 50 years? Sure. But Illinois should worry more about consistent bowl trips and winning seasons after what we've seen in the past few decades.
Matt from Baltimore writes: Adam, as far as college football goes, I'm a traditionalist. If you want the highest level of play, you should watch the NFL. If you want tradition, you watch college football, and there is no greater tradition in sport greater than the Rose Bowl. This 4-team tournament is undoubtedly going to expand (the 68 team NCAA basketball tournament started with only 8), and eventually kill the Rose Bowl. Therefore, to preserve the tradition which makes college football worth watching, I suggest that the Pac-12 and the Big Ten secede from the playoff system and form their own separate system. In a perfect world, this would happen after the Buckeyes win the final BCS national championship game. It seems like this would be a highly doable move with few negative side effects. The 4-team playoff is likely to be filled with SEC teams; I'm guessing that SEC bias will send at least 2 SEC teams to the playoff each year, meaning that the Big Ten would be left out most years. The Big Ten is the most profitable conference and I doubt that this revenue would be significantly reduced by not being eligible for the 4-team playoff, which it wouldn't get to go to anyway. The Rose Bowl defines college football; the Big Ten and the Pac-12 should do everything it can to save it, and, in doing so, save college football itself. What might stop the Big Ten and the Pac-12 from doing this?
Adam Rittenberg: Matt, while I appreciate your passion for the Rose Bowl (Jim Delany salutes you!), this would be a terrible business decision. The projected revenues for the playoff -- whether it stays at four teams or inevitably grows -- are huge, and the Big Ten and Pac-12 both would be leaving a ton of money on the table. I can guarantee you the Big Ten and Pac-12 would lose significant revenue by walking away. You just can't do that in this environment. Also, the sport has changed and perception has changed. It's all about the national championship now, and the playoff race will heighten the focus on the race for the crystal football. The Rose Bowl already has been marginalized to a certain degree -- although not as much as the other bowls, in my opinion -- and could be marginalized more in the playoff environment. You want the Big Ten and Pac-12 to "save it," but I don't think that's possible -- in the way you want it to be saved -- in this environment. The rest of the country would just roll its eyes at these two leagues (like they've been doing for a while). Neither league would get any credit nationally for being strong. My point is you have to play with the best and win at the highest level to gain respect in this sport. By backing away from the playoff, the Big Ten and Pac-12 would hurt their brands at the expense of saving an entity (Rose Bowl) that will never be what it once was.
David from Minneapolis writes: Somewhere lost in the discussion of a move to 9 or 10 conference games is the very real prospect that the number of annual games might increase from the current 12 to 13 or 14. With Minnesota having two bye weeks, for example, in 2013, and the desire the lengthen the season into early December, the dates are available. What do you think?
Adam Rittenberg: Good point, David. As leagues get bigger, we have to consider the possibility of the regular season increasing by a game or two. Ultimately, it comes down to the university presidents, who always talk about putting academics first and player safety, but also have a tough time passing up additional revenue, which the extra games would generate. I don't think we'll see all of college football stretching too far into December, when most schools have their final exams. I know the Big Ten presidents would resist having a full slate of games around finals. I'm not sure there's a "desire" to stretch the season into December, as you write, but it might have to happen eventually.
Jeremy from Columbus, Ohio, writes: The big problem with a 10-game conference schedule seems to be that it would force teams to play only weak teams out of conference to guarantee 7 home games, which is apparently necessary to make enough money to break even. But I feel like OSU playing Texas in Columbus once should be worth as much as playing Florida A&M in Columbus twice. Obviously they lose some ticket revenue, as a team like OSU will sell out no matter who they play. But OSU recently announced that tickets for "premier" games will cost much more in the future. Additionally, the TV has to be much better. An OSU vs. Texas type game is guaranteed to be nationally televised, and probably shown on BTN as a rerun many times. But when OSU plays some scrub, the game isn't even guaranteed to make it onto BTN live. Where's the money in that? I was hoping you could give some numbers, is playing a patsy at home twice really worth that much more than a big time program at home once?
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Jeremy. I'll look into the specifics, but I'd estimate that filling Ohio Stadium twice -- no matter the opponent or the lack of appeal for TV -- is still better than doing so just once for a blockbuster nonconference opponent such as Texas, even if the tickets are more expensive. I think schools like Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State can afford 6-game home schedules from time to time, especially if they have one big-deal neutral-site game like Michigan did this past season, when it had just six true home games. But 6-game home schedules can't be regular occurrences for those schools to meet their budgets and continue to fund so many sports. It's also important to remember that all Big Ten TV revenue is shared. Ohio State doesn't get a bigger cut just because it schedules Texas. Like I said, I'll look into the dollars, but I don't think the Texas game would cover as many costs as two home games.
Rob from NY writes: Adam, one thing I'm a little worried about with the East/West division splits is the possibility of a recruiting advantage in the East. I'm a fan of Wisconsin and I would love to see us have a crossover game with Ohio State (or to a lesser extent Penn State) in the future, but in uncharacteristic fashion (believe me, I'm confused here) I'm concerned about teams like Iowa, Minnesota, and even Nebraska becoming marginalized by the "demographic shift" eastward. Does it make sense to ensure that these schools get the benefit of crossovers with the eastern newcomers (whomever they might eventually be) to develop a cohesive footprint throughout the conference?
Adam Rittenberg: Good question, Rob. The Big Ten wants all of its programs to get exposure to the new markets, and keeping crossover games might be a way to do this. On the other hand, if the Big Ten keeps an eight-game league schedule with one protected cross-division game per team, it leaves little room for a rotation. Let's say Iowa had a crossover game against new member Rutgers. Although Iowa would have a guaranteed game in New Jersey every other year, it wouldn't play at Maryland or Penn State nearly as much. If the Big Ten increases the schedule to nine league games and eliminates most or all of the crossovers, it allows for a greater rotation with all cross-division matchups taking place more often. So these are the things the Big Ten has to consider and debate. Former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema liked being in Ohio State's and Penn State's division because of recruiting, even though the UW moved further away from traditional rivals like Iowa. Ultimately, it would be counterproductive for the Big Ten to add these new teams -- and markets -- and not showcase all of its teams in those areas on a semi-regular basis.
Brad from PA writes: Expansion has to be 16 or 20. The pod system makes too much sense to ignore. If you go straight divisions, a recruit could make it through his whole career without playing every B1G school. If you use your four pods and the rotating two division concept, you could set up a rotation so you played every school at least once every 3 years. Year 1: A-B, C-D Year 2: A-C, B-D Year 3: A-D, B-CYear 4 would be the same as one, but if you were away year 1, your home year 4.I know typically teams go back to back years with home and away, but I don't see why it has to be that way just for tradition sake. This way, you have your massive conferences and still play everyone often.
Adam Rittenberg: Brad, some good points here. You're preaching to the choir about the pod system -- it makes sense and allows for the rotation needed to keep some semblance of a league dynamic. I think a 20-team league is a little bit ridiculous, especially in a sport like football where you only have 12 regular-season games. Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon told me last week that he has heard some chatter about 20 and feels that 16 is the optimal number of teams, although he's not wedded to it. Brandon also said it's a disservice to Big Ten athletes if they play four years without facing another team in the league. Whether that's preserved through a pod system, an increased number of league games or the elimination of protected crossovers -- freeing up a better rotation -- the ADs are aware of the issue. A pod system would be a must if the league ever reached 20 teams, and the Big Ten would have to give it strong consideration if and when it goes to 16.
Samuel from Iowa City, Iowa, writes: Adam, a quick question about Wisconsin. You mentioned again in Friday's mail how Wisconsin recruits players who fit rather than blue chips. Is that going to change at all with the new head coach and staff? How did Anderson and his assistants recruit at their last jobs?
Adam Rittenberg: Well, Samuel, they most recently put together an 11-win team at a program that looked to be a total dead end before Gary Andersen arrived. They produced several NFL players at Utah State (Andersen has coached a total of 25 players who made NFL rosters), so I'd say their recruiting efforts, given the place they worked, look pretty strong. They also seem to develop players well. The question is if they can recruit higher-level prospects to a higher-level program at Wisconsin and help the Badgers bring in more elite recruits. I don't think Wisconsin will ever be Alabama or Florida State or USC in recruiting. Finding players who fit the program and developing them over time will always be a program pillar at UW. But if Wisconsin wants to take the next step -- or maintain its recent level of success -- it needs to be a bigger national player in recruiting. Andersen and his assistants don't come from that world, but there's nothing to believe they can't live in it -- especially after another 10-win season or two.