Thursday, January 8, 2015

More Viewers, More Problems: ESPN’s Sugar Bowl Dilemma

Was the first version of the College Football Playoff too successful?

It is bizarre to even broach such a topic in the wake of the two most-viewed cable programs in television history. It is even more bizarre when thinking about the perception of the playoff before New Year’s Day.

rose bowl 2015
In the week preceding the first semifinals, there was a growing angst that it wouldn’t work. Reporters complained about a so-called “lack of buzz.” There were multiple “sky is falling” stories about thousands of empty seats for the Rose Bowl. There were, of course, a grand total of zero empty seats.

It dawned on me at exactly 12:30 p.m. New Year’s Eve day that people had forgotten. It had been two decades since New Year’s Day mattered. As the Peach Bowl kicked off, I felt like I was 12 again – preparing for two full days of the best playing the best.

By the time Ezekiel Elliott sprinted for a game-clinching touchdown in an instantly iconic moment, college football had, to borrow a phrase, re-introduced itself to America. Both the Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl surpassed 28 million viewers. There is no telling how big the championship game could become.

However, the amazing results of Year 1 could pose serious issues for ESPN – both semifinals are scheduled to be played on New Year’s Eve for the next two years. That is not going to work.

The first year of the Playoff indicated that many, many people like to watch college football but many of these people do not like watching college football on New Year’s Eve. Yes, there are millions watching – the ratings for the Peach, Fiesta and Orange were nothing to sneeze at. The game didn’t feature one name brand, like a Notre Dame or Alabama, and only one of them was competitive in the fourth quarter. It’s a very small sample size. But it’s worrisome.

Can the semifinal games come close to 28 million on New Year’s Eve? That is what ESPN is banking on. They have been getting 15+ million on New Year’s Day for “meaningless” BCS games for the past few years. They are gambling they can turn New Year’s Eve into another football holiday.

As if it isn’t obvious, here’s a spoiler alert: They cannot.

Common sense would say that a semifinal game, at least one, should always be on New Year’s Day. But in a rush to appease the Big 12 and SEC, ESPN agreed to put their Champions Bowl – the Sugar Bowl – on New Year’s Night after the Rose Bowl. The Rose Bowl will be played at 2 p.m. PT every New Year’s Day until the end of time, as it has been for 100 years. The Sugar Bowl between the Big 12 and SEC champions has, well, never been played.

ESPN has a problem. They now know the extent of the audience on New Year’s Day and Night for a semifinal game. How can they pass that up?

There is no way in hell – in my opinion – that the current rotation of two semifinal games on New Year’s Eve for two straight years will last past the 2016 season. But what will ESPN do? I’m glad you asked – I have some possibilities.

The Split: One Semifinal on New Year’s Eve, One on New Year’s Day

There are three Access bowls – Peach, Fiesta and Cotton – that do not have conference tie-ins. There are three Host bowls – Orange, Rose, Sugar – that do. In this scenario, the Access bowls are always played on New Year’s Eve with one game in primetime hosting a semifinal. The Host bowls are all on New Year’s Day with the Rose Bowl always in its traditional slot, hosting a semifinal once. The Sugar gets the primetime slot twice, once as a semifinal, and the Orange gets it once – the other game occupies the 1 p.m. slot.

This appeases the Big 12 and SEC, as the Sugar Bowl remains in primetime after the Rose two out of three years. The playoff games are every year split, which means college football fans know they must pay attention both days – clearly many casual fans tuned out on 12/31 this year. It will also boost the non-playoff games – see the huge numbers the Cotton Bowl as a lead-in relative the other bowls.

The Compromise: Sugar and Rose don’t host semifinals together

If ESPN absolutely has to keep the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Night, it can at least split the semifinals so New Year’s Day isn’t a lame duck. In this scenario, there would be one year of both semifinals on New Year’s Eve followed by two years of one on each day. This is better than what we will have but not ideal.

The Ideal: Both Semifinals on New Year’s Day, screw the Sugar Bowl

If we gave the Sugar Bowl some money, would that make it okay?

The semifinals need to be played on New Year’s Day. The Rose Bowl can still be at 5 p.m. ET every year. The primetime game rotates between the Sugar, Orange and Fiesta as a playoff game. When the Peach or Cotton hosts a semifinal, they do so in the 1 p.m. timeslot.

sugar bowl 2015
There are so many positives. For one, the Rose Bowl can draw playoff-like numbers any year, so having it sandwiched in-between essentially gives ESPN three playoff games. Two, it would absolutely obliterate the Winter Classic, as it started to do this year. Third, there are a ton of people watching football at that time – ESPN did 10 million for the Cotton Bowl while the Outback was attracting more than 6 million on ESPN2, for that network’s largest audience ever. You can easily get 28 million people watching at 1 p.m. New Year’s Day.

The only drawbacks to the playoffs on New Year’s Day every year are – oh, who am I kidding? There are no drawbacks, just minor details.

The Citrus and Outback bowls would likely have to move. New Year’s Eve would never host a playoff game; merely bowl games that “only” attract 10 million viewers. Maybe ESPN could move the Citrus and Outback to New Year’s Eve – CBS could move the Sun Bowl back too – and that day can become the football overload in advance of the championship games the next day.

The Future? An Expanded Playoff

When I wrote about my dream of a 16-team playoff, I said that the semifinals should be at the Rose and Sugar Bowl every year. Maybe that is the end goal?

While I doubt a 16-team playoff is realistic, an 8-team seems extremely realistic consider there are 6 bowls in the New Year’s Six and there are 6 games needed in an 8-team tournament to get to a title game. I don’t know if the future is 2017 or 2027, but that appears where we’re headed. Even if I love the current four-team playoff after hating it so, so much in theory.

What Would I Do?

I have longed for New Year’s Day to mean something again. Now that it does, it’s going away for two years? I cannot accept that. I want to experience what I experienced on 1/1/2015 every year until I die. Both games need to be played on New Year’s Day.

Deep down, I believe everyone involved knows this. Why else did they only announce the first three years of bowls? Because they have to find out if the semifinals on New Year’s Eve could work. It won’t.

New Year’s Day works too perfectly for New Year’s Eve to compete.

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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Bowl Picks, Part 3: The Glorious Return of New Year's Day

Click to read Part 1 or Part 2

The first New Year's Day I ever remember changed college football forever. That's not hyperbole.

In 1988, NBC gave up the Rose Bowl. It's fascinating to think about in retrospect but NBC didn't feel the game warranted a high fee and let the game go to ABC. At the time, the Rose Bowl was in trouble due to its association with the Pac-10 and Big Ten. In particular, this was a time dominated by independents like Miami, Florida State, Penn State and Notre Dame.

1989 notre dame
In response to losing the game, NBC moved the Fiesta Bowl opposite the Rose Bowl. It was the first time another bowl game was played against it. To add salt to the wounds, the 1989 Fiesta Bowl featured Notre Dame winning the national championship over fellow unbeaten West Virginia and the game trounced the Rose Bowl in the ratings.

For the next five years, New Year's Day became a ridiculous feast of football. There was the Rose and Fiesta in the early evening, the Orange and Sugar at night, and the Citrus, Hall of Fame (now Outback) and Cotton in the later afternoon. As the child of a Notre Dame grad who instilled a love of college football, it was the single greatest day of the year.

It was too much of a good thing. The bowls were pitted against each other and the system broke down. Fans wanted a national championship game every year. The bowls were sick of cannibalizing the audience. New Year's Day slowly disintegrated.

The best games, with the exception of the Rose, moved post-New Year's Day. With the dreaded double-hosting model, the BCS moved the title game 10+ days past New Year's Day at times. It was absurd. It was sad. It was terrible.

However you feel about the four-team playoff, the college football leaders clearly recognized that they had to do something. Hockey – frozen ice hockey – had taken over New Year's Day with the Winter Classic. What in the name of America had happened?

Now having both semifinals on New Year's Eve the next two years is insanity, there is no doubt that having the six big games on the two holidays is a huge plus for the sport. There will be energy and excitement around a day that has long defined college football.

It'll be good to have you back, New Year's Day. It had been a strange 20 years.

TCU (-3) over Ole Miss
I think TCU is better than Ohio State. I think TCU is better than Baylor. I think TCU should have been in the college football playoff. Now, I don't think it was a grave injustice – they blew the game at Baylor and probably weren't the “one true champion” of the Big 12. But they were the best team.

gary patterson tcu
And I think Gary Patterson knows all of this. His response to being left out of the playoff was markedly different than Art Briles. In part, it's because Patterson knew that TCU needs to win all of its games to make the playoff. Paterson is very realistic about TCU's place in the college football world – they won a Rose Bowl, sure, but they need to prove they belong at the Big Boy table for the duration.

That's why I believe TCU is going to come out and lay an absolute whipping on Ole Miss. It will be a fascinating matchup with the fantastic Ole Miss defense, but it's a matchup that plays in TCU's favor as they can exploit matchups in the secondary to rack up yards through the year. I don't see Ole Miss scoring enough to keep up.

Arizona (-3) over Boise State
The worst thing that happened for Boise State was the Pac-12 Title Game. Arizona got embarrassed and they have been licking their wounds for a month by the time this game kicks off. Do you really think they want to end this fantastic season with two bad losses?

Let's not forget that Rich Rodriguez is an incredible bowl coach. He is 2-0 at Arizona and he won his last two with West Virginia, including the 2006 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia that was a landmark win for the Big East and that program. This is a similar game for Arizona. They are favored but they need a big win to establish that it is a perennial Pac-12 contender.

Boise State is good – but it's Mountain West good. The only time they played a top Power Five team this year, Ole Miss played a C- game and still whipped them. Boise State has improved since then, I just don't think they've improved enough.

Mississippi State (-7.5) over Georgia Tech
This is a terrible matchup for Georgia Tech. Mississippi State is very familiar with option tendencies and reads from what they run on offense. They have a massive and talented front seven that has shut down everyone's running game this year.

While everyone loves Georgia Tech's offense, their defense has been pretty porous at times and Dak Prescott could have a monster game. On paper, everything about this game points toward Mississippi State so I'm not going to out think myself.

Auburn (-7) over Wisconsin
Auburn hired Will Muschamp as its defensive coordinator. Wisconsin's coach left to go to Oregon State. These are two teams headed in different directions. Auburn saw Ohio State score 59 and they'll be gunning for that number.

Melvin Gordon could have a big game, but even if he gets Wisconsin to 35, that won't trump Auburn getting to 65.

Minnesota (+6) over Missouri
Minnesota has been one of my favorite teams all year, constantly covering double-digit spreads down the stretch. It is another great matchup pick, as Missouri is built with fast defensive ends who rush the quarterback while Minnesota is built to smash you straight-ahead with RB David Cobb.

The last time Missouri played a team like that, it was Georgia and they lost 34-0. Is Minnesota as good as Georgia? No. But they will run at will, control the game and tempo, and grind out a tight win.

Michigan State (+3) over Baylor
First off, I am not picking Michigan State because I think Baylor won't be motivated. Now, that may change if Art Briles gets crazy and goes to DC to coach RG3. But I firmly believe Baylor will be sufficiently pumped up and motivated to play in its first Cotton Bowl in more than 30 years. Art Briles is a Texas guy and he knows the importance of the Cotton Bowl.

However, this is a game Michigan State has to have. I know that seems weird to write but Michigan State failed in its only two big games this year against Oregon and Ohio State. If you go 10-3 without beating a ranked team, does it count? This is a statement game for the Spartans and it will validate their entire season.

Baylor's defense is putrid and Michigan State's offense is miles better than it was last year. Even if this game turns into a shootout, Michigan State is equipped to handle it.

Florida State (+9.5) over Oregon
Are you kidding me with this spread? I am well aware Florida State hasn't beaten an elite team all year, but they have beaten many decent to good ones. They haven't lost in two years. You're giving me more than a touchdown? Thank you very much.

jameis 2014 acc
All year, I've thought Florida State is the best team and Jameis Winston is the best player. The problem is they show this for about 10 minutes a game and those 10 minutes are enough to win. I thought the ACC Championship game was one of their more impressive, complete games on offense and they were vexed – as many are – by the triple option.

Can Oregon slow down Florida State? If Winston avoids turnovers, I don't think they can. Can Florida State slow down Oregon? I think they can. That's the difference. Oregon can get into a rut just as Florida State can and it's tougher for them to get out of it because so much is based on tempo.

It would not surprise me if this game felt a lot like last year's BCS Title Game, with Florida State doing enough at the end to pull it out.

Alabama (-9.5) over Ohio State
Alabama is the best team in the country and I'm starting to think they're the best team in the country by a significant margin.

If there is a team that can give Alabama trouble, though, it's this Ohio State team – if J.T. Barrett was playing. Cardale Jones is a better throw and he's a big dude, but he lacks the running ability of Barrett. We've seen time and time again over the past few years that a running quarterback is the Tide's Achilles heel. It feels like this is too tall a task for Ohio State, especially since I do not trust their defense to keep Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon in check.

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The Bowl Picks, Part 2: No Such Thing as Too Many Bowls

Click to read Part 1 or Part 3

Are there too many bowls?

This is a question that gets asked a lot in December. The answer, if you're a college football fan, is no. How could it be yes? We are in the final stretch of the season. Once these games are over, there is no more college football for eight long, long months.

new mexico bowl
The people that answer yes are either NFL fans or not football fans. They see “meaningless” bowl games between South Alabama and Bowling Green and it offends them for reason I cannot fathom.

The bowl system is perfect American capitalism. When there are too many bowls, the market reacts accordingly and bowls die. Remember the Silicon Valley Football Classic? Or the International Bowl? Some games don't work. Some do.

I never understood why people get mad that these student athletes get to play another game in a (usually) warm city over the holidays. For so many seniors, their football-playing career ends with a bowl game. Why take that away from them?

Sure, 6-6 Miami versus 6-6 South Carolina in Shreveport doesn't sound like a great time. But it means something to someone. ESPN isn't airing the game on ABC due to benevolence – they're airing then because people will watch it.

People like me. I love bowls. Are there too many? Nah, there aren't enough.

Cincinnati (-3) over Virginia Tech
Was there a more mediocre team in the second half of the year than Virginia Tech? Was any more result in the past decade more head-scratching than Virginia Tech's over Ohio State? Seriously, I cannot think of a recent national title contender that has a stranger loss.

On the other side, Cincinnati proved it could score on absolutely anybody and proved down the stretch that the defense could do just enough to let them win. They held on to win crazy games against East Carolina and Houston to finish as co-champions of the AAC. I don't see Virginia Tech scoring enough points to keep up.

Arizona State (-7.5) over Duke
As long as Arizona State doesn't spend the night before partying in El Paso, they will win this game by two touchdowns. Of course, I would be deathly afraid of making this pick in Vegas because teams have a funny way of getting run over in the Sun Bowl. Seriously, the game almost never makes sense or features one team – see USF, 2007 or USC, 2012 – that play the game like they are hungover. Because they are hungover.

Arizona State is a superior team in almost every possible way to Duke. As long as they can pass a breathalyzer on their way to the field, they will win.

Miami (-3) over South Carolina
Ah, a good ol' battle of who could care less. I'm taking Miami because the recent vote of confidence to Al Golden shows the administration is going to give him at least one more year to finally drag Miami out from the Nevin Shapiro scandal.

As for South Carolina, they suffered through their most embarrassing season in about a decade. In 2005, the Gamecocks brought about 10,000 fans with them for a really fun Independence Bowl against Missouri. This year, their ticket sales will likely stay in triple digits. They have little to play for. Even if they did, I don't know how they could stop Duke Johnson.

boston college football
Boston College (-2.5) over Penn State
There will be a ton of Penn State fans at Yankee Stadium as they play their first bowl game since the 2011 season. However, Boston College is just as excited to play a bowl game where their fans may actually show up. Remember, for the past decade, BC has been sent to Boise and Detroit and Shreveport – all because of the dreaded “fans don't travel” label. There will be a decent amount of BC fans in attendance at Yankee Stadium and, come on, Boston fans in Yankee I need to explain the added motivation?

Also, Boston College is a much better team. So there’s that.

USC (-7) over Nebraska
As with the Sun Bowl, the Pac-12 team is vastly superior. While you may think USC would be unmotivated by playing an inferior opponent so close to home, I think the novelty of playing in the Holiday Bowl for the first time and the desire to make a national statement will overcome that.

This game is an 8pm kick on ESPN on the Saturday after Christmas – it will do tremendous ratings and USC teams tend to play best when the lights are brightest. Nebraska? They want it to be 2015.

Texas A&M (+3.5) over West Virginia
This is a perfect game for Texas A&M. They finally leave the SEC West and play a team without a defense. When Texas A&M has played teams without a defense – think South Carolina in week 1 or the road win at Auburn – the results have been very, very good. Texas A&M can outscore anybody. West Virginia can score as well, but they can't score as much as Texas A&M.

Clemson (+3) over Oklahoma
I'm going with Clemson as a hat tip to Dabo Sweeney. The past two years, he knocked off top 10 opponents as an underdog – LSU in the 2012 Peach Bowl and Ohio State in last year's Orange Bowl. Since the Orange Bowl fiasco to West Virginia, you can tell Dabo has put added emphasis on winning bowl games. The injury to DeShaun Watson has many throwing in the towel on Clemson but that is so unfair to a Tigers team that is legit Top 20.

Do you trust Oklahoma in a big spot? I don't. I don't care if Trevor Knight is back. I've been burned way too many times this year backing the Sooners.

charlie strong texas
Texas (+7) over Arkansas *Upset Special*
Look, I know Arkansas won back-to-back games against Ole Miss and LSU. But are they the most overrated 6-6 team in history? People were acting like they were Top 25 material at 6-5. If you didn't notice, Arkansas does not have a passing game.

Texas can stop run. Texas will stop the run. Frankly, I don't see how either team is going to score in this one, but I'm leaning with the Longhorns as I believe they will keep it low-score to win, say, a 14-10 game.

Notre Dame (+8) over LSU
If Notre Dame doesn't turn the ball over, they will win this game. It's really that simple. LSU has been unimpressive on offense all year and that may give the Irish's putrid defense a chance. But again, it all comes down to turnovers.

Georgia (-7) over Louisville
Georgia, with or without Todd Gurley, is at least a touchdown better than Louisville. The Cardinals are a decent team but they simply aren't in the same league as Georgia. You wonder about motivation for Georgia – but I saw many Louisville fans complaining about getting “stuck” in this game. I've been to Charlotte for this game and it's a great city for a bowl. My gut tells me Georgia fans show up en masse and watch the Bulldogs put forth a big statement to launch its 2015 season.

Stanford (-14) over Maryland
I can't think of a worse matchup for Maryland. Teams that run the ball well – see Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan State – destroyed the Terrapins. This could get really, really ugly if Stanford feels like it.

Houston (+3) over Pittsburgh
This is a peculiar battle of two teams going through coaching changes. But while Houston fired its coach and hired Ohio State OC Tom Herman in one of December's most impressive hires, Pitt lost its coach for the second time in four years to another Power Five school. Pitt has to be demoralized. Houston is energized. When you have two relatively equal teams, that may be all it takes.

Tennessee (-3.5) over Iowa *Best Bet*
I love Tennessee in this game. Or more aptly, I hate Iowa in this game. Iowa did not beat a team that finished with a winning record. They beat only 2 bowl teams, in Illinois and Pittsburgh. They got to 7 wins by virtue of a soft schedule.

While you can make a similar argument for Tennessee, there is little doubt they played tougher competition better – close losses to Georgia, Florida and Missouri showed how close they were to an 8- or 9-win season.

Tennessee played a ridiculous amount of underclassmen. With the benefit of a whole season and 15 practices, I expect Tennessee to be sitting on a huge performance.

Oklahoma State (+5.5) over Washington
Didn't Bedlam feel like a revival for Oklahoma State? I know this violates my rule of paying too much attention to momentum but there was so much negativity leading into that game, with the prospect of missing a bowl and Mike Gundy's name being thrown around for every job. What happened? They won a stunner over their archrival and Mike Gundy re-committed to Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys were decimated by injuries and that took away from what could have been a decent season. They will end in impressive fashion while Washington has been fairly unimpressive all year. It feels like Year 2 is when Chris Petersen will get things rolling in Seattle.

East Carolina (+7.5) over Florida
I don't know. I really don't know. East Carolina has been a bizarre team all year, blowing at least two games – Cincinnati and UCF – they should have won. They gave away games to South Carolina and Temple – the former excusable, the latter not – due to turnovers. But they can score a ton of points. They also seem to suffer from what was “USF disease” in the late 2000's in that they get amped for big non-conference games and totally ignore conference games.

I don't know what to make of Florida. I get the sense the Florida State game was their bowl game and this is just playing out the string.

Toledo (-3) over Arkansas State
Toledo is a better team than Arkansas State. Sometimes bowl games can be simple: pick the better team.

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Looking Back at My Terrible Preseason College Football Predictions

Everyone makes outlandish predictions in July and August about college football. By December, 99.9% of those people ignore them unless they happened to get something right.

Well, not me. In fact, this is my most enjoyable post to write all year. Sure, it’s painful and I’m an idiot. But it’s fascinating to see just how wrong I was. So review my 20 Bold Predictions for the 2014 College Football season after a quick look at the piece that garnered the most traffic in October – and not so much in November.

usc beats notre dame
This was my boldest of bold predictions and, for two months, it looked like I was right. Or at least in the vicinity of being right. Then Everett Golson morphed into Tommy Rees and turnovers – the exact reason I said Notre Dame was better than their record in 2013 – reared its ugly head again.

Seriously, Brian Kelly, what the hell? In three of the last four seasons, Notre Dame has been undone by turnovers. In the other season, 2012, their least talented version went 12-0 and played for a national title. How is that possible?

I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon but if they can eliminate turnovers in 2015, they should again be a playoff contender. And if they don’t, they’ll go a maddening 7-5 again. By the way, you think Kelly was missing Bob Diaco as the defense got slaughtered in November?

1) The SEC won’t get 2 teams into the playoff

My reasons were off-base but I was ultimately right. I said that the top teams would be susceptible to upsets from “lower division” teams like Mississippi State and Ole Miss, except they were upper division teams and the whole SEC West was just too darn hard.

Add to the fact the SEC East was a dumpster fire, and it really stopped this debate from happening. In fact, only the Big 12 even came close to getting two teams in.

2) Todd Gurley will win the Heisman Trophy
3) Georgia will make the college football playoff

I’m putting these two together because once Gurley got suspended; both of these went out the window. I still don’t know how Georgia lost to Florida – Gurley or no Gurley – but they were not an elite, Top 4 team without him.

4) Ohio State will go undefeated

To be fair, I wrote this before Braxton Miller’s preseason injury. And if it weren’t for a baffling inability to block a blitz against Virginia Tech, I would’ve nailed this. Unfortunately, now on its third quarterback, it feels like a huge ask for them to beat Alabama.

5) Auburn will lose at least three games

This one was pretty easy, just looking at the schedule.

“The Tigers have road trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Georgia and Alabama. Their SEC East rotating opponent went from Tennessee to South Carolina. LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are still on the schedule. There may be nothing wrong with going 9-3 against that schedule. But that’s the ceiling.”

They went 1-3 in the aforementioned road games, only beat Kansas State, and they added a bad home loss to Texas A&M to finish 8-4. I don’t think anyone thought Auburn had a bad season – they had five road games against Top 15 teams. So I’m not sure this was a bold prediction, except in comparison to their insane 2013 season.

6) An AAC team will be in the playoff hunt come December

Um, no.

7) The weekly playoff rankings will be a disaster

cfb playoff rankings
I don’t know if disaster is the right word, since people watched and it drove debate. I will say they were pretty stupid, since TCU dropped from #3 to #6 after winning a game 55-3. Like, what’s the point? I doubt anything will change since it did good business for ESPN.

I do want to quote something I wrote just to hammer home how incredibly stupid it would be for the NCAA Tournament committee to follow suit:

“Could you imagine if the NCAA Tournament committee put out a field of 68 every week and then had the chairman defend it on ESPN? Even if they just did, say, the #1 seeds, it would be an exercise in the absolute absurd.”

They want to do this! Absurd.

8) Maryland will win 8 games; Rutgers will be lucky to win 4

Funny that I put these two together because if Maryland had held on in the finale over Rutgers; I would have gotten the first half right. But they didn’t, so I didn’t. I look forward to Stanford smashing Randy Edsall’s team in the Foster Farms Bowl.

As for Rutgers, they were who I thought they were – they beat teams they should beat and lost to teams that should lose to. The only change was the schedule turned out easier than anticipated – Michigan and Washington didn’t make a bowl and Navy fell far short of expectations. Combine that with a win over Maryland, and Rutgers went 7-5. Of course, their reward was a trip to Detroit but still, they exceeded their 6-7 record from 2013.

9) Tennessee over Oklahoma will be the year’s biggest upset

Um, no. In my defense, if Joshua Dobbs was the UT quarterback for the game, it might’ve happened. Instead, it took Tennessee about half a season to make the turnaround I was expecting from them. Oklahoma was every bit the disappointment I thought they would be.

10) The Big 12 will announce expansion plans by November

Well I guess I should have written December, but the conference is not expanding yet as it waits for the NCAA to rule on its exception to have a title game with 10 teams. If that happens, expansion will not. If it does not, then expansion will. Don’t listen to clueless Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby – what I wrote in July still holds true today:

“The talking points about no conference championship game are already starting and next year the Big 12 will be the only conference without a title game, including the non-power conferences. That’s not going to work long-term. Before this season ends, the Big 12 will realize it needs to match the number in its name and will announce such.”

11) Florida State will not make the college football playoff

I based this on Florida State losing the ACC Title Game to a massive underdog. Oh so close! I also predicted they would lose to Notre Dame. Oh so close! Instead, Florida State hasn’t lost in two years and Jameis Winston, when he’s on, is still the best QB in college football.

The Rose Bowl can’t get here soon enough.

12) Navy will win 10 games this year

Man, after the Ohio State game, I felt good about this one. It ended up being misguided. The schedule ended up being harder than I thought as both Rutgers and Air Force were much improved from 2013. Really, only the loss to Western Kentucky is a head-scratcher and they went 7-5.

13) Arizona will win the Pac-12 South

NAILED IT! I love when I get one right. Even sort of nailed the whole division:

“USC is in a year of transition under a first-year coach, UCLA is getting way too much hype and Arizona State has to visit Tucson – it’s all coming together.”

14) Oregon will lose two games…and still make the college football playoff

Do I get half-credit? I predicted Oregon to lose to Washington State (huh?) and UCLA, while beating Arizona twice. They beat Arizona once in the title game and got the playoff berth. I believed in the preseason and again during the season that a two-loss team would make the playoff. I was wrong. I do think that will happen sooner rather than later.

oregon pac 12 title
I also predicted Oregon/Ohio State would play in the Rose Bowl and many were confused why that didn’t happen, to also set up Alabama/Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. The committee was very beholden to their rankings at the end but maybe massaging the matchups – which give such little advantage in a four-team tournament – would be a good thing?

15) Bo Pelini will be fired

“Nebraska isn’t winning any titles this year and it’ll be time for a change that is long overdue. I cannot be the only one who finds it ridiculous that Nebraska fans are accepting of four-loss seasons, right?”

Many people dwelled on the fact that Nebraska won 9 games but that wasn’t the point. Nebraska has not won a conference championship since 1999. That is crazy to me. I don’t know if I would have hired Mike Riley but change was definitely needed. In retrospect, they probably should’ve parted ways with Bo after 2013.

16) Dana Holgorsen will be fired

Missed by a mile here.

18) South Carolina will make a New Year’s Six bowl, and be disappointed

It’s an absurd thought right now to think of the Gamecocks playing on New Year’s Day and their fans being disappointed. No, disappointment is going to Shreveport and selling less than 1,000 tickets.

In retrospect, no one knew how awful their defense would be. I was not alone in pegging the Gamecocks for big things – they were preseason Top 10 and stayed there for about, oh, 60 seconds into the Texas A&M game to start the season. South Carolina will be one of the more interesting teams to watch in 2015.

19) Ratings for the Peach Bowl, Fiesta Bowl & Orange Bowl will be down

Last year, the Peach Bowl drew 8.69 million viewers on New Year’s Eve night with Johnny Football. The Fiesta Bowl drew 11.30 million on New Year’s Day night, post-Rose Bowl. The Orange Bowl did 11.40 million on a Friday night, Jan. 3, opposite the Cotton Bowl.

I have maintained from the beginning that playing both semifinals on New Year’s Eve starting next year is completely asinine – the ratings this year will give us an indication of how asinine. Without a huge TV draw in any of the three New Year’s Eve games this year – I do think ratings will be down. It’ll be a test of the power of ESPN.

I mean, I’ll be watching. Will the condensed schedule of the New Year’s Six help all the bowls? We shall see.

20) Ohio State will win the National Championship

Oh, hello…Maybe I should’ve waited a month to do this post?

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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Meet the Man Behind the Promotion-Relegation Banner at MLS Cup 2014

During this year’s MLS Cup, the most talked about aspect of the game on social media had little to do with the thrilling finish or the fitting end to Landon Donovan’s career. It was a banner flown over the stadium that read, “US SOCCER PROMOTION-RELEGATION NOW!”

Unless you are completely unaware, the lack of promotion and relegation in American soccer has been a sore sport for many, as it is custom in every other country playing soccer in the world.

Through a coincidence, my recent post on a hypothetical relegation league for the NFL drew the attention of Ben Fast, who just happened to be the man behind the now-legendary MLS Cup banner.

This week, I interviewed Ben (@bwfast) about his motives and whether promotion/relegation is realistic here.

Q: When did you come up with the idea for the banner at the MLS Cup?

A: During the 2014 MLS regular season, some Colorado Rapids fans flew an air banner against their ownership that read "YOU HAVE WRECKED OUR CLUB KSE & HINCHEY OUT!"

I saw some buzz on Twitter about it and the air banner idea stuck in my head as a viral way to get a message across. During the MLS conference finals, the idea came to my mind as the MLS Cup final site was narrowed to LA or Seattle. I started researching options and getting quotes for banners in both cities. LA has some great deals.

Q: What goal did you hope to accomplish? Do you think you did?

A: I know that promotion-relegation is one of the two or three most popular topics in American soccer today, so it made sense to utilize the stage to bring the message of opening the pyramid further in to public consciousness. I addressed the banner to U.S. Soccer because opening the pyramid is a USSF issue, not an MLS one.

I was certain that many people would take picture tweets and make the message go viral. I've heard it calculated that ten million people were reached with my banner message over Twitter alone. I am not sure how to calculate that, but I wouldn't doubt it. It definitely increased conversation on the topic and energized those who are openly advocating for an open pyramid.

Q: Why do you so strongly support promotion/relegation in American soccer?

A: I love American soccer and I am passionate about seeing the USA be one of the greatest soccer countries in the world on both the club and international scene. I believe that an open pyramid is the most efficient way to spur player and club development that can rival the global "gold standard" context.

Also, I am passionate about the game of soccer and I believe that inclusiveness and opportunity that an open pyramid promotes and provides is part of soccer's essence. It is quite easy to argue in favor of free markets. It works in business, so why not soccer?

Q: What do you make of people that have surmised the strong support for promotion/relegation is actually hurting the cause, by making the MLS dig in their heels?

A: MLS has a monopoly on U.S. Soccer's Division 1. They are thoroughly content in a position of closed-market, single-entity D1 irrelevancy in a country which has millions of passionate soccer fans. Based off of internet traffic, TV ratings, and attendance, MLS is falling off the pace in comparison to foreign soccer leagues in terms of popularity in the USA. Through marketing arrangements via their MLS marketing arm (Soccer United Marketing, or SUM), the MLS D1 monopoly is selling off American market potential to imported soccer friendlies that parade through our country on a regular 

mls sum MLS is one club with shareholders – it is not a collection of independent clubs and owners. The tight controls and restrictions of MLS are designed to keep this sitting duck D1 league afloat while shareholders profit on import soccer gate receipts. Many MLS owners have ties to NFL and it is theorized by some that MLS control of D1 is an attempt to subdue the growth of real, open-market soccer in the USA.

But yes, I believe that sparking conversation and asking questions is the best way to bring reform, even if the questions are uncomfortable.

Q: In theory, how would you like to see promotion/relegation work in America?

A: Two separate pyramids, east and west. They could meet at Division 1 in some sort of conference crossover. The pyramids would probably go down at least 8-10 tiers. I could see states like California hosting dozens of D1 capable clubs. The arms race that would take place in an open U.S. soccer market would be obscene.

Q: In practice, how do you think it could be achieved? Would MLS take the lead? Would USSF have to?

A: Opening the pyramid is a U.S. Soccer Federation decision. MLS is free to choose not to participate. Leagues don't have pro/rel, federations do.

Q: Do you think promotion/relegation will happen in American soccer? If so, in how many years?

A: More soccer crazy people in the USA need to start caring about the domestic game. Part of that is due to "old country" roots and loyalties, which I understand. Another critical part is educating the average American soccer fan. I was once ignorant about the closed, limited U.S. pro soccer market we have in place. I ran in to the conversation on Twitter, thought about it for myself, and I came to a simple conclusion that the free-market soccer model used around the world is the best option for soccer competitiveness.

Q: Finally - promotion/relegation is never discussed for other sports. Should it? Or do you believe it is uniquely suited to soccer?

A: It is only critical in soccer because soccer is a global market for talent. Talent is most efficiently produced in a merit-based, on-field system of talent sorting. When we match the U.S. pay-to-play, coach decision development system versus the world's merit based model, the U.S. falls woefully short. I think promotion-relegation would certainly help the other isolated American sports if used.

Can you imagine how many Damian Lillard or Stephen Curry types would emerge in basketball in a promotion/relegation merit-based system?

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