Nick Saban ingratiated himself to college football fans of all stripes Tuesday when, per ESPN.com’s Brett McMurphy, Saban suggested the Group of Five only play each other.
Nick Saban wants Power 5 conferences to play only games against other P5 schools. “Better for fans & for players"
— Brett McMurphy (@McMurphyESPN) May 27, 2014
Saban’s idea comes the same day that SEC counterpart Will Muschamp decried scheduling FCS programs at the SEC meetings in Destin.
On its face, the concept seems like the answer for a captivate viewing audience that demands top-quality games. Alabama vs. Oregon! Texas A&M vs. Ohio State! Oklahoma vs. LSU! It’s a marquee matchup, each and every Saturday.
Kevin Trahan of SBNation presented a very cool breakdown of possibilities.
What could possibly go wrong? Let’s erect a Nick Saban statue outside of every stadium in the country!
Well, allow yours truly to play the role of Debbie Downer.
Saban’s Alabama team hosted Colorado State last season. The Rams head coach, Jim McElwain, is a former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator, working directly with Saban for two of his national championships.
At last July’s Mountain West Conference media days, I asked McElwain about the significance of visiting Bryant-Denny Stadium for his program.
“I look at it not only as a teachable moment for our players, but really for our fans, for everybody that touches the organization to see that,” he said. “‘Wow. So this is the way [big-time football] is.’
“Not that we’d ever reach that [same] pinnacle [as Alabama], because you’ve got to understand they’ve being doing it a long time,” he continued. “But at the same time maybe take a step back and say, ‘Ah. I get it.'”
Colorado State was on the cusp of joining the national elite in the late 1990s under head coach Sonny Lubick. McElwain mentioned that era and returning the Rams to that level.
A season that included a visit to arguably the most hallowed venue in the sport concluded with Colorado State rallying to knock off Washington State—a power conference team that took national runner-up Auburn to the brink in Week 1—in the New Mexico Bowl.
Mountain West Conference counterpart Boise State is the latest to take on that role as the outsider on the periphery of the elite. The Broncos arguably joined the ranks of the elite, winning high-profile contests against Oregon, Virginia Tech and Georgia in consecutive years.
Under the suggested power-only mandated, such matchups would not be possible.
It took Boise State years of continuous success to build enough of a reputation to secure such games, and maintaining its reputation means winning significant games. To that end, the overall strength of its “non-power” conference is paramount.
“It’s our responsibility as other members of the Mountain West Conference to push Boise,” McElwain said. “We can’t rely on them carrying the flag all the time…Before Boise, it was Colorado State as a Top 25 program, year-in and year-out. And then creating a lot more pressure on Boise to keep it going, and I’d think that’s what [former Boise State head] coach [Chris] Petersen wants, also.”
In other words: Rising tides lift all ships. But take away the big stage from those programs, and it pulls the entire drain-plug.
Of course, there are no shortage of those fans who frankly don’t care about the long-term stability of these programs. A top-tier of college football, home to roughly 60 teams and mirroring the NFL more than the college football landscape of the past.
That’s an understandable mindset, and that’s precisely the kind of fan Nick Saban alluded to in his comment.
As intriguing as the possibilities seem with the Group of Five only playing each other, reality is that the consistent bottom-feeders of the power conferences would become the new nonconference punching bags.
Even the NFL produces consistently putrid matchups on a weekly basis—and the NFL has roughly half the number of franchises as the amount of programs in the Group of Five conferences. Moreover, the league dictates scheduling—not individual teams. When a team’s best interests are at stake, precedent suggests they won’t go out on a limb with a loaded nonconference slate.
One marquee power-conference opponent? No problem. But with two or three more dates to fill? Hello, Illinois.
Add the ambiguous label “power conference opponent” and it certainly sounds intriguing. However, it’s more likely we see games like Alabama’s 62-13 romp over Duke in 2010 than a proliferation of marquee matchups.
Certainly a game pitting a traditional Group of Five power against Boise State or BYU—which was just given the proverbial scarlet-A a week ago—is a lot more satisfying to all college football fans than a Top 10 team pummeling Kansas*.
* excluding Missouri and Kansas State fans, as well as people who really dislike Charlie Weis.