Pac-12 Football Roundup; LA NIL Approaches; Will Geography Matter?
It's hard to believe, but the 2022 football season is right around the corner. NFL exhibition games, perhaps the most useless things in all of sports, are underway, and the college season begins in 12 days.
Some notes from around the Pac-12:
* The Pac-12 has a chance to gain some stature this season with early games against "name" teams from other conferences, including Oregon at Georgia, Utah at Florida, Arizona State at Oklahoma State, and Cal at Notre Dame.
* Most experts have pegged Utah as the favorite to win the conference, with good reason. The Utes won the Pac-12 last year and went to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Ohio State in the best game of the bowl season.
Coach Kyle Willingham (above), still the most under-appreciated coach in the country, has most of his team back, led by quarterback Cam Rising, and his team is ranked No. 8 in the pre-season coaches' poll.
I think they may be better than that. We’ll find out a lot in Gainesville on Sept. 3.
* A couple of teams that will be out the door in two years are shaping up as possible contenders.
New USC coach Lincoln Riley, the Oklahoma transplant, had the nation's biggest haul from the transfer portal, adding a stable of offensive thoroughbreds.
Riley landed the No. 1 player in the portal, quarterback Caleb Williams (who followed him from Norman), along with his favorite receiver Mario Williams, plus Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison from Pitt and standout running back Travis Dye from Oregon.
Riley's offensive weapons now include one of the best quarterbacks in the country, perhaps the two best receivers in the country, and one of the top running backs in the country. USC could easily average 35 points per game.
* Over in Westwood, things are also looking up. UCLA coach Chip Kelly has an experienced, dual-threat playmaker at quarterback in Dorian Thompson-Robinson and a stud running back of his own in Zach Charbonnet. The Bruins also added a number of transfers on the offensive and defensive fronts. It's possible that Kelly will start nine transfers this fall.
He'll also have one of the oldest teams in the country, with 21 players who have graduated on the team, 20 of whom are in grad school.
*The Bruins have a favorable schedule, to put it mildly. They open at home against Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama, then travel to Colorado to meet the team picked to finish last in the Pac-12.
So in all likelihood they'll carry a 4-0 record into the two biggest games of the year—at home vs. Utah and away at Oregon, after a fortuitous bye. A 9-3 record looks realistic.
* Unfortunately, even with the positive outlook, the Bruins may not draw many fans. Last year UCLA blasted rival USC 62-33 in the Coliseum in the next to last game of the season, then drew only 36,156 in the 91,000-seat Rose Bowl a week later for the finale against Cal.
* The two LA schools have vastly different approaches to NIL. The Trojans have two collectives aimed at generating funds for NIL payments. One, BLVD, LLC, is affiliated with the university and supposedly plans to play by the rules, as in, not using funds for recruiting.
The other, "Student Body Right", a group composed of diehard fans and well-heeled donors, has a stated goal of helping the program compete with other premier schools and providing football players with "the equivalent of a base salary".
UCLA's Westwood Exchange has registered over 140 businesses, according to Kelly. To receive compensation, players must meet certain academic and community service requirements. "People just can't pay you X amount of dollars to do nothing," he says. "Maybe in some other places that happens, but at this place it doesn't."
* To date no collectives have been formed at Stanford, although there is a counseling service for athletes who are offered NIL deals and individual businesses have stepped up to partner with several athletes, notably women's basketball stars Haley Jones and Cameron Brink.
There is some frustration within the football program over not only the absence of an active collective, but also the University's unwillingness to award the annual $5980 Alston grants to Stanford players. These "academically-related benefits" were approved in federal court and upheld by the US Supreme Court in a 9-0 beat-down of the NCAA last year.
* Speaking of Stanford, there's a lot of optimism on the farm about the coming season. At Pac-12 media day Stanford coach David Shaw hinted that his team may surprise a lot of people this year. "I feel like a tiger hiding in the weeds," he told Oregon columnist/blogger/podcaster John Canzano.
Shaw points to the presence of a top quarterback, Tanner McKee, excellent wide receivers Elijah Higgins, John Humphreys, Michael Wilson and Brycen Tremayne, tight end Ben Yurosek, and a running back he's expecting big things from this year, E.J. Smith (Emmitt's son).
The big question marks for the Cardinal revolve around the offensive line, which has underperformed in recent years, and whether the defense will be able to stop anybody.
* Shaw also said he thinks geography will ultimately win out over the almighty dollar in terms of conference realignment. Shaw said he believed the traditional Pac-12 universities would one day be re-united, perhaps in five years, or maybe a decade, or when the media rights deals come up for bid again.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in the next couple of years, but my heart of hearts tells me that in some point of time this will self correct,” Shaw said. “The reason conferences were created were proximity reasons… I do believe in the next round of TV contracts, it will start to go back.”
A lot of people, this writer included, think that's a pipe dream. In my view, things will continue to be money-driven and the college football landscape will continue to move toward a Premier League (or Leagues) type setup. The folks in the Big Ten agree.
“This is chess, not checkers,” a Big Ten athletic director told the Athletic. “We have to do what’s best for us. The old days of college athletics are gone. Checkers is over. This is a business."
One Big Ten coach predicted the future.
“We know how this ends,” the coach said. “Twenty or more teams in the Big Ten, 20 or more teams in the SEC. One televised on Fox, one on ESPN. Just like the NFL. And then you have your Big Ten-SEC playoff for college’s Super Bowl.”
Where Shaw's prediction of a return to geographical alignments could come into play is in a tier below the Premier League(s).
The top 40 or so programs could be organized into a pro-type format, with stratospheric coaching salaries, Ritz-Carlson level facilities, unlimited recruiting budgets, and salaried players given education as an employee option.
The second tier programs could be organized into leagues based on geography or (as recommended in a previous post) academics.
As Sports Illustrated chimed in last week: "Buckle up. By 2028, the sport could be a 40-team, two-conference structure that perhaps operates as a semiprofessional entity."