Thursdays at The Salute

Thursdays at The Salute

Let’s get this out of the way first: Mississippi State, Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama, and, of course, Auburn, are all very good football teams. Talking about what the SEC is and isn’t gaining in terms of a competitive advantage isn’t a denial of that fact. Also a fact: At this point I can’t separate them from teams like Oregon, TCU, Florida State, Michigan State, Arizona, Baylor, Notre Dame, and yes, Kansas State. The only two teams that have separated themselves so far are Mississippi State and Florida State, based solely on how difficult it is to get to 7-0 in a major conference (which may be debatable in Florida State’s ACC).

What is the main difference between these two lists? Simply put, one has a billion dollar near monopoly opening acting as a PR firm, and the other list does not.

College football is a subjective sport

captureESPN has made it into a joke lately. “Sure, you can hate on the SEC, but they’re just better!” To what extent do we actually know they are better? College football always has been, and always be a subject sport. When you have over 100 teams playing 12 regular season games, anything resembling a balanced schedule isn’t just difficult, it’s mathematically impossible. The conversation stopped being about winning conferences a generation ago, and is all about determine a national champion in a sport in which no official national championship has ever existed. So while the game itself is objective: score more points than the other team; the sport is subjective. Every team is at the mercy of what people say about it.

Enter polls, the BCS formula, and now a College Football Playoff selection committee. Sure, it’s similar to how college basketball determines a champion, but instead of guaranteeing that winning a conference gives you a shot to prove that you stack up against everyone else, in college football it only guarantees you’ll play somewhere in some game that might have a deeper meaning to it. The possibility exists that you can do everything possible to prove you’re the best team in the nation, but still be left out based on the feelings of others.

If you sell it, they will buy

captureEnter ESPN. The self proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports.” And they are. They earned it by being the first to put out a quality sports journalism outlet, and grew into a near monopoly. Their coverage of live games is virtually unparalleled, but like virtually any institution, the focus isn’t on providing clear and meaningful journalism. It’s self preservation. If you create the conversation, you can control the conversation, as long as you have enough power behind it. If you see a chance to make a ton of money, you enter a business deal with an organization you’re tasked with objectively covering and then pretend it’s not a conflict of interest.

Deals like this are nothing new. Every sport sells the rights to broadcast its games. And ESPN has always tailored their coverage to the games that will be on their network rest in peace, hockey coverage). They wanted you to talk about Tebow, so they covered Tebow. Then it was Johnny Football. Now it’s Mississippi State. What do they all have in common? A certain conference that that is selling rights in an unprecedented way in unprecedented dollar amounts.

Make no mistake about it. I’m jealous. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy:

  • ESPN makes money if the ratings on the SEC network goes up
  • ESPN makes every SEC game sound more important
  • In spite of the best SEC games being on CBS, ratings go up for the lesser games on the networks that ESPN owns
  • ESPN can strongarm cable companies into carrying the network
  • The footprint of the SEC expands, and exposure outweighs other conferences
  • People voting in polls receive only the narrative that the SEC teams must be better than all others
  • Recruits hear the narrative and see the polls reflecting it, and become more likely to choose an SEC school
  • ESPN makes more money and the cycle continues

How bad can it be?

captureThis bad. There are 5 major conferences in college football. How many are represented in the current projection of playoff rankings? 2. Add in 2 more teams, and you still only have 3 represented. Sure these teams have to play each other, and they’re going to move in and out of the playoff spots, but they have Alabama ready to slide right in next.

The narrative is so strong, that in spite of the pure fact that the teams will beat each other and start adding in losses, the idea has been successfully sold that an SEC team losing to another SEC team is just fine. And when you have a conference system that keeps all the match-ups segregated, you have a narrative that can’t be disproved. Especially if at the end of the year you don’t even allow other teams to have a chance.

So what can we do?

captureOn the surface, nothing. The playoff is what it is going to be. For now. The only way to make it even remotely fair is to add in a requirement that every team selected must have won its conference. Think it’s too hard to win the conference? Tough. Winning a national title should be difficult. Not a free pass. But why isn’t it? Because ESPN owns the rights here, too. Bash the NCAA all you want, but this is not a problem that exists in college basketball. Sure, they get money from their system (although the fact that it’s money supporting a non-profit is an entirely different column), but their purpose in establishing the rules is to determine a champion. Not to sell their product. They get it. The product sells itself.

So if we’re going to have a four team playoff, it must be made up of the four most deserving conference champions. If the SEC is so much better, that team will have a chance to prove it against the best of the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, or another deserving team from outside the power 5. Don’t like it? Win your conference.

Scream. Shout it from the rooftop. Switch off Sportscenter and watch a channel not owned by ESPN. And more importantly, think. ESPN thinks you can’t do it. Let’s prove that we can.

About The Author

Founder & Chief Saluter

Mike is a '00 graduate of Kansas State University and holds season tickets for Football and Men's & Women's Basketball. He lives in Kansas City, but stays loyal to his Chicago sports (Bulls & Bears & Hawks & Sox). He's a social media marketer by day and dreams in purple at night.

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