It’s pretty easy to analyze most of the major issues driving college football in the context of the haves and the have-nots. But as last summer’s crazed chase over conference expansion showed, college football’s powers don’t always act monolithically.
Stewart Mandel posted something in his Mailbag yesterday that makes me ponder whether we might be getting ready to see a few more cracks in that façade. Noting the apparent decline of the Big Ten in comparison to the SEC, Mandel writes
… As Michael Rosenberg wrote Tuesday, the league is being dragged down right now because two of its marquee programs, Penn State and Michigan, aren’t what they once were. The Nittany Lions seem to be stuck in a perpetual state of good-but-not-great that likely won’t change until JoePa retires and the Wolverines have been a mess for several years. That’s the big difference between the SEC and Big Ten — the talent pool is deep enough in the South that an Auburn or Arkansas can rise up in a given year and compete nationally, but that’s rarely going to happen with Purdue or Illinois.
That’s just the short-term analysis, though. In the long term, we have to concede — as Jim Delany himself has — that the effects of population shift on Northern and Midwest football are very real and very irreversible. (The SEC’s penchant for oversigning has its own effect, too, though that’s another column entirely.)
And so I wonder: are we about to enter a phase where several of the power conferences decide it’s in their best interest to take on the (largely SEC) practice of oversigning?
Don’t laugh. I can think of some compelling reasons they might. For one thing, it’s a great excuse to use to explain the SEC’s recent dominance in the BCS title game and the other power conferences’ shortcomings there. (See if the drumbeat grows louder in the event Auburn takes care of business next Monday night.)
But the bigger concern might be demographics, as Mandel hints. You’ve already got a situation where the population shift from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt favors the SEC, the Pac-10 and at least the southern part of the Big XII at the expense of the Big Ten and the Big East (another reason TCU’s move to that conference looks shrewd). To the extent that it restricts the talent pool available to the latter two, oversigning by SEC programs exacerbates that problem.
It’s hard to see how that changes. And if that’s the case, how long is it before Jim Delany decides he has no choice but to lead the charge to get the NCAA to tighten up the rules on class signing numbers? No doubt he’d couch it in terms of doing what’s best for the student athletes, but we’d all know what that’s really about. And it would be fascinating to see where the battle lines get drawn in that fight – the Big East and the mid-major conferences would seem to be natural allies for Delany, but would the Pac-10 and Big XII commissioners stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Mike Slive?