Big Ten Extends Suspension of Team Activities
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Husker Harmony, Conference Chaos, an SEC Super League, and a B1G Problem

July 25, 2021

Lots of post-media days thoughts. Let’s dive in.

>> The thing Nebraska needed to be this week was a salesman. 

Not the in-your-face, won’t-leave-you-alone, overbearing sweet-talker kind. The Nebraska football program had a message it needed to deliver at the Big Ten’s annual media days—a message that the waters are calm around Memorial Stadium, discord is gone, and the program is building in the right direction. 

Nebraska’s had a lot of flash without a ton of substance. For all of Bill Moos’ accomplishments—of which there were undeniably many—he did like to hear himself talk, and that did get Nebraska into occasionally spicy situations. With head coach Scott Frost bringing three nose-to-the-grindstone kind of players with him to serve as ambassadors of the program, a more measured approach was to be expected. 

Athletic Director Trev Alberts opted to drive himself over to Indy rather than board the team charter. Frost and his players flew out Thursday morning, handled their obligations, then flew home Thursday night. Alberts wanted to spend more time around the conference’s leaders, introducing himself and his vision and, as he said, showing support for his football coach.

Nebraska had an interesting contingent taking the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. 

And it was brilliantly boring. 

At no other time during my four years covering the program have I felt Nebraska could be characterized as harmonious. And yet that’s exactly the word Alberts used to characterize the kind of environment he hopes to create between his football coaches and his office. 

“I’ve spent a lot of my time, more than I’d want in three years, dealing with things that didn’t have anything to do with football,” Frost said Thursday, catching many by surprise. 

Frost was gracious in his words with regards to Moos. He said the two were friends and that the department Alberts has inherited is better for Moos having served in it. But, “I’m so glad we landed where we landed,” Frost said of the Alberts hire. “I could tell right away that he and I were going to be on the same page with a lot of things.

“Having somebody like Trev alongside me who thinks the same way is going to help me focus on the football team.”

Which happened to be the same message delivered by Alberts just a few hours earlier. 

“I feel strongly that the apparatus around programs needs to be right,” Alberts said during a breakout session with local media. “Coaches need to coach and recruit. I’m not suggesting that the apparatus was broken, but I’m really passionate about making sure the coaches just have nothing to worry about, can control what they can control, and do what they need to do. Scott Frost is the football coach here because he knows football. 

“I’m gonna work really hard to make sure he’s comfortable knowing the apparatus around our football program is operating appropriately and he doesn’t have to worry about those types of things.”

Alberts talked about building trust with his coaches, helped in part by ensuring that private conversations remained private. He talked about accountability, both on the part of his coaches and himself. He talked about managing expectations and not throwing numbers around willy-nilly. 

He hit the right notes. 

Players talked about executing cleaner, being more consistently focused on the details. They talked about lofty expectations being attainable by being smarter in their decision-making and more clinical in their practice. 

They hit the right notes. 

Frost spoke with confidence, but it was measured. The offensive line can be one that makes The Pipeline alums proud. The wideouts can be better because they’ve worked tremendously hard throughout the winter, spring, and summer months. The quarterback play can be better because Adrian Martinez has taken it upon himself to iron out the wrinkles in his game. 

Work will get Nebraska football working again, not talk, and though Frost had to sit and answer the same questions all day long, he too hit all the right notes. 

It seemed as though Nebraska just wanted to show that after a somewhat tumultuous offseason it has regained something of a firm footing for the climb ahead. 

Yes, they did. 

>> The SEC is giving off some deja vu vibes right now, aren’t they? For the soccer crowd, the richest clubs in European soccer tried to form a breakaway league that was more about cash and less about the integrity of the game this summer and it was met with thunderous outrage. 

The European Super League, as it was called, would bring together football’s most prominent clubs to form an invite-only kind of show competition. The 12 founding members (i.e. richest clubs) hoped to escape consequence for poor performance and line their pockets exponentially more than they were already. Three others would join as permanent participants and five other slots in the competition would be awarded to teams that performed exceptionally well in their leagues each year.

It was a shameless cash grab and it immediately collapsed as public pressure forced England’s top clubs to buckle and back out. 

The SEC, it seems, will soon add Oklahoma and Texas to its membership, but the league reportedly doesn’t have plans to stop at 16 teams. If internet speculation is to be even entertained, the SEC could try to poach programs like Clemson and Ohio State. Perhaps a 20-team mega-conference is the design here. 

The intentions are clear from both sides. 

For the SEC, it wants to enhance its negotiating power and take ESPN, it’s network TV partner, for all it can potentially squeeze out. 

As the NCAA’s authority in major college football crumbles more and more with each passing day, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is only a few chess moves away from becoming college football’s most powerful man. 

For programs hopeful to join, there’s a huge paycheck at the end of the line. If the College Football Playoff expands and the SEC’s membership boasts the sport’s best teams, why not just let them all in regardless of record? If they were the best teams in the sport before joining together, the only reason they have more losses now is because they’re all playing each other more, right? 

The SEC—and The Mercury News’ Jon Wilner is reporting ESPN is meddling here as well—is reaching for power in a vacuum. 

“We’re at an inflection point in college athletics,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said this week. “Whether it’s name, image and likeness, whether it’s the Alston case”—that lit a match to the fuse leading to amateurism—“whether it’s potential College Football Playoff expansion, whether it’s schools from one conference joining another conference, these are the kind of issues that we all will be dealing with here this year and for many years in the future.”

Sure would help if there was some kind of authority figure at the top. 

>> The SEC expanding doesn’t mean the Big Ten should.

Unless Notre Dame is on board with joining the league after years and years and years of being courted and saying, “No,” the Big Ten might be better off just sitting with what it has. 

“I know from where we sit, we’re always constantly evaluating what’s in the best interests of the conference,” Warren said this week. After being introduced as the Big Ten’s new football czar, tasked with exploring this very kind of thing, former Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez said the news that Texas and Oklahoma were looking to join the SEC came as a surprise to him. 

Hell, even a week ago, the Big 12’s own commissioner got in front of TV cameras and microphones and told the world he thought the urge to realign was gone. 

Things have materialized quickly. In response, the Big 12 has reportedly considered giving Oklahoma and Texas more revenue than the other eight members get to stay. Desperation is a helluva drug. 

But people act desperate when they’re blindsided. The Big Ten shouldn’t rush into anything. 

If the Big 12 falls apart and Warren can suddenly add Iowa State and Kansas and Kansas State and Oklahoma State to the fold, what’s the value there? 

The Big Ten distributed just over $40 million in revenue to each of its 14 members last year, according to The Athletic, about 77% of the regularly projected income. It was the richest league from that standpoint. Was. 

At the end of 2020, the SEC and Disney reached a $3 billion agreement that would pay the league $300 million a year for broadcast rights, a massive leap from the $55 million it was getting from CBS, its old broadcast partner. That new 10-year agreement goes into effect in 2024. 

For the 2018-19 fiscal year, the Big Ten paid out roughly $56 million to its members. The SEC was behind at $45.3 for its full-share members. The Big 12 was next, between $38 and $42 million, followed by the ACC ($28 to $34 million) and the Pac-12 ($32 million). 

Certainly the SEC’s new deal and might bumps it ahead of the Big Ten in terms of the richest conferences, but it does nothing to change the order of the power structure. The Power Five ranks are about two leagues, a gap, and then three leagues. If the Big Ten can coax the Irish into a seat at the bar, they’ve nearly canceled out the SEC’s move. Texas has brand recognition but isn’t what it was on the field.

A question worth asking in the league office:

A question worth asking in the league office: If the Big 12 was going to remain at its current level, would the Big Ten consider adding Kansas? Or would such a move be of the “why not?” variety? The Jayhawks don’t have a wrestling program, have arguably one of the worst football programs at the FBS level, and a basketball program marred by controversy. Is the juice worth the squeeze?

Similarly, what would programs like Pitt or Syracuse or Virginia or Iowa State add to the league? Does any addition short of Notre Dame or the Pac-12’s elite class bring the Big Ten level with the SEC from a competitive standpoint? 

Maybe a combination of Notre Dame and USC or Oregon gets you there, but then you’re talking about drastically changing your footprint. Maybe you add Oklahoma State because athletically that’s the best option on the board. Maybe Cincinnati. What about North Carolina? But, again, none of those are home runs.

Expanding because the other guys are doing it could result in devaluing the brand and product. The Big Ten has cared about the interplay of its member institutions and snatching up football teams now could simply just scatter the league geographically, culturally, and academically.

Would that hurt it when the $2.64 billion contract with CBS, FOX, and ESPN expires and it’s time to come back to the table? 

Maybe none of that matters in the new college football landscape, but those TV deals serve as market indicators for how attractive other leagues and their teams are to their TV partners. The Big 12 is attractive because of Texas and Oklahoma, the ACC because of Clemson. If you’re not adding that kind of heavy-hitter, instead adding something no one wanted already, wouldn’t you run the risk of alienating your top programs by making their slice of the pie each year smaller? 

The goal is to get closer to the SEC in that regard, not further. Maybe that means going after Notre Dame one last time and if that doesn’t work then you call up Scott Frost and give him everything on his rebuild wishlist in the hopes Nebraska emerges as the kind of program you hoped to get a decade ago. Or it could mean going back to eight conference games, putting FCS teams back on schedules, and restructuring the divisional setup to get Penn State and Ohio State on opposite sides of the league. 

Whatever the Big Ten does, it needs to be thoroughly vetted and with an eye toward the long-term, not just for the sake of keeping up with the Joneses.

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