For three hours on Thursday, on two national TV networks, the NFL will hold a coronation for the most talented players in college football. Roger Goodell will dish out hugs, and this year's class of first-round picks will don hats of their new teams, saying goodbye to their alma maters as college highlights roll under the voiceovers of Mel Kiper and Mike Mayock. It's an infomercial for the NFL; it's also an infomercial for college programs and their recruiting pitches.
And while the draft should be another showcase for the SEC, many would be surprised if the Big Ten even gets mentioned at all.
The NFL draft is unpredictable, but virtually every mock draft agrees: The first 32 picks will likely pass without a single player taken from Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin or anyone in the Big Ten at all, even while a tackle from Central Michigan is projected to go off the board in the top five. It's late April, a successful college basketball season is over, and everyone can go back to making fun of the Big Ten, as Thursday will serve as the culmination of a week in which the league is forced to stop and take stock of its football product.
That the Big Ten is dealing with some sort of on-field football crisis is hardly news anymore. The league has been stuck in a downward spiral since the 2006 season, when Ted Ginn followed his opening kickoff return for a touchdown in the BCS title game by injuring his foot celebrating. Florida out-scored Ohio State 41-7 the rest of the way, the SEC has gone on to win seven consecutive national championships and the Big Ten has struggled to maintain its reputation ever since then.
So you'd think when the Big Ten actually has positive news to share, it would try to share that news when anyone is paying attention. Of course not. Last Friday night, when everyone was glued to the manhunt in Boston, ESPN's report that the Big Ten will ditch the Leaders and Legends division names was published, going unnoticed by, well, everybody.
Not that it's important news in any way, but starting in 2014, the Big Ten will at least be able to shed that low-hanging fruit by dividing its teams logically and geographically -- with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana and newcomers Rutgers and Maryland in the East; and Nebraska, Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota and Purdue in the West -- while, most important, forgetting that it ever had the gall to name the divisions Leaders and Legends in the first place. Conference commissioner Jim Delany and the Big Ten essentially created names that were a perfect representation of the league's pompous lack of public self-awareness, but at least it's now recognizing the mistake, even if it had to add Maryland and Rutgers to do it.
None of this means the Big Ten isn't powerful in some respects. The duality of the league is such that its on-field reputation is at a low point while its power (read: money) and influence remain as great as ever. For the last three years, ever since the courtship of Nebraska became public, Delany has held the keys to conference realignment because, no matter how many BCS games it has lost, the league still holds significant appeal and prestige. By moving to 12 teams, then 14, then holding steady with the possibility of 16 looming, it has kept the rest of college football on edge, waiting to react.
Until now, that is. The height of that off-the-field power passed on Monday, when the ACC announced that all 15 of its present and future schools (including Notre Dame, which will be a partial member in football) signed a grant of media rights, which stipulates that the TV rights for each school's home games through the league's contract with ESPN to 2026-27 belong to the ACC. Instead of a $50 million exit fee -- which Maryland is fighting in court -- the price of leaving the league would be much steeper now, because the biggest selling point in joining a conference like the Big Ten is getting access to bigger TV money. If a school jumps, it will forgo all of it, meaning nobody will move without some sort of risky court challenge.
The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 already have these agreements, making the ACC the last major domino needed to seemingly put an end to the realignment fiascos that have dominated the college football news cycle on and off since 2010. (The SEC does not have a grant of media rights or an exit fee, because leaving the SEC would be one of the dumbest things a college athletic department could do.)
While the last year has been filled with rumors and speculation about Florida State and/or Clemson thinking about the Big 12, and about the Big Ten looking to continue its eastward expansion by gazing south at a combination of Virginia, Duke, North Carolina and Georgia Tech to get to 16 teams, forget it. Delany can no longer make a phone call and change the entire landscape of college sports, as he did with Nebraska, then Rutgers and Maryland. That power is essentially gone, because any possible move left (the two biggest names remaining are Cincinnati and Connecticut, which are now stuck in the bizarro Big East, aka the American Athletic Conference) would do nothing to help the Big Ten. The conference realignment game has been built on the unexpected happening at any moment, but for the next several years, the landscape finally appears secure, meaning the Big Ten and SEC are stuck on 14 teams, and the Big 12 can be happy with its 10.
We can still debate whether or not adding Maryland and Rutgers will ultimately be positive additions for the Big Ten, but we know that 14 is the Big Ten's number for the foreseeable future. Notre Dame isn't walking through the door anytime soon, and, in fact, its addition along with Louisville in place of Maryland creates a net win for the ACC, which looks as stable as it has been in a decade, since it set off the first wave of 21st-century realignment by raiding the Big East for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
But it's the SEC's world, of course, and everybody else is playing catch-up. The conference has won seven straight national titles, and it could have twice as many players selected in the first round of the NFL draft as any other conference. Its acquisition of Texas A&M turned into a surprising short-term coup with a Heisman Trophy winner, one of the best young coaches in America and a likely 2013 national title contender. It can seemingly do no wrong.
The Pac-12 got its TV network and a conference championship game, but it remains to be seen if Utah and Colorado will do much to bolster the on-field product. (The timing of adding Colorado certainly couldn't have been worse.) The ACC has improved, but it hasn't won a championship since expanding from nine teams (Florida State in 1999). And the Big Ten added a traditional power in Nebraska, but it also added two teams with a combined one BCS bowl appearance. It hasn't won a championship since the 2002 season when Ohio State beat Miami at the Fiesta Bowl.
Friday passed, and ESPN revealed the Big Ten's plan to nix the most loathed names in college sports, but it's doing so with a pair of uninspiring additions. Monday passed, and the Big Ten lost its power to dramatically alter the landscape of college sports on a whim.
Thursday will pass and nobody will pay any attention to the rich and powerful league that hasn't had a quarterback drafted in the first round since Kerry Collins in 1995 -- and will likely come up empty overall in the first round for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger.
If the Big Ten's power remains in some respects, it's sort of an empty power. For the seventh straight year, it watched as its rival from the South hoisted the crystal football in January. And for now, all it can do is sit back and wait until Day 2 of the NFL draft on Friday, when somebody will finally deem a Big Ten player worthy of playing professional football.
As college athletics reaches a moment of relative stability, the Big Ten is left standing still, facing its new reality, one in which it doesn't have nearly as much room to bully the rest of the college football world. It's just 12 schools (soon to be 14), a rich television network and the continued hope that Urban Meyer and Brady Hoke can somehow regain some on-field respect back for a conference that's too often left watching from home as somebody else grabs the accolades, whether it's on a football field in Miami or a stage on Thursday night in New York.
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1. Once again, spring scrimmages are generally meaningless affairs, but don't tell that to the combined 161,000 people that showed up to watch Alabama and Auburn (which had a historically terrible 2012 season) on Saturday. Alabama is in a golden age, so of course Tide fans are going to show up, while many Auburn fans surely went to pay tribute to Toomer's Oaks for the final time. Plus, they got to see what's surely an unusual spring occurrence: Defensive back Jonathon Mincy managed to get ejected from the scrimmage for targeting. To the surprise of nobody, the SEC is dominating spring game attendance, which, of course, is the most meaningless part of the spring season, even if it is pleasant to see Kentucky fans get this excited about football.
2. When does anyone fight the NCAA and actually win? It's no secret that certain corners of Sports on Earth are not fans of the NCAA, and it's jarring to see a school appeal a punishment successfully. That's what happened to UCF, which appealed its 2013 postseason ban and had it reversed, meaning the Knights are now eligible to … go back to the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.
3. Penn State is doing everything it can to indicate that nobody is currently leading its quarterback competition. Both sophomore Steven Bench and junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson played solid but unspectacular football in Saturday's Blue-White game, and now the fate of Bill O'Brien's highly praised offense remains up for grabs, with blue-chip true freshman Christian Hackenberg set to join the race over the summer. Whoever wins the job will benefit from perhaps the deepest group of tight ends in the country. All the hype about O'Brien and his work with the New England Patriots' tight ends actually appears to be carrying over, as the Nittany Lions are loaded with a group of big and athletic receivers headlined by sophomores Kyle Carter and Jesse James.
4. Virginia Tech's ground game problems show no signs of ending, and this time for more serious reasons. Sophomore running back Michael Holmes has been suspended and faces a felony malicious wounding charge stemming from a fight early Sunday morning, after the Hokies' spring game. On the field, despite the presence of senior QB Logan Thomas (who threw three interceptions), the Virginia Tech offense's 2012 woes continued into the spring game. Long a strength of Frank Beamer's teams, the rushing game struggled last year, as Thomas was the leading rusher with just 524 yards. Holmes was supposed to be a leading candidate for the starting tailback job in a race that certainly remains wide-open.
5. By the end of the week, we will finally have most of the playoff details worked out. BCS commissioners are meeting in California, where a playoff name will be announced, in addition to the bowl sites, which are among the worst kept secrets in sports. All indications have been that Cowboys Stadium will host the first national championship game in January 2015, with the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Fiesta, Cotton and Chick-fil-A Bowls joining the playoff rotation.
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From the Archives
Enough Big Ten negativity. This is a reminder the good ol' days: Woody and Bo, Keith Jackson on the call, a late goal-line fumble by Ohio State to send Michigan to the Rose Bowl and a chaotic field-storming ("It now becomes a matter of survival for the two teams to get to the locker room," Jackson says). Try to ignore the awful artificial turf at the Big House.
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This column will evolve over the course of the offseason, but it's meant to provide analysis, history and other distractions as we wait for Aug. 29. Anything you'd like to see here? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter @MattBrownSOE.