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What CFB teams might be frauds? When does one become a ‘cranky’ fan?: Big CFB mailbag

The preseason is underway. The Big Ten has a new media rights deal. Week 1 kickoff is near! And you have questions … about possible CFB frauds this season, about Notre Dame in realignment, and much more.

(Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Which teams might start out 7-1 or 8-0 but still be written off based on the “eye test?” What I mean by that is, which teams might find themselves sneaking into the top 10 by midseason, in large part due to lighter early schedules rather than truly elite performance? To rephrase more bluntly: Which teams should we put on “fraud watch?” — Logan T.

Loved this question, thank you for sending it in. “Fraud watch” is such a good way to put it, though I suspect we should probably reserve that term for the most egregious offenders, those teams that win a bunch of games early on but still end up 6-6 or 5-7. Here are a few teams I think have that hot-start potential, at least based on their schedules. Fair warning: These assessments are overly optimistic and quite possibly foolish.

Ole Miss: The Rebels are working with an easy nonconference slate. If they can knock off Kentucky in their SEC opener, they’ll have a shot to get to 7-1 or 8-0 heading into their road trip to Texas A&M at the end of October.

Tennessee: I can talk myself into Tennessee pulling off a nice early run as well. The Vols will have to win on the road at Pitt early on and they’re opening SEC play with Florida and LSU, but it’s not out of the question they could get to 6-1 before a defining back-to-back against Kentucky and Georgia.

Purdue: If it can find a way to pull off the upset of Penn State at home in its season opener, a 7-0 or 6-1 start seems possible before it’s time to play Wisconsin and Iowa.

Kansas State: K-State looks like the dark horse contender in the Big 12 race, in part because of its schedule. The Wildcats host Missouri in Week 2 and open Big 12 play at Oklahoma, so we’ll quickly find out if they’re legitimate. But they could get to 6-1 before home games against Oklahoma State and Texas.

UCLA: The Bruins also have an easy nonconference schedule. They should be 5-0 when it’s time to play Utah and Oregon.

Nebraska: The Huskers have a remarkably wide range of possible outcomes this year. They could win eight. They could lose eight. Who knows? But if you want to talk extreme best-case scenario, a 7-1 start before the schedule gets tougher in November is not inconceivable.

Appalachian State: What a fun nonconference schedule for the Mountaineers this year. They’re opening the season with a home game against North Carolina followed by a road trip to Texas A&M. If they can split those games, they should be able to roll to a 7-1 start.

Houston: The Cougars were one of the great “fraud watch” squads of 2021, going 11-1 against a relatively easy schedule but never rising any higher than No. 20 in the College Football Playoff rankings. But they showed up in their toughest games and closed the season with a bowl win over Auburn. Another hot start in 2022 looks likely. Once again, they don’t face Cincinnati or UCF in the regular season. And once again, it’s probably Texas Tech that stands in their way of an 8-0 start. — Max Olson

At what age will I become the “they’re ruining the sport with these changes” guy? I’m just shy of 42. I believe that Tommie Frazier and Billy Joe Hobert were better than Tim Tebow and AJ McCarron, but am all for transfers, NIL and realignment. When will the second phase kick in? — Ian

Ian may never become that guy. I’ve found that “They’re ruining the sport people” are less defined by age than mindset. These are the same people who believed the NFL, NBA and MLB when those leagues argued that free agency would ruin their sports and then kept right on watching after free agency made those leagues more interesting.

In the case of college football, many of the changes are a product of a system that probably violated the Sherman Antitrust Act finally being challenged in court. Schools built the sport into a multibillion-dollar business while colluding to cap the compensation of the athletes. They held players to non-compete clauses while declaring in court that players weren’t employees. That wasn’t going to be sustainable once challenged, because there simply weren’t any logical arguments as to why the players shouldn’t be allowed to get more.

Notice that the answer so far has only focused on NIL and transfers? I haven’t brought up realignment yet, because I think that is the one thing that might frustrate someone like Ian. My guess is Ian is a fan of a Big Ten or SEC school. For those fans, everything is hunky dory.

In the other leagues, it’s a different story. Imagine you pull for Oklahoma State or Kansas State or Washington State. Your schools have done everything within their means to field competitive teams. They’ve invested. They’ve had success. And now they’re being told that based on their location or alumni base size that they simply can’t be in a club that includes programs that haven’t worked as hard to succeed as their programs. That has to be incredibly frustrating, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who bailed on the sport for that reason.

What Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey need to realize as they steer the creation of the next College Football Playoff model is that a lot of the audience for their best games is made up of people who love the Oklahoma States and Washington States and are just looking for the best game to watch until their team’s game starts. Chasing away those fans reduces the audiences that the networks paying the Big Ten and SEC covet. So they need to give those fans a reason to keep watching. That reason would be potential inclusion in the postseason.

If fans of teams outside the Power 2 feel their teams have a legitimate chance to make the College Football Playoff, then they probably aren’t going to bail. If they feel they’ve been relegated to a second division, they’re probably gone. — Andy Staples

Everyone keeps saying Notre Dame will join the Big Ten sooner or later. Wouldn’t Notre Dame fit just as easily in the SEC? Notre Dame is not an AAU university and the B1G covets that. If the Fighting Irish are that big of a fish hanging out there, why wouldn’t the SEC do its best to snag them first? — Mark T.

I am sure the SEC would happily invite Notre Dame if the school were to be interested. The South Bend, Ind. university even fits Greg Sankey’s “contiguous states” criteria, even though it is a whole lot closer to Illinois than it is to Kentucky. But I can’t see the Irish joining the SEC due to cultural fit. Unlike 90 percent of that league, Notre Dame doesn’t have that “win at all costs” mentality. Some of Brian Kelly’s comments since he got to LSU indicate he’d grown frustrated at how the school allocated resources. Also, Notre Dame has intentionally stayed out of the NIL-as-pay-for-play space. Good luck recruiting that way in the SEC.

However, I’m increasingly of the belief that Notre Dame won’t be joining the Big Ten, either. It wants to remain independent if it can make it work financially. I initially believed that to be completely unrealistic when it was reported the school was hoping to get a $75 million TV deal after 2025 (it currently averages $22 million from NBC), but I’ve changed my mind. As we saw with the Big Ten’s new deal, rights fees are skyrocketing. That league nearly tripled its take (from $440 million to $1.2 billion) in the span of six years. Notre Dame will be going to the market for the first time since 2013. Sports Business Journal reported this week it could soon expect to get $60 million for those seven home games a year. That combined with its share of ACC revenue ($10.8 million in 2019-2020, which will rise annually) should get it at or close to that number.

Also, with NBC landing the new primetime Big Ten package, it will be strongly incentivized to keep Notre Dame happy in order to air Saturday doubleheaders. If the Irish go to the Big Ten, there goes that afternoon game, with the Irish showing up on NBC maybe a couple times a year. — Stewart Mandel

The Big Ten is considered the second-best conference in CFB, just beneath the SEC. However, the Big Ten seems to have only one team that ever looks like a serious contender for a national title: Ohio State. Out of the remaining 13 teams (not counting USC or UCLA yet), who has the best chance of winning a national title in the next five years and why? — Jake W. 

It’s great you phrased it the way you did because it’s so true. There’s no question that the SEC is the deepest, most talented football conference. But when you consider there are three teams from that conference that have won national titles in the College Football Playoff era and two others who have won it since 2000 — not to mention a team like Texas A&M, who just signed the best recruiting class of all time — it really puts into perspective just how far the gap is between the SEC and everyone else.

Yes, the Big Ten is the second-best conference. But when you look at it closely, Ohio State is the only program that is truly equipped to win a national championship. Yes, Michigan State and Michigan have both advanced to the Playoff, but neither was built to beat Alabama or an Alabama-like team two games in a row in the postseason. There is a huge gap between making the Playoff and winning it all.

If we aren’t considering USC or UCLA yet, the pick has to be Penn State. Love him or hate him, James Franklin just signed a 10-year deal and he had a program in 2021 that ranked No. 16 in the 247Sports Talent Composite. Penn State is probably 10 spots outside of the range it needs to be to compete for a national title, but you have to consider that spot takes into account Penn State’s 2021 recruiting class, which was the worst effort of the Franklin era. Penn State fans are hoping that was a COVID-19-related fluke, and that seems to be the case when considering how the Nittany Lions have been recruiting the last two cycles.

Michigan State is a tempting choice here because Mel Tucker is really trying to elevate the recruiting standard and has had some early returns. And Michigan actually ranked a spot ahead of Penn State in the 2021 247Sports Talent Composite. But neither are my pick for the next five years because Michigan State has a very long road ahead to getting to that spot, which I believe will take longer than five years — if it happens at all. And Michigan’s 2023 class indicates the exact opposite direction you’d think the program would be headed after a breakthrough year last season.

Penn State is the closest program to Ohio State right now, even if the gap is big. If Penn State — who typically has played the Buckeyes really tough on the field — can keep stringing together classes like that, why couldn’t it beat Ohio State, win the Big Ten and go to the Playoff in a year when it all comes together?

Here’s the sobering truth, though: None of those teams not named Ohio State is equipped to win a national championship. You need to string together three or four classes in a row that have eight or more top-100 players nationally to built a roster that is equipped to handle winning two games in a row in the playoff setting after winning the Big Ten.

The only team in the Big Ten that has that is Ohio State, and you can even see the Buckeyes are going on a decade without a national championship. Winning it is really, really hard, even when you have the players to do it. And right now, Penn State doesn’t have the players to do it, even if it is the team that has the second-highest chances in the Big Ten.

Nobody not named Ohio State will win a national championship in the next five years. It really comes down to simple math. How many high-end four-stars and five-stars do you have on your roster? That’s it. — Ari Wasserman

Will NC State live up to the preseason hype? — Kyle P.

I’m on the Wolfpack bandwagon, and have been since doing our Holiday Bowl prep last winter. Devin Leary may be the most underrated quarterback in the country. People around the ACC know he’s legitimate, but I don’t think people outside the region understand just how talented he is. He’s the kind of QB who can lead a team to Playoff contention. Leary makes smart decisions with the ball (35-to-5 TD-to-INT ratio) and has a lot of juice in that arm.

Losing Ickey Ekwonu, the best offensive lineman in the country last year, hurts, but Grant Gibson is a terrific center and will anchor a good line. Better still, they should have a pretty nasty defense. They have playmakers at all three levels. Getting Payton Wilson back after he missed last season is a huge addition. They already had one of the best linebacking groups in the country and he’s a special player who will make them that much better. I think their mix of play-making and seasoned leaders gives them a great chance to handle the hype. A road trip to Clemson won’t be easy, but it actually sets up pretty well in that they have a hapless UConn team the week before, while Clemson will be coming off a game at Wake Forest, which isn’t any team to prepare for.

Plus, they also aren’t going to have any “wow” issue facing the Tigers, since they just beat them last year. I think “living up the hype” doesn’t necessarily mean making the CFP, but being a top-10 team. The latter, I think they will do. They’re in the much tougher side of the ACC (the Atlantic) but I think a 10-2 kind of season is well within their reach.— Bruce Feldman


Nick Saban’s fingerprints are all over college football, and the hole he’ll create upon retiring will rock the sport. Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty

It used to be bad form for a reporter to criticize a college player since they are amateurs (see: Mike Gundy’s “I’m a man” rant). Do you see that changing with players getting NIL money? — Jon M. 

The first time I ever thought about the type of criticism that was fair game for athletes we cover was at my first summer internship, at The Trentonian in Trenton, N.J. I started the summer by covering high school softball, and then they went all-in on Little League baseball and softball coverage for the age group that feeds into the Little League World Series. I pitched in on some minor league baseball coverage and even got to cover a game at Yankee Stadium.

So, basically I was covering athletes who were 12 years old, athletes who were in high school and athletes who were paid professionals — all within a three-month period. Obviously, the pro athletes were fair game, and they knew it. When they made a mistake that cost their team a game, they’d be called out specifically for it, and they’d have to answer questions about it. Covering high school athletes was very different; if the game was lost on an error by the shortstop, I think I would say that without saying the teenager’s name. To me, that didn’t need to be in the paper. And for the Little Leaguers, if a game was lost on an error by the shortstop, honestly, it was essentially won by a hit by the batter. At least that’s how I felt it was fair to write about it.

College athletes have always occupied a murkier spot. Those at the most high-profile programs have known since well before NIL deals became legal that they’ll be in the spotlight, which can bring great fame and accolades, but also criticism. And, for the most part, I think reporters have been fair in their coverage of mistakes or poor performances in general. While I understand coaches wanting to defend their players and shield them from unnecessary criticism, I have been in enough postgame locker rooms after tough losses where players have answered hard questions, owned it and understood the importance of being accountable. And I think having that perspective in a story or even seeing the athlete processing what happened helps humanize the moment and coverage.

In many ways in recent years, we in the media have been a lot less cruel to college athletes who are struggling than their own fan bases have (see: Spencer Rattler last season). So, I personally don’t think NIL changes much. I’m not going to be as critical as I would an NFL player who is paid a handsome salary to do what they do. But I’m also not going to pull punches if it’s apparent that there needs to be a quarterback change, or if someone made a mistake that cost a team a game. I don’t think I ever go overboard on individual player criticism anyway, because I think it’s important to always remember that the player you are writing about may see what you write. Their family members may see what you write. So, as long as I think about that as I write, I think I’ll find the right tone and level of criticism. — Nicole Auerbach

Nick Saban is bound to retire eventually. When that happens, which candidates could you see Alabama pursuing? Will the Tide pick someone with ties to Alabama, promote a coordinator, or pick a young up-and-coming head coach? And if you are offered the job, would you take it? — Zach W.

The more and more we do this, the more and more I’m reminded that no matter which names we come up with, the answer to this kind of question ultimately comes down to two factors:

A. Whom does the legendary coach deem as his successor?
B. Who is in the right place at the right time?

How much ink was spilled across how many decades from all of us in the media who debated about whom Mike Krzyzewski’s successor at Duke would be? And ultimately, that job ended up going to the guy who was physically closest to the head coach and the Blue Devils’ men’s basketball throne when Coach K decided to retire. That was Jon Scheyer, who was 33 at the time of his appointment and had just missed out on the DePaul job months earlier.

We’ve seen similar examples across multiple sports, from Hubert Davis succeeding Roy Williams at North Carolina (and Bill Guthridge succeeding Dean Smith at UNC before that) or Lincoln Riley succeeding Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. Those two scenarios represent A.

Point B was illustrated more recently with programs like Ohio State football, Loyola-Chicago men’s basketball and Notre Dame football. It’s hard to believe that Marcus Freeman was a Group of 5 coordinator less than two years ago, which leads to another fascinating question: Who would have ended up becoming Notre Dame’s head coach had Brian Kelly left one year earlier?

It is all about timing.

There is a more recent example that splits the difference with the above two factors, too: Kyle Neptune is succeeding Jay Wright at Villanova after a single season as a head coach at Fordham.

Assuming Saban eventually exits on his own terms and that the Tide program is in strong shape, there is a decent chance that whichever Tide assistant coach who just happens to be the best at that given moment will be in great position to succeed Saban. Now, there has been so much assistant turnover among Saban’s staffs that it is pretty difficult to predict who that would be. Again, Krzyzewski had been coaching at Duke longer than Scheyer had been alive, and surely there were public debates about Duke’s succession plan long before Scheyer even suited up for him as a player in 2006. (Anyone remember the Lakers almost landing Coach K in 2004?)

Dabo Swinney will forever be a popular name when it comes to Alabama. He’s from there, he played there, he coached there and he’s built the only program that has beaten the Tide at the highest level — multiple times. Would Swinney leave one modern blue blood for another? Although he has given no indication he’ll ever leave Death Valley, never say never. Especially after some of the movement that the coaching carousel saw last season.

Here’s another name to keep in mind: Mario Cristobal. Miami’s new coach left a strong impression during his four years in Tuscaloosa as offensive line coach (2013-16). He’s won big at Oregon, and if he can turn around the Hurricanes and the timing is just right, don’t be surprised if the Tide put the full-court press on him. Of course, Miami is home for Cristobal, too, which could complicate matters, especially if he returns the Canes to national prominence.

Which is a nice segue into your second question, Zach: Would you take this job if offered? I get the hesitation if you’re Swinney or Cristobal, especially if Saban may still be around and exert influence over the program. But if you’re pretty much any other less-established coach, I think you have to do it. Opportunities in this business are fleeting, and there is no shortage of egos in the profession who can probably convince themselves that they can win at an incredibly high level if given all of the resources that the Alabama program can offer. — Matt Fortuna

Hypothetical: If The Athletic staff was put in charge of increasing parity in college football (i.e., more teams able to win the national championship), what does (as realistic as possible) that plan look like to level the playing field (Playoff expansion, TV revenue-sharing, NIL, Transfer Portal etc etc)? – Brendan D.

The first thing I would do is force Saban to retire. (See above!) If you want it realistic, you have to wait until he chooses to retire, and honestly, I have no idea when that will come. The modern era of this sport has never seen a coach so dominant. Saban isn’t doing this in the old days of 100-plus scholarships, putting football players on track scholarships. He’s done this in an era that was meant to create more parity, with more talented football players than ever before. Saban has redefined what is considered success in this sport, raising the ceiling to what we didn’t think was possible and getting scores of coaches fired in the process for not matching him.

We saw USC rise and fall in the early 2000s. Then Florida. But Alabama never fell back. Per our Matt Brown, this is the 15th consecutive season that Alabama will appear at No. 1 for at least one week, more than twice as long as any other streak (Miami, 1986-92). The sport is drastically different if Saban doesn’t come back from the NFL. If not for Saban, Brian Kelly probably has a national championship at Notre Dame. If you want parity, you’re really hoping Saban’s eventual retirement gets us back into fluctuating dominant teams.

After that, if you want more parity, you structure college football more like the NFL … which may be coming. Super conferences create more major matchups and therefore more losses for top programs. Larger (and fewer) conferences also mean top programs would share their media rights money with more schools. If you concentrate the attention on a smaller pool of teams, the gap between the top and the bottom isn’t nearly as big. (Playoff expansion may actually decrease the potential for parity in the short-term, because it gives mulligans to the most talented teams that didn’t occur in the BCS days).

The other step for more parity is the biggest one, and that is an NFL model of player relations. That means making players employees, giving them salaries and giving them contracts so they can’t transfer so freely. It’s hard to see a salary cap unless football breaks away from the schools.

That would be my plan for more parity among national champions. It’s also extremely unlikely. While the super conference part could happen, along with players becoming employees, the guardrails that pro sports have don’t exist here. There won’t be a salary cap. There won’t be a draft. And the NCAA may actually deregulate so much as to remove caps on coaching staffs and scholarships, allowing those with the most money to succeed even more.

My advice for all college football fans is to not worry so much about who wins the national title. There are so many interesting teams, people, rivalries and stories in any given season, if you’re only worried about who wins it all at the end, you’ll miss a lot. — Chris Vannini

(Top photo: John David Mercer / USA Today)

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