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Saturday, May 24, 2014

An American Divided

As the American Athletic Conference prepares to head into its spring meetings, a topic that will be on the table is divisional play. In 2015, when Navy joins, the American will have 12 teams and split into two divisions and host a championship game. It seems a potential sticking point is how to align USF and Central Florida, which the league seems to be staging as its chief rivalry. I'll acknowledge this while pointing out that USF has comparable history with ECU and Memphis and more with UConn and Cincinnati. Part of the debate is whether the two schools remain in the same division or join separate divisions; the latter move would necessitate a permanent crossover rival.


There's no reason this should even be on the table for discussion. No matter which way you slice it geographically - and it seems they're leaning east-west - the two schools would share a division. Random divisions like the Atlantic and Coastal or the soon-to-be-abandoned Leaders and Legends make little sense for the American, which faces a double-edged sword: That of being both geographically expansive and financially limited.

As rivals, the primary objective is ensuring that the two schools play every year. Keeping them in the same division achieves that, and by eliminating a crossover rival, a 5-3 scheduling model allows teams to see cross-divisional opponents 50% of the time. The only reason for creating a crossover situation would be to preserve a rivalry, and there aren't really any others worth preserving in the fledgling league.

There is precisely one reason why it would make sense for USF and UCF to be in opposite divisions: The bonus game created by the two meeting in a conference championship game. Still, two leagues - the ACC with Florida State-Miami and the Big Ten with Ohio State-Michigan - created non-geographic decisions with that goal in mind, and neither has yet come to fruition; the Big Ten finally gave up and will go geographic this coming year with the addition of SUNJ and College Park. American, please go with what makes sense.

B1G Effing Deal

There's no Natty Greene's at the Big Ten Tournament, Terps.
As you may know, my relationship with the University of Maryland, College Park is complicated, but one thing is for certain: I still don't like the move to the Big Ten. To some degree, I'd like the ACC to have the last laugh in their breakup, but I go back and forth on that, because my relationship with the ACC is also complicated. That said, sometimes the decision is an easy one to make.

It's Memorial Day Weekend, which means the lacrosse Final Four is upon us. Three ACC teams from what may be the strongest field in a single sport ever assembled will be playing. In the semifinals, College Park plays Notre Dame, while Duke plays Denver. If the Terps and Blue Devils both advance, it sets up what could be an epic exit for the Terps. With a victory, College Park hits a walkoff homer before riding into the ACC's sunset: A national championship, won over their biggest ACC rival (no matter what the Dookies tell you), in Baltimore, in the state sport of lacrosse. The Terps would then ride off to the Big Ten to join up with an actual rival in this sport, Johns Hopkins. It would be a fairytale ending. By the way, it doesn't hurt that the Terps are also headed to the title game in spring's other sport here in Greensboro and may get a chance to vanquish the same foe in baseball for an ACC crown.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Changing of the Guard

The Irish Guard, a portion of Notre Dame's Band of the Fighting Irish, will be changing this coming year. If you're not familiar with the unit, you may recognize them if you saw them: six-foot-plus, almost exclusively men, clad in kilts and tartans that march and perform with the band.

Until now, guard members have been selected through an open tryout. Now, the members will come from within the band - "like Drum Major," notes director Kenneth Dye - and service will be limited to one or two years instead of the current three or four years. And perhaps most notable, the height requirement is gone. At present, guard members must be 6'2", a requirement that creates an imposing force from those who wear the uniform.

I don't talk politics on here often, but I will share that I trend towards the left and typically have a liberal, equal access, let-everyone-play outlook on most things. And yet, with admitted distance from the circumstances that brought this change, I disagree.

Notre Dame doesn't march a color guard, making the Irish Guard the closest to that function, in both the marching band pageantry and military pageantry senses. The Guard hoists the flag before the game, but also adds color to the band. While precision marching is key, being a musician, in the instrument-playing sense, is not. So why limit membership to within the band? Color guards often have members who specify in their equipment, but not necessarily an instrument. I'll grant the comparison to the drum major role; anyone watching the video above may draw comparisons between their entrance and FAMU's death march, but I fail to see how casting as wide a net as possible and allowing the entire student body to audition is a bad thing. That's not to say that previous leadership, especially within a band context, isn't important and shouldn't be considered, but does it need to be a prerequisite? I am heartened, at least, that the previous membership includes band managers, which means that a student may have dedicated him/herself to the band without necessarily being an instrumentalist.

A little more about me: I stand every bit of 5'6 1/2" (the 1/2 inch is important) tall. I would never have been a candidate for the guard for that reason alone, and yet keeping that requirement doesn't bother me one bit. When it comes right down to it, being a part of the guard is playing a role, and if part of the requirement of that role is to be 6'2", I don't see this as a problem. I've said before - and I include myself in this - that I have no desire to see a drum major at 5'6" unless he or she can carry themselves as though they are 6'5". This is only as discriminatory as casting a black man to play Othello - it's integral for the role.

Once again, I fully acknowledge that I address this from an outsider's perspective. It's easy to see how an insular culture among the guard may have previously served as a breeding ground for discrimination, hazing, or other such activity, and if that's what's being address here, then kudos to the Band of the Fighting Irish for doing what is necessary to end it. But barring addressing a specific issue, the change seems a knock at the tradition of one of the oldest bands in the nation.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Invisible Baton

Courtesy of Macy's, Inc.
A lot of wheeling and dealing has taken place in the land/TV market/money grab that is conference realignment, but I'll admit that not even I saw the manner that marching bands could be used towards staking a claim. And yet, I believe that that's taking place now as two conferences with their eyes set on New York City push their agendas through perhaps the most unlikely medium: The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Participants for the 2015 parade were just announced, and in the field are the University of Virginia Cavalier Marching Band and the Marching Illini of the University of Illinois. There's no controversy or conspiracy here. College bands participate in Macy's all the time. But when you look at it in context, it looks just a little too coincidental.

Looking back to 2007 (as far back as I could find accurate parade lineups) never did more than two college bands participate. In 2015, the number balloons to four, as UVA and Illinois are joined by Stephen F. Austin and West Chester. Illinois and UVA also represent just a handful of bands from college football's highest level to participate. In 2010, Purdue boasts the Big Ten's first and to date only Macy's Parade participant in the All-American Marching Band. Georgia Tech of the ACC marched in 2008, and in the only other year that included two bands from major conferences, 2007, both the Pride of Oklahoma and Virginia Tech's Highty-Tighties (the Corps of Cadets' regimental band, not the Marching Virginians, the primarily athletics-focused spirit band) marched. Even so, both of those appointments had a prescribed reason: Virginia Tech had undergone tragedy the previous April in its campus shootings, while the state of Oklahoma was celebrating its centennial.

That major conference Macy's participants have been rare isn't surprising. Thanksgiving sits near the end of the college football season, and is a major weekend of competition for many programs. Further, the few weeks that follow are likely to include band travel for the more successful programs, as conference championships and bowl games are right around the corner. Adding a major Thanksgiving Day parade doesn't emerge as a priority for most, but perhaps staking a claim in NYC makes it a little more attractive. The Big Ten already invited Rutgers in hopes to seize the coveted New York media market; the ACC did the same with Syracuse and the move of the basketball tournament to Brooklyn. Everyone wants a bite of the Big Apple, and both conferences see fit to parade their respective shades of orange and blue down 6th Avenue.

But why Virginia and Illinois? As I mentioned, postseason play may have played a role in the previous reluctance to put bands in to the parade. Those two schools went a combined 1-15 in conference in the season prior to their selection, so while things can change for either program, they were among the safest bets to have a clear dance card. While both schools are scheduled to host their in-state rivals on Thanksgiving weekend - Virginia Tech and Northwestern, respectively - both are typically Saturday contests, so there's no reason the bands couldn't get back to Charlottesville or Urbana-Champaign in time. Both conferences would really show their hands if the schools were mysteriously playing Syracuse and Rutgers in the final week of the regular season, but I don't expect to see that.

Meanwhile, Macy's is arguably America's most famous parade, and certainly the most famous that one can be invited to without the actions of the football team, noting that the other such parade is the Rose Parade, and no major conference band is getting an invite their without their team playing in the Rose Bowl. Their participation not only gets them to New York, but puts them in the hearts and minds of millions who may be watching more prominent football games later in the day.

I don't know the degree to which John Swofford, Jim Delany, or their respective league offices puppetmastered this participation. It may have been as simple as encouraging both bands to apply, or active negotiations with the Macy's parade team, but I'm relatively confident that there was involvement from the conference level - too much points to it. It's not conspiracy, it's creative, and perhaps part of the value that having your mitts on NYC brings. Let's see if this continues into the 2016 parade and beyond.

What's in a Schedule?

There's been a lot of back and forth with regards to conference scheduling. The Pac-12, Big 12, and Big Ten all currently or will soon play nine conference games in football. Not long ago, the SEC announced that it will continue its eight game conference slate, playing all six divisionmates, a crossover rival, and one rotating team from the opposite division. Days later, the ACC followed suit, also adopting the 6-1-1 format. As a nod to critics, both conferences agreed to play an additional team each year from a power 5 conference (or Notre Dame); permanent non-conference rivalries or the ACC's scheduling deal with Notre Dame satisfy that requirement, meaning that for a number of schools, nothing changes.

Not unlike Michigan State's muse Rich Homie Quan, some in the other conferences are feeling some type of way about the ACC and SEC's decision. The common refrain is that as we enter the playoff era, everyone should be playing by the same rules, and some see a nine game conference schedule as one of those rules.

Here's the thing: At present, no one knows what will be rewarded in the new format. It could be finishing with the fewest losses. It could be strength of schedule. It could be secret handshakes or Contra codes. So until the perceived unfair advantage comes into fruition, why get bent out of shape about it? As the folks at Crystal Ball Run put it, being able to make different decisions is why conferences exist. For that matter, demanding a ninth game could backfire. I don't think it's much of a stretch to state that the SEC is the strongest of the Party of Five, while the ACC, despite boasting the reigning national champion, is the weakest. As such, a ninth SEC game, on average, pads an SEC team's strength of schedule more than the average game they would pick up with the other power 5 team mandate, while a ninth ACC game, on average, gives an ACC team an easier win than the average game on the open market. If you end up better on one vector and worse on the other, you find yourself in the exact same situation if both conferences go to nine, again assuming that strength of schedule and win-loss are the metrics that matter.

Now let's be selfish. I'm a USF alumnus. I would imagine that even with a nine game schedule, the ACC and SEC would still, more often than not, schedule at least one other power 5 game, especially those with permanent out of conference rivals. Add to that the fact that FCS opponents likely aren't going away, and this shrinks the number of possible games that USF can get with the big boys. Given that the ACC and SEC sit closest to our footprint, keeping those channels open is advantageous for us. Beyond just self interest, though, more games against other conferences only helps the sport, its fans, and most importantly the selection committee move closer to comparing apples with apples when assessing teams from different conferences. In a sport with 12 games and ten times as many teams, the less teams play one another out of conference the harder it is to compare, say, a one loss Michigan State and a one loss Oklahoma. It also, like the USF example, allows the mid-majors a shot at getting a foot in the door. The argument against their inclusion will always be "but they don't play anyone!" The more the major conferences close ranks and minimize games against the other five conferences, the more that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My only problem with the eight game conference schedule is the frequency with which teams meet their non-permanent rivals from the other division. In each conference, they're looking at meeting a cross division foe twice every 12 years. ACC teams will play Notre Dame roughly twice as often. For all we know Texas A&M may play Texas before they once again meet Vanderbilt, their rotating East division opponent from 2013. It seems absurd to meet those you call your conferencemates that infrequency, but to avoid it would be to destroy the permanent crossover, and in at least a few cases - Auburn-UGA, Alabama-Tennessee, FSU-Miami, and UNC-NC State - those are worth preserving. The ACC is also considering non-conference conference games (scheduling a conference foe above and beyond the eight games that would not count towards conference standings) but that proposal's legs seem shaky at best. The only other solution rests with the NCAA. The current plea to deregulate conference championship games - the current format requires two divisions of at least six members each, and for teams to play a full round robin in division - could hold the key. If these restrictions ease, conferences could designate two or three permanent opponents, preserving traditional rivalries, and rotate through all other conferencemates. In either conference, three permanent rivals would allow teams to see everyone in the conference every other year (or twice in four years if home and homes are played consecutively). Each four year student would get to both host and visit every other team in conference. If deregulation takes place, I wouldn't be surprised to see either conference go this route.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Stuck in the Middle

The times, they are a-changin' in college football.

This upcoming season, major college football will see its first playoff. At the same time, college athletes have been empowered to unionize, the NCAA is mired in lawsuits, and the power five conferences may soon have the ability to create their own rules.

But what of the middle class?

It comes as no surprise that I, as a South Florida alumnus, have a particular interest in the plight of the Football Bowl Subdivision's "other" five conferences. as the BCS gave way, so to did the Big East/American's access to college football's biggest stage. The new playoff format leaves chances at slim to none that a team from outside the big five conferences will compete for a championship, and slim's on his way out of town.

Where does that leave the other five conferences? Stuck in the middle.

Members of the MAC, Mountain West, Sun Belt, Conference USA, and American can look at championships in both directions, but have little chance of touching any. Above them, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC will compete for college football's largest prize, the one that lies at the end of the arrogantly named College Football Playoff. Below them, the Football Championship Subdivision, Division II, and Division III will continue the playoffs they've always had, and their winners will hoist championships actually sanctioned by the NCAA. But for the 63 teams in the other five conferences once the dust settles (and two independents, Army and BYU, likely to find themselves in similar straits) there is no grand prize, save perhaps for the ability to represent their class in the series of marquee bowls we once referred to as BCS. It is a de facto best-of-the-rest role, but no championship in and of itself.

What are these schools to do? Frankly, there's not much that can be done. Much like the World Class DCI corps that sit below the "G7," their access will remain limited, unless there is further subdivision within the Division I ranks. They're in an untenable situation: Demand separation, and potentially separate yourselves from the cash cows that prop up the FBS? Or grin and bear it? Fortunately/unfortunately for them, the outcome this summer of the power five's proposal may hold the key.
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