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The Crossroads, or How to Win a National Football Championship in Nashville

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When it comes to the future of college football and the SEC, what is Vanderbilt prepared to do?

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

(NB. This was written before Derek Mason's SEC Media Days presentation.  -VI)

I.

If you want to win a college football championship, here are your options:

ALABAMA. Be good already. Have national championships going back to the 20s. Get a new class of 5-stars every year and reload with so much talent that not even having Lane Kiffin on staff can keep you out of the Sugar Bowl. (Though it might keep you out of the title game.)

OHIO STATE: the same. Although you may decrease your difficulty by playing among the warrior poets of that Ivy League of the Midwest, the B1G. ("Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain't come to play SCHOOL, classes are POINTLESS." - Cardale Jones, championship starting QB for Ohio State, and who cares if he claimed he didn't mean it years later)

FLORIDA STATE: Make sure you have a university and a police department that will shelter your team at all costs, and play in a basketball league so you can avoid meaningful regular-season challenges until the last possible moment.

OREGON: Make sure the biggest athletic equipment company on Earth shoots money out of a firehose at you so that you can buy everything the NCAA will allow, and try to ensure that only one or two teams in your conference will bother with defense.

So if you want to be good enough to contend for a national title in 2015, you need some combination of: bend the rules, blow off class, get free rolled by the cops, have an imperial shit ton of money, and be good already.

Well.

Bending the rules isn't really our style, given that no one can remember a time when football was ever sanctioned by the NCAA for so much as a manager selling a player a parking pass. We certainly haven't gotten any get out of jail free cards; we cut Those Four loose as soon as MNPD started sniffing around and before they were formally charged (and what kind of crackhead half-ass DA doesn't strike that juror in voir dire, I ask you). Blow off class? Maybe. But that frequently-used "Human and Organizational Development" major is in Peabody, which last I checked is the top education school in the nation. We also have a lot of Econ majors, and while I may personally feel economists exist to make astrologers look respectable, it's not exactly a gut major. If there's a massive list of easy courses distributed to athletes like Stanford had, it hasn't leaked, and there's no indication of a North Carolina-style scheme to dispense with classes outright.

Then there's the money. Sure, we have the generosity of the Ingrams, among others. We also have the TV and bowl money that goes along with the SEC - but that's table stakes. The other thirteen schools get that too, and they're all state schools with massive fan bases, many of whom never set foot on campus other than for games. Our own sidewalk alumni are few and precious, but our fanbase is small and our alumni more likely than others to be living elsewhere (like, say, Northern California, to pull a place out of thin air). We don't have that vast army of good ol' boys who'll buy anything with black and gold on it or name their kids Mason before the new guy even coaches a game. And our school has more on its mind than football. The faculty and trustees would like to put money into all parts of the school, and you can't presume that football will automatically be stroked a blank check on demand (unless you are Stanford and have the resources of a man who owns about a third of the land in Silicon Valley at your disposal).

We can punt on 'good already', I guess.

Point is, look at those names. Florida State became a team to reckon with in the late 1980s, though they didn’t break through with a title until 1993. The last time Alabama and Ohio State weren’t on the college football radar, football wasn’t on the college football radar and it was still three downs to make five yards. Oregon is the "new blood" and their come-up began with the Rose Bowl berth after the 1994 season, but they didn’t get a bid for a national title until the 2010 season.

My point being, it’s a long climb to being a national contender. You can rattle off the names as easily as I can: Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Miami, and of course half the SEC, it seems like: the traditional powers that the sports tends to revolve around. And for the most part, they all have a similar approach: play one or two big-time external opponents a year, run the table in the conference, and try to get into a position to jaw their way into national title consideration. It’s almost inevitable now that you’ll see the playoff expand from 4 to 8 after how good TCU looked and how Ohio State came up from the 4 spot - and that way, you can guarantee a seat on the starship for all five Power 5 champions and the best at-large team while still shoehorning two more of those Names above into the conversation. (In retrospect, it seems like TCU might should have gotten Florida State’s berth, but I digress.) And once you have 8, somebody will clamor for 16, and it will be pointed out that it’s still fewer teams by percentage than get into the NCAA basketball tournament or any of the pro playoffs, and the FCS has a 16-team playoff, and we’ll soon be doing that. And by that point, the complaining will have long since begun: some conferences only play 8 league games and some play 9, some conferences have 10 members and some have 14, some have a title game and some don’t, and we’re back on the realignment merry-go-round again.

II.

We have to start with some assumptions, and they are bad ones, because assumptions are generally bad. Nothing changes in football without pulling on everything else; the Big East was the most powerful conference in basketball and ran itself on the rocks (and ultimately split) trying to make itself a viable football conference. The decisions in conference realignment in 2010-13 were all football-centric and disrupted all manner of long-established traditions and rivalries (so long, Longhorn-Aggie or Nebraska-Oklahoma). But we don’t have time to chase everything down its own rabbit-hole, so let us assume (and you know what you do when you assume) that football is happening in a vacuum, distinct from the rest of the college athletics world.

To facilitate this, let’s further assume that Power 5 college football is removed from its current level of NCAA control and sanction when it goes big. Whoever doesn’t make the jump to the new-look College Football Premier League will be left behind as the upper crust of the FCS, essentially. Maybe some of the lesser bowls survive, maybe not, who knows.

So there are a couple of different ways this could go. In one of them, all the Power 5 conferences survive and persist. However, they have to standardize if this is going to work, and I don’t see anyone shedding teams, so the most likely scenario is 5 leagues of 14 teams each. This means that the Big "12" and Pac-12 all need new members. The other approach is to say to hell with it and go big and say that we’ll have 16-team conferences. This makes you wonder if there are 80 schools that can really swing this or not. In that case I think it’s entirely feasible that you end up with four 16-team megaconferences that each function as a pair of 8-team sub-conferences (for instance, the West Coast teams of the Pac-12 stay together while the Arizonas and Utah/Colorado get lumped with Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and OK State - it’s a stretch but not utterly absurd).

So in the 14 team scenario, say:

Pac-12 ADDS (kicking and screaming): BYU, Colorado State (to preserve their paired system)

Big XII ADDS: Boise State, Cincinnati, Memphis, Fresno State (because why not)

At that point, everybody plays a division schedule, with 9 conference games (split up however you please) and three non-conference games, and you wind up with a situation not far removed from what we have now. No big deal, all things considered. But in the 16 team scenario, you have to set things on super mega donkey tilt, because there aren’t enough teams to make equally competitive conferences.

What I wind up with is this:

Pac-12: keeps its 2014 membership, ADDS Texas - Texas Tech - Oklahoma - OkSt

ACC: loses Virginia Tech & NC State, ADDS Maryland and Rutgers

B1G: loses Maryland and Rutgers, ADDS Notre Dame, Missouri, Kansas and Iowa State

SEC: loses Missouri, ADDS Virginia Tech, NC State and West Virginia

At this stage I think you have to make even more changes. Assume you’re playing everyone in your division round-robin, so 7 sub-conference games plus 2 rotating from the other side and three non-conference games. But at that point, you have 8 sub-champs who have all played each other and have to play a conference title game, so there’s your automatic 4-team playoff every year.

Now, somebody’s getting screwed in all this, and in this version of the scenario it’s the Big 12. Kansas State, TCU and Baylor, all strong football teams, are left without a seat when the music stops because the Pac-12 wants pairs, the B1G wants AAU members and the ACC and SEC only want to add new states. The other conferences are pretty much shut out of the national title picture in perpetuity because the Great Big 64 have gone their own way. BCS-caliber teams of today and national champs of days gone by, like Pitt or BYU, are on the outside looking in while a bunch of teams that don’t make any geographical or historical sense get swept along for the ride by virtue of being there already.

III.

The point of all this is simple: what are our intentions for football?

We’ve already gone over what it generally takes to be good enough to play for a championship, although I think it’s more worthwhile to look at it in terms of "BCS bowl and possible conference title" as we have existing examples of other similar institutions who have done the same. After all, Stanford has four BCS bowls (two Rose) under their belt in the last six years, and Northwestern has won the B1G and been to the Rose Bowl more than once in the last twenty years (from a similarly benighted start). So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that maybe we can avoid compromising ourselves and somehow get the talent, resources and coaching to rise to, say, 10-2 and first place in the SEC East. In a 16-team scenario, that might put us in the picture. In an 8-team one, I don’t know that we could count on it, because we aren’t a Name. Ohio State, TCU and Baylor were all jockeying for that 4th spot, and who got it? The Name.

But more to the point: will we still be around to be in a 14x5 or 16x4 setup? When the top teams are concentrated, and the ones that have the money and support and flexibility to be contenders are only playing each other, how will we deal with the fish problem? Are we prepared to go on as we have, and be an even smaller fish in the bigger ocean, or would the 64-team super league be the bridge too far and the final straw?

The thing I keep coming back to is that we just had our best three-year stretch of football in eighty years, and our mountaintop was 8-4 in back-to-back regular seasons and one year where we were over .500 in conference for the first time in 30 years. I don’t know anyone who thinks keeping the previous staff around in 2014 would have gotten us 8 wins again, although we might have scratched out five or even six. But in 2012-13 it was good enough for the very dead center of a 14-team league. Much as it sucks to say - and make no mistake, it does - we have to consider the very legitimate possibility that we took our best shot and that’s where we topped out. We only faced four teams this past season that finished the regular season ranked; what happens if South Carolina and Tennessee get back on track and we move to a 9-game schedule and pick up an extra Bama or LSU or Mississippi State every year? Even if we eschew the chase for the Mythical National Championship and set our sights on just winning the SEC - as several of our other varsity sports have done, and handily, in the last three or four years - how are we now to accomplish something that we alone among original SEC members have never managed to do?

Because there have been others in our position. Tulane and Georgia Tech chose to bail out rather than keep up. Of the two, you’d have to say Georgia Tech has done better for itself - a couple of major bowl bids and a share of the national championship in 1990. Tulane had an undefeated season in 1998, but these days has moved out of the Superdome into a cozy on-campus stadium that is actually smaller than ours.

And Tulane and Georgia Tech, between them, had at least a share of eight SEC football titles. Kentucky has two. Mississippi State has one. We have none. In fact, every SEC school other than Texas A&M, even the newest, have at least one division title or outright pre-1992 league championship…except us. You have to go back to the Southern Conference, where we won a share of back-to-back titles in 1922 and 1923 (shared with Georgia Tech, North Carolina, and Washington & Lee), to find a football championship of any kind. Of course, if you want to go back to the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, you can find eleven titles shared or won outright, including five straight seasons from 1903 to 1907. And depending on who you believe, there are those who argue we should have had a piece of a Mythical National Championship in 1904…boy, we were really something before electricity...

So now we have the question.  In a world with the top teams going off to form the College Football Premier League, are we willing to go that route? Assuming that everything else stayed the same and we didn't have to weigh baseball and basketball and other sports in the balance, would we want to make the move, hope that the money will actually roll in and pay the freight for the rest of our sports teams, and reconcile ourselves to an endless future of Dowhower-Widenhofer-era ball and another quarter-century as the Truck Nutz on the SEC's football bumper at 3-9? Or hope that the risible minimal academic standards change and put everyone into more straitened academic circumstances to curtail our disadvantages? Or do we just say to hell with it, blow up the standards, write the checks and let the devil take the hindmost? And given what it took to get us to 8-4, what will it take to get to 10-2, and are we willing to do it? Or is there a point where we say "this far and no further" and decide, like Milton's Satan, that it's better to reign in hell than serve in heaven? In short: what is the endgame for us?

And this is where my clever and perfect solution isn't. Because there's not one. I don't know what the landscape of college football, or the SEC, or of Vanderbilt University looks like in 2015, or 2016, or 2020 or 2030. All I know is that if there were an obvious solution we would have gone with it already.  Instead there's just the eternal nagging question: what are we prepared to do?