You know the familiar logos, teams and mascots situated near the top, and that isn’t set to morph anytime soon. Make no mistake about it, however, college football has more parity than ever, and this is welcomed with open arms.
The difference in resources when it comes to powerhouse programs and those that aren't is significant. It's why we have this separation. There’s no fighting this, no helpful, quick-fix elixir for those eyeballing the increased infusion of cash for others.
The emergence of things like university-centric television networks, absurd television contracts and other cash pipelines to feed these obese cash cows creates an unfair advantage of sorts. These financial advantages have been earned—there’s also someone willing to pay it—but competing without these riches is a challenge that programs are taking head on in a variety of creative ways.
They’re succeeding, too.
Trend Setters—Some Names of Note in 2012
Over the past few years, various teams off the radar have made a splash—whether it transpired over the course of a full season or simply turning the college football world upside down with one game.
Sometimes those two go hand in hand, and some names have emerged in 2012 for their performance early on. There are obviously more than just a handful, but some of the fascinating teams making noise includes:
Louisiana Tech: 4-0 and putting up ridiculous offensive numbers. Sonny Dykes is a name you will hear rumored to almost every major head coaching vacancy this offseason and deservingly so. Their October 13th game against Texas A&M—the hurricane delayed affair—will be must-see TV.
Middle Tennessee State: A balanced but potent offensive attack from a team that has already eclipsed their win total from 2011. This says quite a bit about this team, as does their last win. Their 21-point win over Georgia Tech made the entire nation take note.
As did this touchdown grab in the upset.
Western Kentucky: In the past calendar year, the Hilltoppers have lost two games. Those games came against LSU and Alabama on their home field, and they held Alabama to 103 yards rushing in those games. Willie Taggart is another name you will hear mentioned when it comes to open coaching positions this offseason.
Youngstown State: When you beat Pitt in impressive fashion, you turn heads, That’s what this Missouri Valley Conference team did in their opener, and they’ve won every game since. This was, perhaps, the upset of the year at the time—although the team below might have something to say about that.
Louisiana-Monroe: No team has created more off-the-radar buzz than “Funroe” in 2012, and their might not be a more fascinating group in the entire country. Their upset win over Arkansas made everyone pause, but they also hung with Auburn and Baylor in their own buildings and just barely missed out on wins.
These teams, and others, have found more success of late in a variety of ways. There's no perfect plan to relevancy and upsets, but there are some trends worth noting.
The Arms Race: We Loves Sports, We Really Love Football, and We'll Pay to Prove It
This should come as no surprise, of course, but it more reaffirms what we already knew. We love sports, we love the pageantry, and we love supporting something that takes us away from the seriousness of our lives, even for a short while.
This is the importance of sport in the most general sense, and the influence that have can be seen in the findings of this study conducted by the US Anti-Doping Agency. We begin stressing the importance of sport at a young age, and it’s getting even younger.
We can zero in the fascination to football. And while the NFL is king in terms of overall eyeballs, college football’s booming popularity isn’t far behind. The interest in college football is trending upwards, so much so that many are now taking steps to become a bigger factor in this discussion.
Translation: they are spending money to make money off our insane fascination with this sport.
$250 million plan to increase the capacity of their football stadium, and it's becoming a focus once again.
This is more than just more seats (and in this case, a lot more seats), but it sends a message.
We are serious about football.
It's a recruiting tool, and doing so allows you to keep up with some of the big boys. While Duke won’t be competing with Oregon’s yearly Nike makeover, this says much about their commitment to a sport that has been quiet for quite sometime at their school. The 2012 Duke team has four wins already, eclipsing their win totals for the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
Some success breeds future investment. And future investment breeds further success.
The Offense—Successful Systems In a One-Game Setting and Beyond
Football's offensive era is upon us, and Nick Saban is not pleased that it's here to say.
Nick Saban on the high octane offenses: "Is this what we want football to be?"— Blair Kerkhoff (@BlairKerkhoff) October 3, 2012
Well, Nick. I believe the millions still fanning themselves from the Baylor-West Virginia game would fire back an emphatic "Yes." And many teams unable to recruit defense on a yearly basis like you can are having success on this front.
There are creative ways to combat a substantial gap in talent and to cover up weaknesses at various positions. If you run a spread, option or other up-tempo offense with capable players—and more importantly, a capable quarterback—your team has a chance to be matchup hell. It's the 40-time equalizer of sorts, and the remedy of the underdog.
Add some wrinkles to this offense, and it can make it that much more dangerous. Teams have done so already, and this formula has seen some success.
These offenses in a one-game setting can be problematic for a defense because they aren't featured on a weekly basus. The unfamiliar and the unknown can be a scary combination, regardless of how substantial the overall talent gap might appear.
UL-Monroe’s up-tempo offense was a huge problem for Baylor's defense earlier this season. Although we are well aware that Baylor’s defense has, well, "issues" up and down, Monroe pushed every button in their offensive playbook to expose it.
They even went to a 2-quarterback formation (yes, two QBs on the same play) which had overwhelming success and made for fabulous television.
They didn’t run it throughout the entire game, but it certainly set a tone and moved the chains. And despite the loss, Monroe's 3-game stretch against Arkansas, Auburn and Baylor did so much more than a 1-2 record shows. They will see the benefits of this one month for years.
Speaking to this game plan in general, the quarterbacks for these teams (and more specifically their systems) don't have to be blue-chup recruits or pro prospects. Make them comfortable in an offensive system with some quirks, however, and they can be incredibly dangerous.
Quarterbacks playing on the five teams that have been mentioned (Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech, Youngstown State and Duke) have thrown for 49 touchdowns and only 16 interceptions.
The Future Will Be Televised: Where We are and Where We're Headed
Although the talent discrepancies are still substantial between the top teams in BCS conferences and everyone else, there are now more opportunities for schools to garner information on thousands of high school players.
The recruiting world is strange. It is intense. It has evolved and it is still evolving. The interest in this process has grown substantially over the past five years, and much like the interest in the game itself, there are now many outlets whose soul purpose is to cover football recruiting.
These outlets have created a forum where recruiting camps, televised high school games and various assessment periods are expected, and their presence has increased dramatically over just the past year alone. Social media's influence on this wave can also not be ignored.
While the public will gladly tune in to see how dominated a recruiting camp, this isn't just for us. This booming amount of coverage has made life easier on every coach and program who now has more access than ever. It's also not just about the nation's elite players, but also about the grander view of all levels of talent.
Although a team like UL-Monroe won’t be able to compete with Alabama for a 5-star safety in Florida, at least not right now, they will have a much better glimpse at players that were overlooked not long ago. The diamonds in the rough of sorts. We often focus in on how this coverage has impacted the Clowneys, the DGBs, and the Nkemdiches of the recruiting world, but it has done so much more than that.
It has opened up avenues of resources, and a good scouting department and a solid recruiter can go along way in gradually increasing the talent levels at off-the-radar universities.
Play Right Now—The Alabama Quandary and the Unimportance of Age
Not too long ago, the idea of a freshman playing meaningful minutes was a rarity. Now, if one of these top players isn’t contributing in their first year on campus, many wonder if he ever will.
The stigma surrounding playing younger talents at meaningful positions too early—even quarterback—is long gone. In 2012, we’ve seen true freshmen Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota seemingly dominate in the early part of the season.
These two were only 3-star talents coming out of high school, and both were ranked out of the top ten for dual-threat quarterbacks on Rivals. In 9 combined college games, they have combined to score 28 touchdowns and toss only two interceptions (both of which have came from Mariota).
Manziel, in particular, has been unbelievable. His 557 yards against Arkansas was an SEC record, and he accomplished this in only his 4th collegiate game.
This kind of performance will only further the sentiment that young talent can play right away if they're ready. With a new precedent taking shape, players who are concerned about hitting the field early on have a chance to do so. They may not have a chance at some of the nation's best football programs, however, which is wonderful news for everyone else.
A loaded depth chart is a wonderful problem to have, but it will also turn away young talent eventually. Sometimes it only takes one player to make this change, and teams are no doubt sifting through film to find this next program-altering talent.
Although it's possible, it's never that easy.
College football will never be the NFL. The conference standings will not flip upside down each year, and the teams you've grown accustomed to seeing will not all the sudden disappear. They will endure their ups and downs, some longer than others, but the incredible advantages that these schools have over others are impossible to ignore.
In the end, it's about the money.
Despite their continued presence in the game, however, there is an opening for others to claim. Louisiana-Monore has done that this year, and they've accomplished this even in loses. They’re trending upwards together, and the gap within the majority of the programs, even those who claim BCS tie-ins, is shrinking. This means we can expect more close games, more upsets, more parity, and most importantly, better football.
And that is good news for all of us.