Posted November 30, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: Non-BCS programs automatic also-rans


This will not be yet another BCS-bashing diatribe.

There will be no elegant playoff solutions here.

That doesn't mean wishful thinking is off-limits, though. After all, it is the holiday season.

TCU got a big present on Monday, when the school's board of trustees voted unanimously to accept an invitation to join the Big East Conference in all sports starting in the 2012-13 school year ... or rather, football season since this move is purely, completely and transparently 100 percent about football.

When TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said the decision to jump to the Big East gave his school "the greatest opportunity to compete for the national championship," rest assured he wasn't talking about women's basketball or baseball.

The Big East, after all, has one of those coveted, priceless BCS automatic qualifying spots -- a virtual key to the kingdom, as it were, or at least an in to the cash-filled BCS vault.

You can't blame TCU, not really. Under coach Gary Patterson, the Horned Frogs have posted back-to-back unbeaten regular seasons and are poised to break through as a BCS buster for the second straight season. The problem, of course, is that TCU is forced to crash the party in the first place. If Boise State had not had the misfortune of losing last week to a ranked Nevada squad, the Horned Frogs might well have been on the outside looking in no matter what they did on the football field this season. A member of the Mountain West Conference, TCU has no automatic BCS bid.

Now here's the wishful thinking portion of the column -- why does the Big East, or any of the so-called "power conferences," have automatic bids at all. If, as Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee suggested last week, the Big Ten and other BCS conferences face a "murderer's row" week in and week out, while the non-BCS conferences apparently gleefully schedule the "Little Sisters of the Poor," then why not let strength of schedule -- and success against said schedule -- be the primary determining factor for the BCS? Why have automatic bids at all?

Certainly, the power conferences have no intention of handing back those automatic spots. The Big East if a prime example of just why that will never willingly happen. West Virginia, ranked 24th in this week's BCS standings, is the only Big East school even in the rankings. Connecticut is just a victory away from claiming the Big East's automatic qualifying bid, needing only to beat South Florida to lock up its spot.

The ACC, another self-styled power conference, isn't in much better shape in the BCS standings. Virginia Tech, losers to both Boise State and FCS member James Madison, tops the list among ACC schools -- and it's a short list -- at No. 15. Florida State checks in a No. 21, and that's it for the ACC.

Take a look at what playing those "Little Sisters" has done for the non-BCS conferences -- the Mountain West has TCU (No. 3) and Utah (No. 20); the WAC also has two in Boise State (No. 11) and Nevada (No. 17), and the MAC has one in Northern Illinois (No. 25).
That's a full 20 percent of this week's BCS rankings occupied by non-automatic qualifying conferences.
It won't be that way for long, of course, as events over the last few months have shown. The Pac-10's move to invite Utah and Colorado from the Mountain West and Big 12, respectively, was a body blow to both those conferences. Nebraska jumped from the Big 12 to the Big Ten, leaving the Big 12 at the mercy of Texas to keep what has been a supremely competitive conference from completely disintegrating. The Mountain West raided the WAC for Boise State, Nevada and Fresno State after losing Utah and BYU (which is striking out as an independent), and the WAC lured in former FCS schools Texas State, Texas-San Antonio and Denver (which has no football program) to fill out its membership.

None of those moves, of course, compares to the geographic ridiculousness represented by TCU in the Big East. Rest assured, a good chunk of that hoped-for BCS haul will be earmarked for travel as the Horned Frogs make the numbingly regular flights out East to face their new conference rivals in tennis, softball, and women's soccer, among others.
None of it matters, apparently, to the bottom line. TCU sees the opportunity to increase revenue, or it wouldn't be making the move to the Big East. The Big East, a past victim of these conference cannibalizations (Virginia Tech ring a bell?) made a necessary move to shore up its membership with a legitimately good football school -- good for now, at least. The move also gives the Big East a presence in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, regarded as one of the top national recruiting bases for -- you guessed it -- football.

So TCU is happy, the Big East is happy, and the Mountain West -- well, that conference is simply a victim of its own success. It's just the latest salvo in a trend that has greatly weakened the Big 12, hamstrung the Mountain West and left the WAC a smoking crater occupied by unwanted schools. The ripple effect could continue, as no non-BCS conference is safe from the poaching of their "power" neighbors.

Much of that "power" rests in something not earned and not deserved -- an automatic bid to the BCS. With built-in strength of schedule (in the case of truly strong conferences like the SEC, Pac-10 and yes, the Big Ten and still the Big 12) or the reassurance of a guaranteed seat at the BCS table (looking at you, ACC and Big East), the trend has been to largely avoid the type of trouble facing an upstart like TCU or Boise State could provide. Home-and-home? Not a chance, not with FCS schools lining up for a payday to take a beating, a check that often covers a significant amount of their total athletic budget expenditures.

Cut out the freebies to the "Big Six" and make scheduling tough opponents the surest way to play for a title, and suddenly the TCUs and Boise States of the college football world might get the time of day instead scrambling to get their foot in the door in either one of two ways -- never losing (and that's still no guarantee), or joining one of the power conferences (if they'll have you). Boise State almost accomplished the former, now TCU is going to try the latter.

It's a shame that moves which make no geographic or historical sense could become the norm, and that fine conferences like the Mountain West will continue to be gutted because they have no automatic bid. Wouldn't it be nice to level the playing field just a little?

Like I said, wishful thinking.

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