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Football’$ Back

That old saying about the month of March coming in like a lion has nothing on September, especially if you are a football fan. The calendar’s ninth month entered on the heels of the Little League World Series and produced instant excitement and a few anxious moments for local fans of Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh.

While both teams came out victorious, the Nittany Lions survived a spotty performance culminated by perhaps the best drive of sixth-year quarterback Sean Clifford’s career in a 35-31 win over Purdue. Down 31-28, Clifford engineered an eight-play, 80-yard game-winning-drive game in the closing minutes.

But the crown jewel of September’s gridiron christening took place in Pittsburgh with the renewal of the heated Backyard Brawl between rivals Pitt and West Virginia. In an era of increasingly disappearing traditional rivalries caused by the money-grabbing changes in the makeup of college conferences, this game underlined the reasons why games like this should be played.

Separated by just 75 miles (making the 136-mile journey between State College and Pittsburgh seem like a cross-county junket), the Backyard Brawl four-quarter thriller between two rivals, after an 11-year absence, with a history that dates back to the 19th century, was well worth the wait.

Before 70,622 fans, the largest crowd ever to witness at Pitt game in the Burgh, and a TV audience of 3.15 million — the highest viewership for a Thursday Night TV game since 2017 — the game was full of big plays and wild swings in the action. Pitt finally prevailed 38-31 after stopping a West Virginia drive at the one-yard line on the game’s final play.

There is no question that college football enjoys enthusiastic fan support, despite the changing landscape the game is undergoing. But the emergence of the transfer portal, the ineptitude of the NCAA leadership, and the NIL controversy are negatives to be dealt with.

NIL, referencing Name, Image, and Likeness, has to do with the ability of college athletes to earn money from sponsorship deals and other advertising dollars. Until recently, it was illegal under NCAA rules. It can be argued that since the universities and college coaches are raking in the big bucks off the skills of their athletes that something is amiss. While college rivalry games at the Division I level are becoming endangered species, so too is the continually used term ‘student-athletes.’

College football’s opening week did see some big-time matchups, Ohio State/Notre Dame and Florida State/LSU among them. These games were pleasant changes from the often-played Big Time U. vs. Cupcake College; let’s grab the money in exchange for a loss, encounters that have long been present at opening games.

On the radar screens of college football’s hierarchy, one such ‘money game’ almost had a surprise ending. St. Francis University (2,725 students) agreed to take the 183-mile trip to Akron, Ohio, to take on the Division 1-A Zips (16,193 students). For their trouble, the Loretta, PA-based school received a little traveling money at the rate of $1,912 per mile, pocketing $350,000 for their coffers. The payout almost cost the Zips more than their loose change as they needed an overtime TD to beat the underdog Red Flash 30-23.

The recent defections of Oklahoma and Texas from the Big Twelve to the Southeastern Conference and UCLA and Southern California from the PAC-12 to the Big Ten have nothing to do with geography, traditional rivalries, or the numerical number of teams in each league’s makeup. As the famous Jerry Maguire movie quote stated, “Show Me the Money.”

At the same time the new college season began, those in charge of the College Football Playoff enthusiastically announced plans to expand the championship tournament from 4 to 12 teams, perhaps beginning as soon as 2024. Not surprisingly, the power brokers downplayed the revenue windfall that will follow, instead sticking to a script touting how many additional athletes might have the opportunity to play for the national title.

With plans yet to be finalized, the expanded playoff proposal could include:
– A 12-team field with the six highest ranked conference champions and six at-large spots going to the highest ranked remaining teams, as determined by the CFP selection committee rankings.
– The highest ranked conference champions would be seeded 1-4 and earning a first-round bye, while teams seeded 5-12 would play in the first round, with the highest ranked team hosting the game.
– The quarterfinals and semifinals would be played in bowl games, and the national championship game would remain at a neutral site venue.

The initial reaction among the college big boys was positive, as evidenced by Mississippi State president Mark Keenum.

“What motivated the presidents and me as well was that we need to have an opportunity for more participation of teams in our nation’s national championship tournament. And only having four teams, we felt like that’s not fair to our student-athletes from a participation standpoint.”

Ah yes, fairness and student-athletes — it’s a beautiful thing.

Those student-athletes involved in the new playoff format will likely need to play 16 games — maybe even 17 — if their teams were to play for the national championship.

Combined with what could very well be a $2 billion yearly payout to the major conferences for the media rights for such a playoff set-up, the lesson most likely learned from those same student-athletes will be, “Show Me the Money.”