ATLANTA — Deep into an empty answer Nick Saban didn’t want to give, Alabama’s legendary football coach hit the nerve of the question overshadowing his sport.
“If we have two 20-team leagues,” Saban said Tuesday during SEC media days, “how is that going to impact all the people that are not in those leagues? That’s a question for all of you to speculate and answer on.”
There’s no need to speculate, because the answer is obvious: It will be bad, if not catastrophic.
For mid-major programs or even big-name teams outside the Power Two, Saban’s question isn’t merely hypothetical. It’s existential.
Even if Florida State, Miami and Clemson end up in a super league, other successful programs (UCF? Virginia Tech? Oklahoma State?) won’t. They’ll fall behind even more financially while losing any shot at challenging for national titles. Fan interest will inevitably, and deservedly, wane.
The problem is even more pronounced at schools like USF. There’s some concern among Bulls fans about the timing of the on-campus stadium the school wants to build. Take away the possibility — however remote — of moving to a bigger league or vying for a College Football Playoff bid, and USF will be spending nine figures to host a generation of games against Charlotte and Florida Atlantic. Is that a sound investment?
None of those scenarios hurt Saban or his Crimson Tide. Saban’s hypotheticals rarely do. When he asked a few years ago whether we wanted college football to become a sport of up-tempo spread offenses, he began fielding some of the best up-tempo spread offenses we’ve ever seen. When he expressed concerns Tuesday about the competitive imbalance caused by name, image and likeness deals, he made it clear that his fears aren’t selfish there, either.
“We’re one of the haves,” Saban said.
But when college football is at its best, have-nots are relevant, too. The game needs Cincinnati to crash the playoff occasionally to keep things interesting. It needs Utah and Oregon to be successful to keep fans engaged out west. It needs Kansas to upset Texas every now and then to remind us that it’s possible.
The diversity is one thing that separates colleges from the pros, as evidenced by the setting of Saban’s remarks. When he walked into the College Football Hall of Fame, he passed a wall of more than 760 helmets from programs across the country. Oklahoma’s crimson helmet was sandwiched between North Texas and Appalachian State. A display from Hocking College (a two-year school in Ohio) stood next to jerseys from LSU and Georgia.
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No matter what future conferences look like, Georgia and LSU will keep producing Hall of Fame players that will be honored in this building. Alabama will, too. That’s how it goes in the SEC, where banners near the media days stage remind us “It just means more.”
As for the programs who would be left behind if the SEC and Big Ten officially become super leagues? It will just mean less. And that’s not good for anyone.
Odds and ends
• Gators quarterback Anthony Richardson announced on social media that he would no longer use the “AR-15″ nickname because he does not want to be associated with the weapon. He and his representatives are working on rebranding, including a new logo.
• Saban said his players collectively made $3 million last year in name, image and likeness deals.
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