July 9, 2010

Mailbag: Will newcomers compete for league titles?

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A good first impression always is important. It can let others know what to expect.

The ACC found Florida State's football team to be as good as expected. It also learned Virginia Tech typically would contend for the conference championship. Teams from the old Big Eight learned not to overlook new partners in the Big 12. The old Southwest Conference was impressed by Houston.

With that in mind, look for programs changing conference affiliations to make a good first impression in 2011.

First time lucky?

With USC maybe heading downhill for the next couple of years and Utah's current record against Pac-10 schools, what do you think of the Utes' chances to go to the Rose Bowl in their first season in the Pac-10?
Salt Lake City

History says the Utes will have a legitimate chance to win the Pac-10 championship in 2011, and that's not just a reference to their 4-3 record against Pac-10 opponents over the past five seasons.

Actually, it's not uncommon for teams to win conference championships in their first year of membership.

Go back to 1976, when Houston, coming off a disastrous 2-8 showing in '75, joined the old Southwest Conference. The Cougars shocked the conference by going 7-1 in league play and sharing the championship with Texas Tech. Based on a victory over the Red Raiders, Houston represented the conference in the Cotton Bowl and defeated Maryland 30-21. The Cougars went on to win three SWC championships in their first four years of membership.

In 1992, Florida State entered the ACC and immediately established its dominance. The Seminoles won the conference championship in their first season as members on their way to 28 consecutive league victories; they won or shared nine consecutive league titles.

Four years later, Texas upset defending national champion Nebraska to win the newly formed Big 12, which was actually an expanded Big Eight. Some called the Big 12 a merger between the Big Eight and the old Southwest Conference. Yeah, try telling that to SMU, TCU, Houston and Rice, the SWC teams that were left out.

Virginia Tech might have been left out of ACC expansion if not for political pressure. The ACC had targeted Miami, Boston College and Syracuse of the Big East, but eventually bowed to pressure and extended an invitation to the Hokies. In '04 - Virginia Tech's initial year in the ACC - the Hokies went 7-1 to win their first of three conference championships.

So, based on history, the Pac-10 should beware of the Utes in 2011, just as the Big Ten should beware of Nebraska and the Mountain West should beware of Boise State.

But Utah has more going for it than historical trends. Utah has more than proven itself as a legitimate program in recent years with bowl victories over California, Alabama, Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh - teams from "major" conferences. In the past seven seasons, Utah has posted at least 10 wins four times and twice has gone undefeated. Last season, the Utes lost to Pac-10 champion Oregon by a touchdown in Eugene.

Sophomore quarterback Jordan Wynn is a rising star who heads a list of 14 probable starters who will have the option to return in 2011.

Meanwhile, Pac-10 powers Oregon and Oregon State will face significant rebuilding projects after the 2010 season, while USC will being to feel the effect of NCAA sanctions, particularly from a depth standpoint.

That doesn't mean Utah will go into the 2011 season as the Pac-10 favorite, but the Utes shouldn't be counted out as a championship contender.

Room to grow?

Even tough Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe has denied that the Big 12 will expand do you think it will? And if so, what programs would they add?
Boulder, Colo

I believe the Big 12 will try to exist as a 10-team league rather than add programs that won't really help its cause. After all, the Big East has existed as an eight-team league, so why couldn't the Big 12 make it with 10 teams?

The big question concerning the Big 12 is can it endure at all. Just a week ago, Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said in an interview with Rivals Radio that he didn't know how long the Big 12 would last. He was promptly reprimanded by Beebe, for whatever that's worth.

It's my opinion that the Big Ten eventually will expand East. If and when that happens, the SEC has indicated it likely would react and expand, too. That would put the Big 12 at risk of being raided. At the very least, the Big 12 would lose some clout as a 10-member league, while the Big Ten, SEC and probably the ACC could eventually have as many as 16 teams.

Some say the Big 12 should be proactive and look to expand. But it isn't that easy. BYU, which has national cachet and a large fan base, would make sense, but what other team does? Boise State has had success, but doesn't bring many TV sets and plays in a small stadium. A group of Texas state legislators are urging the Big 12 to add Houston, and some feel TCU would be an obvious choice. That doesn't make sense because the Big 12 already controls the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth TV markets with Texas and Texas A&M.

Besides, adding Houston and/or TCU would put five or six teams from the state of Texas in the Big 12. The Southwest Conference already failed once.

Speaking of the old Southwest Conference, some have suggested the Big 12 could make a run at luring Arkansas away from the SEC. No way. The only advantage for Arkansas leaving the SEC for the Big 12 would be geography. That's not enough for Arkansas to give up the money it receives annually from the SEC - $17.3 million most recently.

In addition, that would be asking Arkansas to leave a conference that distributes revenue evenly among its members and join a league that has an unequal sharing plan. Sorry, but a short drive to Stillwater and Norman isn't worth that.

Frankly, I think Tuberville is right and the Big 12 eventually will collapse.

Automatic bid?

With Boise State moving into the Mountain West joining TCU and BYU, does the conference now have enough successful BCS bowl records to receive an automatic BCS bid? Or does Utah leaving to the Pac-10 prevent this?
Athens, Ga.

The feeling here is the Mountain West deserves an automatic BCS bid. Last year, Mountain West teams went 7-7 against opponents from "major" conferences.

Compare that to the Pac-10, which was 8-8 in non-conference games against "major" conference opponents.

The Mountain West went 4-1 in bowls, with Utah defeating Cal, BYU defeating Oregon State, Air Force defeating Houston and Wyoming defeating Fresno State. The lone loss was TCU falling to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Comparatively, the Pac-10 was 2-5 in bowl games, with USC defeating Boston College and UCLA defeating Temple.

By the way, Boise State, which will be joining the MWC in 2011, defeated Pac-10 champion Oregon last season.

That's not meant to pick on the Pac-10, which definitely deserves to be an "automatic qualifying" conference. But it does make you wonder why the MWC isn't.

Looking ahead

From 2000-09, who would you say was the best college football team? Going forward, who will look like the best team from 2010-19?
Mount Vernon, N.Y.

Although your question was for the decade's "best team," the assumption is you meant "best program."

Just for the record, Miami of '01 would be my choice as the best team of the decade. The Hurricanes were loaded with eventual NFL first-round picks such as Clinton Portis, Bryant McKinnie, Andre Johnson, Jeremy Shockey, Vince Wilfork, D.J. Williams, Jonathan Vilma, Ed Reed, Mike Rumph, Ed Reed and Phillip Buchanon. The 'Canes also had Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, Sean Taylor and Kellen Winslow as reserves.

Picking a program of the decade isn't as easy because there wasn't one that was totally dominant. But any program deserving of consideration should have won at least one national championship. That puts Oklahoma, Miami, Ohio State, LSU, USC, Texas, Florida and Alabama up for consideration.

Actually, Alabama had a rather pedestrian 79-48 record over the decade, so cross out the Tide. Miami wasn't at all dominant during the second half of the decade, so drop the Hurricanes.

Despite six Big Ten championships, it's difficult to pick Ohio State because the Buckeyes were soundly defeated twice in national championship games.

The same goes for Oklahoma, which tied Texas with 110 victories, but struggled in BCS bowls and lost three national championship games. The Sooners probably shouldn't have been in the '03 and '08 title games and were absolutely pummeled by USC 55-19 in '04.

Texas posted at least nine victories every year in the decade, had at least 10 wins in nine seasons and went 7-3 in bowl games. But the Longhorns managed only two Big 12 conference championships compared to Oklahoma's six.

That leaves Florida and LSU, which both won two national championships, and USC, which won the '04 BCS national championship and was voted the Associated Press national champion in '03.

My choice would be USC, which posted 102 victories, won seven Pac-10 championships and might have won another national championship or two if not denied by the BCS system. But I could not argue a case made for Florida or LSU.

Projecting the dominant team for the next decade is more difficult. Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio State and USC likely will remain dominant. Miami appears on the way to regaining prominence, too.

But the guess here is Alabama will have the most success. Nick Saban rebuilt the Crimson Tide from losing team to national champion in three seasons. I'd be surprised if Saban doesn't lead Alabama to another national title or two soon.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.
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