Mailbags and Michigan Men
Good morning! I think next week, we’re going back to the regularly scheduled twice a week newsletter life. I hope you’ve enjoyed having a little extra in your inbox.
I got a few reader questions over the last few days, but before we hit the mailbag, let’s quickly talk about my favorite college football program, Michigan.
Why don’t the “cheaters” get caught?
If you had the good sense to stay off Twitter, or ignore sports radio on Thursday, you might have missed the conversation around an excerpt in John U Bacon’s newest book. There was some confusion over the exact quotes here, (“DID HARBAUGH CALL THE SEC CHEATERS?!?”) so let me just drop in what the actual page says:
W/out naming SEC, here is Jim Harbaugh’s quote in John U. Bacon’s new book in Chapter 32 titled “Hard to Beat the Cheaters”
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy)
Aug 22, 2019
I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to the greater context here. I’ve read some of John’s other books, and I would feel comfortable assuming that this text is well researched, well sourced, and well connected to what Michigan’s coaching staff and administration are thinking. I don’t always agree with everything he says (particularly about amateurism), but he’s no hack.
This passage does touch on something I hear and read from college football fans pretty regularly though…if so many reporters seem to think that cheating is rampant, why don’t more schools get caught? Why don’t the reports evolve beyond commonly understood rumor?
In the year of our Lord 2019, I think there are three reasons for this that I’d like to quickly talk about.
1) Writing a story about potential NCAA violations is very, very hard. Historically, the schools that have been busted for amateurism violations have gotten busted because they’ve been terrible at cheating. Somebody kept receipts, somebody didn’t use a burner, somebody pissed off somebody else that had nothing to lose, so they talk. The burden of proof is pretty high and the smart schools (and smart bagmen) keep enough plausible deniability that dogged investigations can’t turn out enough hard and fast proof to justify publication at a reputable outlet. Until folks name names, bring paperwork and go on the record….well, like they say…
2) It’s much harder for anybody to do difficult work. Newspapers across the country have shed journalists, editors, and slash budgets. Many college town newspapers in particular are going to be caught up in the Gatehouse/Gannett merger and will likely be forced to do even more with less. If you’re stretched thin, selling editors, lawyers and more on long, potentially expensive and very difficult investigations into cheating is a tougher sell. I don’t blame individual journalists on this and I don’t necessarily think they’re being lazy. But if you know your paper may not have your back and you don’t have time to do the sleuthing because you have to take the photos, transcribe the interviews, do the podcast and the tweets and blog six times by lunchtime, it isn’t going to get done. Unless, again, the school sucks at cheating.
Even some of the big national outlets have trimmed back, or at least shifted their priorities. I can only think of a few outlets who I think would really put a ton of effort into tracking down this sort of story. And you know why?
3) Here’s the other big thing. Nobody gives a shit.
Okay, that isn’t true, some people do, especially fans of rival teams. It’s more accurate to say that fewer people give a shit. This isn’t 1978 anymore. Few fans are going to clutch pearls or get upset if they learn that a player got benefits under the table…the outrage over USC and Ohio State a decade ago seems almost quaint now, to say nothing of earlier scandals. If you only have the budget and capacity to do a few investigations, you’re going to save them for criminal cases, or academics, or far more serious institutional coverups. Who are you serving if you go all out to catch a high school running back securing a bag? Are you serving your readers? The public?
To me, I just don’t think it’s worth it. I suspect other outlets are reaching similar conclusions. There are many other scandals and injustices in this sport far greater than a kid getting paid.
And if a coach or program is using that as an excuse for why they aren’t having success….well, I just don’t have any sympathy for them.
Okay. Enough for all that. Let’s get to some of your questions.
Burning questions from the mailbag
I don’t think there’s much appetite for pushing this. The best G5 programs, mostly in The American, are hellbent on being perceived as equals, hence, the Power6 campaign. Few administrators or coaches would want to participate in anything that furthered the idea that they weren’t peers with power programs even though everybody knows they aren’t.
If you’re going to have a different playoff, why share a division entirely? I’m not sure anybody really wants a third D1 type of football division…or at least, not anybody working in the sport.
I think a four team G5 playoff could certainly produce some truly compelling matchups and you could design the entire thing to model after what the actual playoff does, but I don’t think any athletic director would go for it unless the eligibility requirements for FBS changed (e.g. by requiring a certain budget size).
A Boise State/Appalachian State/UCF/Memphis playoff though? That’d be more fun than a lot of December bowl games, that’s for sure.
@MattSBN Somewhat related:
Is there any NCAA rule preventing a team from replacing their "spring game" practice with an actual game against an FCS opponent? Always thought this would be a great idea, and wondered why it doesn't happen.
— RevDJEsq (@RevDJEsq)
Aug 22, 2019
As I understand it, If you want to play in Week 0, and you don’t have Hawaii on your schedule or something, you need a waiver.
I don’t think anybody in power would ever want this. Lots of coaches don’t want or have spring games, generally, because of roster depth and injury concerns. It isn’t uncommon for a team to straight up not have ten healthy offensive linemen in April. Even the schools that do have spring games that people care about, like Nebraska or Ohio State, usually do not use rules anywhere close to actual football rules. They might not even do live tackling.
To play some sort of live-ball scrimmage, either against an FCS opponent or FBS opponent, would be a massive injury risk, and deprive coaches of their ability to really work in guys low on the depth chart for very minimal benefit.
It’d be fun TV! But I don’t think it’d benefit any school, even the FCS ones, whose rosters would be even more thin at this point. If you’re having trouble filling out an 85 scholarship roster, imagine how stretched a school is that only has like, 60?
@MattSBN Future newsletter question inspired by today’s newsletter:
Sagarin often has NDSU as basically a top 25 team. I seem to recall App State getting AP votes when they beat Michigan... Could and should NDSU ever slip into the AP Top 25?
— Chappy 🇧🇷 (@itschappy)
Aug 19, 2019
Appalachian State did indeed get AP Poll votes in 2007, which I believe was the first time an FCS team got votes. The Mountaineers actually got five votes in the final poll, which was probably the weirdest one in my lifetime. Look at who else was ranked or getting votes. 2007 was wild.
North Dakota State opens the season as the overwhelming preseason #1 in the FCS Top 25, but without an FBS opponent on the schedule, it’s hard to see how they’d get AP love, even if they went undefeated. The #2 team, James Madison, opens the season with a sneakily beatable West Virginia team, but I’m not sure an upset there would be enough to get them into the Top 25 conversation. West Virginia might not make a bowl game this season.
I think to get AP Poll contention, you’d need to not only be a strong enough FCS team to make the playoff and win a ton of games, but also knock off an FBS team that’s supposed to be pretty good. You want a candidate? Try Eastern Washington, the preseason #4 FCS team, and a regular contender for being one of the toughest FCS squads in the West (just ask Washington State). They open against Washington, a team that might be good enough to make the playoff, but also might be ripe for some early letdowns if Jacob Eason isn’t as good as advertised.
Will Washington win? Almost certainly. But if EWU pulled it off, I bet some smart AP voter throws a vote or two their way. I certainly would.
FWIW, I wouldn’t be shocked if at least two FCS teams in that top 25 beat FCS teams this year. I’m not even sure Indiana State over Kansas would be that much of an upset.
@MattSBN Why has it gotten seemingly more difficult for G5 schools to make the playoff (then just the national championship) than it did during the BCS?
— Brett Morey (@Brettmorey1)
Aug 22, 2019
I don’t think it’s your imagination, and I’m actually editing a few posts for SB Nation team sites that look into this a little bit (look for them next Monday).
We’re dealing with a still limited sample size with the playoff, but off the top of my head, I suspect some BCS computer rankings were a little more generous to teams like Boise State, TCU and Utah during that run. The CFP didn’t exactly go out of their way to find voices outside the traditional college football power structure. Those voters have overwhelmingly been old and from power conferences. I don’t think they’re dumb or BIASED or anything, but I don’t think that’s a crowd predisposed to giving, say, Marshall the benefit of the doubt. Sagarin doesn’t care about body clocks or game control or the name on the jersey.
Only people do.
Enjoy the games this weekend, my friends. Don’t forget to stay up too late watching Hawaii. Let’s not forget what’s really important here.
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