NCAA Football and the Twelfth Man: Why Some Schools Are Playing with Extra Motivation in 2011

The first weekend of college football revealed a new trend, a trend that greatly aids teams with unstable futures and ambitious long-term goals while greatly hobbling their opponents. As is the custom for opening weekend, most Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision teams from automatic BCS-bid conferences held scrimmages with so-called lesser teams from the Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision conferences. The one upset was Oregon State succumbing to Sacramento State, 29-28.
Other power conference teams held what they thought would be tougher scrimmages with Division 1 Bowl Subdivision teams from non-BCS conferences (Mid American, WAC, Sun Belt, Conference USA, and Mountain West). Somebody forgot to tell Utah State they were a cupcake accepting a fat paycheck for traveling across the country to merely show up and take a pounding in front of a packed stadium at Auburn. The Aggies, who had dominated both trenches, blew a 10-point lead with three minutes left, primarily due to porous defense and poorer onside kick coverage, falling 42-38 to the defending national champion Tigers.
A few schools scheduled tough on opening weekend, lured by network dollars, a desperate need for overall strength of schedule, or, in what’s becoming a precious rare commodity in today’s world of collegiate athletics, integrity. Props go out to Notre Dame, Georgia, California, USC, Minnesota, Baylor, UCLA, Colorado, Syracuse, Boston College, Northwestern, and Wake Forest for doing the right thing. For scheduling very tough schools from non-BCS conferences or non-BCS independents, Baylor dug deep and came out with a 50-48 upset of TCU, while Georgia was over-run by a sleek yet powerful Boise State, 35-21, and Ole Miss was overtaken by BYU in the fourth quarter, 14-13. Integrity is not always rewarded.
For scheduling tough schools from BCS conferences, Notre Dame and Boston College were both punished, the former falling to South Florida, 23-20, and the latter stumbling against Northwestern, 24-17.
What is the new trend, the common thread of the winning teams mentioned? They all had a twelfth man on their side; they all had the extra incentive of trying to make a great impression on the power brokers of college football in order to avoid receiving short shrift during the forthcoming conference realignment, phase two.
We know Texas A&M, fittingly the father of the twelfth man concept, is the school which will begin this second phase of realignment. Its president has declared the university’s intent to leave the Big 12, probably for the SEC. Furthermore, we know the BCS network deals expire in three years. We also know the future of NCAA major college football lies in four or five superconferences of 16 teams each.
Nobody wants to be left out, but some schools will be. Deserving schools not yet in the upper tier of college football want in. Utah is their role model. Inconsistent schools or weak programs from smaller markets that are already in want to stay in. Perhaps they belong to an unstable BCS conference that may dissolve or be “decertified” soon, such as the Big 12 or Big East. Perhaps they belong to a stable but ambitious BCS conference that seeks to expand and possibly replace them with the more attractive athletic programs and markets of available bigger-brand universities. The fates of Rice, Houston, and SMU are examples of what the vulnerable schools want to avoid.
The Big East, while a basketball power conference, may lose its automatic BCS bid status in football. After the ACC raid that robbed it of many marquee programs and years of floundering in the football polls, the Big East desperately accepted powerhouse TCU, a travel logistics nightmare for non-football sports, into the fold for 2012. It may not be enough. If the Big East loses it BCS status, look for schools like Syracuse, Rutgers, Louisville, Pittsburgh, and West Virginia to easily find homes in expanding BCS superconferences.
On the other hand, schools like Cincinnati, UConn, and South Florida will be scrambling. They must prove themselves worthy of continued BCS status now, as the realignment turmoil continues for only two more seasons (allowing for the granting of a year’s notice a school needs to provide its conference to avoid harsh financial penalties). Coaches and players got the message: Cincinnati vaporized Austin Peay, 72-10, UConn waxed Fordham, 35-3, and South Florida upset host Notre Dame in the twice-delayed Lightning Bowl, 23-20. Beware the twelfth man!
Another conference not guaranteed a superconference future is the Big 12. Unlike the Big East, it won’t lose its BCS status due to dodgy play and mediocre teams. Instead, its future is unstable due to the arrogance and greed of the University of Texas, which is driving away its high-profile conference mates. Texas A&M is already bowing out next summer. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State will be deciding within the next three weeks what offer they will accept from what conference (right now, the rumor mill gives the Pac-12 the nod). We know how Missouri feels about the Big 12, as it sought an invite from the Big 10 in 2010 and appears to be flirting with the SEC in 2011.
Hopefully, the Big 12 has a contingency plan to quickly replace fleeing members with other high-profile schools. Word on the street says that is the case. Hopefully, the new members have the humility to live in the shadow of conference darling UT and its Longhorn Network.
Did Texas set up its own network (with the help of ESPN) as a precursor to football independence? It sure looks that way. How could Texas officials have reasonably expected other Big 12 powers to accept the ludicrous, lopsided terms it was dishing out last summer in order to increase its already significant power, wealth, and competitive advantage while “saving” the conference? Answer: they couldn’t.
Unfortunately, this leaves lower-profile Big 12 schools such as Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Iowa State in a dilemma, particularly vulnerable during the next realignment phase. However, this also gives those teams the figurative twelfth man, the extra incentive, motivation, and drive to win. You could see it over the weekend. Baylor upset #14 TCU, 50-48, in a national showcase game, while Texas Tech smashed Texas State, 50-10. Iowa State and Kansas State had narrow victories over Northern Iowa and Eastern Kentucky, respectively. Those two schools really need to turn on the jets to avoid a conference realignment apocalypse.
Boise State always plays motivated with a chip on its shoulder. Nothing has changed with its recent “promotion” to the Mountain West. Why? No sooner had it joined the conference than Utah left for the Pac-12 and BYU left for football independence. Adding insult to injury, TCU then agreed to bolt in 2012 to the Big East, and the Mountain West invited in former Boise State WAC-mates Nevada, Fresno State, and Hawaii for 2012.
Will the Mountain West dissolve? Not likely. Will the Mountain West obtain BCS status anytime soon? Not likely. Therefore, the Broncos only hope is to keep impressing NCAA power brokers in showcase games. They did just that in Atlanta Saturday night, humbling Georgia, 35-21. It’s nice to have the second-best quarterback in college football in 2011, Kellen Moore, but Moore’s a senior. What’s more important to the Broncos’ upgrading crusade and future? Brilliant coach Chris Peterson has rejected offers from BCS schools in the past and appears content to ride out his future in Boise. The Broncos have to hope the Big 12 remains a viable BCS conference bent on expanding to 16 teams. If that is the case, Boise State has a real chance to upgrade again.
What about the strange case of Washington State? Who didn’t love the Cougars when future NFL washout Ryan Leaf was leading them to victory? Alas, the glory years are long gone in Pullman. Worse, the Cougar inhabit a small media market and lack academic gravitas. WSU should be very motivated on the field this year, and not just to save the endangered coach’s job. Larry Scott is a very ambitious conference commissioner. Hopefully, his plans for further Pac-12 expansion don’t include replacing a low-profile school like Washington State. If they do, the Cougars must do what they can to dissuade the commish. On Saturday, WSU dismantled Idaho State, 64-21. So far, so good. After all, the Cougars in 2011 are playing with the twelfth man.
Northwestern’s position in the Big 10 is not similar to Washington State’s in the Pac-12. For one thing, the school is located in a suburb of Chicago, the nation’s third largest media market. For another, Northwestern remains an academic heavyweight in a league of heavyweights. Gary Barnett made Wildcat football relevant again, and the team has remained tough in the years subsequent to his departure. Nevertheless, spanking Boston College on the road, 24-17, should remind everyone, including power brokers, that Northwestern is no Rice.
One may ask if the Hornets of Sacramento State were playing with the same twelfth man when they outplayed and upset Oregon State in Corvallis, 29-28. No doubt. The Hornets are obviously not looking for a BCS superconference to join in the next two years. They are, however, looking at upgrading. The Hornets become far more appealing to non-BCS bowl subdivision conferences like the WAC when they pull off upsets over high-profile BCS programs. Advantage, Sac State.
Finally, there is the matter of BYU. Steeped in rich football tradition (just ask Steve Young or Jim McMahon), the Cougars of Provo prematurely gained football independence a la Notre Dame, in what many viewed as a jilted lover’s response after Utah got the coveted Pac-12 invite and boogied to greener pastures. The folks at BYU are no dummies: they groomed solid relationships with both ESPN and Texas. The Longhorns and the Big 12 are synonymous. To get an invite to the Big 12 ball, one must look attractive to and get along with UT. BYU already has its own television network, so it won’t mind Texas having theirs.
It sure looks like BYU’s move to independence was a way station for a more permanent move to a BCS conference, most logically the Big 12 if it doesn’t implode. Time will tell. Regardless, the Cougars could not have asked for a more storybook beginning to their new post-MWC chapter. In the featured Saturday afternoon game on ESPN, BYU came up with a dramatic come-from-behind 14-13 victory over Ole Miss in SEC country. A bust of the late great local author William Faulkner couldn’t help the Rebels, but the twelfth man did assist the Cougars. It should be an interesting season, both on the field and off.

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