As part of our grand blanket of coverage, Clark DeMas has come on board to provide a weekly, feature style look at the Group of Five college football landscape. These pieces will eventually be our Sunday night feature piece, but here is an early release to give you an introduction to Clark's work.
The opportunity to make national news in the world of Mid Major athletics is few and far between. Casual fans can rattle off the Appalachian State upset in the Big House and Georgia Southern’s recent upset of Florida, but that’s where the conversation ends. In general, Week 2 at home against [Direction State U] is the weekend you sell your seats and take the wife and kids camping.
Outside of the occasional shocker when a Mid Major catches a power school on a down year, it isn’t hard to see why that status quo has remained for so long. The disparity in talent on the field between a nationally ranked power conference school and their closest G5 "rival" is obvious. The blame of the competitive disparity, if there is some to be passed, does not lie on the shoulder of schools themselves though.
Mark Richt is not a vastly superior recruiter than the head coaches in the Sun Belt, and simply telling Georgia State to "recruit harder" will not land the Panthers the next Aaron Murray. The fault lies on the inability of the NCAA to provide the Universities of Division 1 football a competitive playing field at an institutional level. Fortunately, reform is on the way, to the benefit of both the Power Five and Mid Major schools alike.
Recruiting 4 and 5 stars out of high school to the G5 has never been easy. "Recruiting" NFL level talent has typically meant waiting for a starter at a power conference school to seek greener pastures after a run in with the law or losing his position on the depth chart.
As Bill Snyder alluded to in his recent lecture on the state of college football, the arms races among power conferences is at a fever pitch. The pursuit of bigger, newer, and better is supported by unlimited financial resource with no end in sight. When it comes to recruiting, as Snyder puts it, "I hate to think a young guy would make a decision about where he's going to get an education based on what a building looks like."
Although a generalization, there is absolute credence to Snyder’s point. The rise of the Oregon Nikes is exhibit 1; where an undeniable correlation exists between the influx of money to the program providing bigger, newer, and better facilities, coaching staffs, and even uniforms to the rise of recruiting talent to on field play to national relevance. If support from the world’s largest sports apparel super brand is what is required to push Oregon from the middle of the pack to the top, it seems almost impossible for a G5 school to compete at such a level regularly.
This then leads to the question – Why should they have to? Now that Power Five schools have separated themselves further with individual conference and even university focused television contracts, it seems the SEC truly is playing a different sport than what is being played down the road in Sun Belt stadiums.
The recent proposal drafted by the Division I Steering Committee on Governance – which was approved yesterday by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors - will give the Power Five conferences the ability to govern themselves autonomously at an institutional level. As Mitch Sherman pointed out at ESPN, this autonomy can have significant impact on the recruiting at a Power Conference level.
A key point Sherman brings up is the potential for regulations to limit the extensive reach major schools reap the benefits of due to unregulated use of funds and staffers. A talent disparity exists within the Power Five as well, and as the middle of the pack looks to reign in the USCs, Alabamas and Ohio States, this opens opportunity for G5 schools to catch up as well.
As national programs begin to have their resources limited, regional recruiting will grow in relevancy. More 4 and 5 star athletes will be recruited regionally, and in turn stay close to home to play for regional powers. As they do, 3 and 4 star recruits will be squeezed out, forced to consider G5 options. G5 conferences in talent rich regions of the country, particularly the South and Midwest, will experience an increase in recruiting stars as a result. This, coupled with the ever expanding coverage of G5 programs on ESPN (#MACtion) as a trickle down result of the college football television boom will only boost national notoriety.
Better players and television exposure lead to better coaching, more wins, and more financial backing from alumni and local resources. It won't be long before an even larger portion of the NFL draft class is made up of G5 talent and ESPN is trotting out a G5 network of its own. Georgia State most likely will never win the Rose Bowl, but that's okay. By separating playing fields and continually increasing quality of play, the G5 will become relevant unto its own right, demanding your attention for more than an annual upset.
So let the rich get richer, and let the big boys go fight amongst themselves. Each step taken intended to separate the G5 and Power Five off the field will only close the gap on it.