Opinion: Conference Title Games Still Need Tweaks

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Colin Thompson has been attending Clemson games since he was 6 years old, has 10 to 12 friends with whom he goes to every home game and typically makes two or three road trips a year with his crew.

Last season they traveled to South Florida for the College Football Playoff semifinals and Arizona to watch Clemson in the national championship game. They plan to hit Tampa if the Tigers make it back this season.

But Thompson is skipping this weekend's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in Orlando despite the fact StubHub had get-in prices as low as $7.50 as of Thursday and first-row tickets in one of the corner sections for $25.

"It was quite expensive to make both of those (Playoff) trips," Thompson said. "Plus season ticket costs this year, and then I live in Charlotte, so I was banking on a cheaper expense here, then the game gets moved.

"I probably won't go to Phoenix (if Clemson makes the Fiesta Bowl), but factoring in the costs of what I'm expecting for an Alabama-Clemson ticket in Tampa, it makes sense to me to skip Orlando."

Thompson isn't being a presumptuous Clemson fan; rather, he represents a new normal where conference title games are a much harder sell, as fans weigh whether to save their money for potential Playoff games.

Aside from the Southeastern Conference, whose title game in Atlanta has the geographic advantage of being close driving distance from Alabama, it appears attendance might be an issue this weekend for the ACC in Orlando, the BigTen in Indianapolis and the Pac-12 in Santa Clara, Calif.

As of Thursday, upper-deck tickets in Lucas Oil Stadium were less than $20 on the secondary market for Penn State-Wisconsin, and the Washington-Colorado game was not a sellout.

With Ohio State likely to make the Playoff while sitting at home this weekend and uninspiring games such as Florida-Alabama, perhaps it's time for a wholesale re-evaluation of the conference championship game concept.

Now that college football is asking fan bases to spend money on Playoff semifinals and finals, there are two ways to make conference championship games more relevant and enticing. The first is to put them on campus sites of the higher-ranked team, thus attaching an incentive to the regular season. The second is to eliminate divisions, as the SEC, ACC and BigTen have seen severe power imbalances in recent years that devalue the championship games and do nothing but put their best teams at risk of losing Playoff spots.

When conference championship games first began in the early 1990s, the NCAA rule was that leagues had to have at least 12 teams and be split into divisions. As of early this year, that rule no longer exists, which is why the Big12 is doing one next season despite having only 10 teams.

But rather than matching up their two best teams, the Big12 split into divisions because, well, that's what everyone else does.

But as other leagues have expanded, the divisional structure has brought diminishing returns both in the title games and the regular season. TexasA&M fans, for instance, won't see Georgia at Kyle Field until 2025, at which point it's hard to argue you're really playing in the same league.

If conferences scrapped divisions, assigned teams one or two permanent rivals they would play every year while rotating the rest and had their top two teams play a championship game on the No.1 seed's home field, you'd get rid of some scheduling imbalance problems, bad matchups in conference championships and empty seats if fans choose to save their money for the Playoff.

This year, for instance, Clemson fans got the double whammy of having the ACC championship game moved out of Charlotte, where it's an easy drive for fans who live in the Carolinas, because of the House Bill2 controversy and a matchup with 9-3 Virginia Tech, which isn't as sexy as a potential rematch against Florida State or Louisville.

"It's not the ticket price; it's the 10 hours it takes to get to Orlando, with the game being moved from Charlotte," said Clemson fan Luther Baker, who lives in Tega Cay, S.C. "It would have been different if it would have been Clemson vs. Louisville, or Clemson vs. Florida State, but I'm not traveling 10 hours to see Virginia Tech play."

Of course, the risk is that Clemson loses to Virginia Tech and ends up in a meaningless bowl rather than the Playoff. But most people only have so much money to spend on travel and game tickets, and even a fan base that traditionally travels well such as Clemson's might get stretched thin in this situation.

"We're just kind of fingers crossed they beat Virginia Tech," said recent Clemson graduate Kyle Macchi, who would have gone to Charlotte but is skipping Orlando. "It's not a joke of a team, so we're kind of taking our chances."

Coaching Carousel Clips

Given the public comments of Houston super booster Tilman Fertitta, it's worth wondering whether Houston is on the precipice of making a mistake that has been fairly common for schools that lose multiple successful coaches in a short period of time by turning their search into a self-esteem exercise.

"I've put it out there, if you want a cheap buyout the first couple years, then don't come apply," Fertitta told the Houston Chronicle, the suggestion being Houston plans to make it expensive for a coach to leave.

As we saw in 2014 with Jim McElwain leaving Colorado State for Florida despite a $7million buyout written into his contract, that typically doesn't work. Plus, when a school such as Houston thinks it should be a coaching destination rather than a place for talented people to make themselves attractive to the elite programs in the country, it will be far more likely to make a bad hire.

The classic example of this is Tulsa basketball, which was an NCAA tournament regular in the 1990s but kept losing coaches as a result: Tubby Smith after four years to Georgia, Steve Robinson after two years to Florida State, Bill Self after three years to Illinois and Buzz Peterson after one year to Tennessee. Tulsa got tired of the next hot up-and-coming coach going in and out the door, so it promoted John Phillips, a 53-year-old assistant on the staff who had been a longtime high school coach in the area and didn't view the job as a steppingstone.

Four years later, Phillips was fired and Tulsa went a decade without getting back to the tournament.

The point is, being upset that Tom Herman left for Texas after two years is pointless for Houston, and the reality is that even if the school had scored an invitation to the Big12 it's highly unlikely he would have stayed. If Houston remains one of the top programs outside the Power Five, elite programs will be coming after its coach every two or three years, and most of the time that's a battle Houston won't win.

Fertitta seems determined to make a splashy hire, but the mistake here would be deviating from the formula that got Houston this far just because someone might leave down the road. Hiring 63-year old Les Miles, for instance, would essentially signal that Houston wants to do the exact opposite of what has made it successful for the temporary ego boost of getting a big name.

Finding the next Art Briles, Kevin Sumlin or Tom Herman is the way to go for Houston, even if it means having to do it again in a few years.

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December 2, 2016


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