Duke, UNC play Saturday for Victory Bell, Coastal Division Title

Duke players celebrate with the Victory Bell trophy after their win last October against UNC.

Duke players celebrate with the Victory Bell trophy after their win last October against UNC.

Duke has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time. A VERY long time. With a win on Saturday, the Blue Devils will win the ACC Coastal Division championship and play in their first ACC Championship Game. Only one little problem: they have to go to Kenan Memorial Stadium and knock off a surging North Carolina Tar Heels team that has won 5 straight games. It could be the biggest game Duke has ever played.

They have already surpassed many expectations under head coach David Cutcliffe. Last season they won the Victory Bell Game against UNC for the first time since 2003 and made their first bowl game appearance in more than 20 years. This season has been nothing short of great for Duke: currently the Blue Devils are on a 7 game winning streak, are 9-2 overall, and #24 in the BCS rankings (their first ever BCS appearance).

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora wants to make sure they don’t celebrate a Coastal Division title, too. According to freshman wide receiver Ryan Switzer, Fedora has played the footage of Duke players spray painting the Victory Bell trophy royal blue after last year’s game nonstop in the locker and weight training rooms at Kenan Stadium. Fedora knows the importance of this victory for his team. “They’re the no. 24 team in the country and they’re on a seven-game winning streak. We’re excited for our seniors playing their last home game in Kenan Stadium so it should be a heck of a football game,” Fedora said Wednesday.

After a disheartening loss to Miami on October 17th, North Carolina has turned its season around quite nicely. The Tar Heels have won five straight games to become bowl eligible at 6-5, and North Carolina’s defense has stepped up nicely. Senior defensive end Kareem Martin currently ranks fifth in the country with 11 sacks. But more impressive for North Carolina has been their improved offense, especially from underclassmen.

Fedora broke out the trick plays once again last Saturday, and Carolina scored on a 56 yard pass off a flea flicker. Throw in a double pass TD from a wide receiver against N.C. State, a reverse pass to a quarterback for a TD against Virginia, and four punt returns in the last three weeks (all by Switzer), and you can see that Carolina is playing with confidence. UNC’s last 23 touchdowns have been scored by freshmen or sophomores, with 11 of those touchdowns coming last week in an 80-20 drubbing of Old Dominion.

UNC freshman WR Ryan Switzer has 4 punt returns for touchdowns (1st in the country) in the last three weeks.

UNC freshman WR Ryan Switzer has 4 punt returns for touchdowns (1st in the country) in the last three weeks.

Both teams will use a dual-quarterback system of sorts. For Duke, both Anthony Boone and Brandon Connette are expected to play. “You definitely have to be aware (of who’s under center) because they don’t do the same things” Fedora said of both Blue Devil signal-callers. Meanwhile, UNC will feature sophomore Marquise Williams, a proven threat passing AND running. There will also be talented receivers on both sides: Duke WR Jamison Crowder has over 1,000 yards receiving this season, and North Carolina TE Eric Ebron is expected to be a first round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft.

So it’s five straight wins versus seven straight wins. If Duke wins, they win the Coastal Division. If UNC wins, they win a share of the Coastal Division (with Duke, Georgia Tech, Miami, and Virginia Tech – who would win the tiebreaker). There are BCS standings and bowl implications on the line. And of course, the bell. As Dick Vitale would say, this game is going to be “AWESOME BABY!!!”

 

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Unfair Competition in College Football

Oklahoma State famously defeated Savannah State 84-0 last season, though the  Tigers made over $400,000 for their loss.

Oklahoma State famously defeated Savannah State 84-0 last season, though the Tigers made over $400,000 for their loss.

As I write this post, my beloved Elon University football team is losing to Georgia Tech 28-0. The first quarter just ended. It’s the fifth straight year Elon has opened up against a big-name Division I program (Elon is Division I-AA, now called FCS), and the closest the Phoenix came to victory was in 2010 when they lost to Duke 41-27. Last season, the Phoenix looked helpless against the North Carolina Tar Heels in a 62-0 blowout.

It’s just one example of small schools taking on their Division I counterparts in the early stages of the college football season. Much like the NFL has its preseason, many top teams schedule lesser opponents to act as a “preseason” of sorts, warming up before the toughest games of their schedules. But is it worth it to play a school you know you will beat easily? And consequently, is it worth Elon’s time to play a school like Georgia Tech in football?

Well, for the smaller schools, a date with a Division I football program is a big payday. Last season, Savannah State University opened up with #18 Oklahoma State and #5 Florida State. They received more than $850,000 to play these two schools, which greatly benefitted Savannah State’s athletics budget. But the Tigers lost 84-0 to Oklahoma State, and 55-0 to Florida State (the latter being called in the third quarter due to rain). Savannah State coach Steve Davenport said, “You get paid for certain things, but I don’t know if at the end of the day, some things are worth the payments you get.”

And on the flip side, what’s the real benefit for the Division I powerhouses? Let’s look at the 2007 Michigan Wolverines. Coming off an 11-2 season, Michigan was ranked fifth and had nigh national championship expectations. They scheduled a small school for their first week of the season, thinking that it would give their players a great chance to warm up. Of course, that small school was Appalachian State, and they famously upset the #5 Michigan Wolverines.

Michigan (and every other large school in a similar circumstance) was in a lose-lose situation. If you win, you just meet the expectations of the college football world and usually don’t look incredibly impressive in the process. If you lose, you become the butt of jokes for weeks and drop significantly in the polls. In Michigan’s case, the loss to Appalachian State completely dropped them out of the top 25, and the Wolverines would go on to lose the next week as well, essentially ending their national championship hopes.

Michigan isn’t alone, however. James Madison defeated #13 Virginia Tech in 2010, and North Dakota State has defeated Division I teams in each of the last four seasons, including an upset of Kansas State last night. Big schools have to dish out profits to these small schools in exchange for a beatdown, and they risk losing not just a game, but a chance at national championship glory. Perhaps it’s time to end the cross-divisional scheduling in college football, giving teams a fair chance to win. After all, there are 125 Division I FBS teams to choose from.

And just in case you were wondering, it’s 42-0 Georgia Tech at halftime. Thanks for your thoughts and sympathies.

2013 College Football Preview: ACC

All eyes are on Tajh Boyd to lead the Clemson Tigers in 2013.

All eyes are on Tajh Boyd to lead the Clemson Tigers in 2013.

Okay, it’s been a basketball conference for decades now, but this year the ACC has some interesting storylines. First, Pittsburgh and Syracuse join the ACC this year to expand the league to 12 teams, and Louisville will replace Maryland next season. Each division has its own unique path to the ACC Championship Game in December.

The Atlantic Division should be decided October 19, when preseason #11 and defending ACC Champion Florida State visits preseason #8 Clemson at Memorial Stadium. The winner of that game has won the Atlantic Division the last five seasons, so that game will have monumental consequences.

Conversely, the ACC Coastal Division is wide open. Last year, North Carolina, Miami, and Georgia Tech tied for the division crown at 5-3, with North Carolina unofficially winning the division. But the Tar Heels and Hurricanes were ineligible for postseason competition, so the Yellow Jackets advanced. Each team features a unique offensive style. Georgia Tech will continue their triple option, run-laden offense that obliterated the Tar Heels last season (68-50), North Carolina returns its senior QB Bryn Renner to run a fast-paced spread, and Miami QB Stephen Morris and RB Duke Johnson will lead a pro-style offense. Also look for Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas to impress in his final year in Blacksburg. Needless to say, it’s wide open in the Coastal Division.

Heisman Watch

Tajh Boyd threw for 3,900 yards and 36 touchdowns last season for the Clemson Tigers. He was named first team All-ACC and All-American for his efforts, and his stats in 2013 should only improve. Now a senior, Boyd is the unquestioned leader of the Tigers, a team that has top 10 talent, as evidenced by their #8 preseason ranking. He also improved his rushing total from 218 yards his sophomore year to 514 last season. In Dabo Swinney’s high-powered spread offense, Boyd is dangerous. And Clemson should have no problem giving Boyd the ball for more production. Only an intimidating Thanksgiving weekend matchup at South Carolina could hurt Boyd’s chances of winning the Heisman Trophy (See: Jadeveon Clowney).

Championship Pick

As much as I would like to pick North Carolina to win the ACC, I don’t see it happening. The Coastal Division is tough to predict, but I think Miami will prevail. They play nine of their twelve games in the state of Florida, and will not leave the Sunshine State until their October 17 matchup at North Carolina. Stephen Morris and Duke Johnson pack a powerful 1-2 punch for the Hurricanes, and now that they are free of NCAA sanctions, look for Miami to return to power.

Like I said previously, the winner of the Atlantic Division will be the winner of the Clemson-Florida State game on October 19. The road team is that matchup is 1-10 in the last 11 years. Sorry Florida State, but it’s not your year in 2013. Look for Clemson to win the Atlantic Division and defeat Miami in a tough matchup in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. 

Maryland, Rutgers to join Big Ten Conference

Two more Division I schools have joined the NCAA conference realignment hodgepodge. Today, the Board of Regents at the University of Maryland voted unanimously to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big Ten Conference. The move comes after Maryland voted against raising the ACC’s exit fee to $50 million, a fee the university will likely have to pay to join the Big Ten.

Maryland and Rutgers are the latest universities to join the complicated game of NCAA Musical Chairs.

Rutgers University is also expected to join the Big Ten Conference this week. Its Board of Governors will discuss the issue at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday. Rutgers marks the fifth Big East school to announce its departure since 2011. West Virginia left for the Big 12 this summer, Pittsburgh and Syracuse will join the ACC in 2013, and Notre Dame will join the ACC as a non-football member in 2015.

The Big Ten is highly anticipating these moves, and is likely to use the addition of Maryland and Rutgers as a bargaining chip during television right negotiations. The Big Ten’s national and regional television rights expire in 2017, and the addition of two major-market universities should help the Big Ten secure a more lucrative contract extension.

Both Rutgers and Maryland are expected to remain in their current conferences until 2014. The University of Connecticut is rumored to replace Maryland in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but no official reports have confirmed not denied this matter. And for those who are keeping score at home:

The Big Ten Conference would have 12 teams in 2013 and 14 in 2014.

The Atlantic Coast Conference would have 14 teams in 2013, 13 in 2014, and 14* in 2015 (*Notre Dame will not compete in the ACC for football).

Now all we need is Hawaii to join the Big East, Florida to join the Pac-12, and Oregon to join the SEC, and we’ll have a real game of college musical chairs.

Hide-and-Go-Athletic Conferences

Some NCAA schools like Notre Dame and West Virginia are moving to conferences thousands of miles away.

College sports really are great. Where else do thousands of students cheer on athletes for school spirit, pride, and bragging rights? Where else do thousands of people paint their faces and bodies and dress up in costumes that rival those of Halloween? And where else do athletes compete for pride, school spirit, and bragging rights instead of salaries and performance bonuses?

But like any other sport, colleges and universities are in it for the big bucks. Even if those big bucks require schools to travel clear across the country for a simple football game. The largest and most confusing trend affecting collegiate athletics today is the pandemonium of conference realignment.

Since 2010, more than 50 colleges and universities have shifted their entire athletic programs to different conferences, with 19 schools changing exclusively in football, and 22 changing in men’s ice hockey. And if that wasn’t puzzling enough, here are some of the ridiculously confusing changes: West Virginia University will compete in the Big 12 conference (schools in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa), the University of Houston will now compete in the Big East, as will Boise State and San Diego State in football only, and Notre Dame will compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The numerous conference changes have turned the Pac-10 Conference into the Pac-12, and the Big 12 Conference now has 10 teams, while the Big Ten has 12.

The point here is that schools are far too reliant on profits and conference revenues that they are willing to travel thousands of miles to play six or seven football games per year so they can make some more profits. Schools are now in danger of compromising academic integrity of athletes for cold hard cash. How is an athlete constantly travelling from West Virginia to Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas supposed to succeed on AND off the field?

Schools that seek to relocate also face another obstacle: exit fees. Many major athletic conferences have exit fines written in their by-laws that prevent schools from jumping ship to another conference. For example, in order to leave the Big East, Syracuse University had to pay the conference $7.5 million and then wait a year. Schools that wish to leave their conference immediately must pay higher fees, such as West Virginia paying $20 million to leave the Big East in February 2012.

Some conferences are now combating the snafu of conference realignment by increasing exit fees, thereby preventing schools from leaving. After West Virginia left, the Big East voted to double its exit fee to $10 million, while the ACC voted in September 2012 to raise its exit fee to an astonishing $50 million, after Notre Dame joined the conference.

Conference realignment is just one of the many complicated issues in college sports today. In the blink of an eye, schools are changing affiliations, and fans can hardly keep up with their favorite schools. But at least these fans can take pride in knowing they will get more frequent flier miles in the next few years.