By Jon Wilner
Welcome to the umpteenth year of Saturday Night Five, which will publish weekly (typically in the midnight hour) through the 2021-22 college sports calendar …
1. Alliance aftermath, part one
Let’s start the season debut of SN5 with two final thoughts on the Pac-12’s alliance with the Big Ten and ACC.
In fact, let’s start where it all started — with Texas and Oklahoma.
If it’s not obvious, it should be (and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff acknowledged as much in a subsequent interview with ESPN):
Had the Longhorns and Sooners back-channeled their intentions to any of the alliance conferences, those commissioners would have done the very same thing as the SEC’s Greg Sankey.
They would have said yes, then kept it as quiet as possible for as long as possible and had zero need for an alliance.
Because had any of those commissioners turned down overtures from the Longhorns and Sooners, well, they would no longer be employed as commissioner.
But this isn’t about Sankey accepting the call and saying yes. It’s about the placement of the call:
Through years of sound leadership and competitive success, the SEC positioned itself as the preferred landing spot for Texas and OU when it came time to exit the Big 12.
The schools didn’t reach out to the ACC or the Big Ten or the Pac-12. They wanted the SEC.
Sure, the SEC made sense geographically, but there was more to the calculation than mileage for Texas, whose power-brokers had always looked down upon the conference.
But after a sizzling run of dominance on the field, smart dealings in the media rights space and its commitment to playing through the pandemic — while the Big Ten and Pac-12 stepped aside — the SEC emerged as the best and obvious destination.
The ACC had neither the competitive or financial clout to lure the schools.
The Big Ten had plenty of both, and to this day we’re not exactly sure why Texas’ trustees and administration didn’t first look north.
Perhaps the presence of a new commissioner, whose tenure has been a bit uneven, played a role.
Or perhaps, as one source suggested, the Longhorns didn’t want to provide Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Penn State greater access to the Lone Star State recruiting pipeline.
We may never get a straight answer on that matter.
But the situation is particularly notable as it relates to the Pac-12, because the conference was attractive to the Longhorns and Sooners during the last realignment wave.
In 2010, they were oh-so-close to joining the Pac-10.
A decade later, they didn’t bother calling the Pac-12.
The decline in competitive excellence and the second-tier financial standing — caused, in part, by poor strategic decisions at the top — rendered the conference an unattractive landing spot.
It went from a suitor with loads to offer to an ignored, unattractive bystander.
2. Alliance aftermath, part two
For all that has been said and written about the reasons for creating the alliance (a counterweight to the SEC, a voting bloc for the CFP, a partnership for NCAA initiatives, a source of stability during uncertain times), one piece seemingly has been overlooked:
From the instant he caught wind of Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, Kliavkoff’s indisputable priority was to keep the Pac-12 intact.
Whether the conference ultimately expanded was secondary to preventing an existential crisis: He had to keep existing members, with USC atop the list, from leaving.
Recall what Washington State president Kirk Schulz told the Hotline in those roiling weeks after the UT/OU news broke: “You have got to hold serve at home and make sure all the current members feel good about the conference financially and the direction it’s headed.”
What better way for Kliavkoff to hold serve at home than to form an alliance in which the presidents of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC pledge to work together to provide stability and a create a thriving future for all three leagues?
After all, the alliance was “unanimously supported by the presidents, chancellors and athletics directors at all 41 institutions,” according to the joint statement issued by the conferences on Tuesday.
If you’re Kliavkoff, it goes something like this: Keep your friends close and any potential poachers closer.
Lock the presidents into a highly-publicized commitment to each other and you probably don’t have to worry about calls from the Big Ten to Heritage Hall anytime soon.
It would be foolish to presume the alliance guarantees stability beyond the next few years — by 2030, the entire Power Five might be restructured — but Kliavkoff’s priority in the aftermath of the thunderous news from the Southern Plains was, in fact, the next few years.
While we have no proof that his motivation was to preemptively extinguish any chance of the other leagues poaching the Pac-12, it’s a reasonable guess.
And if that’s the case, he has already earned his first-year salary.
3. UCLA rolls (for once)
After two seasons of non-conference results that couldn’t have been any worse, UCLA’s 2021 debut — a 44-10 victory over Hawaii — was a half-step shy of ideal.
The defense was fast and aggressive while the offense produced 244 rushing yards behind an offensive line that looks formidable enough to take on the veteran defensive fronts within the division (USC, Utah and ASU).
Even if we account for the distinct possibility that Hawaii is far below average, the Bruins were impressively sharp and physical for a team playing its season opener.
(In the three previous openers under Chip Kelly, the Bruins committed nine turnovers. Today, they had none — and Kelly collected his first non-conference win in Westwood.)
Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, a senior who missed a week of training camp for undisclosed reasons, was the only player noticeably out of rhythm.
Obviously, UCLA cannot afford a repeat next week. But if Thompson-Robinson boosts his efficiency to a reasonable standard, the Bruins stand an excellent chance of toppling LSU.
4. Ugly optics
Impressive as UCLA looked on the field, we cannot ignore the empty seats in the Rose Bowl. Certainly, the ESPN cameras and social media commentators did not ignore them.
Yes, the visuals were bad — bad for the Bruins and, frankly, bad for the conference.
But context is required:
It was 95 degrees in the stadium with an uninspiring opponent and a pandemic, and fans were informed ahead of time they would be required to wear masks (except when eating and drinking).
That combination would have impacted attendance under any circumstances.
If you’re assigning responsibility, the circumstances (heat, opponent, COVID, masks) probably account for 50% of the small turnout.
The other half is abject apathy, for which the Bruins have nothing and nobody else to blame. And that’s the portion they must solve.
Next weekend would be a fine time to start.
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5. “I’m not dead”
We couldn’t help but recall the plague-cart scene from the funniest movie ever made, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, when the Pac-12 Networks recently released their programming plan for the fall.
After their near-comatose 2020 season, the networks are up and running with a full slate of football games and studio/remote programming.
There’s even a new show, “Tailgate,” which focuses more on festivities than football. It joins a lineup that features the return of the “Pregame” (live from the campuses), the “Gamebreak” updates throughout the day, and the late-night wrap-up show, “Pac-12 After Dark”.
Some fans might wonder, Why even bother?
Well, here’s why: The Pac-12 Networks aren’t going anywhere, at least not anytime soon. The distribution contracts don’t expire until the spring of 2024.
Given that reality, it only makes sense for the conference to do everything possible to promote the schools and their chief export, football, to the greatest extent possible.
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