We’ve all heard the old saying that when things are not going well to just hang in there and it will get better. Perhaps no one symbolizes that more than Mike Aresco. Rewind to 2012, and Aresco is going about his business as the Executive Vice President for programming at CBS Sports in New York. The University of Connecticut law school graduate was in charge of the network’s college based programming and under his watch CBS became the home of SEC football, and the NCAA Basketball Tournament. It was his leadership and direction that allowed CBS to continue broadcasting the NCAA Tournament – when the network was losing money by the bucket load doing so – by acquiring Turner as a cable dancing partner and signing an agreement with the NCAA that essentially moved most of the tournament to cable while allowing CBS to continue broadcasting a handful of games. We all owe him a debt of gratitude on that one because if not for his work, we’d be stuck watching ESPN butcher the best three weeks of the year in a way only ESPN can do. Can you imagine having to stomach Dick Vitale screaming on the broadcasts of the final 4?
Aresco was approached and accepted the job as the commissioner of the Big East Conference and began work in August of 2012. He stepped into a big mess, but to his credit he’s stayed the course and like its slogan the American Conference is “rising” in the college football landscape.
To understand this story, you have to understand the background. The Big East was formed in 1979 as a basketball conference for mostly schools in the Northeast corridor of the United States. It built its name on basketball and just 6 years into its tenure one of its teams – Georgetown – was a national champion. The conference included other basketball powerhouses like Villanova and Syracuse and it also included smaller schools that didn’t play football like Seton Hall, St. John’s and Providence. In the early 90s though the Big East decided to play football. That was a problem since only three of its original schools (Boston College, Syracuse, and Pitt) actually played big time college football. So the conference added schools like West Virginia, Va. Tech and most importantly Miami to the Big East Football Conference. And, for most of the 90s and early 2000s, Big East Football was some of the best in the nation with Miami winning National Championships, Va. Tech playing for a National Title, and West Virginia somehow going undefeated in 1993 by playing two quarterbacks, neither one of whom was very good. Syracuse was one of the nation’s best teams behind quarterback Donovan McNabb and frankly Big East football was better than some of the football played in more established “football conferences.” But, it all started to unravel in 2004 when the ACC grabbed Va. Tech (thanks to the political pressure of former Va. Governor Mark Warner who deserves the credit for Va. Tech being in the ACC and not former Athletic Director Jim Weaver), Miami and Boston College. The plan was originally to add Syracuse instead of Va. Tech, but with Governor Warner turning the screws on long-time member the University of Virginia, the ACC was left with little choice but to give Va. Tech the invitation it had long coveted. The Big East reloaded by adding some other schools including Louisville, but like other schools before it, Louisville, Pitt and Syracuse eventually pulled out to also go to the ACC. West Virginia bolted for the Big 12, Rutgers to the Big Ten, and the Big East kicked out Temple because they were one of the worst programs in the nation and played in an NFL stadium in front of about 5,000 people per game. Then shortly after Aresco took the job, the conference took another seismic shift when seven so called “catholic” schools who didn’t play FBS football or football at all (Providence, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Villanova, St. John’s, Marquette and DePaul) bolted, picked up Xavier from the Atlantic-10, Creighton from the Missouri Valley and Butler from the Horizon to form a basketball based conference. They negotiated and took with them the “Big East” name and brand. Big East football was dead and it appeared that Mike Aresco had made what is often termed as “a bad career move.”
Instead of whining about it though, he did something about it. The American Conference was formed by taking some of the holdovers (Cincinnati, U-Conn, and South Florida among them), and adding some former Conference USA Schools, getting Temple back into the conference, and inviting Navy to play football in the league. The American appeared to be nothing more than a lower level FBS Conference and is not included among the so-called “Power Five” leagues and is instead lumped in with the MAC, Mountain West, SunBelt, and Conference USA in the so-called “Group of Five” conferences. That means no real access to the college football playoff although there is one guaranteed Group of Five spot in the New Year’s Day bowl rotation.
This year, the American Conference is doing the former Big East Football Conference proud. Understand that none of these schools are ever going to be confused with Miami, but in this week’s Top 25, there are three American Schools, all of whom are undefeated. With Temple’s win last night over East Carolina, the Owls are 7-0 for the first time in school history. They own a win over Penn State, and next Saturday night play Notre Dame on ABC in primetime. No one could have seen that coming. Memphis is undefeated with a win over Ole Miss, and Houston is also undefeated with a win over Louisville of the ACC. Are any of these teams likely to win a national title? Not likely, but if one of these schools goes undefeated, and that’s entirely possible, I don’t see how the playoff committee can honestly pass them over for a playoff spot over a one loss team from the Power-Five conferences. Then again, they did pass over Baylor and TCU for Ohio State last year, a move that turned out to be the correct one.
The moral of the story is that just by hanging in there and doing what he could Mike Aresco has guided a mess into a nice national story this year. Not to mention that American conference basketball with U-Conn, Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston is pretty good, and they have the market cornered on women’s basketball with U-Conn. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes that comes from the late-great Tennis player Arthur Ashe who said “start where you are, use what you have and do what you can” because you just never know what the future holds. And while the American makes waves in the football world, the new “Big East” plows on with basketball and that’s great for them, but unlike what the American is doing on the football field, a January basketball game between Xavier and Creighton isn’t going to move the meter much particularly when those games are largely aired on irrelevant Fox Sports 1.
Now for this week’s selections. The only game I would actually like to feature is an FCS game in Harrisonburg, Virginia where the undefeated Dukes of James Madison host the Spiders of Richmond for first place in the Colonial Athletic Association. College Gameday is in town (one of the shows ESPN actually does right), and the school is in an tizzy over the national exposure. Is it deserved? Yes, particularly in light of the fact that JMU is good, but let’s be honest it doesn’t hurt that Gameday producer Lee Fitting is a 1996 JMU grad. Understand that I was never smart enough to get into James Madison, but I have friends who went to school there or friends whose kids went to school there. Harrisonburg is a great little college town and it’s in a beautiful area of Virginia known as the Shenandoah Valley. The Stadium seats only 24,000 but it’s nice and I’m sure it’s going to be wild. The only problem is that while Gameday is there, most of the country won’t be able to see the actual game. It’s stuck on regional network Comcast Sports Net based in Maryland which holds the rights – along with NBC Sports Network – to the CAA games. Regardless, JMU is not just some “johnny come lately” to the college football world in FCS. Former NFL players Gary Clark (Washington Redskins) and Charles Haley both played at the school. They won a national championship in 2004 and have appeared in the playoffs two of the last four years. They also have a roster heavy on players from the Commonwealth of Virginia with 62. They are coached by the well traveled Everett Withers who was an assistant coaching “lifer” before Athletic Director Jeff Bourne was smart enough to hire him as a head coach. Withers coaching career includes stops at Ohio State as defensive coordinator (the job he had before coming to Harrisonburg), UNC as defensive coordinator and then interim head coach after Butch Davis was forced out at North Carolina, Minnesota, Texas, Louisville, Southern Miss, Tulane, Austin Peay and six years in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans. The Dukes offense is triggered by a Georgia Tech castoff quarterback named Vad Lee, who Ga. Tech could probably use about now. Richmond has lost just one game, their opener to Maryland. You have to figure that both of these teams regardless of Saturday’s result will be in the FCS playoffs. But for now, the school should enjoy its moment in the spotlight because in a state where Virginia Tech has dominated the headlines since Michael Vick was running wild and Virginia was once number 1 in the country in 1990, the attention is well deserved.
Speaking of Va. Tech. What a mess. The Hokies host Duke this weekend. I’m not doing this again, I’ll take Duke and hope I’m surprised. Honestly if you had a choice of seeking one or the other, the smart money is buy a ticket to watch JMU-Richmond than to watch Va. Tech slip further into mediocrity. Other games, Memphis over Tulsa, Utah State (after ruining Boise State’s New Year’s Bowl hopes) over San Diego State, I like Pitt to keep rolling over Syracuse, I’ve never been a big Clemson guy, but the Tigers appear to have something special this season so Clemson over Miami, I’ll take Wake Forest to beat N.C. State on the road (hey, Wake has figured out how to win ugly games so maybe they do it again), Kansas State coach Bill Snyder apologized for his team’s performance last week against Oklahoma. He won’t have to do that this week as the Wildcats bounce back by beating Texas, Northwestern to beat Nebraska, Houston stays undefeated by beating Central Florida, which is the only school opening play this week already eliminated from bowl consideration at 0-7, Baylor big over Iowa State (take the over in Vegas boys), Rice over Army, Southern Miss to beat Charlotte, I’ll take Arkansas over Auburn, who is honestly one of the year’s biggest disappointments, Louisville over offensively challenged Boston College, Bowling Green big over Kent State, Navy over Tulane, Western Michigan over Miami of Ohio, Air Force soars over Fresno State, Central Michigan over Ball State, Toledo over U-Mass, Northern Illinois big over Eastern Michigan, Ohio gets another shot and becomes bowl eligible over Buffalo, Michigan State (I think the Spartans have used all their miracles for one year), but they won’t need one to beat Indiana, Marshall over the Mean Green of North Texas, whose anything but mean at 0-6, Alabama and Tennessee used to play the third Saturday of October, but much like a lot of traditions that went the way of the dinosaur when conferences went to 14 teams, so now it’s the Fourth Saturday in October. Alabama is favored by 16 points, and they clearly have 16 points more talent that Tennessee, particularly since Tennessee’s Offensive Line (which wasn’t that great to begin with) is beaten up, so the Tide rolls in this one, North Carolina is lurking in the ACC Coastal so watch out. The mystery is how they lost to South Carolina in their opener. The Heels have no problem with Virginia at home, Wisconsin over Illinois, Maryland comes off a bye week and a coaching change and has no shot at Penn State (and Penn State isn’t that good), La. Tech over Middle Tennessee, Oklahoma over Texas Tech, Oklahoma State officially makes Kansas ineligible for a bowl, not that they were going in the first place, Missouri over Vanderbilt (why Vanderbilt is even trying anymore is beyond me), SMU to upset South Florida, Nevada over Hawaii, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez is doing what he does so well – BITCH ABOUT SOMETHING. This time it is the start time of games. He hates night road games (although this one is at home…next week’s starts at 8:00pm Pacific time at Washington). Hey coach, you coach College Football so shut up. I hate the fact that I have to come to my office at 7:15 am everyday and deal with idiots and assholes. It’s adult stuff so deal with it. I love his coaching ability, but he’s just a baby sometimes and always has been dating back to his famous temper-tantrums he would throw while coaching at Glenville State in West Virginia. Regardless, Arizona beats Washington State, Cincinnati over U-Conn, Idaho over La. Monroe, Florida International over Old Dominion, Texas A&M over Ole Miss (told you I wasn’t buying the Rebels – see last week’s loss to Memphis), Texas State over South Alabama, Florida State over Ga. Tech. Did you realize that ACC pre-season Coastal Division favorites Va. Tech and Ga. Tech are a combined 5-9 and 1-6 in the ACC? LSU over Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic over UTEP, San Jose State over New Mexico, somehow Utah is undefeated and a three-point underdog at USC. Those guys in Vegas are smart, but I like Utah to win this one, Mississippi State over Kentucky, Boise State over Wyoming, and Colorado to beat Oregon State.
I’ve already talked FCS Game of the Week, so Division II takes us Carrolton, Georgia where the undefeated Second Ranked Wolves of West Georgia host the Seventh Ranked North Alabama Lions for First place in the Gulf South Conference. North Alabama owns three Division II titles in their history and their last three head coaches (Bobby Wallace, Mark Hudspeth, and Terry Bowden) all left for jobs at the FBS Level. The three championships came under Coach Wallace from 1993 – 1995 when North Alabama went an amazing 41-1. Coach Wallace is back and in his second year for his second tenure.
Division III, takes us to Lexington, Virginia where the 6-0 Generals of Washington and Lee host Bridgewater College. W&L is seeking its first playoff appearance since 2012, and it’s first conference title since 2011. The Generals are coached by Scott Abel who coached Amherst County High School to back-to-back Virginia Division 4 state high school championships in 2006 and 2007 before jumping to college football. Bridgewater played for the Division III National Title in 2001. They are coached by former Virginia Tech Defensive Coordinator Mike Clark, who was fired at VT, but found a home at Bridgewater. W&L got its name in part from the first president the United States, George Washington, who endowed the school with some stock, and in exchange the school renamed itself Washington College. General Robert E. Lee was once the president of the school, and thus the school added his name to become Washington and Lee University. The school was all-male (what possible fun is that?) until 1985 when it controversially became co-ed. I’ll bet it didn’t take long for the red blooded American males on campus to get used to that.
I just didn’t have time to research NAIA or JC games this week, so I’ll have to pass on those and come back next week.
Have a fantastic weekend everyone and enjoy the games.