Deep South Conference?
It has been heartbreaking to me as a football fan to watch some of the teams in the south who have moved up to Division I-A football over the last decade. Teams like Troy, UAB, South Alabama and Georgia State were probably correct in the assessment of moving into the top class of college football with the plethora of bowl games available, the promise of more money in the coffers due to expanded crowds and fan bases. Also the alumni of colleges who were stuck in what they considered the oblivion of Division 1-AA or Division II-A. There may have been other considerations, but this was the impetus that had the alumni licking their lips at the prospect of playing teams like Alabama and Auburn. Georgia for instance beat Troy 66-0 on September 20 of this year in Athens. What amount of money could be enjoyed by the university at the expense of an embarrassment like that. It is a given that Troy beat Mississippi State during a down year and also beat Missouri during a down year for the Tigers from Columbia. The Missouri game was the first big conference team to come to Troy. The game was won on a fumble recovery for a touchdown and other mistakes by Missouri. It was at this game that I thought that Troy may be able to compete with the “big boys”.
Games like the Missouri win and the Mississippi State win have been few and far between. Troy even persuaded Duke to come to Troy this year. Duke will go to a bowl this year but is not considered a powerhouse in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The score was Duke 34, Troy 17. Well, that was a close game to the Troy faithful continuing to perpetuate the myth that Troy can eventually play with the Alabamas, the Auburns, the Georgias. Coach Larry Blakeney will be retiring from Troy with the most wins by a college coach in the State of Alabama, even eclipsing his own college coach, Ralph “Shug” Jordan who won 176 games at Auburn. Larry coached, promoted, worked as hard as he could during his tenure at Troy. It must be pointed out however that many of those wins came in Division II-A and Division I-AA. The next coach at Troy will find the going just as tough as Coach Blakeney did.
Just picking on Troy is not my intention. It is simply the football program that I am most familiar with that is in this twilight zone between Division I-A and Division I-AA.
University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) has been in this quagmire for thirty years or more. They even beat LSU in Baton Rouge when Nick Saban was the LSU coach. Everybody got excited. What have they done since. Their record is worse than Troy’s, playing what I call the “Big Boys”. The University of Alabama System has carried the load of UAB football from its inception. There is constant rumor that funding will not be available any longer. That makes it extremely difficult to build a program with that hanging over your head. Although UAB plays Troy each year, the attendance is not what one would expect of two D-IA teams. UAB plays in Conference USA along with Southern Mississippi, a team we will discuss later. Troy plays in the Sun Belt Conference where they have to travel to Idaho and New Mexico State.
There are two other teams in the Sun Belt Conference that are in the “twilight zone” mentioned above. That is Georgia State in Atlanta and South Alabama in Mobile. South Alabama is having moderate success in that they are breaking even on the field, but not in the finance department.
Southern Mississippi has been in Division I-A for as long as I can remember. I first saw them play when the Golden Eagles beat a good Alabama team in Cramton Bowl in 1953. That has been the highlight of the not so storied history of Southern Mississippi football. They won no games in 2013 and will lose eight or nine this year. With the advent of the great programs at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, Southern Miss has been relegated to “baby brother”. They are out funded, out recruited and out coached. They can no longer be relevant in the State of Mississippi. The pool of football players is just not good enough to divide three ways any longer.
Now, we have discussed the difficult situation with five schools that are already in Division I-A. Would these universities consider going down one classification in order to compete on the field and compete at the financial office? Probably not, but the following is a scenario that could work if phased in over a period of three years.
Troy, UAB, South Alabama, Georgia State and Southern Mississippi could begin the process of forming a new conference of Division I-AA schools called the DEEP SOUTH CONFERENCE.
Schools that are playing at the Division I-AA level now who should be added to the Deep South Conference are Alabama State in Montgomery, Alabama A&M in Huntsville, Jacksonville State in Jacksonville and Samford in Birmingham. Three years is an ample time to make the move to the Deep South Conference. This gives us nine teams by 2017.
There are three Division II teams that are playing above their classification for the most part that could easily make the transition to Division I-AA in three years. They are North Alabama in Florence, West Georgia in Carrollton and Tuskegee in Tuskegee.
Division I-A teams would have to give up from 85 football scholarships down to 65. This sounds like a tremendous blow. But if you are not winning and making money, this would be a considerable savings in tuition room and board, and medical insurance not to mention the savings in cost of travel. No more Idaho’s or New Mexico State’s.
In addition to losing 20 scholarships, Division I-AA teams can only schedule eleven games because each team will be eligible for the I-AA National Championship Play-offs, if they qualify. Therefore a nine game rotating schedule would allow each team to play nine conference games and two out of conference. This means you could schedule Michigan State as did Jacksonville State this year, travel to East Lansing, Michigan, get beat 45-7 and come home with a nice check. Or you could schedule West Alabama, who I did not include in the proposed Deep South Conference because their potential fan base is seriously limited. The twelve teams recommended in this scenario would never have to travel more than approximately 300 miles. In some cases only forty or fifty miles. The savings would be tremendous. The chance of winning will be much better and the attendance at a winning Division I-AA program will certainly outdistance the present attendance of presently losing Division I-A programs. Winning is contagious. So is losing!
Of course I have only given a scenario that could and should work. However, I am not naive enough to believe that all of the above schools would authorize such a drastic move. But, it is something to think about.
It just hurts me to see players and coaches be embarrassed and sometimes injured, playing programs that are just one step ahead of them. I don’t see Troy, UAB, Southern Mississippi, Georgia State, South Alabama ever reaching the goals that they set out to accomplish. There are just not enough good football players in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia to support programs other than Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi, Georgia and Georgia Tech. Any other Division I-A program in these three states will always suffer no matter who the coach is or what the alumni base wants to accomplish.