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November 4, 2010 Over twenty years ago, the Big Ten conference made a landmark vote to expand from the 10 members they had continuously since Michigan State joined in 1950 to 11 overall members. The top two candidates at the time were Notre Dame, a longtime possible conference member, and Penn State, as the Big Ten preferred to not snipe a team away from another conference. Penn State jumped at the opportunity when the offer went to Happy Valley, while Notre Dame rebuffed the conference. Over the next three seasons, the Big Ten prepared for the eleventh member, and in 1993, Penn State joined the league. At the time this was a major move because major conference realignments had been relatively limited to that point, except for the merger of the Big 8 and the Southwest Conference. Twenty years after the agreement that brought the Nittany Lions into the fold, the long term benefits and burdens of independence have a unique case study at these two universities, both of which are in the spotlight once again this week.

At Penn State the conference footprint expanded toward the east coast and brought in more viewers than the typical midwestern and great lakes region. While Michigan and Ohio State command national followings and alumni bases, Penn State gave the conference a legitimate third power on a national scale. The added national attention enabled Jim Delany, conference commissioner since 1989, to begin formation of a television network dedicated completely to the Big Ten conference sporting events and university programming. What seemed like a crazy idea became reality in 2006 when Big Ten Network went live. The added television money splits evenly between the 11 member schools, leading to an overall influx of over $4 million in television money alone. In fact, 2009 revenue splitting brought in over $20 million to every member school. With Nebraska joining the conference next season, the projections for television earnings and overall conference revenue are expected to continue moving through the roof. And despite jumping the independent ship, Penn State receives just as much national exposure and attention as the school did in the 1980's.

Meanwhile in South Bend, Notre Dame rebuffed a follow-up official offer in 1999 to join the conference and make the conference a round 12 teams. Further discussions were pursued in 2004, but the 1999 negotiations were the real turning point as the Notre Dame faculty senate nearly inanimously voted to approve a joinder. The Notre Dame board of trustees decided against the merger and Notre Dame has maintained independence ever since. While a feeler probably was sent to South Bend for the 2009-2010 expansion talks, a quick rebuff led the Big Ten to look elsewhere once again, this time landing another mega-power in Nebraska. While Penn State has won one national title and more recently two conference titles with corresponding BCS bowl appearances, Notre Dame has only made 5 BCS-level bowls in the past 17 years despite having very favorable selection criteria in place. Furthermore, Notre Dame broke a nine game bowl losing streak dating back to 1994 with a minor bowl win in the 2008 Hawaii Bowl. Notre Dame still has a lucrative exclusive television agreement with NBC, but rumors indicate that this contract is not as profitable overall as the Big Ten Network and overall revenue sharing in the Big Ten. Thus, the financial benefits of being independent have clearly been undermined.

In Happy Valley the school has maintained one coach for the past two decades, and it happens to be the winningist college coach of all time Joe Paterno. Paterno is actually in his 45th season at the helm of the Nittany Lions, and has quickly become the standard bearer of the Big Ten conference coaching ranks. With other legends Barry Alvarez, Lloyd Carr, and Hayden Fry long since retired, Paterno goes on and stands as a shining example of how college football programs can do coaching right. While Penn State does not have the rigorous academic requirements that private catholic university Notre Dame does, Joe Paterno has challenged his players to be successful in and out of the classroom. The result is an 89% graduation rate, more than 14% higher than the closest competitor in the AP Top 25 poll for football in 2009. Joe Paterno is on the verge of an unprecedented 400th career coaching victory, which he may get as early as this weekend. With Bobby Bowden out of coaching this year, Paterno will likely hold the all-time wins record forever, especially at one school. Paterno's 400th win may come in his last season, but this will certainly be the final major number milestone he hits before retirement. It is a time of celebration at Penn State, to go with financial success.

Meanwhile in South Bend, Notre Dame has struggled to keep a coach since Lou Holtz departed in 1996. Bob Davie went 35-25 in five seasons, George O'Leary was fired before coaching a game for lying on his resume, Tyrone Willingham went 21-15 in three tumultuous seasons, and Charlie Weis only managed 35-27 in five seasons. Despite Brian Kelly coming in this season to great accolades, reality has struck Notre Dame again with a mediocre 4-5 start highlighted by a huge upset loss at home against Tulsa last weekend. The sheer fact of the matter is Notre Dame has completely fallen to irrelevance, as the one trip to the BCS of note under Charlie Weis ended in a blowout against Ohio State, a Big Ten conference member (to rub salt in the wounds). Despite Notre Dame claiming their independence makes them relevant, it has instead made it easy to ignore them, and even the Bowl Championship Series has begun to cut the ridiculous amounts of money Notre Dame receives if their football program makes a BCS Bowl. Although the Fighting Irish have fought off the urge to join the Big Ten, the sheer fact of the matter is these are dark days for Notre Dame. The Irish are also at the top of the negative news in the national media with the death of football practice photographer and student Declan Sullivan. Brian Kelly will likely take some heat for practicing on such a windy day, but he will likely not lose the job until the mediocrity continues on the field.

In summary, it appears the findings on football independence are as clear as the sweeping results in the 2010 congressional election. Penn State jumped at an opportunity that Notre Dame spurned multiple times, and now Penn State has better academic success, more money funneled in, and a truly relevant national program. Notre Dame, on the other hand, continues to be in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The Golden Domer alumni base may be proud, but their expectations are unrelaistic, while the fans of Penn State largely seem to be content with the Joe Paterno era (with the exception of perhaps the late 90's and early 2000's). As Nebraska jumps into the hole that Notre Dame left open once again, look for Nebraska to experience a huge uptick in national relevance and profitability while Notre Dame lags behind once again. Until Notre Dame gives up their independence and perhaps relaxes some academic requirements, the Penn States and Nebraskas of the world will be far better off in the college football universe.

Speaking of conference expansion, the biggest news of the week is that the Big East conference, after surviving this round of conference realignment intact, has voted to expand to 10 members. This move will bring the sixth BCS conference in line with the other conferences, which will stand at 12, 12, 12, 12, and 10 teams next season. The Big East has not thrived despite the continued success of Pittsburgh and West Virginia and the seeming rise of programs in Cincinnati, Syracuse, and Louisville. When the Big East grabbed South Florida, Louisville, and Cincinnati in 2005 to replace Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College, and Temple, the grab was largely rushed to stay alive. This time around, the Big East has an opportunity to really select prime candidates to strengthen the conference and make a move like they did in 1991 when Miami, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia were added. A leading candidate for football expansion is current basketball member and top-tier FCS football team Villanova. This would be similar to when Connecticut was brought in over a few years from 2005 onward for football from the FBS. Villanova is a nice fit and a good alternative to Temple for the Philadelphia area. Other names being bandied about are more Conference USA teams like Central Florida and East Carolina, and a longshot in Texas Christian. If there has ever been a time to mend old wounds and bring TCU back into the Big XII, now would seem to be the time as the Big XII slowly looks at options for how to get back to 12 teams. However, TCU may jump at the opportunity to move with Utah into the big leagues. Speaking of stepping up, if the Big East really wants to make a splash and throw caution to the wind on how far the conference spans, they should add TCU and Boise State in what would be a blockbuster move. villanova is a much more likely fit than the Broncos, but in a perfect world, the Big East makes a huge statement and adds two proven football programs in Boise and Fort Worth.

Turning to the top games of the week, the focus turns to the non automatic qualifiers as Hawaii travels to Boise State for a battle of undefeated WAC teams. Although the Warriors are a heavy underdog, a win on the blue turf will lock up a WAC championship with Nevada also knocked off earlier by Hawaii. After starting 1-2, Hawaii has ripped off six straight wins by forcing 21 turnovers while commanding the best passing offense in the country. Hawaii may actually pose a challenge to the Boise State defense, which has not been truly tested since the Virginia Tech win. Hawaii QB Bryant Moniz already has 25 passing touchdowns on the season but the key to surviving Boise will be establishing some semblence of a running game with Alex Green so that Boise State cannot sit back in heavy coverage schemes. Hawaii has thrived on creating turnovers, but they will need to avoid the turnovers that have plagued them in their four consecutive losses on the blue turf. Furthermore, Boise has a top 10 offense themselves and have found much more balance with Kellen Moore being nearly perfect when he is leading the offense and Doug Martin and Jeremy Avery leading the rushing charge. Boise State certainly knows how to outgun teams, so expect a wild shootout where both teams could end up above 35 points. If this game were in Hawaii it may be the toughest game for the Broncos in conference play, but on the blue turf, the advantage is too heavy against the Warriors. Hawaii stays close for three quarters but falls short by 14.

The second game of the week is an elimination game in the SEC and national title race as Alabama visits LSU. Alabama may have had a seemingly tough threesome of games in Florida, S. Carolina, and Arkansas previously, but the back half of the schedule is even rougher with LSU, Auburn, and Mississippi State coming up. The good news is that this is Alabama's last road trip of the season. The Alabama defense has been very effective this season in marquee games, and one would expect the trend to continue as bad as Les Miles's offense has been. RB Stevan Ridley has had a good season on the ground, but the two-quarterback system of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee seems hopeless with a combined 4 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. The key to the game will certainly be whether the shut down LSU defense can step up at home against a powerful Crimson Tide offense. Greg McElroy has thrown all over the field in recent weeks, while Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram are both tearing up defensive fronts with tough runs. Ingram and Richardson were completely shut down by South Carolina, so LSU will have to do a similar herculean task to keep the woeful offense in the game. It is never wise to bet against LSU at home because Les Miles knows how to win the clutch moments, but this is just too tough of a task. LSU gets exposed at home with a 20 point loss.

The third game of the week is the final match up of undefeated teams in the 2010 season as TCU visits Utah. This is the game everyone in the west has been pointing to since Utah escaped an opening week test against Big East leader Pittsburgh, and both teams now sit in the top 5 of the polls with legitimate national championship aspirations. The Horned Frogs are led by QB Andy Dalton who has managed games well while throwing the Frogs out of trouble when necessary against teams like Oregon State. The Horned Frogs go as their running game goes, and it will be interesting to see if the Utah defensive front seven can contain Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker. While TCU has outscored opponents a few times in the past two seasons, their program is still built on the longtime foundation of a strong running game and a killer defense. Utah will pose a huge test for this defense as Jordan Wynn has a couple of talented wide receivers in Devonte Christopher and Jereme Brooks to throw to. Utah will also look to keep the Horned Frog offense off the field by controlling the clock with RB's Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata. Although each offense is statistically in the top 20 in the country, TCU-Utah games in recent years have usually been defensive struggles. That will likely happen again this week, and the game is a real toss-up thanks to being in Salt Lake City, a very hard place for the Horned Frogs to win. I believe the Utes find a way to get the job done with a 3 point win.

Other Games of the Week - Week 10

(22) Virginia Tech defeats Georgia Tech
(1) Oregon defeats Washington
(2) Auburn defeats Chattanooga
(7) Nebraska defeats Iowa State
(8) Oklahoma defeats Texas A&M
(9) Wisconsin defeats Purdue
(12) Missouri defeats Texas Tech
(13) Stanford defeats (15) Arizona
(14) Michigan State defeats Minnesota
(16) Iowa defeats Indiana
(21) Baylor defeats (17) Oklahoma State
(19) South Carolina defeats (18) Arkansas
(23) Nevada defeats Idaho
(24) Florida State defeats North Carolina
Clemson defeats (25) NC State

2010 GOTW Record: 19-8
Last Week: 3-0
2010 Overall Top 25 Record: 145-34
Last Week: 16-3

Fitz Top 10 - Week 10

1. Oregon (8-0)
2. Boise State (7-0)
3. TCU (9-0)
4. Auburn (9-0)
5. Utah (8-0)
6. Alabama (7-1)
7. Wisconsin (7-1)
8. Ohio State (8-1)
9. Nebraska (7-1)
10. Stanford (7-1)

Just Missed: Oklahoma, Arizona, LSU, Missouri, Iowa

With the top two teams in the country having yawn-fest games this weekend (Chattanooga, Auburn? Really?), the focus will really turn to all those teams with a real legitimate shot to be next in line should Auburn or Oregon falter. The Big Ten and Big XII teams still in contention probably cannot overcome the contenders in the spotlight this weekend, so if you want to see a real preview of national championship competitors, this week is for you. Furthermore, all of the top 3 games of the week kick at 3:30, so get the DVR ready and get ready to channel surf wildly. I hope Notre Dame comes not only to a significant financial settlement to the family of Declan Sullivan, but also eventually comes to the realization that real profit and real national relevance comes by joining a high profile conference. Now is the time to right the mistakes of the past and end up in two decades where Penn State University is now. Until next week, enjoy the first snow of the season if you live north of the Mason Dixon line.

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