|Thursday, September 7|
By Jeff Potrykus
Special to ESPN.com
Before we begin preparing for what promises to be an intriguing bowl season -- the Sugar Bowl isn't the only bowl that matters, after all -- prudence dictates we take a few moments to discuss dominoes. Believe it or not, there is a direct correlation between dominoes and college football.
Specifically, one could theorize the domino theory was at work when Nick Saban abruptly abandoned his most successful Michigan State team and left to take over LSU's foundering program.
Confused? Relax. The domino effect at work here isn't all that difficult to understand.
Not long after the close of the Big Ten season, it became apparent that Michigan, a team the Spartans had beaten on Oct. 9, likely would receive an at-large invitation to a Bowl Championship Series bowl. The Spartans would be left with an invitation from a lesser bowl.
The first domino had fallen.
On Nov. 24, Saban and the Spartans accepted an invitation to play in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1. Nice bowl, the Citrus. Great stadium in Orlando. Great weather. Excellent competition from a Southeastern Conference school.
However, the Citrus is not a member of the BCS, and Michigan State won't get the BCS payout of anywhere from $11-13 million.
The second domino was about to fall.
About a week after Michigan State accepted the Citrus Bowl invitation, LSU officials approached Saban about their head coaching vacancy. Saban, now keenly aware of the political nature of the bowl selection process, listened closely. He listened because the money was right -- $6 million over five seasons -- and because he was tired of playing second fiddle in the state of Michigan.
"At Michigan State, we were never No. 1," Saban said. "That was always Michigan. It was always U-M this or that.
"If I'd gone to Ohio it would have been Ohio State. Indiana, it is Purdue. Chicago, it's every other school in the Big Ten. Wherever you go you're looking at someone else when you're recruiting, trying to catch up, trying to convince someone you're up there."
Saban had a right to be peeved.
When Michigan and Michigan State met on the field this season, the Spartans prevailed, 34-31. Both teams finished 9-2 overall and 6-2 in the Big Ten. Both teams beat four opponents bound for bowls this season. Yet Michigan is ranked No. 8 in both major polls; Michigan State No. 9.
Saban suspected all along the Wolverines would be invited to the fancier postseason party. And ironically, the Wolverines accepted an invitation to play in the Orange Bowl on the same day (Dec. 1) Saban flew down to LSU to be introduced as the Tigers' new coach.
So today, the Wolverines are preparing to play SEC champion Alabama. Meanwhile, Saban is trying to build a coaching staff in Baton Rouge.
Why did the Orange Bowl prefer the Wolverines to the Spartans? Was it Michigan's funky helmets? Sorry. Keith Tribble, executive director of the Orange Bowl, explained the decision was all about money.
"We have financial responsibilities, and we look at a team and a matchup that's best for us," Tribble said. "We look at lots of factors, from tradition to records, ranking, TV exposure, fan enthusiasm and overall what a team can do for our game.
"There's no single factor to pinpoint, but we felt the best matchup for us was Michigan and then, after the Big 12 game was over, pick the next best team."
Money talked. Saban walked. And another domino had fallen.
Michigan State officials now faced a quandary. Their team was preparing for a bowl game. The assistant coaches were in the midst of a vital recruiting season and there was a vacancy at the top. According to various published reports, Michigan State officials looked at Minnesota's Glen Mason, Stanford's Tyrone Willingham and Steve Mariucci of the San Francisco 49ers. Rebuffed by all three candidates, they began looking in-house.
They eventually settled on assistant Bobby Williams, who is in his 10th season with the program and had been named interim coach when Saban left.
The Michigan State players rallied around Williams from the start of the coaching search and cheered wildly at the press conference when he was given the job. Not a single assistant accepted Saban's offer to join him at LSU. They all stayed in East Lansing to work under Williams. MSU President Peter McPherson was won over by the overwhelming support of the coaches and players.
All seems well again in East Lansing. But will the euphoria last?
Perhaps Williams will turn out to be the steadying influence the program needed. If he leads the Spartans to a victory over Florida in the Citrus Bowl, he will already be one step ahead of Saban, whose teams were 0-3 in bowl games.
But what if he wasn't the best choice for the job?
Either way, it is clear that Saban's departure left McPherson and other MSU officials scrambling to name a head coach before the bowl game and before several top recruits looked elsewhere.
One could argue that none of this would have happened had the Spartans received the at-large berth from the BCS. After all, would the Orange Bowl have gone bankrupt by staging a matchup featuring Michigan State and Alabama? Would angry Michigan fans have protested outside the stadium?
Tribble apparently didn't want to find out.
"We couldn't have had two better teams," he said, "from two better conferences representing our bowl."
BCS leaves Kansas State ill -- again
|Saban's deal could open the door for other coaches.|
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder and his players didn't like their first taste of the BCS. Their second helping was just as nauseating.
For the second consecutive season, the Wildcats were shut out of the BCS, only to watch a team with a lower ranking get at-large berth.
This season, that team was Michigan, rated No. 8 in the final BCS rankings. Kansas State was ranked No. 6. Last season, the Wildcats lost out to Steve Spurrier and Florida, who made too attractive a pair for Orange Bowl officials to pass up.
Kansas State's consolation prize last year was the Alamo Bowl. This season it is the Holiday Bowl.
"It seems like no matter how good we are, there is somebody out there who doesn't like Kansas State and is out to get us," safety Jarrod Cooper told the Kansas City Star. "Bowl games were supposed to be a reward. Now it's all about money. I don't know about this BCS stuff.
"The rules are so shady. The (commissioner) of the SEC who does this BCS stuff. I also found out that the last two years $48 million has been made for his little conference over there."
Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.