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Mailbag: Impact of CFP expansion, USC’s discontent, Apple Cup TV and more

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The Hotline mailbag publishes weekly. Please note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

What are you most looking forward to — in a positive way — for the 2024 college football season? There are many negative views about the changes. What will keep bringing you back with anticipation? — @mediumbumble

The 2024 season is 183 days away but cannot come soon enough for our purposes.

It will be unlike any in the history of the sport.

How will the coaching changes at Alabama, Michigan, Washington and elsewhere impact the course of events?

Will the trend toward parity, largely due to the transfer portal and NIL, continue unabated?

Which quarterbacks are set to steal the spotlight?

How will Washington State and Oregon State fare as a two-team conference?

Of course, the mega-conference created by realignment will produce more marquee matchups than the sport has experienced, particularly in the second half of the season.

Here’s the lineup for Saturday, Nov. 2, as an example: Florida-Georgia, Oregon-Michigan, Ohio State-Penn State and USC-Washington.

Not bad.

But realignment isn’t the primary reason we’re counting the minutes until the first kickoff of the ’24 season.

Nor are the coaching changes and roster overhauls.

Our fascination, first and foremost, is the expanded College Football Playoff.

It’s the most significant change to the competitive landscape in the history of the sport and the second most important change, on the field or off, since the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that gave conferences control of their media rights.

Don’t worry about the current debate over the shape of the CFP starting with the 2026 season, the first year of the next media contract cycle.

We are guaranteed two years of a well-conceived, perfectly formatted 12-team tournament in 2024-25.

The event will have five automatic qualifiers and seven at-large teams.

The top four seeds (all conference champions) will receive opening-round byes.

The Nos. 5-8 seeds will host opening-round games on campus before Christmas.

The New Year’s Six bowl games will serve as hosts for the quarterfinals and semifinals.

Playoff expansion will enhance, not diminish, interest in the regular season. It will make more teams and more games relevant deeper into the fall. It will attract new fans and generate more debate.

Frankly, it will change how the Hotline covers the sport in-season. It has to, because a 12-team event changes what it means to win and lose every game.

Two-loss teams won’t be eliminated from the playoff in the middle of October.

Heck, three-loss teams won’t be out of it.

Make no mistake, folks. The change from a four-team playoff invitational to a 12-team tournament will be more significant than the switch, a decade ago, from the BCS to the four-team CFP.

And not by a little, either — by an order of magnitude.

It should be glorious.

How early in his tenure did Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff know that USC was unhappy with its conference revenue share? Why didn’t he push hard for unequal shares? And is the Big Ten destined to repeat the same mistake? — @TerryTerry79

USC’s frustrations were made crystal clear to Kliavkoff early in his tenure. In fact, they were widely known well before he was appointed commissioner, in the spring of 2021, and raised again during Kliavkoff’s visit to campus that summer.

But that was it. He did not address the topic in any substantive matter, according to a source, from that point on.

Perhaps Kliavkoff didn’t take the threat of USC leaving the conference seriously during his first months in office.

Perhaps he believed that reverting to unequal revenue shares, the model in place during the Pac-10 era, would not be approved by the presidents collectively.

We have been told by several sources that he asked USC president Carol Folt about her commitment to the conference prior to the fateful day in the summer of 2022 — and that she repeatedly affirmed her allegiance.

(Critics of Kliavkoff’s performance would argue that was one of several instances in which he was too trusting, too naive, for the rock fight that is realignment.)

Whatever the specifics, there are unanswered questions:

— Did he do everything within reason to keep the Trojans?

— Was it even possible to keep the Trojans once the Big Ten and Fox committed massive dollars to expansion?

We are skeptical on both fronts.

The dynamics of college football and the sports media space have changed since the summer of 2022. Unequal revenue sharing is inevitable in both the Big Ten and SEC. It might take a few years to reach that tipping point, but it’s coming.

The days of Ohio State accepting the same media rights paycheck as Minnesota are nearing an end.

With the mega-conferences and no divisions, is there concern about how potentially difficult it might be to determine the teams that play for conference championship? — @coleltaylor

We pondered that exact topic last week while researching and writing our Big Ten football forecast for 2024.

With 18 teams and no divisions, there are bound to be multi-team ties for first place, second place and every other place. (The Big 12, SEC and ACC will have similar issues.)

But there’s another piece to consider: After head-to-head results, tiebreaker formulas typically rely on record against common opponents.

With each Big Ten school playing nine conference games and missing eight others, there could be a paucity of common opponents between tied teams.

You’ll need a doctorate from MIT or Cal Tech to figure out the tiebreaker.

Either that, or you could just flip a coin.

Your recent comment that the Big Ten didn’t want Stanford (and Cal) was a bit surprising to me. I would love some clarification if you have it. — Mathew K

Our view is that Big Ten presidents would have gladly welcomed Stanford and Cal into the conference because of the schools’ stellar academic reputations, strong Olympic sports and presence in the Bay Area — home of both the tech giants and thousands of Big Ten alumni.

But Fox didn’t see a reason to add the Cardinal and Bears. The football programs simply didn’t carry enough media value to justify the cost, even at discounted revenue shares.

And because Fox owns the Big Ten’s media rights through its majority stake in the Big Ten Network, the network calls the shots on Big Ten expansion, not the university presidents.

(After all, somebody has to pay for the newcomers so that expansion doesn’t result in smaller revenue shares for the existing members.)

This isn’t the 2000s, when Cal was churning out first-class seasons, or the 2010s, when Stanford was winning Rose Bowls. The schools allowed their programs to deteriorate to the point of irrelevance just when realignment struck.

The timing could not have been worse.

What should we read into the launch of the new Apple Sports app? Perhaps an expansion of the company’s streaming sports programming, with Oregon State and Washington State as a trial run? — @cubsfan7331

Not sure about Apple using WSU and OSU as a “trial.” Our hunch is their football games will find a home on CBS and/or FS1 as a complement to the Mountain West inventory currently on those networks.

But clearly, this is just another step toward the inevitability of live sports being delivered mostly, or exclusively, through streaming.

And there’s a good chance that Apple ends up owning the bulk of the content through acquisitions.

As we have written, Washington and Oregon made the decision to join the Big Ten in the pre-dawn hours of Aug. 4 because the short-term components of Apple’s proposal (the lack of revenue and exposure on linear television) were deemed unacceptable.

But there was a strong long-haul case to be made for partnering with the most influential, innovative company in the world.

How hot is the seat that Stanford coach Jerod Haase occupies? And what does he need to do in order to keep his job? — @BSTEVENS_1984

Because the only path into the NCAA Tournament is through the Pac-12’s automatic berth, Stanford must win the conference tournament to guarantee Haase’s return for a ninth season.

Beyond that, there is no available framework to judge the situation because the Cardinal has broken the model.

We cannot name another head coach who made it to Year 9 after never reaching the NCAAs or winning a conference championship. (In fact, Haase hasn’t come close to the Pac-12 regular season or tournament titles.)

Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir hired Haase and has been extremely patient — far too patient, in our view.

We will assess Muir’s ongoing refusal to make a coaching change, despite overwhelming evidence that a change is needed, in coming weeks.

Why do you always hate on Washington football? You were wrong all of last year. You are supposed to be the expert. — @JacksonWy23

First, even the “experts” are wrong regularly, especially when it comes to predicting game results and season trajectories.

But I would push back on your position in this regard: The Hotline picked Washington to win the 2023 conference title nine months before the season began, in a forecast published Jan. 19, 2023.

And we stuck with the Huskies in our preseason projections.

Also, the Hotline was one of the few media outlets to predict a playoff berth for UW.

Our outlook for the Huskies next season in the Big Ten is gloomy but justified given the coaching change and massive roster attrition.

Who is responsible for the TV portion of the Apple Cup? — @brycetacoma

The Washington-WSU game next season at Lumen Field and all future matchups at Husky Stadium are part of the Big Ten’s media package, meaning they will be shown on Fox, NBC, CBS or the Big Ten Network.

The Apple Cup games in Pullman will be owned by Washington State’s media partner, which has not been determined.

The Cougars and Oregon State are currently shopping their home football games and should have a contract in place for the 2024-25 season in the next month or two.

Are you going to rename the Pac-12 Hotline? I vote that you keep it alive. — @kmasterman

There will be a new name by the summer, if not sooner, and we’ll keep things simple.

The leaders in the clubhouse are 1) Wilner Hotline, which is my Twitter/X handle, or 2) the College Hotline, which was the name of this operation for a decade before we switched to Pac-12 Hotline.

In fact, much of our most important reporting on the conference came during the College Hotline era.

Back in the mid-2010s, we were the first to examine Larry Scott’s misguided media strategy, top-down management style and the Pac-12’s growing revenue deficit — two important elements in the eventual demise of the conference.

I’ll have more on the name change and our content plans in coming months. But rest assured, we will provide thorough coverage (on and off the field) of the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC, along with the next phase of the Pac-12.

We are not going anywhere. Our goal, now and always, is to serve the faithful Hotline readers.

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