Rewind to last August. With a gun to your head and only a very basic knowledge of recent college football history, who would you have picked to win the ACC? The Big 12? The Big 10? The SEC?
If you said Clemson, Oklahoma, and Ohio State for the first three, then congratulations for not lying. All three have a final challenge in their conference championship games next week, but barring a shocker, your predictions would have come true. And why shouldn't they? Clemson has won the last four ACC titles, inheriting their comprehensive domination from Florida State, Ohio State has won two in a row and three of the last five (and they still finished ranked higher than any other Big Ten team the two times they didn't win), and Oklahoma has won the Big 12 four years running.
In the SEC, things are a little more open, but just by a sliver—you would have likely picked Alabama to win the west and Georgia to win the east, with a nailbiter of an SEC title game to follow. Barring their repeat coronations, only LSU or Auburn could have snatched the title, and this happened to be one of the years when Bama lost two coin flips to give LSU a rare glimpse of the postseason. Which leaves the Pac-12, where the outcomes are less predictable but only because no team has developed into an elite program since Chip Kelly left Oregon.
The point is, the various conferences in college football are less competitive than even European soccer...and that's really saying something, because only three or four teams ever have a chance to win a Euro soccer league. But in college football, it's worse: Great coaches who are also great recruiters get hired by the programs with the most history and therefore the most money, the players' only incentive is to find the best program since they're not getting paid, success begets success, and suddenly the imbalance is so profound that each conference resembles a medieval kingdom.
There are, of course, the high kings: Clemson, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia. For the most part, they win, and the king stays the king until the hereditary line (ie, the coach) collapses. If they let their guards down for a year or two and the timing is propitious, they can be challenged by their stronger lords: Florida State, Baylor, TCU, Texas, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin, LSU, Auburn, Florida, who may stage small triumphs for short periods and could conceivably one day retake the throne when a high king collapses. Below those influential lords are a handful of lesser dukes who exercise some power, in some years, but can have no realistic ambition of ever challenging their superiors. These include programs like Virginia Tech, Miami, Louisville, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Iowa State, Iowa, Minnesota, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Missouri.
Everyone else is a serf, toiling endlessly with little hope of gain. Occasionally, a serf like Virginia or Duke will stumble backward into a divisional title, only to be slaughtered by the king in a conference championship game. And after the rebellion is crushed, mediocrity returns...at best.
Each of the high kings has his own empire, and even when the empires clash in the college football playoffs, the results are predictable. First, an empire rolling into the CFP led by a force other than a high king is doomed: There have been ten semifinal games since the advent of the current playoff system in 2014, and nine of those games have been won by one of the five kings high king. The anomaly went by Oregon, which in 2014 was the closest thing the Pac-12 had to a king. When a non-king makes the final four, that teams gets annihilated without exception: FSU lost 59-20, Michigan State lost 38-0, Washington lost 24-7, Notre Dame lost 30-3.
Then, when two high kings meet for the title, it's usually close, which represents one of the few moments of real uncertainty in the entire season.
The system is positively medieval, and it's only going to get worse. This weekend, in The Athletic, Andy Staples wrote that there is an unbridgeable recruiting gap between Ohio State and Michigan. Between Ohio State and Michigan! Those are two very good teams! But Michigan can't challenge OSU nationally, and aren't even really trying, which means they'll continue to lose, predictably and often by enormous margins, to their historic rival—as they have for 15 of the past 16 years. The rich are getting richer, and it's sucking the last bits of drama from the sport.
The Defensive Masterpiece of the Week: Ben Simmons
The very good Pacers were on the verge of stealing one from the very good Sixers in Philadelphia when Ben Simmons went and closed the game off with three straight steals and one ridiculous assist:
And just like that, it was done. The phrase "taking over a game" has become an over-used cliche, but it applies here—Simmons practically staged a palace coup. (And now I'm furious that the game wasn't in Indiana, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, because that would be a great pun.)
Also, because it's hilarious, watch the end of his postgame interview where he says that the Sixers are actually afraid to lose in front of the Philly home crowd. If you've ever experienced even a small dose Philadelphia fandom, you know that this is funny because it's true:
The Surging Terrors of the Week: Michigan Basketball
It was a big blow for the Wolverines to lose John Beilein to the Cavs—I've seen up close what a great coach he is, and his two appearances in the NCAA championship in the last decade along with his two conference championships in the bruising Big Ten prove the point. The man is a legend, and is the only coach to ever have 20-win seasons in Juco and all three NCAA divisions. So when former fab-5 star Juwan Howard took over, it wasn't a big surprise that his Wolverines started the season unranked—Beilein leaves big shoes to fill.
But my, how things have changed. Howard's Michigan is the early star of the NCAA hoops season, and it's not just that they've gone undefeated. It's not just that they've beaten ranked teams, either. It's that they're undefeated, and they've demolished ranked teams. They've come out like a house on fire, and by destroying no. 6 UNC and no. 8 Gonzaga in the Bahamas, they're about to make a huge rankings jump of the kind that we haven't seen since Kemba Walker's UConn team that went from unranked to top ten after winning the Maui Invitational.
These guys are gunners. Watch what happens if you leave Isaiah Livers open:
Here he is against Carolina attacking the rim and killing them on the pick-and-pop:
Even their human giants can shoot!
They have to play at no. 2 Louisville on Tuesday, which will be the biggest test yet, but as of now Juwan Howard has been a seriously impressive coach and I'm seriously scared of the Wolverines.
The Other Very Good Howard of the Week: Markus
Marquette's Markus Howard became just the third major conference player in hoops history to register a 50-point game in three straight seasons, joining Pete Maravich and Wayman Tisdale. The senior guard registered his 51 against USC, and the night before he scored 40 against Davidson. Check out the highlights:
Also, please don't miss this glorious heat check:
Howard definitely has that "drafted very late in the first round, turns into Steph Curry" energy. You heard it here first (...ish).