Hardesty: College football changes will hang Kent State out to dry

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

The Richter scale-registering shock waves that are rocking college football seem a long ways away for Kent State and the Mid-American Conference.

– Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC in 2025.

– USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten a year before that.

– Name, Image, Likeness money for student-athletes.

– The transfer portal.

With the exception of the latter, KSU and its MAC brethren appear safely insulated from these seismic shifts in big-time college football that seem to have happened almost overnight. Mid-major programs often complain bitterly — and rightfully so — that due to how college football is currently constructed at the Bowl Subdivision level, they have been put out to pasture, left to graze by themselves in a wasteland of irrelevance.

But as bad as it looks now for mid-majors like Kent State, it’s about to get a whole lot worse. 

As the old saying goes, you-know-what runs downhill. And it’s only a matter of time before the Golden Flashes and the MAC get a faceful of it.

First, there’s the current structure of college football itself. There are 10 conferences that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, broken down into two groups of five: the Power 5 conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac 12) — think “upper tier” — and the Group of 5 conferences (MAC, American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mountain West Conference and Sun Belt Conference) — think “lower tier.”

The four-team College Football Playoff, which began in 2014, determines the FBS national champion. But it’s basically a national championship for the Power 5, because in the first eight years of its existence, only one Group of 5 team has played in the CFP, and that was Cincinnati last season. And the only reason the Bearcats were invited to the party is because they went undefeated, and they looked impressive doing it.

So if you’re a Group of 5 team — a mid-major — you take the field for preseason camp each August knowing you have virtually no chance of playing for a national championship. So the most that teams like Kent State can hope for in any given season is to win their conference and get a lower-tier bowl game.

Whether this is fair or not depends on how you look at it. Power 5 teams say they have to play a much tougher schedule and therefore should get first dibs at the CFP, and they’re right. There is no comparing a Power 5 team’s schedule to a Group of 5 team’s schedule. The level of difficulty is worlds apart. On the flip side, however, Group of 5 teams say that the fact they don’t even get consideration for the CFP is inherently unfair. It’s like they don’t exist.

But thanks to Name, Image, Likeness — NIL — the invisibility factor has been ratcheted up for the Kent States of the world (for the purposes of this column, Kent State will represent all Group of 5 programs). NIL allows collegiate student-athletes to monetize exactly that: their name, image and likeness. Without getting too far into the weeds of the rule, it came about from a Supreme Court ruling last year that lets college athletes monetize their name, image and likeness. Players don’t receive a paycheck and their schools don’t (or at least aren’t supposed to) find ways to get cash in their hands, but they can sign their own contracts and endorsement deals.

Fair enough. But here’s the result of NIL: If you thought the rich were rich before, you haven’t seen anything yet.

Schools use NIL to entice high school athletes to come play for them. Remember the good old days when recruiting centered around promising a student-athlete a quality education and a chance to play at a tradition-rich football program? Well, any coach making that pitch to a high school kid today may as well do it on a rotary telephone. Because it has taken exactly one college football season to make that recruiting pitch look as old as the Gettysburg Address.

Coaches now say this: “Come to our school, son, and you have a pretty darn good chance to sign a million-dollar endorsement deal by the end of your freshman year.” If you’re 18 years old, that’s really tough to say no to, regardless of which schools you’re considering.

If you’re Kent State, that’s a nightmare. Group of 5 programs simply can’t dangle that fat green carrot in front of impressionable high school kids. So an already-unfair system just got a whole lot more unfair.

But it looks good compared to the next evolution of NIL: free agency. Thanks to the transfer portal, players come and go through college football programs like concertgoers pass through arena turnstiles. En masse.

No longer having to sit out a year under the old transfer rules, players jump from team to team so fast that even the most diehard fans can’t keep up with the mass migration across college football rosters. Players can leave one team and play for another without passing Go. No sitting out seasons anymore, just step onto the field for somebody else the next season.

The effect of that is disastrous for mid-majors. Let’s say a blueblood team has an elite cornerback that will be leaving for the NFL. Behind him is an untested freshman. But up at Kent State, there’s a sophomore cornerback who is blossoming into a star. The kid will shine in the NFL when that day comes.

The blueblood knows all about Kent State’s stud sophomore corner, contacts him and says: “You come play for us, you’ll make a million in NIL money right off the rip and be a first-rounder in the draft. You’ll look good driving your new Mercedes around campus.”

What do you think is going to happen? And it does.

Mid-major teams get poached because of the transfer portal and NIL, and it’s only going to get worse. Much, much worse.

And now you have the Big Ten and SEC expanding into superconferences. Each has 16 teams, and it wouldn’t be surprising in the least if they were at 18 or more when the dust settled. This will give these two conferences unprecedented power over college football — enough power, in fact, to no longer have any need to play under the NCAA umbrella. The college game might well break up completely, with the Big Ten and SEC cobbling what’s left of the other Power 5 conferences into a separate entity altogether, leaving Kent State and its Group of 5 pals to wither on the vine.

The MAC’s ranks could swell, or the conference could implode and cease to exist. Things are happening so fast in college football at this point, nothing is off the table. If you can imagine it, it could happen.

Conferences are getting poached to benefit bigger conferences. Players are poached from their teams to benefit bigger teams. The NCAA itself could get kicked to the curb to benefit a new college football super alliance.

The rich are getting richer at an alarming and disturbing rate. The poor could be destitute by the time it’s all over.

And schools like Kent State can’t do a thing about it but watch the maelstrom swirling around them — and hope.

Hope they can keep their best players.

Hope they can keep their conference alive.

Hope they can keep their program alive.

Because right now, hope is just about the only thing left. Money and greed have taken everything else.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.