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A reminder that spring game attendance is useless, but some schools love it

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The spring football game or scrimmage season is underway with Duke getting in a spring scrimmage in Durham on Saturday. Illinois also hosted an open practice for fans. With the first taste of spring football on our hands, it is time to dive head first into the spring football attendance conversation for the 2017 season. But to sum things up before continuing, remember that spring football is not held in a uniform regard from conference to conference or program to program. The numbers clearly show that.

Over the past three years, I have taken the liberty of tracking spring football game attendance figures out of pure curiosity. What I have learned from the past three years is not exactly all that shocking. Big time programs tend to see a higher interest in spring football, which leads to a higher interest in spring football games and scrimmages, which in turn leads to higher attendance figures. Last year, Ohio State set a national spring game record by drawing over 100,000 fans to its spring football game. Georgia impressed everyone with its spring draw with over 90,000 fans showing up for a unique experience complete with a concert, topping perennial SEC spring game attendance champion contender Alabama in the process. Penn State, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Auburn continued to be among the nation’s leaders in spring game attendance with their usual big crowds. The same cannot be said for programs from the Group of Five, obviously, but even among the power conferences it is statistically clear the Big Ten and SEC are playing on a different playing field in the spring game attendance game compared to the Big 12 and Pac-12. The ACC tends to straddle the line.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when the spring game attendance numbers start to come together…

Not every school bothers to track attendance

In truth, most of the spring game numbers that are reported are actually estimates. That or it is an incredible coincidence that so many schools see an attendance figure that ends with a zero. In the three years I have tracked these numbers, Boston College, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Northwestern, and Texas are the power conference programs that have not reported or supplied a spring attendance figure for one reason or another. A large number of Group of Five programs do not track attendance figures either. Each school has their own philosophy in place over such a thing, so it is not at all shocking to see a good number of schools not pay extra care and scrutiny to such a figure.

Some games or scrimmages will not be played in a stadium

Sometimes a school will take its spring scrimmage outside of the typical home stadium, which means the attendance maximum will potentially be significantly lower than usual. Arizona State played its spring scrimmage on a soccer field last year. Notre Dame Stadium renovations forced the Fighting Irish to hold its spring scrimmage on a non-traditional field in 2015, resulting in a crowd of just 3,590 compared to crowds of over 27,000 in 2014 and 2016 in Notre Dame Stadium.

Stadium renovations are often the main reason a power conference program will move its spring game to a different venue, but that is not always the case. Not having access to a home football stadium also comes into play. Temple and Pittsburgh have each played their spring scrimmage on a practice field or a high school field in recent years, for example. Part of the reason may be having to fund a lowly-attended spring game in an NFL stadium. It’s just not worth it.

Texas A&M didn’t hold a spring game for two years (2014 and 2015) due to ongoing renovations at Kyle Field and an inability to figure out an alternative location that would comply with SEC spring game rules.

Weather can also be a factor

Some games get rained out. Some fans choose not to put up with the weather for a spring game.

Every school treats it spring game differently

Schools like Nebraska, Alabama, Auburn, Penn State and Ohio State have used their spring game to be the focus of an entire weekend or community event by making it a pretty big deal over years. Alabama lets fans run on the field for autographs. Penn State has a fair atmosphere outside the stadium. Some schools charge admission. Some schools simply open the doors and let the fans come and go as they please. There is no one way to handle a spring game. All of these different mechanics play into how the game is seen by fans.

In 2015, Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio made it a point to have more fans than ever attend the Michigan State spring game. It almost worked, but it would be another year (and a Big Ten title) before Michigan State hit the 50,000 mark. Michigan experimented with making the spring game a Friday night event. It worked, although it struggled to match the buzz over the first spring game with Jim Harbaugh the previous year. Georgia organized an elaborate concert event around the spring game and led the SEC in attendance.

Schools will continue trying new and innovative ways to make the spring game something fans want to flock to, while others will treat it as nothing more than an afterthought. For example, are you surprised Wisconsin has failed to draw 10,000 fans each of the past three years? Considering how successful Wisconsin has been, that may seem odd to you, but Wisconsin simply doesn’t treat its spring game as much of anything at all.

Who will be the spring game champions of 2017?

It goes without saying the Big Ten and SEC will be the dominating forces in the spring game attendance standings. With the biggest stadiums and some of the top annual spring draws between them, nobody will stand much of a chance to keep the pace. Eight of the top 10 spring game attendances were seen in the Big Ten or SEC in 2016. The two outliers were Florida State and Clemson of the ACC. Both the Seminoles and Tigers appear to go against the grain compared to the rest o the ACC, although Virginia Tech was right in the mix last year.

Speaking of Clemson, the defending national champions are one of a small handful of power conference teams to see an increase of spring game attendance each of the past two years (Georgia, Ohio State, Michigan State, and USC are the others) during this ongoing three-year research. Coming off a national championship, it would not be a stretch to think Clemson may see another year of increased attendance this spring, weather pending. The past two College Football Playoff national champions (Alabama and Ohio State) each saw a higher spring attendance compared to the previous season before winning the national title.

We’ll update the spring game attendance records throughout the spring, so stay tuned to see how it all plays out this year. Spring attendance numbers are good for PR purposes and gives some fans one more thing to brag about in the offseason.

Purdue vs. Indiana means Big Ten guaranteed to have eight bowl teams

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At the conclusion of Saturday’s schedule, the Big Ten had seven teams that had already clinched their bowl eligibility for the 2017 season. Though no new bowl tickets were punched on Saturday, Purdue’s upset win at Iowa and Indiana’s home rout of Rutgers assured the Big Ten of getting to eight bowl-eligible teams this season.

Purdue will host Indiana this week in one of the more important games in the rivalry in recent years as the winner will become bowl-eligible this season. That would be great news for the Big Ten, a sit would essentially guarantee the conference will manage to fill all of their partnered bowl spots for this season, although that could come up just short if one of the conference’s teams reaches the College Football Playoff. With Wisconsin still undefeated and Ohio State being discussed as a possible long shot to reach the playoff, this remains a realistic scenario. In addition to the Badgers and Buckeyes, the Big Ten also has bowl-eligible teams in Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan, Northwestern, and Iowa.

Here’s a look at the Big Ten’s bowl partners for the 2017 season, not including the Rose Bowl as it is being used as a College Football Playoff semifinal this year;

  • Orange Bowl: The highest-ranked team available from the Big Ten, SEC, or Notre Dame will play a team from the ACC. Wisconsin or Penn State would appear to be in line for a possible invite.
  • Outback Bowl: Vs. SEC
  • Holiday Bowl: Vs. Pac-12
  • TaxSlayer Bowl or Music City Bowl: The ACC and Big Ten split these bowl games, with each taking on a team from the SEC
  • Pinstripe Bowl: Vs. ACC
  • Foster Farms Bowl: Vs. Pac-12
  • Quick Lane Bowl: Vs. ACC
  • Heart of Dallas Bowl: Vs. Big 12

Because the Purdue vs. Indiana game must produce a six-win team, the Big Ten looks to be in great shape to fill out its bowl lineup. The only setback would be not being able to send any additional teams to other bowl games to fill in a spot where needed, unless five-win teams end up coming into play.

Minnesota is the only other five-win team on the Big Ten map right now with a chance to break through to a bowl game, but that may require beating Wisconsin for the first time since 2003 this week in order to hit the six-win requirement. Minnesota has reached a bowl game with five wins before, and it could still be in play under that scenario.

SEC West, Pac-12 North divisions on the line after Thanksgiving

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After a relatively lackluster weekend of college football, a mix of rivalry games and division races crossing the finish line will be among the many highlights this week. The most notable of those races will be the SEC West and the Pac-12 North, as they will play a role in the greater College Football Playoff picture to various degrees. Throw in the possible Big 12 championship game scenarios and we have some good stuff to look forward to this week.

The ACC and Big Ten championship games are already locked in. Clemson will face Miami and the ACC hopes each will avoid an upset this weekend in order to keep this a potential matchup of top four teams at worst. Wisconsin and Ohio State are set to square off in Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship, and that game also figures to play a key role in the College Football Playoff picture.

USC clinched the Pac-12 South and now gets a bye week to prepare for the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Trojans will face either Stanford or Washington State. That opponent will be determined by the Apple Cup between Washington State and Washington. If the Cougars win, they will play USC in the Pac-12 championship game. If Washington State loses to Washington, then it will be Bryce Love and Stanford going against Sam Darnold and the Trojans.

The Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn will determine the SEC West Division champion, with the winner advancing to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game to face East Division champion Georgia.

The Big 12 championship game is also still to be determined. Oklahoma will play either TCU or Iowa State, although it is most likely to be the Horned Frogs who will face the Sooners. Iowa State would need a win and TCU to lose to Baylor in addition to a combination of two losses from Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. If TCU beats Baylor, TCU will be in.

The Group of Five puzzle still has a few pieces to figure out as well. Fresno State and Boise State must still learn where their Mountain West Conference championship game will be played. Memphis will play the winner of this week’s UCF vs. USF game, with the location to be determined. Conference USA has FAU vs. North Texas ready to go, but the MAC will have both divisions settled this week. Akron will clinch the East with a win on Tuesday, otherwise, the door will be open for Ohio to grab the division on Friday with a win. Toledo will clinch the West with a win or an NIU loss, while NIU can clinch the division with a win and a Toledo loss.

While it does not play a conference championship game this season, the Sun Belt Conference crown is also up for grabs. Troy, Arkansas State, Georgia State, and Appalachian State are all 5-1 in conference play going into this week, leaving the door open for an interesting conference championship situation. Troy will play at Arkansas State, so the winner of that game will finish in no worse than a tie for first place. Georgia State has two games remaining, including this week’s game against Appalachian State. Again, the winner here will be in a tie for first place. Georgia State and Arkansas State do not play this season, so the two could finish with a true split conference championship. Troy and Appalachian State also do not play, presenting another potential scenario for a true split conference championship. But if Troy and Georgia State end the season with the same conference record, then Troy would own the head-to-head tiebreaker for bragging rights. Let’s just get through this week first and then re-evaluate the Sun Belt championship picture with one week of games still to play.

Got all that?

UCLA relieves Jim Mora of head coach duties effective immediately

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UCLA has announced it has relieved head coach Jim Mora of his coaching duties effective immediately. Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch will take over as the team’s interim coach for the remainder of the season.

“Making a coaching change is never easy, but it’s an especially difficult decision when you know that a coach has given his all to our University,” UCLA athletics director Dan Guerrero in a released statement. “Jim helped reestablish our football program, and was instrumental in so many ways in moving the program forward. While his first four seasons at UCLA were very successful, the past two seasons have not met expectations. We thank Jim and his family for his service to our school and his unquestionable commitment to our student-athletes.”

Mora was in his sixth season as the head coach of the Bruins and it was largely a run that had some promise at times but never fully took advantage of a division that included a USC program held back by NCAA sanctions. Mora coached UCLA to two 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014 and has seen his win totals hit 8, 4 and 5 wins in the three seasons since. What makes the Mora legacy so frustrating is he had talent to work with. Among solid recruiting classes during his time at UCLA, Mora coached two NFL quarterbacks in Brett Hundley and Josh Rosen as well as one of the top defensive players in recent years (Myles Jack) still failed to deliver a Pac-12 championship. Mora was 46-30 as UCLA’s head coach, but the trends were heading in the wrong direction at a time when crosstown rival USC continues to be rising, thus increasing the pressure for UCLA to keep up.

UCLA’s loss on Saturday night to the Trojans dropped UCLA to 5-6 on the season, leaving the Bruins in need of a win this week against Cal in order to become bowl eligible (without hoping for vacancies needing to be filled by 5-win teams). USC will play for the Pac-12 championship a year after going winning the Rose Bowl in the stadium UCLA calls home.

The UCLA job is one that should be expected to draw some interesting names to the rumor mill. Among them could end up being Chip Kelly, who doesn’t feel like a great fit in the SEC and has past success in the Pac-12 while at Oregon. UCLA’s release confirms the school will begin a national search for a new head coach.

AP Top 25 stands firm with few modifications; TCU back in top 10

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Like the coaches poll, the AP Top 25 saw few changes to its look this week after a fairly straight-forward weekend of college football for the nation’s top-ranked teams. No. 1 Alabama remains the clear favorite among the AP voters, with 58 first-place votes to stay ahead of the field.

The top nine teams remain unchanged from last week with Miami falling in at second behind Alabama, with Oklahoma, Clemson, Wisconsin, Auburn, Georgia, Ohio State, and Notre Dame next in line. No. 10 TCU is the newest member of the top 10 in the AP poll after moving up one spot this week, followed by USC and Penn State with similar moves up. All three were bumped up after former No. 10 Oklahoma State fell to No. 18 this week following a home loss to Kansas State. No. 13 UCF, No. 14 Washington State, No. 15 Washington, No. 16 Mississippi State, and No. 17 Memphis all moved up a spot at the expense of the drop by the Cowboys.

Three new teams appear in the top 25 this week at the bottom of the poll. No. 23 Northwestern, No. 24 Virginia Tech, and No. 25 Boise State fill out this week’s poll.

Here is this week’s AP Top 25:

  1. Alabama (58 first-place votes)
  2. Miami (3)
  3. Oklahoma
  4. Clemson
  5. Wisconsin
  6. Auburn
  7. Georgia
  8. Ohio State
  9. Notre Dame
  10. TCU
  11. USC
  12. Penn State
  13. UCF
  14. Washington State
  15. Washington
  16. Mississippi State
  17. Memphis
  18. Oklahoma State
  19. LSU
  20. Stanford
  21. Michigan State
  22. USF
  23. Northwestern
  24. Virginia Tech
  25. Boise State