Parity in college football only a myth



Another Day, Another Dollar
Mar 1, 2002
In 1972, Phillip Fulmer began his coaching career as a graduate student assistant at the University of Tennessee.

Much has changed in college football since then. Or has it?

For all the talk about parity and scholarship limitations transforming college football into a level playing field, the similarities between 1972 and this season are remarkable.

Southern Cal and Oklahoma finished 1-2 in the polls that season. Today, those teams are 1-2, although their order is reversed.

In 1972, Tennessee went 10-2 and finished No. 8 in the AP poll. Today, UT is 10-2 and No. 8 in the coaches' poll.

Oklahoma, Southern Cal, Texas, Michigan, Ohio State, LSU and UT were all in the top 11 in both polls in 1972. Those same seven teams are in the top 10 today.

Parity, smarity.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

We have short memories if we think college football is more unpredictable than ever. Scan the sports pages from Fulmer's first year in coaching in 1972 and you'll find upset after upset: Oklahoma State (finished 6-5) stuns then-No. 3 Colorado; etc.

College football is not much, if any, closer to being a level playing field today than it was 31 years ago.

There were no undefeated teams in the SEC in 1972 even though the season was shorter. Auburn finished 10-1. Alabama, UT and LSU each finished with two defeats. Today, LSU is 11-1 and Georgia and UT are two-loss teams.

In 1972, Kentucky (2-5, 3-8), Mississippi State (1-6, 4-7) and Vanderbilt (0-6, 3-8) were the worst three SEC teams. Those same also-rans are at the bottom of the conference today and their combined record of 8-28 is even worse than their 10-23 mark of 31 years ago.

The Vols just defeated Kentucky for the 19th consecutive time. The previous weekend, UT recorded its 21st consecutive win over Vanderbilt.

The rich keep getting richer, partly because expectations are higher at the Tennessees and Ohio States. The demise of traditionally strong Alabama and Penn State into doormats are the most notable exceptions, but those situations are unusual.

This season has been a lot more predictable that most of us would like to admit.

During the preseason, Oklahoma was a consensus pick to win it all and the Sooners have proven to be a cut above the rest.

In the SEC, the exact order of finish in the Eastern Division was correctly projected in a composite preseason ranking by The Sporting News, Street and Smith's, Birmingham News, Lindy's and College Football News. Georgia is the highest ranked team followed by Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Because football isn't played by robots there will always be disappointing teams and surprise teams. Auburn's struggles and Ole Miss' success fall into that category.

However, a comparison of the top 10 rankings and SEC standings from 1972 and 2003 refutes the popular theory that scholarship reductions have brought parity to college football.

With a few exceptions, the teams that were winning big when Fulmer started his coaching career are the same ones that are winning big today.

Of 95 games this season involving the top eight teams in this week's coaches' poll, the favorite has won 85. Those 10 upsets were shown over and over on ESPN so many times that subconsciously maybe we think there have been 30 upsets, adding to the myth of parity.

Look at the biggest point-spread upsets involving top 10 teams this season: Tennessee over Miami, a 121/2-point favorite; California over Southern Cal, a 131/2-point favorite; and Arkansas over Texas, a 10-point favorite.

Not exactly overwhelming evidence that a downtrodden program can rise up and shock the big boys, is it?

All of those upset winners are good teams who have become bowl eligible.

When Kentucky or Vanderbilt start beating Tennessee, then maybe we can start talking about parity.

Right now, the college football landscape looks an awful lot like it did in 1972, Fulmer's first year in coaching.

Regardless of whether a school can offer 120 scholarships or 85, the elite programs find a way to win and the worst ones find a way to lose.

That's how it was in 1972. That's how it is today. That's how it will be in 2033.

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