The only thing certain about the pandemic is uncertainty

On Jan. 6, WVU began selling tickets to a football matchup between the Mountaineers and the Florida State seminoles at Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium, shown here. However, with the possibility that the ACC is going to follow the Big Ten and cancel all its non-conference games, the trip to the ATL may end up as collateral damage.

MORGANTOWN — We need a break.

All of us.

Too much COVID-19, too much worrying about if there will be school, if there will be sports, if there will be a full schedule played, if fans will be allowed to attend.

Too many questions, too few answers.

And so it was when I got Shane Lyons, West Virginia University's athletic director, on the phone Thursday as the Big Ten was announcing that it was canceling all non-conference games, which wipes out Maryland's visit to West Virginia, and as rumors swirled that the ACC was planning to follow suit, which would cost the Mountaineers another showcase non-conference game in Atlanta against Florida State, that I opted to discuss something that has been on my mind for some time and in the back of many people's minds for a long time.

That would the lack of competitive balance in college athletics, especially football.

Tired of seeing Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma at the top with an occasional SEC powerhouse like LSU sneaking in the back door?

I am.

And that's what I told Lyons and asked him if it ever came up, the idea that this might be hurting college football, not helping it, and if he had any thoughts about what could be done.

I certainly did.

Lyons approached this hand grenade cautiously, for college football has been the goose that laid the golden egg for the Power 5 conferences and especially for those schools at the very top.

"You always try to have balance in there, and that comes from scholarship limits and you also have the 25 hard cap yearly," Lyons said, referring to recruiting limits.

The fact that you limit scholarships doesn't in any way guarantee balance. A scholarship to a 5-star athlete — who normally will pick the top schools — is not equal to a 3-star recruit. But we'll get to that later.

"I use Clemson as an example," Lyons said. "I was at the ACC in the early to mid-2000s and Clemson was struggling. They had some success in the '80s, won a national championship, but they struggled after that. They hired Dabo and struggled the first couple of years and then he got things rolling.

"Once you build that brand to be the highest standards, then have a better chance of getting that 4- and 5-star recruit. It's important to build the brand and to sustain it. The difficult thing is to sustain it."

That's something WVU knows all about. Don Nehlen had unbeaten regular seasons twice, but they were five years apart. Putting together a great team at a non-elite football school can be done, but sustaining it is difficult.

That's why coaching is so important.

"Alabama has done a great job of doing it with Nick Saban and I'll give a lot of credit to Clemson right now," Lyons said. "You do hear a lot of the same schools, but I think every conference has two or three top notch powers."

Except the SEC, which is the crème de la crème.

"The ACC has been all over the place. When the ACC expanded they thought Miami and Virginia Tech would year in and year out be a contender to go with Florida State and Clemson was on the rise," Lyons said.

Didn't happen.

"In the Big 12 you had Oklahoma and Texas the two that come to mind. We've had our chances here and there, but to sustain it is the most difficult aspect of it," Lyons said.

"People ask how Alabama sustains it. Well, you can't get complacent and forget how you got there. I give a lot of credit to Alabama who year in and year out continued to focus on the next year and not look back and say, 'It's OK, we're national champions.' You hear coach Saban talk like this … 'Well, that was last year's team. We got this year's team and how do we become national champions this year.'

Lyons has pushed hard to move his school up the Big 12 hierarchy. He has worked extremely hard on facilities, knowing how important that is in this world.

"Facilities do play a part in that and in the vision I have for our program. That's why I'm investing in facilities, showing parents and recruits that we care about the growth and development of that student athlete and their hopes and dreams. We want them to graduate and if they have aspirations to go to the NFL, we want them to know we are preparing them for that," he said.

"I think I got the right coach in Coach Neal Brown and we are going to build on that. We have the right facilities to have that and we can become one of the top programs that can compete. But once it's built, I can't stop, I have to keep looking at the future. That's my job. I just can't look at today. I have to look three and five years down the road to see where this program is heading and not stop and say 'We're good enough.' "

The problem is that the Big 12 hasn't lent itself to competitive balance.

Think about it for moment — in football you have Oklahoma, basketball Kansas and women's basketball Baylor.

That's a tough challenge to move up when that's at the top.

"Everyone tries, and that's part of the beauty of sports. It's the competition," Lyons said. "We talk about the kid's game 'King of the Mountain' and right now we're trying to knock them off the top of the mountain. It's cyclical and I look back to the early 2000s and Oklahoma had their struggles. They weren't the Oklahoma they are today.

"They have had dominance for several years, but we're looking to build our program to where we were at one time when we were able to knock them off. We were very close a couple of years ago in that 58-56 game. We were a pass away, a first down away, a tackle away from knocking them off. That helps build your program and it becomes part of your recruiting.

"They built something and we're trying to catch up."

Despite that one game, they are having a hard time, never owning a Big 12 victory over the Sooners, who keep running Heisman Trophy quarterbacks in there and added the top quarterback recruit for the 2021 recruiting class.

So the playoffs come along in football and you know the participants.

"That's part of the discussion ... do we keep the playoffs at four teams or expand it and go to eight?" Lyons said. "You have more of a chance for someone to knock them off, if you do. Have every conference represented and the Group of Five. I support that. I think that would help."

So what do you do? How about a Super Conference, maybe one with the Top 16 traditional programs …. or the top 12 with a panel picking the four others each year who look like they have a chance to stir the pot.

Don't just jump on that one, for it would play havoc with the traditional conferences, scheduling and TV.

"You have to think about how complex that gets because of TV contracts, what it would look like that way, will the newer model represent more of a professional model, which that would do," Lyons said. "I think the beauty that people look at in college athletics is that every conference always has two or three really competitive teams. It may not change as quickly as we might like to get others up there to being top notch, but I think from a super conference standpoint, you would dismantle and water down the other conferences and no one would care about them.

"It might hurt college football as a whole. You know from TV ratings that people like to watch the Notre Dames, Alabamas, Clemsons. People love winners."

These are some other thoughts that could be investigated but which never really will come to be in an effort to create competitive balance.

Perhaps a draft of recruits?

No, there's more that goes into picking a school than playing football and basketball and it should be the student-athlete's choice, not the school's.

How about a limit on four or five star recruits?

Again, you can't do that. A four or five star recruit has worked too hard to follow his dream to know what Alabama wants and he wants to play for Saban but they already have their limit so he must attend school elsewhere … and maybe take the job of a player at another school, who would be robbed the right to pursue his dream.

And finally, how about "term limits" for coaches? Ten years and you have to move on.

It might keep dynasties from forming but players normally go to colleges to play for certain players and sometimes it takes three or four years to build a powerful program so it would be terribly unfair to make a coach walk out of it rather than reap the benefits.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

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