College Football began when two teams, Rutgers and Princeton, took the field against each other in 1869. Rutgers would win 6-4 and a soccer ball was used instead of the oblong pigskin we know today. Now 154 years later anyone who witnessed that game would never imagine the changes and popularity of the game today. Rules would change quickly and evolve in the decades that would follow. Georgia Tech’s own John Heisman would be a strong voice in developing the forward pass that became legal in 1906 and helped player safety. The decision was controversial as people claimed it would water down the game and remove the toughness needed to get dirty in the trenches. Perhaps arguments never change.
Georgia Tech began its football tradition in 1892 and has had plenty of history with college football throughout its time. The oldest on-campus stadium, Head Coach John Heisman whose name now graces the prized trophy of the top individual player, a founding member of the SEC, and 4 national titles. However, a strong or rich history doesn’t always help in the present.
The two teams who started it all are after-thoughts in the grand scheme of college football. Georgia Tech over the last half-century has been in a steady decline with moments of greatness popping up every so often. The driving force behind the changes of the modern era has always been money. Realignment for TV contracts, recruiting, and NILs are all creating a gap between the haves and have-nots. The NCAA has been mostly stripped of its power to reign in control and for once the argument for ruining the game may be true.
Expansion and Realignment
Just a few months ago sports media was abuzz of the newly named “Magnificent Seven” from the ACC. Seven teams who had the best prospects to attract an invite from the Big Ten or the SEC had their lawyers probing together to find any hole in the ACC’s Grant of Rights contract. The talk died fairly quickly as the contract appears ironbound and would make any move unprofitable for the team and new conference. Still, it forced the ACC to revise post-season payouts based and merit and showcased who was unhappy with the current TV money in the decades-long contract.
Georgia Tech was not among those collaborators seeking their escape. Almost a decade ago there were rumors the Big Ten may have been interested in Georgia Tech, but nothing concrete ever came to light. The things that would have been attractive then may not matter now. The performance on the field wasn’t always great but still solid. There were inroads to Atlanta’s rich recruiting grounds and its growing media market. The advent of streaming and social media has changed much of the landscape for the last two points and certainly, the performance has been poor.
The best bet for Georgia Tech to stay in the upper echelon of football is for the ACC to remain whole. Perhaps if things get turned around on the field and interest is drawn in then they can reposition themselves should the conference fragment. The new fundraising initiatives such as AI2020 could help bring recruiting and fan engagement back up, but new AD J Batt will need to keep the donors engaged.
Now if the ACC does fall apart and both the Big Ten and SEC look to create the dreaded super leagues, where would Tech stand in the shuffle? It’s unlikely they would see an invite from the SEC. It has been attempted before and Georgia has made sure their rivals can’t regain a foothold and benefit from the SEC brand and money. There is some natural fit for Georgia Tech to join the Big Ten with its status as an AAU member which is something the Big Ten requires, but I think that scenario would be dependent on how much they would want to expand. Each additional member would dilute the pool of money the larger brands would collect and there are diminishing returns with any new additions save maybe Notre Dame.
The most likely scenario I foresee is when the Big Ten’s and SEC’s contracts expire in 2030 and 2034 that they will look again to finalize their expansion and create a solid barrier between themselves and everyone else. The ACC will be nearing the end of its contract in 2036 making it ripe for poaching with the top remaining teams in the Power 5. Clemson and FSU would certainly run for the SEC and I believe Miami might get caught in a tug-of-war. The rest I think would be based on what they have done over the back half of the 2020s. If Georgia Tech doesn’t make that cut they would likely land among the next new tier of D1 football. An alliance of the AAC, Big 12, and Pac-12. The AAC would be the best geographical fit, and reduced money would make that important concerning travel expenses. There would probably be a few familiar faces coming along as well.
The nightmare scenario of all this though would be the lower tier getting reduced money in their deals because they would no longer be supported by the blue bloods. Georgia Tech is badly in debt and runs a deficit in most years after expenses are calculated in. They keep a minimum number of sports to stay an ACC member, but losing the conference could force cuts into some of the non-revs.
Name Image and Likeness
The NCAA was that evil conglomerate everyone loved to hate because it was just so easy. To say they made rulings and handed out punishments by the seat of their pants while profiting billions on the backs of college athletes is very fair. Yet they may have been a big part of why there was some parity at the college level. The game has never lacked big programs that could outspend the others, but the illusion that it didn’t exist and kept under the table was limiting a pure free for all. One lesson any American has ever learned though is anything bad can be made 10x worse when the government gets involved.
Just two years ago the Supreme Court ruled against the NCAA in an antitrust lawsuit. It allowed states to decide on the extent players could make from NILs. Not wanting their colleges to fall behind most of the states holding major programs opened the doors wide for any and all contracts. The ever-vocal Geoff Collins even took to Twitter to announce Georgia Tech players would receive the largest NIL to date in early 2021 with the whole team getting $500 and a TiVo box from TiVo. A good start, and more was to come in larger amounts to various players around the nation. Players were finally earning for the work they put in, but the boundaries were never defined.
Want the top players in the nation coming out of high school? Now you pay them coming in the front door having never played a snap in college. Some of the going rates for the most coveted begin in the 7 figures. It may not even be corporate sponsors doing the funding at this point as donors are creating collectives to fund the contracts to circumvent it being directed by the school.
The issue for this is Georgia Tech like many specialized schools doesn’t have a large alumni base to pull donations from. Sure there are some very rich alumni in the ranks but too few actually donate. The casual fans have largely flocked to other programs such as UGA or bordering SEC schools. Georgia Tech needs a new initiative to reach transplants within the city who don’t affiliate with the other programs in the region. If it can’t find a way to create additional revenue it will fall prey to the new ugly truth of the game that even coaches at top programs are worried about, tampering.
Schools are now reaching out to players on rosters at other schools to get their names in the transfer portal. It is no longer enough just to recruit a kid out of high school but to continually maintain them through their career. Georgia Tech and others like them will become the farm system soon for the larger teams. Perhaps Tech snags a player that was overlooked in recruiting and becomes a vital part of their success. A few phone calls to old high school coaches and talks are underway to bring that player to another team.
I do see a silver lining in this if Tech is willing to play the game and can fund the ability to do it. Tampering can run both ways. Only so many players can be a starter and many top recruits don’t like to wait their turn as they want to showcase their talent as soon as possible to NFL scouts. A new pool of players could come not from high school but from the backups of major programs. The transfer portal is now just as important as recruiting high school. You can add somewhat proven talent quickly to fill gaps in the roster rather than hoping a college freshman develops into his potential.
Where It Leads
Georgia Tech is not where it needs to be when the landscape shifts again. Performance on the field is the end all be all, but for that to happen the program will have to adapt to the new way players come and go. Fortunately, it isn't a tall hill to climb to get back to the top half of the ACC. Beating Clemson and FSU out on resources isn’t going to happen but there isn’t any reason Georgia Tech can’t position itself above a good portion of the others. Being in the top 4 might be just good enough when the dominos fall in the future.
Should that never come to pass the alternate reality isn’t a terrible future. It could mean we never see Georgia Tech play for the top spot at the highest level of the sport in our lifetime, but that seems to be shrinking with each passing year anyway. Life in what will be the middle tier of college football could see a return to more competitive and entertaining games. Some old rivalries could be restored along with new regional ones developing. It can be tiring watching three or four teams win games by the second quarter. Returning to well-coached and even teams might be the best thing for Georgia Tech and the sport.