If the benefits of name, image and likeness were directly tied to wins, Miami could just about punch its ticket to the College Football Playoff. Texas A&M would be close, at least by Nick Saban’s off-season estimate. Texas would really come back.
But because reality is reality, performance on the pitch still counts. In these strange days when the sport is walking the line – and sometimes crossing it – toward pay-for-play, we may have forgotten an important ingredient.
Money may buy players, but it won’t necessarily buy winnings.
Armed with an $80 million coach (Mario Cristobal) and a billionaire NIL supporter (John Ruiz), Miami still surrendered eight times in a depressing home loss to Duke. With its own multimillion-dollar bus (Jimbo Fisher), Texas A&M dropped below .500 for the first time in five years. And best of all, Texas is still struggling in areas it shouldn’t be 13 years after its last championship appearance. The Longhorns scored 14 penalties in the state of Oklahoma on Saturday.
“I go back to when I walk out of the building,” Cowboys defense coordinator Derek Mason told The Oklahoman after the game. “I don’t see Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I see Ford F-150s. I see Chevys. I see working-class stuff. And ours are immersed in the idea of ruggedness all day long.”
Sixteen months after the NIL era, football is still the main attraction. To date, no one has named Alabama quarterback Bryce Young for any of his omissions, despite his $2 million NIL valuation. A Heisman Trophy and a national championship of sorts balance things out.
On Saturday, fans do not get together to discuss the amount of the stock checks. Only a small percentage of players get a significant NIL. They’ll all play for Good Ol’ State U. Angry alarm: there’s some innocence left.
Those heralding the new era of NIL and financial freedom may have forgotten an important piece of math: These are 18- to 22-year-olds whose bodies, brains, and talent are still being formed. This entails a considerable degree of unpredictability. They determine what happens on the field.
It’s another reason to scoff at NIL as a savior or a Satan. NIL is just part of the game. Players have been making money in an NCAA legal way for years. It’s up to those who run the game to figure it out. Again, it is football that still matters the most.
Despite its all-in philosophy after years of irrelevance, Miami is already on the roll at 3-4 for the third time in four years with a loss already to Middle Tennessee. Saturday’s eight turnovers were the most for any Power Five team in 13 years. Texas A&M is also 3-4 with a week 2 loss to Appalachian State, despite the coach’s one-time-record 10-year contract and No. 1 all-time recruiting class joining this offseason. The last time the Aggies dropped below .500 was 2017. (Texas A&M’s woes continued Tuesday when three freshmen from that monstrous No. 1 recruiting class were suspended.)
Texas has one of the wealthiest athletic departments in the country. An NIL collective formed last year paid each of its offensive linemen $50,000…seemingly just offensive linemen from Texas. That meant little as the Longhorns committed eight pre-snap penalties and four pass interference fouls to give the game away to Oklahoma State.
“From our point of view, we got a great return on investment,” said Ruiz, that Miami billionaire booster who became the face of NIL extravagance. “We have benefited from it from a business perspective.”
And from a football perspective? It was more telling that backup quarterback Jake Garcia had five out of eight turnovers (three interceptions, two fumbles) than he has a two-year NIL contract with Ruiz worth $145,000. The Canes were still being pounded.
“I knew we had to rebuild a lot because honestly I had seen a lot of the players visually and they were undersized linemen,” added Ruiz. “Just a total revamp. I think Mario did a really good job bringing in the transfer kids, [but] it’s a lot to ask.”
That won’t stop Ruiz’s expansion of NIL capabilities, including:are companies LifeWallet and Cigarette Racing Team.
“We still have a competitive advantage over everyone else,” he said.
Just don’t ask about football – not yet.
We are in a tricky gray area that has never been experienced in the college space. Players have been compensated for years. The One Power Five athletic director told CBS Sports that some football players from his school earn the equivalent of a $54,000-a-year job. After taxes, that works out to $42,000 free and clear to those athletes if you factor in college scholarships, an off-campus housing allowance, cost of attendance, federal Pell Grants, and Alston benefits.
Not really professionals, but certainly not amateurs. With NIL added, coaches are also tasked with balancing an unequal locker room (in terms of income) with the old college attempt.
“You can find good football players who really love football,” TCU coach Sonny Dykes told CBS Sports. “That’s the most important thing. Sometimes when it’s just about money or just about things, sometimes that becomes more important than the other things.”
The other stuff in Fort Worth, Texas, means an undefeated top-10 rankings, spot on the Big 12 leaderboards, and open road to a College Football Playoff berth. Google “NIL” and “TCU” and you’ll get the usual number of hits, but it’s not a place that builds its identity with enticements.
Dykes is the son of legendary Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, who coached baseball. He was the first coach since 1984 to win 10 games at SMU. Then he went around town for a better chance of winning everything. Dykes made 14 transfers to TCU and was lucky at quarterback.
When starter Chandler Morris went down early this season, backup Max Duggan came in to lead the Big 12 in touchdown passes (19). Right now, Dykes is now the best coach in Texas with the best program in Texas.
“In a weird way, like college football is now, you’re going to see places that are rewarded that emphasize culture and recruit people who love football,” Dykes said, referring to Mason’s parking lot observation. “Everyone likes a nice car, but that means a lot more to some people than to other people.”
The children have largely come up with it themselves. UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson rented out a boat complete with food and took his teammates on a preseason cruise in the Pacific. Former Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett had an NIL deal with a local restaurant that allowed him to feed his offensive line last season. Numerous players have donated their earnings to other causes and entered the philanthropic space.
Tennessee athletics benefits from NIL giant Sprye Sports Group, but QB Hendon Hooker arrived in Knoxville five months before NIL kicked off. He took the long road to stardom after being recruited by coach Josh Heupel, who persuaded Joe Milton from Michigan. Hooker is now leading the Heisman Trophy race (according to some) because of the work he has done. The quarterback has his NIL opportunities, which include writing a Christian children’s book with his brother. But there wereat Neyland Stadium then free cars.
Elsewhere, humble Wake Forest is in the top 10 for the first time in consecutive seasons. Tulane is ranked the best Group of Five program more than halfway through the season for the first time since 1998.
“It’s hard to find something that hasn’t been discovered in so long,” said Illinois coach Bret Bielema.
The Illini found it. Under Bielema, they are 6-1 and in 17th place with an inside track to the Big Ten West title. It was a school and a coach who needed each other. Illinois had been wandering in the wilderness for a while.
After taking Wisconsin to three consecutive Rose Bowls from 2006-12 and winning the Big Ten in the process, Bielema wanted to test himself. He left the success and relative comfort of Madison, Wisconsin for Arkansas. Five years later, he was fired for the first time in his life after turning 29-34 with the Razorbacks.
“What I learned in that moment was that sometimes you can’t control things, when those in power want to make a decision,” Bielema said.
After three years in the NFL with the New England Patriots, he got another shot at another Big Ten school.
“I said [AD Josh Whitman] during the interview, “I know you’re just getting to know me, but you’re getting the best version of me there’s ever been,” Bieliema said.
Born in Illinois and played and coached in Iowa and Wisconsin, if he attends another Big Ten school, Bielema will qualify as a conference commissioner. An Iowa tattoo he got as a defensive lineman with the Hawkeyes was recently mistaken for an Illini logo by one of his players.
“We’ve approached that tattoo a little bit more ambidextrous. Now it’s a little bit more Illinois-related,” Bielema said. “I did it when I was 19. I didn’t know I was going to be head coach at Illinois.”
What’s even more impressive in these days of NIL earnings is one of the best performances of last year’s 5-7, starting in Illinois. Three players signed from that team made it to the NFL camps as free agents. All three made the 53-man roster. NIL dollars: minimum.
“All my years as a coach, I don’t know if I’ve had that,” Bielema said. “To have three in one year. I think it was because of what we learned, trained and developed. … There are a lot of guys with that little bit of extra time who have been able to take their game to another level when they get into the right environment.”