If name, image and likeness benefits 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 according to Nick Saban's offseason estimation. Texas would truly be back.
But reality being reality, performance on the field still counts for something. In these strange days where the sport walks the line -- and sometimes step over it -- toward pay-for-play, maybe we've forgotten a key ingredient.
Money might be able to buy players, but it won't necessarily buy wins.
Armed with an $80 million coach (Mario Cristobal) and a billionaire NIL supporter (John Ruiz), Miami still turned it over eight times in a depressing home loss to Duke. With its own multimillion-dollar coach (Jimbo Fisher), Texas A&M fell below .500 for the first time in five years. And with the best of seemingly everything, Texas still struggles in areas it should not 13 years after its last championship appearance. The Longhorns committed 14 penalties Saturday at Oklahoma State.
"I'll go back to when I walk out of the building," Cowboys defensive 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 blue-collar stuff. And ours are immersed in the idea of toughness -- all day long."
Sixteen months into the NIL era, football has endured as the main attraction. To date, no one has called out Alabama quarterback Bryce Young for any of his incompletions despite his $2 million NIL valuation. A Heisman Trophy and national championship sort balances things out.
On Saturdays, fans aren't gathering to argue the amount of scholarship checks. Only a small percentage of players will get any significant NIL. All of them will play for Good Ol' State U. Upset alert: There is still some innocence left.
Those who trumpet the new age of NIL and financial freedom may have forgotten a key piece of the math: These are 18- to 22-year-olds whose bodies, brains and talent are still being formed. That brings a significant measure of unpredictability. They decide what happens on the field.
It's another reason to scoff in the general direction of NIL as either a savior or a Satan. NIL simply is part of the game. Players have been making money in an NCAA-legal way for years. It's up to those who manage the game to figure it out. Again, it's the football that still matters most.
Despite its all-in philosophy after years of irrelevance, Miami is 3-4 for the third time in four years with a loss already on the docket to Middle Tennessee. Its eight turnovers Saturday were the most by any Power Five team in 13 years. Texas A&M is also 3-4 with a Week 2 loss to Appalachian State despite its coach's once-record 10-year contract and the No. 1 recruiting class of all-time joining this offseason. The last time the Aggies sunk below .500 was 2017. (Texas A&M's woes continued Tuesday when three freshmen from that monster No. 1 recruiting class were suspended.)
Texas has one of the richest athletic departments in the country. An NIL collective formed last year paid each of its scholarship offensive linemen $50,000 … seemingly just to be Texas offensive linemen. That meant little when the Longhorns committed eight pre-snap penalties and four pass interference infractions to give the game away to Oklahoma State.
"We've gotten a great return on investment from our vantage point," said Ruiz, that Miami billionaire booster who became the face for NIL extravagance. "We've been to capitalize on it from a business perspective."
What about from a football perspective? It was more telling that backup quarterback Jake Garcia accounted for five of the eight turnovers (three interceptions, two fumbles) than he has a two-year NIL contract with Ruiz worth $145,000. The Canes still got stomped.
"I knew we had to rebuild a lot because, frankly, I had visually seen a lot of the players and they were undersized linemen," Ruiz added. "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's not going to stop expansion of Ruiz's NIL opportunities that includehis LifeWallet and Cigarette Racing Team businesses.
"We still have a competitive advantage over everybody else," he said.
Just don't ask about football -- yet.
We're in an awkward gray area that has never been experienced in the college space. Players have been compensated for years. One Power Five athletic director told CBS Sports that some of his school's football players make the equivalent of a $54,000-a-year job. Minus taxes, that comes to $42,000 free and clear for those athletes if you count scholarship checks, an off-campus housing allowance, cost of attendance, federal Pell Grants and Alston benefits.
Not quite professionals, but certainly not amateurs. With NIL added in, coaches are also tasked with balancing an uneven locker room (in terms of income) with the old college try.
"You can find good football players that really just love playing football," TCU coach Sonny Dykes told CBS Sports. "That's the most important thing. Sometimes, when it's just about money or it's just about things, sometimes that becomes more important than the other stuff."
The other stuff in Fort Worth, Texas, means an undefeated top-10 ranking, spot atop the Big 12 standings and open road toward a College Football Playoff berth. Google "NIL" and "TCU" and you get the usual number of hits, but it's a not a place that is building its identity with enticements.
Dykes is the son of legendary Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes, who came up coaching baseball. He was the first coach since 1984 to win 10 games at SMU. Then he went across town for a better chance to win at everything. Dykes brought in 14 transfers to TCU and got 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). For the moment, Dykes now finds himself the best coach in Texas with the best program in Texas.
"In a weird sort of way, the way college football is now, you're going to see places rewarded that put an emphasis on culture and recruiting people that love football," said Dykes referencing Mason's parking lot observation. "Everybody likes a nice car, but that means a lot more to some people than it does other people."
The kids have largely figured it out for themselves. UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson rented out a boat complete with food and took his teammates on a preseason cruise in the Pacific Ocean. Former Pittsburgh QB Kenny Pickett had an NIL deal with a local restaurant that allowed him to feed his offensive line last season. Scores of players have donated their earnings to other causes, entering the philanthropy space.
Tennessee athletics is benefitting from NIL giant Sprye Sports Group, but QB Hendon Hooker arrived in Knoxville five months before NIL started. He took the long road to stardom after being recruited over by coach Josh Heupel, who brought in Michigan transfer Joe Milton. Hooker is now leading the Heisman Trophy race (according to some) because of the work he put in. The quarterback has his NIL opportunities that include writing a Christian book for children with his brother. But there were at Neyland Stadium than free cars.
Elsewhere, humble Wake Forest is ranked among the top 10 in consecutive seasons for the first time ever. Tulane is ranked for the first time since 1998 as the top Group of Five program more than midway through the season.
"It's hard to find something that hasn't been discovered in so long," said Illinois coach Bret Bielema.
The Illini have found it. Under Bielema, they are 6-1 and ranked 17th with an inside track to the Big Ten West title. It was a school and a coach that needed one another. 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 going 29-34 with the Razorbacks.
"The thing I learned at that moment was sometimes things are out of your control, if the powers that be want to make a decision," Bielema said.
After three years in the NFL with the New England Patriots, he got another chance at another Big Ten school.
"I told [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 having played and coached at Iowa and Wisconsin, if Bielema goes to another Big Ten school, he'll qualify to be conference commissioner. An Iowa tattoo that he got as a defensive lineman with the Hawkeyes was mistaken recently by one of his players as an Illini logo.
"We took a little ambidextrous approach to that tattoo. Now, it's a little 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 more impressive in these days of NIL earnings is one of the best accomplishments of last year's 5-7 beginning at Illinois. Three players signed from that team made it to NFL camps as free agents. All three made the 53-man roster. NIL dollars: minimal.
"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 taught trained and developed. … There's a lot of guys with that little of an extra time who have been able to take their game to a different level if they're in the right environment."