Landscape of college sports is riveting

In the week when new NCAA president Mark Emmert at last "officially" started his job -- he's been busy preparing for months, aiming toward a leaner (and perhaps meaner) organization -- it's a good time to launch a new initiative here at ESPN.com.

We'll be doing a twice-weekly look at the college sports world in a smorgasbord-style that focuses more on everything that goes on besides football and basketball. Which is not to say the two big-ticket collegiate sports won't be mentioned in this space. The reality is that they're all intertwined, and there are issues that affect all college athletes regardless of their sport.

But with the obvious acknowledgement that most eyes are on the gridiron right now, that's very, very far from all that's happening on campus. And whether you're heavily plugged into the likes of volleyball, soccer and cross country … or just want to get a feel for what else is going on in the wide world of college sports -- well, that's what this page at ESPN.com is for.

I've been writing about women's basketball, both collegiate and professional, for ESPN.com since 1996. At the time, I was also college sports editor for the Kansas City Star newspaper. It was the inaugural year for the Big 12 conference, a league we watched grow as the merged product of the Big Eight/Southwest Conference.

And while it might seem an entire league is too big to be called a "microcosm," in fact the Big 12 has been just that for the college athletics world -- the good and the bad.

Over the past 14 years, we watched administrative power shifts, a facilities "arms race" that left some programs at some schools well behind, a definite elevation of basketball among women's sports, petty scandals and tragic ones, painful cuts, and many amazing academic achievements by student-athletes.

We saw the successful branding of the conference … but true "unity" was less successful. There remained an undertow of conflict predicated on territorial "wounds" that never fully healed. The Big Eight's seat of power had been Kansas City, but the formation of the Big 12 meant that moved due south on Interstate 35 to Dallas.

And so in the past year, when a potentially cataclysmic shakeup of conference alignments rumbled nationwide, the fractures that had always existed in the Big 12 grew into chasms … until finally there were breaks.

Now, like divorced people still living under the same roof while awaiting other accommodations, Nebraska and Colorado finish their Big 12 stay before joining their new families in the Pac-10 and Big Ten, and we move to a time when none of the "number" conferences will add up correctly.

But it could have been an even bigger alignment blowup -- which in the years to come might still happen -- and the projections/rumors gave us a glimpse at what a super-duper-duper conference college world might have looked like. (As in, how about that league volleyball matchup between, say, Texas A&M and … Washington State?)

We didn't get that, but we saw the possibilities. For that matter, it's not like even in the conference world we have now, there aren't downright geographically absurd league alignments. All of which, realistically, has been and will continue to be driven by football.

And yet if football is the undisputed king and men's basketball the prince of college sports, only the most cynical would view all other sports as mere pawns. Yes, it may feel that way at times. But it's important to remember that the thousands of athletes in the "other" sports are very much a vital part of the lifeblood of the entire college system.

Reflecting that is the Capital One Cup, a new program launched in September that rewards broad-based excellence in college sports. It's different from the Directors' Cup, which on the Division I level had become the personal property of Stanford, the winner every year except the inaugural season of 1993-94.

The Cardinal will no doubt be a front-runner for the Capital One Cup as well, but there are some key differences. The scoring is in three tiers, with certain sports carrying a heavier weight. It is also split into a men's and a women's award, both of which carry a $200,000 cash prize, with the winning schools announced annually at the ESPY awards.

Over the course of this school year, we'll keep track of the many, many stories that make up the college athletics landscape that the Capital One Cup wants to honor. It's a really large, diverse and fascinating world -- one that deserves full-scale, big-picture views and up-close examination. Both can be riveting.

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.