Look, we love college football in September as much as anybody. Just having the sport back is sweet relief from an endless summer of baseball as the biggest show in town.
It's just that...nonconference football is usually really boring. Yes, Michigan's got Alabama and Notre Dame, while MSU has Boise State and Notre Dame. But they're the exceptions.
Wisconsin's strongest noncon opponent is either Oregon State or UTEP. Ohio State doesn't leave home for any games, and its only BCS conference opponent is Cal. Penn State? A Virginia game it'll probably lose, then mid-major city. Nebraska has Southern Miss, but also Idaho State, which I could have sworn is a fictional joke school.
Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez made some interesting comments during a recent television taping, however. And if what he's saying about the Big Ten is true, then starting in 2014, we have a sea change in front of us as far as scheduling is concerned. Here's more from the Wisconsin State Journal:
University of Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez raised some eyebrows Thursday when he said that Big Ten Conference schools have been urged to include two Bowl Championship Series teams in non-league schedules starting in 2014.
Alvarez was taping a segment of "Sidelines'' on WISC-TV when he noted that Big Ten ADs and football coaches had agreed to upgrade schedules to coincide with the debut of a four-team playoff in 2014. He said that league schools have been urged to play two BCS opponents because strength of schedule will be a prominent criteria for playoff qualifiers.
But Alvarez didn't mean the Big Ten would exclusively target members of the five other BCS conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big East, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern. He later clarified his definition of BCS opponents "as Division I schools ... that can compete with anyone.''
Alvarez's clarification is particularly important, not only because Wisconsin's coming into a deal with noted independent BYU but also because it signals that the actual strength of the opponent—not just what conference they're in—is the most critical factor.
In other words, getting four sellouts and four wins is no longer the primary goal of nonconference scheduling.
That's a remarkable shift in ideology for a conference that uses nonconference games against lousy competition as licenses to print millions of dollars in ticket fees and concession revenue. And yes, scheduling as many home games as possible is still going to be a priority for athletic directors. It's just that eight home games in a season doesn't even look like a possibility anymore.
Moreover, as strength of schedule becomes more critically important as a playoff determinant, what we'll also likely see from the stronger teams in the nation is some more flexibility when it comes to setting future schedules.
All of a sudden scheduling a series with, say, Texas Tech (or really any middling BCS program) 8-10 years down the road doesn't make much sense if you have no idea how good that team's going to be. Two or three years, sure; make that call for 2015. But if they want to talk 2020, just tell them you're not scheduling that late until you're sure Skynet won't be over before then and hang up the phone.
In other words, this is going to begin resemble college basketball scheduling, where the strategy of anticipating strength of schedule is an absolutely critical factor and a reason why most deals are set during the offseason and aren't multiyear commitments.
Now, for teams like Indiana and Minnesota—or even Iowa or Illinois, for that matter—the strength of schedule aspect isn't going to be as important.
A lot of non-powerhouse programs still just want to get to six wins or more by any means necessary. But the Big Ten's not going to like it if its teams are scheduling themselves like have-nots rather than with an active interest in strength of schedule—and fans aren't going to like it either.
This is going to be new and exciting and different.
Going 12-0 is going to mean a whole lot, and if the rest of the nation follows suit on these policies—and we think they will—it's easily possible that we go years without seeing an undefeated team now. As of 2014, it's time to start playing real nonconference schedules. Time to see how teams react to that news.
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