College Football's Early-Season Issue: Buying Wins and the Familiar Cycle
On Saturday, Savannah State will play Florida State with four freshmen offensive linemen and a 70-point head start.
They won’t actually be awarded a 70-point lead, although that handicap likely wouldn’t suffice. Instead they’ve been pegged as a 70.5-point underdog by the fine folks in Las Vegas who are tasked with generating such balancing acts.
In doing so, Savannah State has become the largest underdog in the history of college football, breaking a record that they set only a week ago. Oklahoma State opened as a 67.5-point favorite over Savannah State and responded by beating the Tigers (and yes, they are the Tigers) by a score of 84-0.
For their efforts—or perhaps “presence” is a better word—they will have been paid $860,000 for two weeks of work. Oklahoma State forked over $385,000, while Florida State will fork over $475,000 to Savannah for the win.
Before we get to what’s wrong with this picture, we must give Florida State a pass on this specific scheduling scenario. West Virginia’s move to the Big 12 prompted them to drop their 2012 game with the Seminoles. This left an early hole in FSU’s ’12 slate (and deprived us of one hell of game).
Savannah State, who has battled financial woes themselves, was glad to make room for the Seminoles on their schedule and take their lumps to the bank.
This specific scenario is a unique one, but the presence of a 10-touchdown point spread and back-to-back unimpressive college football slates highlights a very distinct and familiar problem in college football: The out-of-conference scheduling is atrocious, and there’s no real help in sight.
It’s hard to find intriguing matchups early on, which is nothing new. You’ve barely made it across the offseason finish line, beaten down and battered, and you are greeted by a sweltering of games that will be over in 18 minutes. Again, you know the routine by now, but that doesn’t make it right. We re-familiarize ourselves with this ritual each and every year without putting up much fuss because we’re desperate. Oh, are we desperate.
The Michigan Wolverines broke protocol. They scheduled Alabama and got absolutely manhandled on the national showcase we waited months to see. It would’ve been much more convenient to open up a checkbook, schedule a much smaller, slower and less athletic university and be done with it, but they sided against it.
The outcome of this decision did not work in their favor, and that’s being polite. The beatdown that many were anticipating unfolded before our eyes, and although it was ugly, kudos to Michigan (and Alabama, for that matter) for putting this game on their schedule. It won’t change the outcome, but it does mean a lot to those willing to look beyond the box score of final records.
We’ve been promised that college football’s soon-to-arrive four-team playoff will help solve this problem. The selection committee (which remains a great unknown) will reward those that schedule realistic opponents early on while also taking other criteria into consideration. That, at least, is the perceived intent.
When the BCS emerged, however, much of the same was said—that a formula with the help of some human influence could accurately match up college football’s two best teams while taking into account the critical details. Despite the criticism, it has done a superb job of that for the most part.
Along the way, teams figured this out. If you play in one of the major conferences, you can get by without scheduling deep early on. There are exceptions to this, of course, and the 2004 Auburn team knows this well. Still, this rule has held serve pretty consistently throughout, and there was a formula for the formula.
Teams will once again figure out this line when human influence has control over deciding college football’s postseason. Will the SEC schedule alone be enough to get you in? Will mid-majors be able to sniff this threshold with an undefeated season?
The tendencies of a selection committee will become familiar soon enough, and while we’d like to believe that the out-of-conference games would improve because of this, I have my doubts. The innovative playoff is looking more and more like BCS 2.0, and this will likely fall under that same umbrella.
The one potential scheduling breakthrough to drastically alter our scheduling wishes unfortunately fell through. The Big Ten and Pac-12 had an agreement in place on a series where teams from each conference would begin playing games starting 2017. There were complications, however, and the Pac-12’s nine-game conference schedule (along with other matters) interfered with this innovative plan, so they canceled it this summer.
It’s hard to predict what kind of impact this could have had on others, but a new trend would have commenced. The norm could have shifted. Instead, it was too far away from the comfort zone, and the upcoming playoff has seemingly stopped major conferences from straying away from their normal routine.
This means that despite college football’s new look in 2014, not much will change. We’ll still exhale when the season gets here only to be greeted by lopsided games and point spreads. There will be a handful of teams like Michigan that break away from the expected debut, but the majority will gladly pay for their victories and a simulated preseason.
We will watch it all, just like usual, and the cycle will go on.
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