In the NFL there are two components that universally govern scheduling: where you finish in your division and who your division plays that year. Once those are established, the schedule boils down to merely penciling in dates for the 32 teams and going from there.
The college football landscape might be playing the same sport, but the scheduling game is so much more. There are more moving parts and schedule variation than most folks can imagine, and yet as we move into the playoff in the next few years where "strength of schedule" is going to matter even more, the makeup of the schedule must be intensely watched.
To start your schedule you've got your conference games. Most conferences are eight-conference game leagues—four at home, and four on the road. The mighty Pac-12 plays nine conference games; some years you'll get four at home, and others you'll get five. Home games are important, but keep up, and we'll get to those later.
Knowing how many conference games you have shows you what you've got to find on your own. If you're an eight-game conference, you're looking for four games. If you're the Pac-12, then you're hunting down just three opponents.
Throw in teams such as Clemson, Georgia, Stanford and Boston College,—all those who play a yearly non-conference game against a rival—and you have the bulk of your schedule set up. Having that extra game set up on your schedule is not always a great thing. Michael Kelly, senior associate commissioner of the ACC, commented to Bleacher Report, "It depends on their perspective in a given year.
"On one hand, they have games they can count on year-in and year-out, but on the other hand it may not give them the flexibility they would like to schedule other non-conference games."
In other words, knowing you're going to be playing South Carolina, Georgia Tech or Notre Dame every year can be a gift and a curse. You don't have to go find that game, but you also do not get the same wiggle room that someone scheduling three or four true non-conference games gets.
The next step is where scheduling paths may diverge. Some conferences have designated "non-conference weekends" to ensure more uniformity in scheduling their league games. Other conferences, such as the ACC, "have full flexibility to schedule non-conference games wherever feasible," according to Kelly.
Each method has its positives, as one can imagine. The decreased flexibility afforded to schools with set "non-conference weekends" means they have to take the teams available at that time, and if the dates don't line up, they must find a new opponent. With increased flexibility teams can find the non-conference opponent of their liking, but juggling the conference schedule with the bye weekends becomes more difficult.
Seem complicated? It sort of is—and keep in mind this is all before you even pick up the phone to entertain the idea of calling a potential opponent. Which brings us to the next major point, picking an opponent; a lot goes into the who, why and how you schedule.
There are likely more moving parts in this decision than any other part of the process. Head coaches, athletic directors, the athletic department, school activities, television partners and the like come into play here. This is the stage where a boatload of questions have to be answered as you decide who you want to get on to the schedule:
Do we have to play smaller schools in-state as a rule or a show of goodwill?
Do we want to get into City/Area/State X for recruiting?
How much will Team A charge us for a game?
How much will Team B charge us for a game?
How much will Network Q pay us to play this game?
Can we afford to give up a home game down the road to play this home-and-home?
Will this team help fill up the stadium?
If we schedule these games back-to-back, is that too much?
You get the drift, right? There are a lot of questions about what you're looking for and how you want to go about that schedule to organize your solicitation for games.
This brings us to formulas. Nothing too complex, but coaches and athletic departments often follow simple formulas for scheduling to maximize their revenue and, hopefully, their teams' record. Some teams simply want seven home games a year. Others are looking for a 6-6-1 type of balance where they hit the road for six, are home for six and play one neutral-site game for further visibility.
Another form of the "scheduling formula" is the 8-2-1-1, 9-2-1, 8-1-3, 9-3 type of outlook. In this formula the first number represents your conference schedule. Those games are booked. After that you're looking at the next type of games teams play: BCS games, challenge games, cupcake games and games you should win.
In 8-2-1-1 you're looking at a team with eight conference games, two games that are quality opponents, one challenge game and one cupcake. 9-2-1 is a schedule with nine conference games, two quality contests and one cupcake. 8-1-3 works to eight conference games, one challenge and three games you should win.
It's not an exact science on many levels. To begin with, by and large these dates are scheduled out into the future. As we've seen over the course of college football, teams can rise and fall quickly. A game that was attractive two years ago can be less than appetizing when it arrives. Some teams end up playing a "BCS team," even though it is also a game they should win, such as Stanford taking on Duke. Others, meanwhile, end up getting an expected patsy that turns out to be a heck of a ball club.
That brings us to home-and-home series. For the big boys, you choose your home-and-home games wisely. You want a quality opponent that your fans will show up to watch and, since you've got to go on the road eventually, put your program in the spotlight on national television. We've seen some great home-and-home series lately: Ohio State-USC, Alabama-Penn State and Nebraska-Virginia Tech come to mind.
For smaller teams, home-and-homes are not always options with the big teams. Little guys are forced to play the bag game for cash, the two away-one home series or the one-time neutral-site contest. The cash game has been a point of emphasis, especially this year after folks watched Savannah State get mauled by the likes of Oklahoma State and Florida State—beaten down to the tune of 139-0 for $860,000 that will help fund its athletic department for the year.
Those games are big business, as the little guys need the money and the big guys are willing to pay for the win. Especially since the win helps their programs build momentum, and the cash they're spending to bring the team in is still less than the money they make just for hosting a home game.
You find out where your team stands when you're asking for home-and-home series and finding out just how willing someone is to come to your stadium.
Another relatively new influence player is the neutral-site showdown. These games have risen to prominence, and television networks have looked to put appetizing games on television during the season in an effort to help raise the profile of the sport. Do not confuse this neutral-site matchup of two teams on relatively equal footing with the home-neutral agreements that teams such as Michigan State and Florida Atlantic have played in recent history.
Games such as the Chick-fil-A Kickoff and Cowboy Classic are a way for a team to get a quality, home-and-home-worthy opponent without having to lose on the financial side of things. These games have payouts to each team, and they eliminate the reciprocation part of the home-and-home series. Networks are looking to continue the growth of college football, and games like these help spread the product as a commodity for viewers. Participating in one can be quite the positive for teams, and it is a decision conferences often leave to the school, as Kelly puts it:
"It all depends on the school and whether or not it makes sense to them business-wise. From a conference perspective, we totally leave that to the schools—our only involvement is to ensure that our television partners are fairly considered in the deal."
Generally, the television partners come up with the matchups, and it is up to the teams to decide what is in their best interest. While the Pac-12 does require their own network partners to house the rights to neutral-site games by their teams, the overwhelming work here is done at the team and network partnership level.
Whew, take a deep breath, because we're about done. Now you know what sort of teams that you're looking to schedule and whether or not you're going to be playing a big game for your television partner. You know how many "cupcakes" you need. You know what sort of home-and-homes you're looking for and how many home games you are looking to schedule.
How would you prefer scheduling to go in college football?
The next step is getting on the phone and making it work. This is a big deal in and of itself as schools have interest in multiple teams to put on their schedules, and they have multiple suitors looking to woo them into playing. It's like a prom where everyone is waiting for the date they really want to say yes to them as they try to keep their back-up dates on the hook—all the while they're being asked out by people they didn't think would be interested in them.
It's a delicate balance of saying yes, saying maybe and saying no in order to juggle the open dates you have and getting the contests you want. Scheduling is not easy on those involved. Schools have to find the dates when other schools—schools they want—are available to play them. For some schools that means slamming all their dates in before they hit October. For others that means getting the games where they can, and then turning things over to the conference.
At the conference level the juggling continues as they try to fit the games into the available dates and appease all the coaching staffs and school administrators. Last year Florida State was less than positive about Clemson and Wake Forest back-to-back following its big game against Oklahoma. We also remember the Alabama season where every team seemed to have a bye week before taking on the Tide.
It's a big juggling act and a numbers game—an inexact science that has to be rendered down to perfection by the time schedules are released.