College Football: How Playoffs Could Change Non-Conference Scheduling

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College Football: How Playoffs Could Change Non-Conference Scheduling
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Bob Stoops has consistently been one of the most out-spoken coaches when it comes to issues surrounding college football, that has continued with the new playoff system.

The 2013 college football season will be the final season under the rule of the BCS system. Starting in 2014, college football will have a playoff system in place.

There are several questions that surround the new playoff. The selection committee has not been set, although parameters for committee members have been. 

The formula or guidelines that the committee will be working with hasn't been set either. And as we have seen with the selection committee in college basketball, they don't always follow the same pattern.

Early indications are that strength of schedule will be taken into account when deciding which four teams make the playoff. However, the extent strength of schedule will be balanced against, say an undefeated team versus a one-loss team, is unclear.

Bob Stoops has expressed some concern over this topic because his 11-ranked and two-loss Sooners were left out of a BCS bowl in favor of a one-loss Northern Illinois team. The Sooners' two losses were to Notre Dame and Kansas State, while Northern Illinois' loss was to an eight-loss Iowa team.

Now that teams only have to place in the top four of the rankings instead of the top two, the risk of playing tough non-conference games could be greater than the reward. That, along with other changes in the college football landscape, could lead to fewer teams scheduling top-notch opponents.

 

Growing Conferences

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Nick Saban was the only SEC coach to vote to expand the conference schedule from eight games to nine games.

With conferences increasing in number, the amount of weeks to play non-conference games could be going away.

The Pac-12 and Big 12 already play nine conference games in a season. The Big Ten plans to start playing nine conference games when Rutgers and Maryland join. Meanwhile, the SEC just voted it down, and the ACC also decided against it.

What this means is, obviously, there is one fewer game to play in the non-conference.

But not only that, the game will be replaced by a tough conference game. Because of that, it seems logical to remove a tougher game from the non-conference schedule. Not only because of the wear and tear on the players, but in terms of strength of schedule as well. 

Unless the selection committee differentiates non-conference from conference games in terms of strength of schedule, which tough teams you play won't matter.

 

Go Undefeated, Make Playoff

Since the BCS started in 1998, only twice has more than four teams finished the season undefeated. In 2004 and 2009, five teams finished with an unblemished record.

Meanwhile the 2004 Auburn and 2009 Cincinnati teams are the only BCS conference teams to finish undefeated and not play in the BCS National Championship game—excluding Ohio State last season due to bowl ban. However, both finished third, which would be good enough in 2014 and beyond. Assuming the committee would choose them anyway.

During that time, ten non-BCS teams have finished undefeated. Only twice (TCU in 2009 and 2010) did those teams finish in the top four of the BCS rankings.

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When TCU and Utah joined BCS conferences, Chris Petersen and Boise State have been left as the only BCS busters.

TCU and Utah, the schools responsible for five of the ten non-BCS undefeated seasons, have since joined BCS conferences. The other former undefeated teams—Hawaii, Tulane and Marshall—have all fallen on hard times.

That leaves Boise State as the only BCS buster still hanging around the top 10.

While an undefeated season may not be enough for most non-BCS programs, I think Boise State has earned enough respect to get a fair shake from the committee.

As for BCS conference teams, if history is any indication, going undefeated will be enough to find their way into the four-team playoff.

And if the playoff expands, then the need for tough non-conference games would decrease even more.

 

So is the Risk Worth the Reward?

Since schedules are made so far in advance, some prime time non-conference games will remain on the slate for the next decade. But, if those games prove not to be worth the risk, will teams keep them on their schedule?

Winning a big non-conference game early in the season could catapult a team into the national discussion, no doubt. But finishing the season undefeated or with a conference crown would do the same thing.

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If this breakdown of "what ifs" is accurate, then it's an indication that conference titles and having less losses will be more important than having big wins.

As Stoops said, he'll have to see the committee respect strength of schedule before he believes it. I expect most programs to adopt that wait-and-see strategy, especially early on in the playoff-era.

If that is the case, the college football world should get used to the lackluster non-conference schedule the 2013 season brings. According to Athlon's preseason top-25 rankings, there are only three non-conference game between top-10 teams. However, two of those (Notre Dame at Stanford and Clemson at South Carolina) are annual rivalries.

Georgia's visit to Clemson is the only non-annual, non-conference game between preseason top-10 teams. 

College football's non-conference season could turn into a glorified preseason. In which teams just prepare for the upcoming conference slate and their run to make the playoffs. 

But, after decades of watching a postseason full of glorified scrimmages, maybe a change is needed. I'm guessing most college football fans wouldn't mind less big games in August and September for more meaningful games in December and January. 

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