In the first few seasons of the College Football Playoff, the greatest determinant on its impact on the health of the sport will not be the four-team field or the champions crowned. Rather, the best sign as to whether the move was a positive will come through monitoring scheduling practices.
Currently there exist two opposing ideals, best epitomized by the likes of Baylor and LSU. The Bears are continuing to smart schedule, ensuring wins and looking to tiptoe through the non-conference, win the league and best be setup for the postseason. Recent news that Baylor would be playing the University of Incarnate Word sent a wave through the system as folks ridiculed the future schedules in Waco.
On the very opposite side of the spectrum, the LSU Tigers drew the praise of the masses for scheduling future dates with both UCLA and Arizona State out of the Pac-12. Les Miles' team already has been celebrated for being willing to open up the season with tough games, Oregon in 2011, Wisconsin in the upcoming campaign.
The Big Ten has been lauded for setting a rule in which its members do not play games against FCS squads and the league is moving to a nine-game conference schedule, two measures that will boost the view of the schedule strength, even if the FCS squads are replaced with bad MAC, Sun Belt or Conference-USA teams.
In the ACC, while the league voted against going to a nine-game schedule, the conference did add five yearly contests against Notre Dame which will serve to boost schedule strength for the teams involved. For teams like Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech, that means eight conference games, plus the SEC rivalry date, in addition to locking horns with the Irish; that means ten formidable foes, at least in theory, guaranteed in some years.
Lines are being drawn and, in the first couple years of the playoff, one side will be rewarded. In theory the side with great schedules and tough matchups will earn the respect of the committee and grab the spots in the four-team postseason. Reality does not always jibe with the ideal or the theoretical practice. Especially when the reality is keeping an undefeated team out of the mix in favor of a team with a blemish on its record.
Until the committee looks down the barrel at an undefeated team and, due to their strength of schedule, puts a team with a loss in ahead of them in seeding, or omits them all together, wins are worth more than losses. More accurately, wins over Appalachian State or Rice or Florida Atlantic are worth more than losses to higher level power conference teams.
However, it is not merely the undefeated element that will settle the scheduling score, the one-loss problem will be the biggest bear for the committee to tackle. 2013 saw nine teams finish with one loss, five from power conferences. In 2012, there were four one-loss teams from power leagues.
In both years, Stanford finished with two losses on a schedule. Four close losses, two each season, on the road. Three to Pac-12 opponents, and in 2012 the second loss was to an eventually 12-0 Notre Dame team.
Do you think the committee will place enough importance on scheduling over easy wins?
Does the Cardinal get the break over an Auburn team whose non-conference gem was against Washington State? In 2012, does David Shaw's team get invited to the playoff instead of Kansas State or the Oregon team the Cardinal beat in Eugene?
These will be the muddy waters which the committee is forced to tread in order to decide just how important strength of schedules, and bad wins versus good losses, are to the final equation. If a school like Baylor, with a weak non-conference schedule and limited quality wins, gets the nod, then all the talk of making scheduling important becomes a moot point.
The committee, and the College Football Playoff itself, has to make a stand early. The group in charge has spent ample time talking about scheduling being paramount. Early in the process, the folks running the show must send a clear message that tough scheduling will be rewarded.
Rewarded far more than simply piling up wins.