Why Athletic Directors Should Schedule All Cupcakes
As fans, we love to see our teams play a big-time program from another conference.
Bragging rights are on the line. We have a great excuse for a new road (or plane) trip. The buildup to the games is much better than those against Western Illinois and The Citadel.
Still, athletic directors and coaches should rethink scheduling them.
After 10 years of existence, the BCS rankings have not given any meaningful advantage to a team because of its non-conference schedule.
The BCS has, however, rewarded teams with weak non-conference schedules and punished teams with tough non-conference schedules. Teams appear to be rewarded for any win and punished for any loss. Conference games have proven to be much more important in deciding bowl matchups.
If I were an athletic director of a team with any sort of hopes for BCS contention, I would schedule a steady diet of cupcakes.
It seems that almost every year, some team takes some media heat for blowing through a non-conference schedule completely comprised of patsies.
Last year, it was Kansas. In 2006, it was Rutgers. Wisconsin's toughest 2006 test outside of the Big Ten was Bowling Green. In 2005, Alabama climbed to No. 4 in the polls when their best nonconference opponent was Southern Miss. The list could go on and on.
But none of these teams were punished for their weak non-conference schedules. In fact, either they were rewarded for them, or were in perfect position to be rewarded for them.
What kept these teams out of the BCS title game, or any BCS bowl game, were losses within their conference.
Let's look at two teams from last year as an example.
Kansas was No. 2 in the BCS when it finally lost on Thanksgiving weekend and would have played Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game had it won out. The validity of that matchup isn't up for debate here.
The point is that Kansas would have been rewarded for playing Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo, and Florida International outside of their Big 12 North schedule. Their schedule didn't keep them out of the BCS title game—Missouri did.
Virginia Tech, on the other hand, traveled to Baton Rouge for an early September matchup. They were destroyed by LSU and written off by most of the pollsters as national championship contenders.
They ended up only losing one more regular season game, a 14-10 loss at Boston College. Virginia Tech got revenge a few weeks later when they beat BC 30-16 in the ACC Championship Game.
Now hypothetically, if Virginia Tech had played Southeastern Louisiana instead of LSU and been 12-1 at the end of the year when top-ranked teams kept losing, would they have been left out? Odds are that Virginia Tech would have been in New Orleans for the BCS title game rather than LSU, if not for aggressive scheduling.
I don't see how the pollsters would have voted a two-loss LSU team over a one-loss ACC Champion, regardless of LSU's conference schedule. One four-point loss to BC would have been more impressive than LSU's two triple-OT losses.
At the same time, if Kansas had played at Baton Rouge in September, they would not have gotten the BCS Orange Bowl they ended up with. (I'll just assume they would have lost. The Jayhawks seemed to improve as the season went along.)
A two-loss Kansas would have gone to the Cotton Bowl, while Missouri would have traveled to Miami for a BCS berth.
In 2000, Miami was punished for respectable scheduling. The Canes' only loss was at Washington, yet they were left out of the BCS title game in favor of Florida State. This was the same Florida State team the Canes beat during the season.
The BCS formula not only chose the head-to-head loser, but gave no reward to the Canes for going out of conference for two tough games, including against No. 1 (at the time) FSU.
As in many other years, the BCS formula was “tweaked” after the Canes got the short end of the stick. However, until “tweaked” is synonymous with “overhauled” or “replaced with a playoff,” then I don't care what their new formula is. It could still happen again.
Here are some other notable situations over the past 10 years that support scheduling football prostitutes.
Kansas State 1998: Was one overtime in Big 12 Championship Game from the BCS title game despite scheduling Indiana State, Northern Illinois, and Louisiana Monroe.
Virginia Tech 1999: Played in the BCS title game. Their nonconference games were I-AA James Madison, Alabama-Birmingham, (6-6) Clemson, and (7-5) Virginia. Their conference schedule was widely regarded as the weakest of the BCS conferences. They were one of two undefeated teams from BCS conferences, so were all but guaranteed a berth.
Auburn 2004: The only BCS conference team to go undefeated and be left out of the BCS title game. However, their schedule didn't keep them out. Auburn's schedule was ranked No. 5, while Oklahoma and USC's schedules were ranked No. 11 and No. 18, respectively.
The schedule was ranked highly in spite of the fact that Auburn played Louisiana Monroe, Louisiana Tech, and The Citadel outside of SEC play. If they had substituted a top-ten team for D I-AA The Citadel, their strength of schedule still would not have been enough to get them in the BCS title game.
Oklahoma and USC started No. 1 and No. 2 and finished No. 1 and No. 2—and there wasn't anything Auburn could have done to stop it.
One or two glamorous nonconference games will not be enough to dramatically change a strength of schedule factor for a team, because schedule strength is predominantly influenced by conference games—the same conference games teams will play regardless of any extracurricular scheduling.
In six of the 10 BCS years (1998, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2006, and 2007), a one-loss team has played in the BCS title game. I am certain that if any team in a BCS conference had stayed undefeated through any schedule during those years, that undefeated team would have played for the BCS title instead.
Ohio State and USC are pleasing the college football world this September, but neither team stands to gain nearly as much as it stands to lose. A November conference loss will still bump the winner out of one of the top two BCS spots.
This will hold true because the voters will reward any win and punish any loss. When No. 1 Missouri lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game last year, do you think the pollsters gave one bit of thought to the Tigers' season-opening win against eventual Rose Bowl team Illinois?
At that time, the voters didn't care about that game any more than they cared about Ohio State's season opener against Youngstown State.
Conference games decide BCS berths. Last year, all the turnover in the top five spots of the polls wasn't from other top-ranked teams—non-ranked teams kept beating the highly-ranked schools.
LSU won all their big games: Virginia Tech, Florida, Auburn, Alabama. Non-ranked Kentucky and Arkansas knocked off LSU, and the LSU games were the Cats' and Hogs' national championship games.
Conference schedules are, for the most part, brutal already. There's no reason to risk a costly early-season loss that could cost a team a BCS berth, not to mention a shot at a national title.
Kudos to the athletic directors and coaches for looking for more and more big nonconference matchups these days. Most seem to be using the 12th regular season game this way.
However, they need to make sure they're doing so for the fans, recruiting exposure, money, players' interests, or whatever else justifies it.
Because they're definitely not doing it for postseason positioning.
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