Posted: April 16, 2013
I have been intrigued by a story late last week about the possible cancellation of the Notre Dame @ Arizona State game that was scheduled for 2014. It appears as if ND might be canceling this game and adding a game against Florida State as part of the new agreement between ND and the ACC. Needless to say, ASU is not pleased about this potential late cancellation and having to scramble to find a replacement game at the last minute. One that will most certainly be a lesser quality opponent, perhaps an FCS opponent, if they do not already exceed the practical limit. Setting aside my particular feelings about these specific events and teams, this got me to thinking and I believe that there is a larger story at play here within the changing landscape of college football and conference affiliation. Scheduling!
In my humble view, maybe it is time to discuss blowing up the entire model of how college football is scheduled. Since we are not going to be seeing a March Madness type tournament in college football, nor do I want to see that, perhaps now is the time to change the whole scheduling model. The conference affiliations have been blown up; maybe the scheduling model should be blown up along side of it as well. And if it is going to be done, now is the time.
Currently schedules are constructed in a hybrid combination between the conferences which set the conference schedule and the schools who round out their schedule with non conference games (which comes first is beside the point). Each conference determines how many conference games each team will play and then the schools fill out the rest of their schedule by reaching agreement and signing contracts on an individual per game basis. Most of the time, these non conference games are against weaker teams, maybe one or two non conference rivalry games, and a few national games arranged to be played at large venues as “special” games. Because of this method of scheduling and as conferences get larger, conference champions are being crowned with more and more of an unbalanced schedule within each conference.
To use the SEC as an example, teams play an 8 game conference schedule. Six games are played within your division and two games against the other division. This means you are playing 2 of 7 teams in the other division of the conference. Who you play is critical to a team’s ability to win its division, not to mention home team fans seeing an opposite division team at home on an infrequent basis. If you are in the SEC West and your East opponents are Florida and Georgia, you have a much tougher road to a division title than if your opponents are Vanderbilt and Kentucky (no offense, just fact). Schedule is playing an increasing roll in conference titles than simply play on the field. And it’s getting worse as conferences get larger. Is this a good thing?
I think that maybe the time has come for conferences to take more control over the entire schedule, perhaps even a 12 game conference schedule. Yes, fans will lose some non conference rivalries, such as Florida vs. Florida State. But fans will also lose Florida vs. Jacksonville State. And we as fans will get more conference games, which taken as a whole are better games. Plus conference titles will not rely so much on whom you play but how you play.
Think of it like this, a 14 team SEC could have each team play 12 of the 13 other teams in a 12 game conference schedule. Instead of rotating the teams from the other division that you play, you rotate the one team that you do not play every year. That looks like a better schedule and a fairer way to determine the division winners.
Further, this model would support 22 and 24 team conferences with two divisions in each. Let’s look at a 24 team conference example…two divisions of 12 teams’ means 11 conference games within your division. Division winners play for conference title. Simple! This means there is only the need for 5-7 conferences in total.
You can see where this is headed. Five conference winners, a few wildcards determined by a selection committee, and you essentially have an 8 team playoff. It is also more unlikely there will be any undefeated teams in this model and one or two losses do not eliminate a team from title contention. This would allow a selection committee the opportunity to select based on merit and not simply record, something that I think is going to be a challenge in the current model where it will be tough to not select an undefeated team regardless of who they have played.
I understand there are a lot of practical barriers to this as school budgets will be impacted and some conferences will need to disappear which is not in their own interest. But to me, this is a win-win, and smarter people than I am have solved many logistical challenges in the recent conference realignments to get where we are now. So, I think this is possible. Yes, this would also require a global shift of thought and probably some rule changes somewhere, but now is the time. Fans would get more and better conference games, a de-facto playoff among all conferences, and a champion decided less by schedule than as currently constructed. Yes, schedule will still matter as some conferences will be tougher than others, but it will matter less than it does now. And that combined with better games in the regular season is a gigantic step in the right direction.