College Football Scheduling is an Impasse for the Playoff

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The NCAA announcing a RIP to the RPI for the men’s basketball tournament committee came just days before the college football season starts. The replacement – NCAA Evaluation Tool or NET – may or may not be an improvement in helping the committee select and seed the bracket.

Year Five of the College Football Playoff and we again will have a selection committee who will meet starting midway through the season to release hyped but meaningless rankings based on the members’ voting. Those ballots are based on evaluations where the members can analyze any metrics they choose.

The first sentence of the CFP’s selection criteria states, “Ranking football teams is an art, not a science.” It also emphasizes “winning conference championships, strength of schedule and head-to-head competition.”

And never mind that each of the last two seasons the CFP committee has selected teams (Ohio State, 2016 and Alabama, 2017) that didn’t win their conference championship. It’s an art, not a science.

While the NCAA chooses science to provide a tool to help its committee to craft the best 68-team bracket, selecting the four best college football teams out of maybe 10 candidates is as different as basketball is from football.

In many ways, college football is like a toddler at a toy bench trying to pound that square peg into a round hole. Things just don’t fit. There are four playoff spots and five “power” conferences. The annual competitive comparison of those five leagues is a debate that changes year to year. It’s a fruit salad comparing apples to oranges to grapes to bananas to watermelons.

And let’s not forget how we got to Year Five. It took two decades of the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series to finally pry open the lid to anything resembling a “playoff.” The men who decided to create the CFP are the Power Five commissioners. And as history has shown us, the upper hand in college football was transferred from the NCAA to the conferences in 1984

“One of the bedrock pieces of the College Football Playoff, when it was put together, is that individual conferences maintain some autonomy as to how they manage and determine their champion,” Big 12 commissioner and one of the Fab Five said last month. “I don’t see us backtracking on that.”

That comment was in response to the one issue that always has and always will embroil each college football season – inequitable scheduling. As any basketball committee member, past or present, will tell you assessing a team’s worthiness based on its schedule is a key factor. And if a conference doesn’t play a round-robin schedule, league schedules are unbalanced.

Three Power Five conferences – Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Southeastern – have 14 members (Notre Dame is a faux member of the ACC). The Pac-12 is numerically correct in its membership while the Big 12 can only count to 10.

Even though it fails math, at least the Big 12’s league schedule is a round-robin affair. The Pac-12 and the Big Ten play nine conference games but matchups are “missed” for various reasons.

The SEC and the ACC each play nine conference games. Annually, the SEC is part of a “half full, half empty” debate. The conference’s scheduling of FCS patsies in November is ridiculed but the SEC’s apologists claim that challenge of eight conference games is an adequate challenge for their underfed and undertrained student-athletes.

Since Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC, its rivalry with Big Brother (Texas) has been put on hold. Every few months, the talk of scheduling a home and home comes up.

According to the Houston Chronicle, UT athletic director Chris DelConte called A&M counter part Scott Woodward about openings on Texas’ 2022 and 2023 schedules. Woodward said the Aggies were already booked. The Longhorns will play – wait for it – Alabama those two years. And Woodward also demurred because that SEC schedule is so darn tough.

“We have a hell of a home schedule,” said Woodward, who noted SEC West teams have won seven of the last 12 national titles. “You have Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss and Mississippi State rolling in here every other year, and Arkansas in Dallas every year. That’s a pretty darn good schedule. And as brutal and hard as our schedule is in the SEC West … it’s definitely the toughest division in football. That’s proven year in and year out.”

In the last seven seasons, the SEC has twice had two of its teams play in the national championship game. In 11 of the last 12 seasons, the SEC has had a team playing in the title game (winning nine).

For the SEC, scheduling just means more.

“Stated succinctly, what we do works at both the national championship level and at a level that provides our team’s meaningful access to post-season bowl opportunities,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said last month.

With two seven-team divisions, the SEC has a 6-1-1 scheduling model – six games in the division, one permanent cross-division “rivalry” game, and one rotating cross-division game. To their credit, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thinks the SEC should play nine league games. Saban also is an advocate for Power Five schools scheduling only Power Five schools in non-conference games.

“I think (nine conference games) the best for us moving forward,” Malzahn said during SEC Media days. “I think it would put more equity as far as strength of schedule in the conference.”

But even with every Power Five school playing nine conference games, how they choose to schedule non-conference games varies wildly. Iowa State is a prime example of why not all scheduling philosophies are created equal.

“I wish everybody had to play nine games,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard told CNHI in June. “It’d be an equalizer because as long as everybody is playing nine, there’s always going to be this discussion of what’s really a fair strength of schedule.”

Iowa State can’t and shouldn’t schedule like Alabama, Oklahoma or Texas. This season, in addition to the nine-game Big 12 schedule, the Cyclones have an annual in-state rivalry game with Iowa. That’s 10 Power Five games guaranteed each season. Iowa State usually schedules a Group of Five school (this year it’s Akron) and an FCS school to fill out its non-conference schedule.

Playing seven home games is a scheduling goal for the 65 Power Five schools. The ticket revenue for that seventh home game can be crucial for an athletic department budget that’s usually $100 million or above. According to The Associated Press, 46 of the Power Five schools will play seven home games this season.

Your Veteran Scribe is no math whiz (he barely escaped Algebra One to get his high school math credit) but the numbers are difficult to win if every Power Five school wants seven home games. Figuring four or sometimes five conference home games means that dipping into the Group of Five or the FCS to buy games for the home fans is a necessity to get to seven. (Every marching band should be required to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as a friendly reminder.)

Penn State coach James Franklin would like to see more standardization regarding schedules.

“When we get to a point where everybody’s playing under the same scenario, I think that would be the best situation,” he said. “So the amount of conference games across the entire country, every conference is doing it the same way, we’re all playing the same number of conference games. We’re all playing FCS opponents or we’re not. We’re all playing the same number of Power Five out-of-conference opponents, things like that.”

“If we can control some of the variables, that’s going to give people who have a challenging job already, that’s going to help them. When you’re comparing one program to another or one conference to another, some of those things don’t have to be factored in.”

Franklin believes that would make the CFP committee’s job easier. It might reduce the fruit bowl to comparing just apples to oranges. Of course, the other option to making the CFP more equitable would be expanding from four to eight teams.

Watching paint dry or grass grow is more compelling than wondering which will come first.