clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Schedule Strength and the Future of the College Football Playoff

Critics have raised alarm that a college football playoff will devalue the regular season but we may be about to enter a renewed golden age as programs finally respect strength of schedule.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Over three years ago I wrote a two-part book review on Yahoo! reporter Dan Wetzel's "Death to the BCS" as that piece of literature really moved me and made me support a college football playoff 100%.

One of the earliest projects I can remember working on while writing about Notre Dame football was researching schedule strength among Big Ten teams in contrast to Notre Dame. Now, I'm not someone who really gets off pumping my chest because of the annual strong Irish schedule. In fact, I view it more as a necessary evil as an independent program that is determined to do things the right way. Be that as it may, it was painfully obvious that around the turn of the century there was a major shift in how major conference teams went about filling their schedules.

12-game regular seasons became a reality and the extra games were largely filled with bottom-feeder teams. In the past FCS programs lightly dotted the national schedules of Division I programs but by the mid-2000's they were a fixture on nearly every team's slate, some even playing two per year.

Was this the fault of the BCS system? I'd contend that it had a big part in the watering down of non-conference games all in the name of keeping a clean record before league games began and precious BCS bowls were on the line with conference auto-bids.

Wisconsin has always been a team that jumped out to me who made an art form of scheduling themselves into 9 and 10 win seasons while gaining momentum heading into a mildly challenging Big Ten:

2006: Bowling Green, Western Illinois, San Diego State, Buffalo

2007: Washington State, UNLV, Citadel, Northern Illinois

2008: Akron, Marshall, Fresno State, Cal-Poly

2009: Northern Illinois, Fresno State, Wofford, Hawaii

2010: UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona State, Austin Peay

2011: UNLV, Oregon State, Northern Illinois, South Dakota

2012: Northern Iowa, Oregon State, Utah State, UTEP

That is the entire length of Bret Bielema's coaching career at Wisconsin. 7 full years and he had to prepare for only 4 major conference opponents outside the Big Ten. 7 years while playing just 1 team out of league play that had a winning season--yes the Badgers lost that game (2012, Oregon State who finished 9-4).

In the run-up to the college football playoff there was a lot of arguing about the need to protect the sanctity of the regular season. The sport is supposed to be the best because going undefeated meant something and the playoff would devalue that tradition.

Yet, the BCS system completely watered down the regular season and devalued it on its own. Did staying undefeated really mean so much when more and more cupcakes were flooding the schedules of teams all across the country and the month of September became more and more of a joke?


The good news is that the college football playoff is hopefully changing this mentality of shying away from tough out of conference games. The ACC is meeting next month and it is expected that the conference will stick to a 8-game schedule format which works nicely with Notre Dame being involved on a rotating basis. Even better, the SEC recently announced that their conference will stick to 8-game schedules AND they are mandating that each team schedule at least one major conference program per season beginning in 2016.

The BCS scheduling format hasn't exactly been turned on its head but at least this is a start. Heck, Wisconsin is scheduled to play LSU in 2014 & 2016 in addition to Alabama in 2015. The Badgers still don't have any future schedules lined up with more than 1 major conference opponent out of league play in a single year but at least they'll be playing their toughest OOC games in 20+ years soon.

The whole importance of schedule strength as a primary factor in choosing playoff teams is going to be fascinating to watch and there is no way this will be bad for the game. The cupcakes are going to stick around but at least they'll be marginalized and we're going to see a lot more primetime matchups during the season then we've grown accustomed to since the early 2000's. Already over the past 6 months or so it seems like we've seen about 4 years worth of legitimate major conference scheduling agreements.

I've always thought a playoff would be an unquestioned success for the sport and this appeal to schedule strength is one of the big reasons why I felt that way. Programs are scared of going 12-1 and being left out of the playoff because their resume may be worse than another 12-1 team. If this choice by the playoff selection committee brings controversy so be it. At least we're starting to get better football on Saturday.