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Friday, May 16, 2014

What's in a Schedule?

There's been a lot of back and forth with regards to conference scheduling. The Pac-12, Big 12, and Big Ten all currently or will soon play nine conference games in football. Not long ago, the SEC announced that it will continue its eight game conference slate, playing all six divisionmates, a crossover rival, and one rotating team from the opposite division. Days later, the ACC followed suit, also adopting the 6-1-1 format. As a nod to critics, both conferences agreed to play an additional team each year from a power 5 conference (or Notre Dame); permanent non-conference rivalries or the ACC's scheduling deal with Notre Dame satisfy that requirement, meaning that for a number of schools, nothing changes.

Not unlike Michigan State's muse Rich Homie Quan, some in the other conferences are feeling some type of way about the ACC and SEC's decision. The common refrain is that as we enter the playoff era, everyone should be playing by the same rules, and some see a nine game conference schedule as one of those rules.

Here's the thing: At present, no one knows what will be rewarded in the new format. It could be finishing with the fewest losses. It could be strength of schedule. It could be secret handshakes or Contra codes. So until the perceived unfair advantage comes into fruition, why get bent out of shape about it? As the folks at Crystal Ball Run put it, being able to make different decisions is why conferences exist. For that matter, demanding a ninth game could backfire. I don't think it's much of a stretch to state that the SEC is the strongest of the Party of Five, while the ACC, despite boasting the reigning national champion, is the weakest. As such, a ninth SEC game, on average, pads an SEC team's strength of schedule more than the average game they would pick up with the other power 5 team mandate, while a ninth ACC game, on average, gives an ACC team an easier win than the average game on the open market. If you end up better on one vector and worse on the other, you find yourself in the exact same situation if both conferences go to nine, again assuming that strength of schedule and win-loss are the metrics that matter.

Now let's be selfish. I'm a USF alumnus. I would imagine that even with a nine game schedule, the ACC and SEC would still, more often than not, schedule at least one other power 5 game, especially those with permanent out of conference rivals. Add to that the fact that FCS opponents likely aren't going away, and this shrinks the number of possible games that USF can get with the big boys. Given that the ACC and SEC sit closest to our footprint, keeping those channels open is advantageous for us. Beyond just self interest, though, more games against other conferences only helps the sport, its fans, and most importantly the selection committee move closer to comparing apples with apples when assessing teams from different conferences. In a sport with 12 games and ten times as many teams, the less teams play one another out of conference the harder it is to compare, say, a one loss Michigan State and a one loss Oklahoma. It also, like the USF example, allows the mid-majors a shot at getting a foot in the door. The argument against their inclusion will always be "but they don't play anyone!" The more the major conferences close ranks and minimize games against the other five conferences, the more that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

My only problem with the eight game conference schedule is the frequency with which teams meet their non-permanent rivals from the other division. In each conference, they're looking at meeting a cross division foe twice every 12 years. ACC teams will play Notre Dame roughly twice as often. For all we know Texas A&M may play Texas before they once again meet Vanderbilt, their rotating East division opponent from 2013. It seems absurd to meet those you call your conferencemates that infrequency, but to avoid it would be to destroy the permanent crossover, and in at least a few cases - Auburn-UGA, Alabama-Tennessee, FSU-Miami, and UNC-NC State - those are worth preserving. The ACC is also considering non-conference conference games (scheduling a conference foe above and beyond the eight games that would not count towards conference standings) but that proposal's legs seem shaky at best. The only other solution rests with the NCAA. The current plea to deregulate conference championship games - the current format requires two divisions of at least six members each, and for teams to play a full round robin in division - could hold the key. If these restrictions ease, conferences could designate two or three permanent opponents, preserving traditional rivalries, and rotate through all other conferencemates. In either conference, three permanent rivals would allow teams to see everyone in the conference every other year (or twice in four years if home and homes are played consecutively). Each four year student would get to both host and visit every other team in conference. If deregulation takes place, I wouldn't be surprised to see either conference go this route.
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