Wednesday, May 1, 2013
The B1G debate: Playoff ramifications
By Brian Bennett and Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten made big news Sunday by announcing its new division alignment for the 2014 season, as well as a move to nine conference games beginning in 2016. We covered all the news here and here and here, but several components of the moves merit further analysis.
During the next few days we'll be breaking down the divisions and the new conference schedule model, their impact now and in the future, as the College Football Playoff is just a year away. These aren't exactly Take Twos, but they're similar, as we'll both be sharing our thoughts on these big-ticket items.
Today's topic is: How will the nine-game conference schedule affect the Big Ten's chances of getting into the College Football Playoff?
First and foremost, the Big Ten needs to play better. Period. The league likely would not have put a team into the four-team playoff in any of the past five seasons had the system been in place (though Ohio State would have made it last year if not for probation).
Winning key non-Big Ten matchups will be especially critical in upcoming years for the league's potential national title hopefuls.
Yet a nine-game conference schedule, along with the Big Ten's commitment to not play FCS teams and add at least one respectable BCS opponent in the nonconference slate, will make the prospects of reaching the final four more difficult. Any Big Ten champion will likely have to go 13-0 or 12-1 to gain any realistic consideration, and that will mean navigating a challenging course of nine league games plus the conference championship game, not to mention any tough out-of-league contests.
There's a reason the SEC and ACC are sticking to only eight conference games, and the Pac-12 is mulling a scale back from nine to eight. It's a lot easier to buy yourself a guaranteed win than risk playing a conference opponent that knows you inside and out. Still, I applaud the Big Ten for raising the bar. The conference really needs to prove itself in key interleague play more than anything, whether that's games such as Michigan State playing Oregon, Wisconsin facing Alabama, Ohio State taking on Texas or Nebraska going up against Oklahoma. Win those, and a conference loss won't sign the death warrant on playoff hopes.
Running the table with a nine-game schedule is not impossible. Oregon did it in Pac-12 in 2010 on its way to the BCS title game. Would Ohio State have lost if it played another Big Ten game last year? Doubtful, since the Buckeyes had already beaten Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. A nine-game schedule rewards greatness, and a Big Ten team that goes undefeated in the league would have a great shot at the playoff even with a nonconference setback.
The nine-game schedule absolutely adds to the degree of difficulty for the Big Ten when it comes to the playoff. But the league hasn't exactly been racking up national championships over the past few decades, anyway. This is still the right move for a variety of reasons, and the best teams will show themselves to be deserving.
Although I love disagreeing with Mr. Bennett, he's spot on with his analysis here. The Big Ten's push for the College Football Playoff still has more to do with building enough depth at the top than how many league games it plays. As I've written for years, the Big Ten simply doesn't have enough programs that are equipped to compete for national titles year in and year out. Pinning your hopes on Ohio State to skate through a favorable schedule in a weak league every year isn't a sustainable formula for improving the conference.
Ultimately, the Big Ten wants to reach a point where a team doesn't have to run the table to make the playoff. The league should strive to create a reputation in which a one-loss Big Ten team that played a competitive nonconference schedule deserves consideration for the playoff. That's why I like the league-wide initiative to beef up the pre-conference slate. We're already seeing results from programs such as Wisconsin, which used to be averse to anything resembling a challenge in early September, as well as Ohio State and Michigan State. As Bennett points out, the Big Ten needs to start winning more of the major non-league tests.
So yes, a nine-game schedule creates a tougher path to the playoff, particularly for the teams in the loaded East Division. I liked the Big Ten's plan to keep an eight-game league schedule and add the Pac-12 partnership, but when that went kaput, a move to nine games seemed inevitable. There are too many good reasons to play each other more often -- TV, fan-friendly games, rivalries -- in an expanded conference.
It would be a major surprise if a Big Ten team that went 13-0 -- including 10 league wins -- is left out of the playoff. Running the table certainly becomes tougher, but the league's macro goal remains the same: to build greater depth at the top and create a reputation more like the SEC's, in which you don't need to be perfect to be one of the nation's top four teams. Remember, league champions should in some cases have priority in terms of playoff access. The Big Ten champion gains greater credibility, even with one loss, if it gets through a nine-game conference schedule rather than an eight-gamer.