Right on schedule

Who will be proved correct when it comes to scheduling in the playoff era?

Originally Published: April 22, 2014
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 will play nine conference games.

The ACC and SEC will play eight.

The ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC will stage conference championship games.

The Big 12 won't.

The ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC will continue to play Football Championship Subdivision opponents.

The Big Ten won't.

LSU's future nonconference opponents will include Arizona State, Syracuse, UCLA and Wisconsin, plus possible showdowns with Oklahoma and Penn State.

Baylor's will include Lamar, Northwestern State, Rice and, ahem, the University of the Incarnate Word.

As major college football moves to a four-team playoff this coming season, in which strength of schedule and nonconference opponents are supposed to be more important factors than ever, battle lines have been drawn. Pac-12 coaches have criticized the SEC for playing only eight conference games, and SEC coaches reacted with a predictable response: Our eight conference games are a lot tougher than your nine.

In an unbalanced sport, where the only thing that seems to be equal is Auburn's and Alabama's utter dislike for each other, there appears to be no easy solution to college football's scheduling dilemma.

Making matters even more problematic, no one is exactly sure what criteria the 13-member selection committee will use to choose the four best teams for the playoff.

Which criteria are going to be weighed more heavily than others? Will an undefeated Big 12 champion with a softer nonconference schedule be ranked ahead of a one-loss team from the Big Ten or SEC, which might have lost in its conference championship game but played a much more difficult schedule?

The charge for athletic directors and coaches is to find the right scheduling formula to ensure their teams will be in the best possible position to be chosen for the playoff. It's a tricky balance between trying to finish a season undefeated and testing a team enough in the eyes of the selection committee.

"It's who you play," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "It's what you do. It's how strong a conference is in any particular year. It's what you do in those other games. I have no idea how the committee will ultimately measure it. But they've been pretty clear that there is no one way or one approach."

After SEC athletic directors voted last month to continue playing an eight-game conference schedule, Stanford coach David Shaw criticized the move, saying it wasn't fair that Pac-12 schools have to play a nine-game league schedule.

"I've been saying this for three years now: I think if we're going to go into a playoff and feed into one playoff system, we all need to play by the same rules," Shaw said. "Play your conference. Don't back down from playing your own conference. It's one thing to back down from playing somebody else, but don't back down from playing your own conference."

Along with the Pac-12, the Big 12 already plays a nine-game schedule. The Big Ten is moving to a nine-game league schedule in 2016, but the ACC voted last week to stay at eight games, along with the SEC.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesLes Miles and LSU have aggressively scheduled tough nonconference opponents, such as UCLA and Wisconsin.

Among the reasons for the ACC and SEC staying at eight games in conference play is the fact that many of their teams play traditional in-state rivals every year. Georgia plays Georgia Tech, Florida plays Florida State, Kentucky plays Louisville, and South Carolina plays Clemson. In many seasons, those state rivalry games are more arduous than facing a ninth conference opponent.

As long as ACC and SEC teams are willing to schedule competitive nonconference games, Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who is a member of the playoff selection committee, said it doesn't matter if they play eight or nine conference games.

"I don't think whether you play eight or nine would factor in," Alvarez said. "If you play eight, then your nonconference games, you'd have to show in your nonconference games that there's an intent of scheduling the right people. Most of them that go to eight say that you will have at least one BCS [opponent] that you'll schedule. That'd be the same as playing another conference game. I don't think that would be a factor, as long as their nonconference games are scheduled accordingly."

Teams such as LSU, Ohio State, Texas and Wisconsin have been aggressive in scheduling marquee opponents from the big five conferences in future seasons. Texas has scheduled games against Maryland, Notre Dame, Ohio State and USC. In addition to the Longhorns, the Buckeyes will play nonconference games against North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, TCU and Virginia Tech in coming seasons.

The Badgers will open the 2015 season against Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and will play LSU in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the next season. Wisconsin also has scheduled future nonconference games against BYU, Virginia Tech, Washington and Washington State.

Alvarez believes the era of teams playing an eight- or nine-game conference schedule, one difficult nonconference game and two or three cupcakes is over.

"[Strength of schedule] is one of our criteria, and that was one of the first criteria we talked about," Alvarez said. "As a league, we talked about it. It's one of the reasons we made the decision we did about scheduling. Sitting on the committee, as you go through the criteria we're going to use to choose teams, strength of schedule is going to be a factor."

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesBaylor's Art Briles is gambling that being undefeated will trump a tough nonconference schedule in the minds of the selection committee.

Not everyone believes playing a difficult nonconference schedule is the correct way to go. Baylor coach Art Briles said he is willing to gamble that going unbeaten and winning a conference championship will ultimately be more important factors than strength of schedule to the selection committee. Baylor's nonconference schedule has been criticized for being too soft in the past (defeating FCS foe Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe in nonconference games last season), but Briles said he isn't going to change his scheduling philosophy in the future.

"If you come in unscathed, you have a good chance of getting in," Briles said. "In our league, against a round-robin schedule, if you go 9-0 in conference play, you're going to get into the magic four. In this league, if you win nine games, probably six of them are going to be against ranked teams and probably two top-10 teams."

Briles, who guided the Bears to an 11-2 record and their first Big 12 championship last season, said he doesn't see the value in scheduling nonconference games against really competitive opponents because the Big 12 slate is already difficult enough.

"If you have one loss in the Big 12, you might still get in," Briles said. "It depends on how the other conferences go. But if you have two losses, you're out. To me, it's all about going unscathed."

Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was in favor of the SEC playing nine conference games, wants college football to take the opposite approach. Saban wants teams from the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC playing one another and nobody else. Not only does Saban want teams from the big five leagues not playing FCS opponents, he doesn't even want them to play opponents from Football Bowl Subdivision leagues such as Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt. By doing so, Saban says, every game would be more attractive for fans, including the postseason.

"If it was totally up to me, I'd say you've got to play all 12 games in the big five," Saban told reporters last week. "If we did that, I think we would be less averse to playing more conference games because I think we have such a great conference. But I don't think anybody's going to be in favor of that until we change how you select bowl teams. I think you ought to do it based on the RPI and strength of schedule and all that for all bowls."

Whichever side of the fence a school falls, one thing is clear: There is no sure answer. In college football's new era, it's going to be a process of trial and error -- for the teams and the selection committee.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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