It’s been hailed as the greatest opening weekend in college football history, and even someone with a natural suspicion of hyperbole would have to agree, yeah, it appears to be just that.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 Southern California. No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Houston. No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss. No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina.
That’s four non-conference games between ranked opponents, which is just a part of it. There’s also No. 2 Clemson at Auburn, No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas, No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M, Kansas State at No. 8 Stanford, and so on.
In other years – and certainly when the games were scheduled – those all could have featured two ranked teams rather than just one. The effort is acknowledged and appreciated.
As college football settles in for a dream weekend, a dream that seemed impossible just a half decade or so ago, it needs to thank – and hope for the continued support of – one group of people that made it happen: the college football playoff selection committee.
It’s that body that upon creation sent out a clarion call that strength of schedule would play a major role in the selection process for the four-team playoff.
Almost overnight, scheduling philosophies changed as athletic directors and coaches didn’t want to experience the regret that might come from being left out of playing for a championship because it went full cupcake-mode during non-conference play.
This was a near full reversal from the Bowl Championship Series, when there was little incentive to play anyone that might beat you. Some teams might schedule one good non-conference opponent, but that was it. Many didn’t bother to even try that.
The old BCS relied on mathematically suspect computer formulas and voters who had proven again and again to favor undefeated records over teams with a so-called good loss. The key was just getting to 12-0 or 13-0. Schedules were made to achieve that, with little consideration for fans, players or entertainment value.
How incredible is it to have four non-conference games between preseason ranked teams in one weekend?
Consider that in 2009 there were four of those … the entire season. In 2010 there were five.
With no glory possible, why bother with guts?
“They took the strength of schedule and minimized it,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops lamented at the time. The Sooners, along with USC, Notre Dame and a few others, still tried to schedule multiple major non-conference opponents (or in the independent Irish’s case, major opponents) each season … and often paid for it at the hands of unimaginative, record-obsessed poll voters.
Schedules overloaded with purposeful mismatches didn’t just lead to boring early season football, undoing the entire concept of “every game matters.” It was a drain on the entire championship chase.
Consider 2007, a wild year overall, which featured a late November clash, a sort of BCS elimination game between the nation’s No. 2 and No. 4 teams – Kansas and Missouri. Yes, Kansas and Missouri.
Kansas got to No. 2 by going 11-0. The Jayhawks were fun and perhaps a truly great team, but they achieved an inside track on the BCS title game without defeating a single ranked team (in or out of conference). Their 11 victories included just two against teams that would finish the season with winning records (both 7-6).
Missouri was 10-1 and somehow the fourth-ranked team in America despite owning victories over just three teams that would finish with winning records. Its best win was probably over a Texas Tech club that ended up 9-4. That was still way better than Kansas.
That’s the kind of system the BCS was.
And that was the sensibility that the playoff committee brought to the table. Today, presumably, it wouldn’t work. Or, so college football hopes.
The playoff is just two years old and thus far has avoided an imposter built on clearly cowardly scheduling. That doesn’t mean all teams have delivered upon arrival in the playoff or that there hasn’t been debate – most notably in 2014.
A four-team playoff will never be perfect. There is no simple way to choose just four out of 128 teams with few common data points.
It is an improvement, though. And will remain so if the playoff committee stays true to its established protocol.
“When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered,” the CFP rules state. “Championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition [if it occurred], comparative outcomes of common opponents [without incenting margin of victory].”
Preferably strength of schedule would be listed first, not second. A championship of a weak league is an arbitrary distinction, especially when bloated membership can allow teams to slip through the cracks.
A team such as Iowa, playing in the less arduous Big Ten West, is one program that hasn’t embraced tougher scheduling – Miami of Ohio, Iowa State and FCS North Dakota State dot the non-conference schedule this year. In Big Ten play there is just one ranked opponent – a home date with Michigan. (The Big Ten title game will almost certainly provide another opportunity).
It’s not that Iowa couldn’t be one of the top four teams in the country, but the Hawkeyes should have to prove it. They appear to feel comfortable with their position, however. There is no major opponent other than Iowa State on future schedules.
For the most part, the strength of schedule criteria has already served its purpose. Other programs have ramped up things even as some conferences have expanded shrinking available opponents (the annual Baylor-TCU game, once non-conference, is now a Big 12 game). Likewise, some leagues have added conference games, dropping non-conference options from four to three. Yet scheduling is better.
Opening weekends like this should become the norm – or they could even improve. When one good game is not an advantage and instead just the expected, then maybe more teams will schedule two or three as some do now.
And it’s not just games between possible title contenders, but creative matchups that are sheer fun. In Week 2, Tennessee and Virginia Tech will play on the infield of Bristol Motor Speedway in front of an expected 150,000 fans.
Before that, though, the best opening weekend ever.
That is enough reason to be thankful for the playoff. Hopefully, come December, the selection committee remembers.
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