Major college football powers returning to bold scheduling of exciting non-conference games
Even as news broke Tuesday of Ohio State locking in a couple of intriguing future games – a home-and-home deal with TCU starting in 2018 – Buckeyes athletic director Gene Smith was looking for more.
Fans, thrilled at the prospect of a new quality opponent and a chance for Urban Meyer to reach into Texas recruiting grounds, were buzzing. Ohio State already had Cincinnati of the Big East locked in for 2018. Now here was a Big 12 team, too. In the past, Ohio State may have added two local Mid-American Conference schools and called it a day.
"We will play two more BCS games that year," Smith told Yahoo! Sports via email Wednesday, using the parlance for a quality top six-conference opponent.
So a non-conference schedule with no MAC schools, no Sun Belt teams, no games against teams from the old I-AA ranks – all of which are often dull mismatches? In the past few years, major powers have played three and even four of them per season.
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Ohio State, while in general always one of the more aggressive schedulers, now may take it to the ultimate level and skip the cupcakes altogether – anytime, anywhere for Meyer's program. And it's not just about the opponent's conference. It's are they a likely high-quality team from a strong conference?
"That year  is a snapshot of future years," Smith said. "As we move forward, from 2018 and out, our goal is BCS only. We are looking at top ranked teams, 1-50 teams."
Welcome to the best trend in college football, the return of bold, exciting non-conference play.
After a decade and a half of plumping up schedules against historically weak teams, athletic directors at many major programs are suddenly scrambling to schedule more heavyweights. Or at least, put together interesting games.
The move was born in the Big Ten and was a direct response to the ending of the Bowl Championship Series and the creation, starting in 2014, of a four-team playoff where a selection committee will pick the field.
The BCS formula is two-thirds opinion polls and one-third computer rankings. Through the years human voters have shown favoritism to unbeaten major conference teams over a club with one loss, even if that was on the road against a quality opponent. The computers meanwhile didn't factor strength of schedule enough to offset human tendency.
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Major powers adjusted accordingly. In 1988, before the creation of the Bowl Alliance, the precursor to the BCS, there were 15 non-conference games where both teams were ranked in the AP preseason top 20. This year there were just two featuring AP preseason top 20 teams: Alabama-Michigan and Clemson-South Carolina.
While one of the BCS's oft-repeated talking points was that it protected the regular season, it was, in fact, destroying the non-conference portion.
Now it's back to the future as athletic directors across the country place their faith in a selection committee that will rationally analyze a body of work, not just blindly follow records.
For example, Oregon was ranked fifth in the final BCS standings last season, one spot behind Stanford. The Ducks had two losses, but one was to then top-ranked LSU on a neutral field. Stanford had just one loss, but it was to Oregon, by 23 points at home. The Ducks also won the Pac-12 title.
The BCS didn't care. It claimed Stanford was better. An informed selection committee would never make that decision and thus penalize Oregon for playing a challenging non-conference schedule. Conversely, a weak non-conference schedule might cost you on selection day.
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"As ADs in the Big Ten," Smith said, "we had a discussion about the playoff and how the selection committee might consider criteria for the participating teams. We felt non-conference strength of schedule should be considered and probably would."
There's more to it. Fans, who have begun to resist poor matchups love it, even the potential road games to different areas of the country. Ohio State is scheduled to play at TCU's cool 45,000-seat Amon G. Carter Stadium, dubbed the "Camden Yards of College Football." And television, which is doling out billions, covets the higher ratings of a significant game.
While not everyone will go as far as Smith and seek four major opponents, any uptick is welcome. Wisconsin, which was long mocked for notably weak schedules, now says it will seek at least two major non-conference opponents, preferably traditionally successful clubs. It's following the Big Ten's conference wide mandate.
"If you want to be a player [in the national title chase] and strength of schedule is going to be a part of it, then you really have to consider [a different approach]," Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez told the Wisconsin State Journal.
The playoff's extended field has allowed the scheduling concept to spread to programs that haven't traditionally contended for national titles.
"I do think you need to make sure you're smart from a strength-of-schedule point so your program is in the best possible position when you make a run for a conference title [and thus a spot in the playoff]," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said.
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That isn't to say this is simple, that there isn't still a benefit from an easier tune-up or that college football is about to turn into a NFL battle royale.
Putting together a schedule remains a challenge, especially years in advance, because many programs need to have seven home dates to balance their budgets. That leaves five road games and obviously the numbers don't work perfectly.
As a result, even the Buckeyes will have to fill in when necessary. So games against MAC schools will still happen, "but only sparingly if possible," Smith said.
One complaint among ADs is the price for bringing in weaker opponents has soared beyond reason. Arizona's Byrne said the school will bring in between $1 million and $1.5 million for a home game against a weaker name non-conference opponent.
"If we have to pay them $900,000 then that doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Byrne said. "If there are less of those games being scheduled, it could soften the market place."
Arizona, for instance, is willing to play home-and-home series with regional teams in the Mountain West or Conference USA. Byrne is on the verge of signing a deal with UTEP or perhaps New Mexico, which becomes a more competitive game because of the location of the contest. It also gives fans an interesting, but not travel prohibitive, road trip to make.
There's also been an increase in neutral-site games, particularly on the first weekend of the season. What started with the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas and a game in Atlanta run by the Chick-fil-A Bowl is now expanding.
The Georgia Dome hosted quality non-conference games on Friday [North Carolina State-Tennessee] and Saturday [Clemson-Auburn] this season and there has been some talk about trying to add a Monday night game. Meanwhile, Houston's Reliant Stadium is getting into the act and will host Oklahoma State-Mississippi State next Labor Day weekend. And Sunday night of that weekend is just begging for some good games.
At this point, anything is an improvement. The difference between college football powers seeking 2-3 or even four strong opponents rather than just one have a dramatic effect on the totality of the sport. The days of laying low and trying to beat the BCS formula appear over. Sanity and competitiveness have returned.
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It's better for the fans, better for the game.
"At Ohio State I am trying to play higher-ranked opponents," Smith said.
Freed from the restraints of the conservative BCS, college football is back out there looking for a challenge.
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