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The future of college football scheduling

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As the contraction of college football continues via conference “realignment,” every element of the schedule becomes the subject of debate: Should the SEC add a ninth conference game, should FBS teams no longer play FCS schools, should conferences coordinate their non-conference schedules? None of these questions will be resolved before the 2013 season kicks off in August, but by the time the new playoff arrives in 2014, we’ll start to get some answers.
The Conference Schedule: 8 vs. 9 (vs. 10)

The Pac-12 and Big 12 will play nine-game schedules in 2013. The ACC, which adds Syracuse and Pittsburgh this season, originally planned to go to nine games but reversed course last October, citing “scheduling tensions” for schools like Clemson and Georgia Tech that want to maintain intra-conference rivalries. The 14-member ACC will employ an eight-game schedule similar to the SEC with six division games, a fixed cross-division “rival” and a rotating cross-division opponent.

The Big Ten is poised to adopt at least a nine-game conference schedule after the league expands to 14 schools with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. Last week Commissioner Jim Delany said the league’s presidents will consider a future nine- or ten-game schedule in June. A nine-game schedule seems the likelier option. Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez noted in response to Delany’s statement, “If you go to 10 [conference games], you can forget about seven home games.”

Alvarez and the other Big Ten athletic directors have already agreed not to schedule future non-conference games against Football Championship Subdivision (aka I-AA) opponents. This should take effect in 2014. Eliminating these games facilitates the move towards at least nine conference games.

The obvious drawback to a nine-game schedule is the inequity of some teams having five home conference games while others have four. This has been the major stumbling block towards an SEC move to nine games.

The obvious drawback to a nine-game schedule is the inequity of some teams having five home conference games while others have four. This has been the major stumbling block towards an SEC move to nine games. Coaches and athletic directors are understandably reluctant to cede any competitive advantage in the nation’s top football conference. Commissioner Mike Slive said last November that members spent “a lot of time” considering nine games after Missouri and Texas A&M joined the league—and that “there was an overwhelming majority” opposed.

A nine-game schedule would only increase pressure on coaches, who are judged by fans and administrators primarily on conference record. And as Wisconsin’s Alvarez noted, the extra conference game means losing a (normally) guaranteed home win against a lower-quality opponent. There’s a danger that a more intense conference schedule will simply cannibalize the league and produce greater coaching turnover on a year-to-year basis.

But the counter-argument is that increased intra-division play is good for the product, and thus good for fans. Alabama playing South Carolina is better than Alabama playing Troy. And as conferences continue to expand—there’s no reason to think the SEC won’t eventually move to at least 16 schools—it’s important to provide sufficient cross-division games so as to maintain a cohesive identity. If SEC schools only play each once a decade, are they really in the same conference?

Enter the Playoff

The SEC may ultimately be forced to abandon the eight-game schedule when the new playoff format is introduced in 2014. Commissioner Slive admitted as much, saying that when the playoff arrives, “[W]e have to at least be sensitive and alert to make sure that our model, our formula, works for us in the way in which we want it to work.” In other words, the SEC won’t stick with eight games if it gets in the way of winning national championships.

There are still many details to be hashed out regarding the new playoff. But strength of schedule will no doubt be a critical factor in deciding what four teams participate each year.

strength of schedule will no doubt be a critical factor in deciding what four teams participate each year

The Big Ten’s move to ban FCS opponents is an acknowledgment of this. SEC schools will likely be compelled to take similar action. At a minimum, FCS opponents will have to be replaced with major-conference schools, if not a ninth conference game.

This is where the coaches may realize a nine-game schedule can work to their benefit. A flaw in the present bowl system is the extended dead period in between regular season and post-season. Notre Dame had 44 days off between their regular season finale against USC and getting blown out by Alabama in the BCS title game. More to the point, Notre Dame, which obviously schedules all of its own games, only played a single ranked opponent between the end of October and the championship. SEC coaches may take note of this and come around on the importance of a stronger in-conference schedule, both to help qualify for the playoff and prepare their teams for the big finish.

Conference Alliances

Recently the SEC acknowledged it has reached out to the Big 12 about a “partnership” that would include coordinated regular season scheduling. These talks appear very preliminary and few details have been publicly discussed. The Big 12 has said it is looking into potential alliances with a number of conferences, including the ACC and Big Ten. Previously the Big Ten and Pac-12 explored, but ultimately abandoned, a multi-sport scheduling alliance.

We could be seeing the end of decentralized college football scheduling in favor of a more centralized, NFL-style approach.

If such alliances do materialize, we could be seeing the end of decentralized college football scheduling in favor of a more centralized, NFL-style approach. Conference commissioners would replace athletic directors in determining non-conference schedules, which in turn would lead to a regular rotation of intra-conference games.

The NFL’s schedule ensures every team plays one another at least once every four years. There is a fixed rotation of cross-division matchups, i.e. the AFC East will play the NFC South and AFC North in 2013. This enables teams and fans to know years in advance who most of their opponents will be (the NFL still schedules two “strength of schedule” opponents based on the previous year’s record). Such an approach may have a strong appeal to college athletic departments—and fans—looking for a measure of cost certainty when it comes to travel.

Fixing intra-conference schedules would also mark a logical final step in the realignment/contraction process. Once the major conferences unite their schedules, they’ll no longer have any need to carry the smaller conferences as dead weight. There will simply be four or five conferences, encompassing 60 to 70 total schools, with predictable scheduling patterns.

Another NFL practice that could find its way into college is the use of smaller divisions. NCAA rules mandate round-robin division play as a condition of staging a conference championship. This has prevented leagues from considering alternate arrangements like the NFL’s eight four-team divisions. The 14-team SEC has effectively pushed the two-division model to its breaking point. Once a conference crosses the 16-team barrier, it would make far more sense from a scheduling a competitive balance standpoint to realign the league into four divisions (which would perhaps require the addition of a conference semifinal game).

Propping Up The Stadium Bubble

The NFL may also influence college football scheduling by attracting even more games to debt-ridden professional stadiums. Arlington’s Cowboys Stadium and Atlanta’s Georgia Dome have regularly played host to regular season games featuring SEC teams, such as the Alabama-Virginia Tech season opener scheduled for this August. And with the NFL’s insatiable thirst for cheap credit and taxpayer subsidies, there will continue to be new and renovated stadiums in need of additional events. In many of these places, such as Atlanta and Charlotte, college football will prove even more attractive than second-rate NFL teams.

Photo from Icon SMI

There’s also the noticeable decline in post-season bowl attendance, a problem that’s only going to get worse once the playoff arrives. Much like the Chick-fil-A Bowl has done with adding its kickoff game, other bowls may transition to bidding for attractive regular season matches—which, again, will be much easier to do if the leagues coordinate their schedules. The bowl system might then shift entirely away from the post-season towards a unified “Kickoff Week,” where the games serve as a Labor Day marketing hook. (Remember, bowls were originally started largely to lure Holiday travelers.)

Additional neutral-site games could also be a way to resolve concerns over losing a home date to a nine-game conference schedule. In the end, everyone can’t play seven home games in a contracted super-league. But you could split the difference by allowing an NFL stadium to host a game.

Television

Ultimately, all scheduling comes down to producing inventory for television. ESPN and the other networks are always in the market for more programming. Most of the potential changes discussed above work to television’s benefit—they’ll make the product more marketable, which is to say, more like the NFL. Certainly ESPN and CBS won’t say no to more SEC conference matches or a fixed rotation with the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12. Additional conference inventory is also needed because of proprietary networks like the Big Ten Network and what will inevitably be the SEC Network.

The additional wrinkle introduced by television, however, is the drive to have games outside the traditional Saturday window. Thursday night games have already become an ESPN mainstay. League-owned cable networks will find off-nights especially attractive in helping to generate demand among cable subscribers. This was the NFL’s strategy when it adopted a full slate of Thursday night games on the NFL Network.

Re-Defining the Season

One constant underlying all of this is the 12-game regular season. This is fixed by NCAA bylaw. Any change would require the consent of the NCAA bureaucracy and the college presidents, the majority of whom would strenuously object to adding games. Beyond the additional cost there is legitimate concern about further exposure to liability if and when the NCAA and its members become defendants in the concussion class actions. Unlike the NFL, which has pushed for additional regular season games to help prop up its declining stadium-revenue model, there has been no significant stirring for more games in college football. Of course, if the major conferences were to leave the NCAA altogether and form a new, football-only regulatory body, everything would be on the table, including the addition of a 13th or 14th game.

Even if the 12-game schedule remains a fixture well into the future, there may still be efforts to spread things out more, in part to eliminate the extended gap between season and playoff, and also to reduce the pressure on coaches and athletes. The present SEC schedule runs 13 weeks between the start of September and the end of November.

College football could introduce a “pre-season” game against a token opponent from the minor conferences or the FCS

This allows for a single bye week. It wouldn’t be a radical change to add a second bye week—a nod to concerns about player health—and move up the conference championship games to create a 14-week season.

Or things could go in the other direction. The season could begin earlier. In lieu of adding a 13th regular season game, college football could introduce a “pre-season” game against a token opponent from the minor conferences or the FCS—in effect reviving the game now being phased out, but without any consequences for coaching record of playoff strength-of-schedule calculations. Coaches would certainly welcome another opportunity to test their players against live competition, even if it’s only half-speed.

Conclusion

There’s no question that traditional scheduling principles are falling by the wayside. Forty years ago the eastern seaboard was dominated by independent schools that saw little need for conference affiliation. The SEC was once a small club of schools united by a compact geographic footprint. The Big Ten actually had ten members. Television brought about two great waves of realignment, in the early 1990s and today, that redefined the nature of the conference. Full round-robin schedules are no longer the norm except in the ten-member Big 12. Now we’re in an age of consolidation, contraction and maximizing financial returns.

That said, not all traditional principles can or should be ignored. For most fans, their biggest question about possible scheduling changes is, “Will this affect our traditional rivalry game?” The suspension, hopefully temporary, of the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry still daunts Aggie fans despite the overwhelming success of the move from the Big 12 to the SEC. Rivalries are at the core of college football’s appeal, and any future scheduling alliances or arrangements that lead to their further decline would be a self-defeating act.





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Comments 8

  1. I’m looking forward to more conference games.

    • Few more conference games will happen as soon as the sec brain trust figures out how to get into the championship with 3+ losses!

  2. Sorry, but I believe Alabama plays Va Tech.

  3. There are some things that need to be considered before trying to rush college football into an NFL style structure:

    1) FBS schools don’t just play FCS schools for semi-guaranteed wins. It is also a matter of economics and fan attendance. FCS game contracts are hardly ever home and home. So, an FBS school is guaranteed a certain number of home game annually and also get to keep the bulk of the money earned. Losing a home game not only cuts the school’s revenue but also damages the economy of the community in which the school resides. It could also damage non-revenue sports that depend on football to survive.

    2) Adding more and tougher FBS schools to a schedule will reduce the ability to give younger players more playing time during the season. This will reduce the ability to develop depth and talent as the season progresses and for future years.

    3) Additional games increase risk to players, will result in teams limping into playoffs exhausted, which would impact quality of play besides increased likelihood for injuries. As is, at the end of regular seasons teams are tired and have multiple injuries.

    4) Additional and tougher games (some on non-weekends) will put a hardship on the student part of student-athlete. Yes I know there is the widespread belief that academics for college athletes is a joke but it is still a fact that these kids are rightly expected to maintain a passing grade point. By-in-large student athletes are not given their grades as they once were just to remain eligible.

    5) Playing tougher schedules will result in more lost games. More lost games will result in fan dissatisfaction. More fan dissatisfaction will result in more pressure on coaches to win and to turn struggling programs around quickly. More pressue to win will result in shorter coaching tenures and increased temptation to cheat in order to keep a job. Short coaching tenures can lead to a cycle of mediocrity because of the lack of fan patience.

    I’m afraid too many of us college football fans have become so fanatical about the sport that we have lost perspective of what college football is all about. We also seem willing to destroy what has been a successful model just to add more football or increase the level of difficulty. I don’t disagree that there can be some changes made to improve the game. The upcoming playoff format is just such a positive move. However, college football does not need to become NFL-light.

    • I totally agree with your second point about giving younger players a chance to play. Playing a couple of cupcakes every year helps to build depth and it gives your team a breather.Your starters get their legs back, injuries are reduced,etc. You make some good points.

  4. Great article! I understand the need/desire for a lower-performing school on your schedule, but I would like to see the FCS schools taken off the schedules. At least schedule Tulane instead of The Citadel! I’d like to see the major conferences playing each other more frequently in the regular season, especially if there’s no bowl tie-in that matches conferences up. I don’t know about you, but I’m getting bored of watching 4-5 different SEC vs Big10 bowl games every year. Let’s get some bowl tie-ins with EVERY major conference.

    • I agree it would be more interesting to play say a Tulane over The Citadel. Some want to see more games like LSU when they played the home and home versus Washington. People complain the SEC plays too many southern teams. But the problem playing a west coast team is the travel time, time zone difference, inability for many fans to travel with the team and cost of such a long trip.

      Additionally, last season I heard a lot of Big Ten and PAC 12 fans complaining that Alabama and Auburn played FCS schools like FAU, Western Kentucky, New Mexico State and LA-Monroe. Apparently a lot of fans don’t know who is and who is not an FCS school. All four of those schools are FBS. The only FCS team the Tide played was W. Carolina and the only FCS team the Tigers played was Alabama A&M. Each of those games were played prior to the Iron Bowl.