Why is the non-SEC nonconference slate so weak this year? A theory on that trend
Before you start reading this, yes I know.
I know that the SEC has Cupcake Week loaded with FCS opponents and the 8-game conference schedule is a major benefit. I’m by no means dismissing that and saying the SEC is actually challenging itself while the rest of the Power 5 conferences are taking the easy way out.
But try and find me a nonconference headliner game that doesn’t involve the SEC this year.
I’ll get you started. Notre Dame-Michigan.
There ya go. That’s about it.
For whatever reason, that looks like the only non-SEC nonconference game that has Playoff potential for both teams. I realize those things can change and certain games can wind up being more important than we realize at the time (see 2017 Georgia-Notre Dame). But for now, it’s baffling to see so few nonconference headliners outside of the SEC.
And just so we’re clear, these are the best nonconference games of 2019:
- Texas A&M-Clemson
- Notre Dame-Georgia
- Florida-Miami (in Orlando)
- Auburn-Oregon (in Dallas)
If you want to include Florida State-Florida in there, be my guest, though I’d argue a 5-win team traveling to face a squad that doubled its win total last year isn’t a headliner.
So you can see what I’m talking about, here’s the top nonconference game for teams in ESPN’s post-spring power rankings. Also, I excluded SEC teams and non-SEC teams with a headliner game against an SEC opponent. Make sense?
- Oklahoma — at UCLA
- Ohio State — vs. Cincinnati
- Michigan — vs. Notre Dame
- Penn State — vs. Pitt
- UCF — vs. Stanford
- Washington — at BYU
- Utah — at BYU
- Stanford — vs. Northwestern
- Washington State — vs. Houston
- Nebraska — at Colorado
- Wisconsin — at South Florida
- Syracuse — at Maryland
- Iowa — at Iowa State
- Army — at Michigan
Besides Notre Dame-Michigan, there are some decent games in there like Iowa-Iowa State and Stanford-UCF, but do you see what I’m saying? Of those 14 opponents, fewer than half (6) were Power 5 bowl teams last year.
Is some of this a bit random? Sure. I realize that these things are planned years in advance. The UCF-Stanford matchup was scheduled in September of the first Playoff, which was more than 3 years prior to the Knights completing an undefeated season. Wisconsin and USF agreed to their matchup before the final year of the BCS era.
That actually leads me to my theory about why this 2019 non-SEC nonconference slate is indeed so weak.
Look back on when these matchups were scheduled. Most were announced in the 2013-14 range. The Playoff was announced in spring of 2013. It would make sense if contenders teams were a bit in wait-and-see mode with their nonconference scheduling.
At the time, it was natural to feel some uncertainty for how nonconference games were going to be valued by the Playoff selection committee. Would they matter? Not everyone took this approach, but I don’t think it’s surprising to see a lot of schools take the path of least resistance.
When the announcement of the new Playoff system happened back in 2013, I highly doubt every athletic director said, “Get me Alabama on the line, ASAP.” And in their defense, why would you? If they went 10-2 and missed out on the Playoff because they scheduled Alabama instead of BYU, they’d hear about it forever.
In fact, months after the initial announcement of the Playoff, Georgia Tech and Alabama canceled a 2-game series that would have been played in 2019 in Tuscaloosa and in 2020 in Atlanta (in 2013 Alabama also pulled out of a home-and-home with Michigan State that would’ve been played in 2016 and 2017 because of “business reasons,” AKA the Playoff).
This small window of uncertainty from 2013-14 perhaps is at the root of this strange 2019 trend. And for what it’s worth, there were actually supposed to be some better non-SEC nonconference games in 2019. In 2012, TCU and Ohio State had a home-and-home lined up for 2018 and 2019. But it was scheduled before the Playoff system was announced. Years later, they agreed to instead have one neutral site game in 2018.
So why then is the SEC the only conference with big-time headliners for 2019? The ACC and SEC are the only 2 Power 5 conferences with the 8-game schedule. Generally, it’s still a priority to have nonconference headliners because of the aforementioned built-in cupcake week. And 2 of those 5 games — Oregon-Auburn and Florida-Miami — were agreed upon in 2015 and 2016, respectively, after the Playoff era began. They were also less-scary neutral site games, which were all the rage from a scheduling perspective in the early Playoff days.
As for the ACC, there’s a realistic possibility that Clemson and Syracuse are the only 2 ACC teams that will start the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. That just means there are fewer opportunities for nonconference headliners (Boston College-Kansas should be lit, though).
That leaves us with the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12, all of which operate under the 9-game conference schedule. On top of some of the initial wave of uncertainty of what kind of schedule the selection committee would value back in 2013-14, all of those conferences lacked incentive to beef up their nonconference schedule in the past 3 years. And believe me, they could have.
Ohio State, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin had plenty of time to try and add a headliner if they really wanted to instead of avoiding a Power 5 team in nonconference play. Instead, they chose the nonconference path of least resistance.
Is there a possibility that one of those teams has 1 loss and it gets left out of the Playoff because of that decision? Definitely. But maybe with 5 years of the Playoff and still zero 2-loss teams with bids, those teams just decided, you know what, let’s hope our conference gives us enough quality foes and the rest will take care of itself.
While each school is different, it’s almost like there’s some pushback with the 8- and 9-game conference scheduling. At least among the 9-game conference schedule teams. They didn’t feel the need to scramble to add a headliner.
Is that a far-off theory? Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. To me, though, that would make more sense than the alternative response for why the non-SEC nonconference slate is lacking. That is, “it’s all random.”
Maybe it’s not as random as it looks.