While there is no logical way to achieve true equality in college football scheduling, is the issuing of bold requirements – that aren’t enforced – moving us further away from fairness?
Think about it this way, when – if ever – does a conversation about “strength of schedule” result in any concrete consequences?
When it matters: CFB Playoff Committee selection.
When it doesn’t matter: Bowl selection, division titles, conference championship game seedings, Top 25 rankings.
The truth is, the only potential hazard to under-scheduling occurs at the end of the regular season – when a program has a legitimate case to have its resume compared with other undefeated or one-loss teams vying for a coveted Playoff slot.
Even if the CFP committee follows through with its promise to consider schedule strength, its decision only affects the top 12 teams in the nation – the programs that qualify to participate in the New Year’s Six (which includes the two playoff games).
That’s only 12 out of the 130 FBS teams (or 9% of the field) that are held to a scheduling standard with teeth – or real consequences.
To illustrate, consider the following scenarios.
(a). Washington State hasn’t scheduled a regular season non-conference Power opponent since 2015. That didn’t stop the Cougars from falling one-loss short of winning last season’s Pac-12 North division and playing Utah for the conference championship. WSU finished tied with Washington, both holding 7-2 records in Pac-12 play. If not for the Cougars’ 28-15 loss the Huskies in the regular-season finale they would have advanced.
Compare the two teams’ 2018 non-league slate. Washington: (9) Auburn (in Atlanta, Ga.), FCS North Dakota, and (20) BYU. Washington State: at Wyoming, San Jose State, and FCS Eastern Washington.
The Cougars also don’t have a Power opponent scheduled outside of Pac-12 play in 2019.
(b). Minnesota finished the 2018 regular season 6-6, earning it bowl eligibility for the first time since 2016. Included in the tally was a perfect 3-0 mark in non-conference play: New Mexico State (48-10), Fresno State (21-14), and Miami Ohio (26-3). While the Big Ten technically considers Fresno State a Power opponent (yes, I just said that), issuing a special dispensation in 2016, compare Minnesota’s slate with Purdue’s.
The Boilermakers also went 6-6, only they faced Missouri, (23) Boston College, and Eastern Michigan out of Big Ten play. They went 1-2 in those games and 5-4 in conference action vs. the Gophers’ 3-0 mark in non-league play and a 3-6 record vs. the Big Ten.
Regardless of the disparity, the outcome was the same – the “reward” was equal – Minnesota to the Quick Lane Bowl and Purdue to Music City Bowl.
Minnesota, like Washington State, also won’t play a non-conference Power opponent again in 2019.
(c). Oregon enjoyed its best finish since 2015 under new head coach Mario Cristobal, posting a 9-4 record which included climbing as high as No. 12 in the AP and scoring its first bowl win over a Power foe since 2014. Compare that to UCLA, which went 3-9 under new head man Chip Kelly, the fewest wins in program history since 1989.
It’s a six-win gap – making it seem as if the Ducks are on the right path under Cristobal while the Bruins are a train-wreck under Kelly.
While it certainly doesn’t explain away the entire scenario – look at each squad’s non-conference schedule and see if you can’t find a reason for at least half of the difference in wins.
Oregon: Bowling Green, FCS Portland State, and San Jose State
UCLA: Cincinnati, at (6) Oklahoma, and Fresno State
Where Oregon played two FBS teams that combined for a 4-20 record in 2018, UCLA played the Big 12 champion, the Mountain West champion, and a Cincinnati team that went 11-2. Combined the trio went 35-6 and all finished in the final AP Top 25.
The message is clear: schedule whomever you would like, regardless of any “strength of schedule commitment” nonsense and you can ascend all the way to, and win, the conference championship.
For 2019, the potential inequality gets ramped up to the next level – when one of the top teams in the country will have an opportunity to test the outer limits of the “we’re not serious about scheduling standards” discussion.
Indeed, next season Ohio State finds its name listed among the eight teams not playing a Power opponent outside of non-conference action. The Buckeyes get FAU, Cincinnati, and Miami Ohio in 2019. As a disclaimer, the Bearcats are, like Fresno State, one of the Group of Five programs the Big Ten cherry-picked as “Power” foes.
While it’s illogical to think that a perfect, or one-loss, Ohio State would get a nod from the committee over a Clemson (Texas A&M, Charlotte, FCS Wofford, and at South Carolina), Alabama (Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss, and FCS Western Carolina), Georgia (Notre Dame, FCS Murray State, Arkansas State, and at Georgia Tech) or Oklahoma (Houston, FCS South Dakota, and UCLA) with the same record – it could reasonably jump a less-desirable name like Stanford (Northwestern, at UCF, Notre Dame) or Iowa State (Iowa, ULM, FCS Northern Iowa).
Also included on the naughty list is fellow Big Ten-member Wisconsin, which should be among the favorites to win the Big Ten-West, and therefore contenders to win a conference crown. The Badgers have non-league games at USF, vs. Central Michigan and vs. Kent State in 2019.
The issue is straightforward – how can a team be eligible to win a league title (and therefore represent it at the next level) if it refuses to follow that leagues’ scheduling dictates?
The gross inequality in scheduling will continue to exist, and damage the integrity of the game, until conferences – especially the Power leagues – standardize requirements and then hold their members accountable.