How Conference-Only Schedule Will Impact College Football Playoff
When the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced that they were canceling nonconference games and moving to 10-game conference schedules for a possible 2020 season, I was filled with dueling emotions.
The strongest was one of fear. Fear that, if two Power Five conferences were already taking such drastic steps, the likelihood that there won’t be a 2020 college football season at all was more significant than I wanted to admit. The second feeling was one I didn’t want to share too strongly because of the fear.
The second feeling was excitement.
I’ve long felt that more conference games is the direction college football should go. I would prefer seeing schools play 10 conference games every season and two nonconference games to what we see now. There are too many games played between schools with no connection to one another, while regional rivals who share a conference and began playing a century ago might see one another once a decade. It’s a system that makes little sense.
For example, look at the game that had initially been scheduled to take place this fall between Alabama and USC. It’s an attractive matchup for sure. They’re two of the most successful programs in college football history. It’s the kind of game bowls were made for, but we wouldn’t have to wait until January to get it.
The problem is that Alabama and USC met just a few years ago in 2016. That means the 2020 game would have been the second time in five seasons that Alabama and USC had met during the regular season. Compare that to how often Alabama has played conference mates like Georgia and Florida. As things stand, Alabama and Georgia are scheduled to play in September. This is a big deal because they’re both College Football Playoff contenders, but it’s also a big deal because it would be the first time they’ve met in the regular season since 2015. That means that, had Alabama’s game with USC not been canceled, the Tide would have played more regular-season games against USC in the last five years than Georgia. What makes it more remarkable is that, before the 2015 meeting, the last time Georgia and Alabama had a regular-season meeting was the 2008 season.
They’ve met three times in the SEC Championship Game since that 2008 meeting, meaning they’ve played more games in Atlanta than on campus. Alabama hasn’t played Florida in the regular season since 2014. The Tide have played the Gators in Atlanta for the SEC title twice in that time.
This isn’t a problem isolated to the SEC. North Carolina and Wake Forest scheduled a nonconference game last season even though both play in the ACC. Since they aren’t in the same division, and like the SEC, are members of a 14-team league that plays an eight-game conference schedule, it was the only way they could avoid the problem of not playing a state rival more than once or twice a decade.
A 10-game conference schedule, along with getting rid of divisions altogether, would solve this problem and provide better television content for all the networks desperate for games to show. Borrowing an idea SB Nation first proposed a few years ago, conferences could adopt a pod system. You play three “rivals” every season and seven other rotating conference games. In a 14-team league, this means you’d never go longer than three seasons without playing a conference opponent. In a 12-team league like the Pac-12, you’d never go more than one season.
Of course, the 10-team leagues like the Big 12 and Sun Belt throw a wrench in the gears, but it’s one that could be solved quickly. If neither conference wants to expand, they could adopt a schedule that would see them playing one conference opponent twice a season. Depending on how the conference’s feel about it, this opponent could be a permanent “rival” that they play, or it could be based on the previous season’s standings. For instance, last year, Texas Tech and Kansas finished ninth and 10th in the conference. They could play twice in 2020, while Oklahoma and Baylor (first and second) would play twice. Or it could just be a rotating opponent. Whatever path they took, an extra conference game would be far more exciting for fans of schools and television networks than a sleepy September afternoon game against Northwest Missouri Technical Institute of Art or whatever.
As for games at neutral sites that networks and schools love because of the revenue they bring in, we could keep those too. If conferences adopted a uniform 10-game conference schedule, they could choose a uniform nonconference scheduling policy.
Every school’s nonconference slate would consist of one Power Five opponent and one opponent from a G5 or Independent school. Whether Notre Dame would be considered Power Five or Group of Five is up for interpretation. It wouldn’t be the first time college football had a separate set of rules for the Golden Domers, would it?
Now, this could lead to the end of some rivalries. The SEC and ACC have a long history of rivalry games between members, and some schools might not like the idea of that game being their permanent nonconference Power Five opponent. If you’re Georgia Tech or South Carolina, I’d certainly understand that possible desire. But, again, that will be up to the schools whether or not they want to maintain those rivalries. We’ve seen plenty of rivalries come and go in this sport in the last decade. It wouldn’t be anything new.
Hell, this format could increase the odds of some of those rivalries returning. If everybody is playing by the same rules, maybe Texas and Texas A&M finally decide to stop being children and reunite. Maybe Nebraska and Oklahoma, or Kansas and Missouri do the same.
Now, some conferences will argue against this idea because it will hurt their College Football Playoff chances. This is a reason why the ACC and SEC have been hesitant to add a ninth conference game. If everybody is playing by the same rules and you genuinely are the stronger conference, then it shouldn’t matter. Your champion might have two losses, but so will the champions of other Power Five conferences. Plus, when the CFP expands — and it will — conference champions will likely be the only automatic berths, making the win-loss record redundant. At-larges could be decided by how conferences perform in nonconference games, bowls and playoff games. The better a conference performs, the higher score it gets, and the higher the conference’s score, the more likely it is to get a second or maybe even a third team into the playoff.
A lot of these same things could be accomplished by having every conference play a nine-game conference schedule, but 10 is better for a couple of reasons. First of all, conference games are better products than buy-games. Second, nine-game schedules are inherently dumb because half a conference gets five home games, while the other half gets four. That creates an imbalance right from the start. That’s the kind of thing that should be avoided.
So, if the 2020 season is played — fingers crossed! — and the 10-game conference schedules go off without a hitch, I’ll be thrilled that we had a season. And throughout, I’ll be hoping that the people in charge will see the light and realize how great a 10-game conference schedule can be for the sport.