The field has finally been set for the third season in the College Football Playoff era. There were no real surprises in the top three selections. Alabama is undefeated and has looked untouchable so far this year. Clemson had some close calls in the middle of the season, but they finished off Virginia Tech to win the ACC championship. Ohio State did not win the Big Ten championship, but the overall strength of schedule numbers were too great to leave them out of the top four.
The final spot was given to Washington, the Pac 12 champion. The Huskies only lost one game all season, and that was to a very hot USC team. The committee selected all the teams from the power 5 conferences with either 0 losses or 1 loss. In fact, in the three years of the playoff system, 11 of the 12 spots have gone to undefeated or 1-loss conference champions. The precedent has basically been set: Win the conference championship in a power 5 conference with either 0 losses or 1 loss, and you are a lock for the playoff.
On the surface it appears the committee did a great job, but a deeper look at the numbers shows a different story. Washington only lost 1 game all season, but this was partly due to a weak non-conference schedule that included Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State. The best team from that group has to be Rutgers, and the words “best team” and “Rutgers” should never be used in the same sentence. Washington did win some nice games in the Pac 12 over Stanford, Utah, and Colorado, but USC was the best team they played all season, and they lost at home 26-13.
Penn State on the other hand was the Big Ten conference champion, but they lost 2 games. This is partly due to a more challenging non-conference schedule. The Nittany Lions played Kent State, Pittsburgh, and Temple before heading into conference play. They lost at Pittsburgh 42-39, and at the time this appeared to be a bad loss. In reality Pittsburgh turned out to be a really solid team with an 8-4 record and also a victory at Clemson. Penn State beat Temple 34-27, and then Temple went on to win the American Athletic Conference championship. Other than an ugly loss to Michigan early in the season, Penn State ran the table in the Big Ten with wins over Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Their non-conference and conference schedules were much tougher than Washington’s, but the selection committee went with the better record.
The selection of Washington over a team such as Penn State sets a dangerous precedent moving forward with the selection committee. They are basically telling teams that any program that loses 2 or more games, even if they are conference champions, won’t have a chance at a playoff spot. As athletic directors and administrators, the focus will now turn to how to limit losses instead of playing a challenging schedule to boost the overall strength of a schedule. Look for teams such as Penn State and Oklahoma, who both had challenging non-conference schedules, to look for easier wins early in the season. It would be better to play Idaho and Portland State than to play Ohio State and Houston. If this is the standard that the committee wants to set, then that is their prerogative. They just need to know that the standards that have been set can’t be changed from season to season.
There is a solution to the drastic differences in the non-conference scheduling across the college football landscape: Select one person to draw up the schedules for all the teams.
This may sound crazy and impossible, but it isn’t. From 1981 to 2004, a married couple made the regular season schedule for Major League Baseball. Henry and Holly Stephenson were chosen by MLB to construct the schedule. ESPN even made a documentary about them.
It would be a large task, but if the Stephenson’s can do it for a professional league with a 162-game season, then college football should be a cake walk.
The centralized scheduling idea would fix the problem of having wide variances in the strength of non-conference schedules while preserving rivalries and conference matchups. The first step is to have Notre Dame and BYU join power conferences. There is no business having them stay independent when the committee continually favors conference champions. The second step is that all college football teams need to play a 9-game conference schedule. The Big 12, the Big Ten, and the Pac 12 already play the 9-game schedule, but the other seven conferences need to follow suit. This would mean that all teams then need to play 3 non-conference games.
The breakdown of the games for each team would go as follows:
Game 1: Based on the results of the previous season, each team must play a non-conference opponent with a similar record and ranking. A conference champion such as Clemson would play a team which finished first or second in another power conference. A cellar dweller such a Missouri would play a team which finished near the bottom in another power conference. This would be the same for the group of 5 teams as well. Western Michigan, the MAC champion, would play another top team from a mid-major conference. The only anomaly would be that non-conference rivalries would be preserved. Florida would always be scheduled against Florida State, and Clemson would always play South Carolina. It would be counterproductive to ruin these and other classic showdowns.
Game 2: Every power conference team must play a mid-major team from their general region. Matchups would also be set based on the finish from the previous season. The top power teams would play the top mid-major teams all the way down to the bottom teams playing each other. This is more of a game to garner regional interest and allow the underdog to have a chance against the regional favorite. For instance, Ohio State could play Toledo, who finished second in its division in the MAC. Rutgers could play Buffalo, both bottom feeders in their respective conferences.
Game 3: Every football team in the bowl division would play one game against a team from the championship division from their general region. This would be a guarantee game, or a home game for the major program with a large payout for the smaller program. This would help the smaller program generate some revenue and be as close to a guaranteed win for the major program as possible. Alabama could play Jacksonville State. Tennessee could play Chattanooga.
This scenario would fix a lot of the strength of schedule issues in the non-conference schedule, and it would bring some sanity to a college football system where the conferences basically run business in totally different ways. There is no guarantee how good teams will be from one year to the next, but it would be a whole lot better than the current system, and it would definitely help answer a debate over whether a 2-loss Penn State team or a 1-loss Washington team deserves to make the playoff.
By Ben Billman
Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.