Monday, July 15, 2013

9-Game Conference Schedules: Potentially the Best (Or Worst) Thing for College Football

Could 9-game conference schedules lead to more games like LSU vs Oregon?

By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

As I continue my long journey through sports purgatory into football season, news came down today that the Big Ten officially plans to switch to a 9-game football schedule, beginning in 2016.

As a fan of one of the Big Ten's lesser programs, Purdue, my first thought was "well, here come a bunch of 4 or 5 win seasons for us."

After all, programs like Purdue, Minnesota, Iowa State, Virginia, Vanderbilt and Washington State pretty much need to schedule themselves three or four wins every year to have a shot at a decent bowl game. It's gotten so bad at Purdue, that I pretty much consider Central Michigan and Northern Illinois to be our rivals. Damn you Chippewas!

But for the betterment of college football, this development could be a necessary step toward getting the whole national playoff thing right. Or, conversely, it could lead to another SEC circle jerk. Really, it depends on how teams and the eventual playoff committee value challenging non-conference schedules.

With the Big East becoming all basketball-ey and all Catholic-ey, we are now left with five power conferences (ACC, Big XII, Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC) and three of them will be playing 9-game conference slates within the next four years. The ACC had planned to switch to a 9-game schedule with the additions of Pitt and Syracuse, but when Notre Dame joined the conference for all other sports, the Irish also agreed to play a minimum of five games against ACC opponents in football.

That means Notre Dame's schedule will be a bear for the foreseeable future, with five ACC opponents, plus traditional rivalries with USC, Stanford and Michigan, not to mention regional and emerging rivalries with Michigan State, Purdue and Oklahoma, and trickier than you think games against Navy.

This also ensures that five ACC teams will play at least 9 big conference opponents per year, so I can deal with that. With the Big XII and Pac 12 already at 9 games, that leaves only the SEC playing 8 games come 2016. Now, the SEC is the best conference in college football, so maybe them staying at 8 games would be a good thing. It would allow them a bit more scheduling flexibility in the non-conference, perhaps preserving big games like this season's kickoff game between Alabama and Virginia Tech or leading to new games between SEC teams and their suddenly nearby Big XII brethren.

LSU vs TCU in Cowboys Stadium this year sure is a great start, and I think it goes without saying that Texas vs Texas A&M just needs to happen again.

But the real question is how teams will approach scheduling. Well, if you're a team like Purdue that now has to play 9 Big Ten games, plus you have a rivalry with Notre Dame, you're probably bringing in ITT Tech or DeVry University for your home opener, then a MAC school for the second game.

But, if you're a team competing for a national championship, you now only have three non-conference games to squeeze in some quality, especially if you're in a perceived weak conference like the Big Ten. Suddenly Ohio State's game with Cal is all the more important, but their game against Florida A&M is absolutely killing their strength of schedule.

If the soon-to-be national selection committee rewards programs that schedule difficult non-conference opponents,  we could soon be treated to early season games like Ohio State vs Oregon, Oklahoma vs Clemson and LSU vs USC, all leading to a true national championship tournament. But, if they just preserve the status quo and select four undefeated or one-loss teams at the end of the year, expect to see more Nebraska vs South Dakota State, Arkansas vs Samford and Auburn vs West Carolina.

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