College football fan bases have learned during the past two decades, first with the Bowl Championship Series era and now as a part of the College Football Playoff, the importance of scheduling.
Each fall, it’s one of the more scrutinized aspects of determining which teams will play for a national championship.
And every so often, generally around the weeks and months leading up to football season, proponents of standardized scheduling call for uniformity.
Since 2006, the Pacific-12 (dubbed the Pac-10 at the time) has played an expanded nine-game conference schedule. The Big 12 moved from eight to nine games in 2011, and the Big Ten made the same move in 2016. However, the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference play just eight league games.
“I wish everybody had to play nine games,” Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard told CNHI in June. “It’d be an equalizer because as long as everybody is playing nine, there’s always going to be this discussion of what’s really a fair strength of schedule.”
The ongoing conversation developed legs at the annual Big 12 league meetings, when commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he’d prefer to have each conference play nine games if all things were equal, or “if I was the benevolent dictator.”
But Bowlsby didn’t sound confident in any future uniformity regarding the topic.
“One of the bedrock pieces of the College Football Playoff, when it was put together, is that individual conferences maintain some autonomy as to how they manage and determine their champion,” he said. “I don’t see us backtracking on that.”
A limited sample size shows its harder to run the table when playing nine games.
The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 have failed to place a team in the CFP title game since its inception.
Some Big 12 programs have offset the nine-game gauntlet with less challenging non-conferences opponents. Others have seen the value in scheduling — and winning — tougher games.
In the years the Big 12 did have a CFP representative (Oklahoma in 2015 and 2017), the strength of schedule played a key role — the Sooners beat Tennessee in 2015 and Ohio State in 2017. In the other two seasons, Oklahoma, which won the league in 2016 with an unblemished 9-0 record, lost two ranked non-conference games, while the best wins for TCU and Baylor (co-champions in 2014) came against Minnesota and SMU, respectively.
“When the College Football Playoff started, it was talked about the strength of schedule. When West Virginia is at that spot to play in the CFP, I don’t want it to be looked at as, ‘Well, they had a weak non-conference schedule,’” West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons said.
Lyons proudly said he’d put West Virginia’s non-conference schedule up against anyone in the country. The Mountaineers open against Tennessee and play at North Carolina State with a date against FCS power Youngstown State sandwiched between.
The same approach will show up on future schedules.
West Virginia has two Power Fives scheduled each season through 2024, including dates with Missouri, North Carolina State, Florida State in Atlanta and home-and-home games with Maryland, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and Penn State. Texas (future home-and-home’s with LSU, Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State) and Oklahoma (future home-and-home’s with Tennessee, UCLA, Michigan, LSU and Nebraska).
“I’ve taken a strong approach to it,” Lyons said. “I think scheduling is part of it. You sometimes want to have the balance of not over-scheduling, but having a good schedule as well.”
Some programs, like Iowa State, can’t be as aggressive. In fact, the nine-game schedule hinders the Cyclones’ flexibility since an annual rivalry game with Iowa pushes the schedule to 10 permanent games, leaving Pollard with one game, generally a non-Power Five, after an FCS opponent is brought in.
“We’re not going to give up that (FCS) advantage when everyone else can get it,” Pollard said.
“It puts us in a little bit of a landlocked situation because for us to go play an 11th Power Five team would just not make a lot of sense at this time in the history of our program given our historical performance level.”
In basketball, the Big 12 and its 18-game slate may soon be on the opposite end of conference scheduling. The Big Ten is expanding its schedule in 2018-19 to 20 games, while the ACC will move to 20 the following year. The Pac-12 is looking into the change.
Moving to 20 games isn’t quite feasible for the 10-team Big 12. The league already has a built-in 19th game via the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge, and Pollard said the Big 12 and Big East, which has 10 members, have discussed aligning for an annual slate of games to serve as the 20th game.
Pollard said the goal would be to start the yearly challenge with the Big East for 2019-20.
Sean Isabella covers the Big 12 for CNHI Sports. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.