An aspect of the coming playoffs and how the top four teams will be determined will be the strength of schedule (SOS). Some are bigger proponents of how large it’s impact on the rankings should be than others.
There is a belief that if SOS is a significant enough component, then teams will schedule better in the non-con. At this point a lot of comparisons are being made to how the NCAA Basketball Tournament Selection Committee uses SOS in their evaluations.
The question really is, how much can and will teams increase their SOS when it comes down to controlling only 3 or 4 games on the schedule. And if so, just how much will SOS really be factored into the evaluations and rankings of the top-four teams by a selection committee.
In college basketball non-cons are mostly set in the off-season — by the coaches. That allows coaches to judge how their team will be for that season and adjust their non-con accordingly as harder or easier. It’s a dozen or so games with more flexibility to who to schedule and how much it can impact the SOS. A team can be “rewarded” or “punished” for playing a hard or easy non-con by the selection committee by their seeding or what happens to them on the bubble. There are enough teams in the Tournament to allow that kind of flexibility.
College football is not that way. Games are set years in advance without really being sure of the team’s ability on either side. It is set by an AD who is mainly concerned with filling key home dates and getting people to attend.
Any committee that is picking the top-four college football teams does not have the luxury of significantly rewarding or punishing a team based on their non-con SOS. There isn’t enough wiggle room for that.
Your power conference programs — and realistically that is where this is focused — want/need to have 7 home games for budget reasons almost every year. Assuming for an 8 or 9 game schedule, they generally need 2-3 of their available non-con games to be at home. The power conferences are going to need just as many guarantee games as before, worrying about how it impacts the SOS seems relatively minor.
The rise in 1-AA patsy games is a direct result in the number of teams that have to put together a profitable home schedule. The costs of paying for a guarantee game have risen noticeably because of the demand. The choice to get 1-A guarantee game these days is to either pay a lot or pay less but go on the road in a 2- or 3-1 deal. There’s a reason Pitt is going to Buffalo and Texas Tech will be playing at Texas State this year. The 1-AA option is simply a way to slightly increase the supply. To bring down the costs
The ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 all do the 9-game conference schedule, in no small part because they want to bring down the costs (and scheduling headaches) for all conference members in how many games they need to get on the non-con. The Big 10 effectively has 9-games with it’s coming partnership with the Pac-12, while improving its SOS.
In theory the Pac-12 is positioned best to benefit from a strong SOS component, because they only need to schedule 2 more games after the conference and Big 10 match-up. And with only 2 games needing to be scheduled, they can afford to pay for guarantee games against low but not horrid teams.
The reduction in demand from Pac-12 schools should increase the available supply of teams from (whatever is left of the) WAC, MWC and part of the Sun Belt. That will likely be eliminated as teams make a greater effort to avoid 1-AA opponents and obvious SOS ding. Most teams still will not exceed 1 good non-con.
The 2004 Auburn Tigers — often cited as the classic example for the need of a playoff — had a non-con of The Citadel, Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Monroe that year (11-game schedule at that time). That, more than anything else, cost them their spot in the BCS. Playing patsies including a 1-AA team — and yes, there were reasons their schedule ended up that way. Yes, they ran the table in the SEC that year, but that wasn’t exactly the strongest year in the SEC. Only Georgia and Auburn finished the year with 2 or less losses. That was the SEC with a coaching line-up that included Croom, Shula, Zook, Cutliffe, Nutt. Tennessee was the only other SEC team to finish in the AP top-25. The Coaches Poll somehow put 7-5 Florida at #25 at the end. And yet, with the four-team playoff, Auburn would have been in the playoffs despite their non-con schedule.
The bigger impact on SOS will be the conference. The SEC, these days, can count on their conference to supply the punch to the schedule that will allow most of the schools to stick to a scheduling pattern that won’t look too different from their present one. Same with the Big 12, in no small part because of their 9-game schedule that allows them to play everyone in their conference.
The Pac-12 and ACC, may have other concerns. Both are not strong conferences in perception or in terms of most conference ranking evaluations. Both are dragged down by a couple really bad teams and a wide swath of mediocrity. As mentioned, though, the Pac-12 has taken a big step in dealing with that with their deal with the Big 10.
Obiviously, it’s been a bit worse in the ACC with FSU and Miami down in the mediocrity pool as well. Even in the ACC, there has been an adjustment. Moving to the 9-game conference schedule, was a start. FSU, Clemson and GT all have non-con rivalry games. Miami and BC regularly play at least one good non-con. As does Pitt and Syracuse. Even the other seven have made it a point to play one BCS program each year — which included the Big East. Losing one patsy game will help the overall SOS.
In the end, I don’t see SOS — especially non-con SOS — being that big a factor in the selection of the top-four teams. Playing 1-AA teams will be reduced — and that is a good thing. I think the contracts will rise in how much teams pay for guarantee games — and getting out of those games will likewise include a larger buyout. Otherwise, don’t expect much change in the schedules by teams under a 4-team system.