For the Record: More Conference Games Deserve More Weight at Playoff Time

Nothing could be finer: Nick Saban, coaching hard against Western Carolina, wouldn't mind if it was Florida.

Herb Gould

Before the start of every new season, I make resolutions.

One of them is: ``Do not whine about the SEC.’’ Because I truly believe the SEC is the best league. Although I believe the margin is not that wide this year.

I broke that rule, I am afraid, on this week’s TMG podcast. Which is pretty entertaining, by the way. It’s as entertaining as a Yankees-Astros game on APBA, our podcast sponsor.

(Apologies to the late, great Loyola basketball announcer Red Rush, who used to describe made baskets this way: ``It’s good! Just like Gonnella Bread.’’)

What got me started was good TMG friend Tony Barnhart’s piece explaining the scenario in which the SEC could put three teams in the College Football Playoff.

In LSU, Georgia and Alabama, the SEC has three teams worthy of that discussion. They are that good, even with the Tide’s quarterback on medical leave.

But here’s the thing: As good TMG friend Chris Dufresne noted, by playing eight conference games instead of the nine that routinely harpoon the Pac-12—and, I would add, the Big Ten and Big 12—the SEC juggernauts give themselves an easier path.

Not that there’s anything overtly wrong with that.

If these SEC guys are so good, though, they at least ought to play on a level schedule playing field. They should play nine conference games like everybody else except the ACC, which should have its Power Five status revoked for multiple reasons that I plan to explain in a future column.

But since the SEC is not likely to play nine league games any time soon, I further say, the playoff selection committee ought to put its rankings where its mouth is: It ought to attach actual serious weight in its selection process to scheduling.

If the SEC wants to take the easier path to gaudy records by sticking with eight conference games, fine. But there should be a strength-of-scheduling price for watered-down scheduling.

Why is it that Baylor (Stephen F. Austin, UTSA and Rice) and Minnesota (San Diego State, Fresno State, Georgia Southern) are ridiculed for their lame non-conference schedules when Alabama (Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss, Western Carolina) can add a fourth cupcake and get to skate on? At least Baylor and Minnesota have to deal with nine league games.

Alabama is better than that. Nick Saban, a sportsman and competitor, knows that. He has been on record for years as favoring nine conference games in the SEC. So is Gus Malzahn.

Just this week, Urban Meyer, who’s now a Fox analyst, said conference schedules need to be uniform, whether they are eight games or nine games. He brought it up, unprompted.

Here’s the thing. The SEC apparently doesn’t need a ninth conference game for financial reasons. Tide fans will show up for Western Carolina in November. Try that in the Big Ten and Pac-12 and people will stay away.

I once had an interesting exchange with Illini coach Ron Zook, who was used to creative non-conference scheduling from his Florida days, when Illinois played Fresno State after the Big Ten season. When I told him people in Central Illinois don’t want that kind of football in early December, he turned to his sports information director and said, ``Cassie, am I allowed to argue with Herb?’’

After the chuckling stopped, he pointed out that people in the Midwest enthusiastically watched the Bears and the Packers in December.

``The Illini and the Bulldogs,’’ I said, ``are not the Bears and the Packers.

Illinois and Fresno proceeded to play a wildly entertaining game. Fresno won 25-23 on Dec. 3, 2010. But you could have shot the proverbial cannon through Memorial Stadium and not hit any spectators. Which ended that experiment at Illinois.

When I said on this week’s podcast that the committee should attach more weight to teams that play nine conference games, Tony said it was not the committee’s job to mandate scheduling.

Which is absolutely true.

But given that no governing body seems willing to get into that conversation, and given that the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee has been able to influence scheduling, why not the football committee?

The committee prides itself on a vast array of statistical analysis. And the analysis all shows that nine conference games is a tougher road to the playoffs.

Oregon found that out at Arizona State. Penn State found that out at Minnesota. Ohio State found that out at Purdue last year. And at Iowa two years ago.

All of those are crossover games against the other division—exactly the kind of ninth conference games the SEC doesn’t play.

What if Alabama had made the same discovery in a ninth game at Florida? Or better yet, what if Alabama or Georgia had found that out in a regular-season meeting? Since 1995, they have played five times in the regular season. Five times in 25 years? Same league? That might not be the same galaxy.

From 1941 to 1965, by contrast, the Tide and the Dawgs played each other every year but one. They don’t have to play 24 times in 25 years. But more than five times would be nice.

My distinguished TMG colleagues can lament and/or argue that getting the SEC to play nine conference games is like tilting at windmills. I do not necessarily disagree. But we have to start somewhere. Remember how the distaste for voters produced a computer-driven formula. And how the despised BCS snowballed into a four-team playoff?

Scheduling—and not an eight-team playoff—ought to be the next step in the evolutionary process of finding the best way to crown a college football champion.

That includes not only a uniform number of conference games, but a better way to level the field in non-conference scheduling. One great approach to that would be top-to-bottom cross-conference matchups similar to the ACC-Big Ten and SEC-Big 12 Challenges in college basketball.

What if, for example, there was an SEC-Big Ten football challenge next season? Take your top tiers of LSU, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Auburn vs. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin and Minnesota and match them up? And so on, down the line.

Do that with the Pac-12 and Big 12, too. It doesn’t have to be No. 1 vs. No. 1. Just set up some good tests that will put fannies in the seats, attract viewers and—most importantly—give the committee some real data points to select a playoff field. Ohio State-Auburn would do that a lot better than Kent State-Auburn.

Combine that with nine-conference-game schedules, and we’d really know who the best—and most deserving teams—were.

And that concludes my whining—at least until we have time to enjoy Rivalry Week.

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Herb Gould

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