Last week's decision by the SEC and ACC to only play eight conference games each season has led to discussions about teams scheduling games against conference opponents as non-conference games that don't count in the conference standings. With strength of schedule expected to be a major component of the college football playoff, conferences are now decreeing that each school needs to play a certain number of games against teams at the "Power Five" level. (Power Five meaning games against teams from the ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12, and SEC, plus Notre Dame.)
Of course, that's led to schools wanting to load their non-conference schedules with the likes of Purdue and Kansas. Which wasn't quite the intent of these policies on scheduling name opponents. The goal wasn't to find "Power Five" opponents of mid-major or MAC quality, the goal was to improve the quality of the games we're getting. So the idea of Big Ten or ACC schools scheduling conference opponents as non-conference opponents to skirt the new rules is one that should be something that's only considered truly as a last resort.
BTN's Tom Dienhart took the idea a step further. If a Big Ten school really wants to play ten games against Big Ten opponents, then why not do it across the board. Schedule ten conference games each season, and eliminate the need to find one of the non-conference opponents. Dienhart thinks this idea would be wildly popular:
The coaches may groan about it. But who else would? No one. Fans and TV would love it, because it results in an extra quality game every year and shortens the inevitable multi-year gap between several of the top programs meeting.
Sorry Tom...but you don't speak for me. I'll groan about it. Loudly. Dienhart points out the inequality of the nine game schedule, and he has a point. One year, a school gets five conference home games; the next, only four. So it is somewhat unfair. But Dienhart is sadly mistaken when he thinks that this will result in an "extra quality game every year".
Ten years ago, when college football expanded the regular season from 11 to 12 games, the thought was that this would give schools the flexibility to improve their schedules without impacting revenue. Schools could still play their money games against a overmatched opponent to generate revenue, but the 12th game was supposed to give schools an opportunity to add a quality opponent without negatively impacting revenue.
Except that didn't happen. Schools saw the opportunity to play another "body bag" game and keep the extra revenue. Instead of playing six home games a season, teams elected to play seven every year. So when you expand the conference schedule to ten games, you have to drop an opponent.
If you're Nebraska, who do you drop off your schedule? Do you drop home games against Florida Atlantic, South Alabama, or Troy? Or do you drop home-and-home matchups against Miami, Oregon, and Oklahoma?
I know which games I'd rather see. But those aren't the games that will survive. Home games are too valuable to schools and communities to give up. When people advocate ten game schedules, they say we'll get more games like "Ohio State vs. Wisconsin". Maybe. Almost as often, we'll get "Ohio State vs. Illinois" instead. And at the cost of matchups like Ohio State vs. the likes of Oklahoma, North Carolina, Oregon, and Texas. Those are signed conference matchups.
Which matchup is best for college football? Give me those marquee non-conference matchups every single time, without question. Dienhart is more than happy to suggest those are easy to give up:
If it wants, the Big Ten could drop its mandate to schedule a marquee non-league foe from another "power five" conference to accommodate for the 10th Big Ten game. Better to keep as much money "in the family" as possible. Plus, a 10th Big Ten foe in many instances would be on par from a strength-of-schedule standpoint with a non-league "power five" foe.
No, no, no, no, no. Maybe Big Ten folks don't realize it, but when Big Ten teams suggest that their conference schedule is more than tough enough, the rest of college football erupts in uncontrollable laughter at the hubris. If anything, it leads to inbreeding of college football since we lose any yardstick for comparing the relative strength of each college football conference.
Well, except for New Years Day. And we know how well that's gone for the Big Ten in recent years. Suffice it to say that the rest of college football would see this as the Big Ten giving up trying to compete with the rest of the nation.
Could a ten game conference schedule work? Perhaps, but only under one condition. The finances of college football must change to make playing "body bag" games less lucrative than scheduling games against quality opponents. Quality opponents demand return games, and for schools like Nebraska, giving up home games costs the school $5 million.
If the Big Ten is truly serious about improving schedules, they've got to be willing to give up money games. The only real risk is the loss of ticket sales; with a 14 team B1G, there's more than enough inventory of bad games to fill the BTN schedule in September. The equation simply has to change so that schools who don't schedule at least 11 quality opponents each season get docked $3 million or more from their conference payout.
Harsh? Yes. Maybe you work it as an incentive instead. For every quality opponent a school schedules in the nonconference portion of their schedule, they get $3 million off the top from the conference television revenues. Then split whatever is leftover equally amongst the conference schools.
In that scenario, if the Big Ten implements a 10 game conference schedule, Nebraska would have two options to figure out which games to play and which they wouldn't. Playing a home and home series with Oklahoma would result in a $5 million payday from one home game, plus $6 million in incentives for playing a quality opponent. Playing two home games against South Alabama and Florida Atlantic would only bring in two $5 million paydays from home games.
The problem with college football schedules today isn't the number of conference games, it's that the incentives are stacked towards playing bad football games. The smaller schools like the paydays, and the big schools love the extra revenue from home games. Change the incentives of college football scheduling to truly reward teams for playing quality opponents, and schedules will improve.