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College Football Has a Big Scheduling Problem

There were a dearth of good football games this season. That’s not an opinion. That’s fact.

Paul Dalen

2019 was the year I stopped being a college football fan. It wasn’t a sudden decision, more of slow drifting apart. College football and I just have irreconcilable differences. There’s no animosity, and I certainly wish it well in the future. But the fire is gone.

Here’s what happened.

College football isn’t very interesting anymore. It’s fun sometimes, and every so often you get a game like the Kick Six Iron Bowl or the 2005 Rose Bowl, but far too often this year I looked at the slate of games and, other than the Nebraska game, couldn’t find a single one that was more important to me than spending time with my kids, building stuff in my garage, riding my bike or doing just about anything else.

Jon Johnston mentioned to me last week that it seemed like the quality of games this year had really declined. He brought up Baylor’s non-conference schedule as an example. Baylor was perhaps one heartbeat away from the College Football Playoff and Jon pointed out that a team with that bad a schedule shouldn’t be in the Playoff. I agreed that in general it seemed like the season wasn’t all that fun to watch, but I didn’t have any hard evidence that it was somehow worse that previous years.

I found evidence.

Teams don’t have any control over the quality of schedules in conference, so I decided to look at whether non-conference schedules were notably worse this year. And it turns out they were. Since tonight is the College Football Playoff Championship Game, let’s start with the top 8 teams in the SP+ (after the CCGs at least).

Paul Dalen

If you’re not familiar with box and whisker plots, here’s what you’re looking at. The grey bar in the center of each column is the 25-75th percentile of non-conference schedule ranking.

What does it mean?

2019 is quite a bit lower for SP+ teams than in past years. It also tells you what you already know...the SEC plays even more cupcakes than other conferences. In fact, with the exception of 2016, Alabama’s non-conference is so bad that it’s basically a statistical outlier compared to other CFP contenders. And Oklahoma, which made the College Football Playoff but wasn’t ranked in the SP+ Top 5 after the Big 12 Conference Championship game, had a non-conference schedule ranked almost as bad as Alabama’s. OU’s median rank was 95, or the equivalent of North Texas (4-8).

I’m still a Nebraska fan, and in general, a Big Ten fan. But the Big Ten’s non-conference schedule sucked this year too.

2019 shows a significant dropoff in quality of non-conference opponents compared to previous years. In fact, it was the worst as far back as I can go with the data I have. I realize that when you are Ohio State you might feel a bit more confident in scheduling better teams, but it’s not like the Buckeyes were taking many chances. Their median opponent SP+ ranking was 63...or the equivalent of Army (5-7).

And to specifically address Jon’s one-heartbeat-away concern about Baylor, consider the Big 12.

Baylor’s scheduling was just awful. They played an median SP+ schedule of 125 out of 130. The conference median ranking was 93, or the equivalent of Ball State (5-7).

There’s a number of reasons attendance at college football games is tanking, but one has to be that in general the quality of games available is declining.

Do fans want to spend money on tickets for Minnesota vs Georgia Southern? Do they want to spend time on a beautiful Saturday afternoon indoors watching Alabama vs New Mexico State on TV?

Ticket prices and TV coverage for every game certainly impacts individual schools, but the decline in good games available will increase apathy in fans of specific schools towards the sport in general.

It happened to me.

I can still be brought back into the fold, but it won’t be when the ABC game is Baylor vs Stephen F. Austin.

If this trend continues, how many more fans will end up like me?