Oregon vs. LSU in their non-conference matchup from 2011
With the new playoff system taking reign in 2014, NCAA teams may need to put more emphasis on non-conference games to have a chance at winning the national championship.
Starting in the 2014 season college football will convert to the now highly publicized four team playoff system in order to decide its national champion.
One of the biggest plusses of the new system is that the selection board will directly factor in strength of schedule when deciding which teams will end up in the big dance. If you’re in a tough conference you’ve already got a leg up because your conference schedule will only add to your appeal, but it could be the non-conference games that decide which team gets the nod in a tight situation.
This is good news for all college football fans because it could spell the end to the tradition of opening the season with three warm-up games against weak schools.
When one looks at the non-conference schedules for teams across the Big 12 they find matchups like Oklahoma vs. Florida A&M, West Virginia vs. James Madison and TCU vs. Grambling State. Except for the occasional Appalachian State beating Michigan freak accident, these games tend to turn ugly in a hurry. Uglier than Landry Jones’ mustache ugly.
These kinds of games are good for the big name schools only in the sense that they give them a few easy wins, and let them knock off the rust before they get into their conference games. When you start looking at strength of schedule, however, those easy games could come back to bite you.
It is always more impressive to beat a good team by a narrow margin, say Texas beating BYU 17-16 last season, than it is to take a small school out back of the woodshed, like when LSU destroyed Northwestern State last year 49-3.
Some schools have seemed to prepare themselves for an era of meaningful non-conference competition over the past few years though.
Last season LSU and Oregon met in week one at Jerryland in Arlington for a neutral-site, top 25 showdown. This year Alabama is squaring off against Michigan at the same location to start their season.
Even Texas has gotten in the mix by booking at least one better non-conference opponent over several of the last few seasons (Ohio State for 05/06, TCU in 07, Arkansas in 08, and UCLA in 10/11). These are the kind of match-ups that make for exciting early season action, and could cause the future selection board to look more favorably on a team.
Of course scheduling a tough non-conference game is risky too. LSU took a big risk playing Oregon right out of the gate last year but it paid off. The big question is though, does a tight loss to a good school look as good as a big win over a team that has about as much talent as your practice squad?
Suppose Michigan loses to Alabama 24-21 and then finishes out the rest of the year undefeated, while an Oregon team whose frightening non-conference opponents include Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech goes perfect on the season. Who do you give the nod to?
Personally I’d go with Michigan because they had the brass to play a good team from a good conference and played well against them even though they came out on the losing end. To get the real answer, we will have to wait until the all-human board starts picking national championship competitors instead of the BCS computer.
Putting human beings in charge and using strength of schedule as a direct factor won’t be a perfect system and it won’t end the debate on the best way to pick a champion, but it is better and more fair than the current BCS system.
At the very least it should make for more exciting non-conference games than we get now. Maybe instead of just the year-in, year-out contenders scheduling one impressive out of conference opponent per year the smaller programs will start lining up better competition to try and bolster their image. Then the big boys will have to play at least two good non-conference games to keep their strength of schedule advantage.