Imagine the Seattle Seahawks playing their first five games of a football season at home, with three of those games coming against the AFC South.
Imagine the New England Patriots playing three straight home games against teams from the AFC East and Houston (oh wait — that actually happened).
Imagine the Buffalo Bills being able to backload their home schedule and play Miami (December 11), Tampa Bay (Dec. 18), San Diego (Dec. 25), and the Los Angeles Rams in the bitter cold of Western New York in late fall and early winter.
Absurd, right? Stacked deck, competitive imbalance, tilted playing field, unregulated advantage — all those terms rightly apply to a schedule which gives a team — solely by extension of logistics — an easier path through its season.
Yes, the NFL (wisely and fairly) bases its schedule on the previous season’s results. The better a team’s finish, the tougher a team’s schedule in non-division games played within its conference. (The four interconference games exist regardless of a previous season’s finish.) Nevertheless, the reality of a three-game homestand in a 16-game football schedule — even if accompanied later in the season by a three-game road trip — is offensive to notions of fairness.
The caliber of opponent will vary, but travel is supposed to be part of the challenge of competition. Dealing with trips outside one’s home or time zone (or both) forces athletes to cultivate better habits and harness not just their skills, but their powers of concentration. Removing travel from a football team’s equation for a long time — as is the case with its converse action: dumping a lot of travel requirements on a team in a short period of time — is an unforced error in scheduling.
The NFL, for all its problems (and despite the occasional failure to safeguard these concepts), generally creates a schedule in which logistics don’t carry too much weight. The only way in which the league consistently and structurally fails on logistical matters is when it asks teams to play Thursday night games following Sunday games. Thursday games for the participating teams should always involve bye weeks on the previous weekend.
Beyond the Thursday night debacle, though, the NFL usually gets it right.
College football? It’s another story.
Here we are in early October, five weeks through a season which has 14 full game-week Saturdays and involves 12 games for each team (13 for the teams which earn the right to play in an extra contest). The season, believe it or not, is nearly half over.
Michigan has not yet played a game outside its own stadium.
North Carolina State has not yet played a game outside the state of North Carolina.
West Virginia has not yet played a road game.
TCU has not yet played a game outside the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, which includes but is not limited to its home campus.
These are not likely to be the only examples of teams which never left their home state or home stadium through five weeks of competition. If October 1 (Week 5) is excluded from this conversation, plenty more teams (Minnesota being merely one example) never left their home state or stadium in the month of September.
Does it dawn on everyone how unique a creature college football is? Yes, college basketball and baseball also involve non-conference scheduling in which the richest and most prominent schools get to play more home games against opponents they select. However, those two sports involve much longer seasons. Conference play occupies many more games in basketball than it does in football.
Michigan and Alabama will play only four road games over the course of the season. Michigan plays eight home games, Bama seven home games plus the neutral-site contest against USC. Being able to start a season at home — or play USC safely away from Los Angeles or the West (a game in Phoenix or San Francisco would have had a much more pro-Trojan crowd) — gives the Wolverines and Crimson Tide the ability to play games in comparatively less intimidating situations. Michigan and Alabama have earned every victory they’ve posted thus far — no one can say or suggest otherwise — but it’s hard to ignore the reality that these teams don’t exist under NFL schedule constraints.
What if college football (its rule-makers and power brokers) made two simple scheduling requirements:
A) that teams had to play six home games and six road games, with the allowance for one neutral-site game;
B) that every team had to play one road game (not just a neutral-site game) in the first three weeks of the season.
The Michigans and Alabamas of the world would likely still win, but they’d be pulled out of their cocoons. Young athletes would have to venture into a noisy and possibly daunting environment. A new sense of challenge would be infused into our Septembers, the season given not just unpredictability, but a measure of balance. (This is why Ohio State agreeing to play Oklahoma on the road is so rare, and yet so utterly worthy of our admiration and respect as fans and observers.)
College basketball seasons are decided on neutral floors — not just one or two games (as is the case in the College Football Playoff), but three (conference tournaments) and six (NCAA Tournament). College football seasons might end on neutral fields, but teams earn their way into the playoff based on home and road outcomes.
If enough teams can customize their schedules such that they don’t leave their home state or their own ballyard until the middle of October, something’s definitely wrong.
A more pertinent concluding note: It’s not as though Michigan and Alabama need extra help.
Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban might agree on that much.