Any sport that ranks teams before the season starts obviously has a problem with hyperbole.
That said, we’re embarking on THE GREATEST OPENING WEEKEND IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORY.
How can we quantify this? By, uh, using, well, the, um … preseason rankings, of course.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 20 Southern California. No. 3 Oklahoma vs. No. 15 Houston. No. 4 Florida State vs. No. 11 Ole Miss (Monday). No. 18 Georgia vs. No. 22 North Carolina. No. 5 LSU vs. Wisconsin.
Those are the neutral-site games.
On-campus offerings include No. 2 Clemson at Auburn, No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas (Sunday), No. 16 UCLA at Texas A&M, Kansas State at No. 8 Stanford (Friday).
Regardless of the meaningless numbers in front of those teams, Alabama-USC, Florida State-Ole Miss, Georgia-UNC, Clemson-Auburn and Notre Dame-Texas would all be wonderful, watchable games. The fact that the opening schedule is packed into a four-day festival of football is marvelous.
(Of course, Week 3 has Ohio State at Oklahoma, USC at Stanford, UCLA at BYU, Michigan State at Notre Dame, and Alabama at Ole Miss. Pretty tasty, too.)
So, is this sumptuous smorgasbord of great games part of a grand plan or simply happenstance? The answer is “both.”
Scheduling 10 years into the future is one of the great “why do they do that?” riddles, but as long as the top 20 to 30 programs agree to games that will be in the distant future, there’s no harm, no foul. Some of these games were slated before the current players were on recruiting lists.
Instructively, more athletic directors are building flexible schedules and willing to make timely deals.
For instance, Kansas State and Stanford agreed to a home-and-home schedule last spring to set up Friday’s game. The Cardinal, though, aren’t scheduled to visit Manhattan until 2021.
In 2014, Alabama agreed to two games at the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Tide played Wisconsin last season and USC Saturday. Part of the contract calls for Alabama to keep its season opening date free in 2019 and 2020 for return trips to Jerry World.
“I think athletic directors are going to leave themselves more leeway than ever before,” said Bill Hancock, College Football Playoff executive director.
Ah, yes. The CFP. The committee that picks the teams uses strength of schedule as one of its metrics. This is part of the CFP committee’s published protocol (emphasis added): “When circumstances at the margins indicate that teams are comparable, then the following criteria must be considered,” the CFP rules state. “Championships won, strength of schedule, head-to-head competition [if it occurred], comparative outcomes of common opponents [without incenting margin of victory].”
Scheduling top non-conference foes is more palatable, but making the opening weekend lineup work entailed considerable puzzle-solving skills.
As Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com explains, LSU and Wisconsin were scheduled to play next season; this season Wisconsin had Virginia Tech in Week Two. Wisconsin agreed to move the home-and-home with Virginia Tech to 2019-’20. That freed up the Badgers to play the Tigers in a neutral-site game at Lambeau Field – added spice, a college game in a historic NFL venue.
(Virginia Tech’s opponent in Week Two is Tennessee; the teams are playing at Bristol Motor Speedway in a game that could draw a record 150,000 fans. To make that game work, Tennessee had to reschedule its home-and-home with Nebraska to 2026-’27.)
There are nine neutral-site games this weekend. Sites such as Arlington, Houston, Atlanta and Orlando are enticing top teams to play. The money is good because it needs to be. Top programs hate giving up the revenue from a home game. Alabama is receiving $6.5 million for playing USC. Georgia is being paid $4 million for its game with North Carolina in Atlanta. Alabama and Florida State are each getting $5 million to play their opener in Atlanta next season.
“The CFP is having an effect on how people are scheduling,” said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, one of the men who helped put the CFP together. “We wanted a more robust postseason with a four-team playoff, and we wanted to make September stronger while keeping October and November as good as they’ve been.”
There were two major flaws to the BCS. One was incorporating coaches and other polls; those voters valued undefeated records over teams with the so-called “good” loss. The second was that there were only two spots available. The four-team CFP increased the margin for error.
“We thought that the CFP would change how schedules are put together,” Hancock said. “I just didn’t think it would happen this fast. Scheduling is tricky. If you’re building a program you’re scheduling differently than you are if you’re in contention for a national title.”
There is another perceived advantage to playing a Big Game to start the season. It’s easier to bounce back from a September loss than it is from a November loss. Ohio State, which won the first CFP title in 2014, lost at home to Virginia Tech in Week Two.
“The fact of the matter is, we play in a playoff-system world now, and everyone’s going to be talking about your resumé,” USC coach Clay Helton said. “But what you’re also doing is when you get to the playoff, you’re going to be playing really good teams, too, and the quality of opponent that you play during the season is going to help you once you reach that point.”