Precedent for reaching the College Football Playoff doesn’t really exist yet; not with the system still in its infancy. The Playoff’s first two years of existence have offered up suggestions, sure, but two years do not provide enough empirical evidence to reach any conclusions.
Because the formula for Playoff inclusion is still relatively ambiguous, conferences are trying to craft schedules tailored to what they believe committee members will value. In turn, those same conference decision-makers hope to steer the entirety of college football in a similar direction.
“I would like to see [the Power Five conference] have as much conformity as possible,” Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott said in his annual address before the league’s title game Saturday. “Especially as long as we’ve got a four-team playoff where you don’t have an automatic spot into a playoff by virtue of being a champion, such that this committee has to compare the performance of teams.”
After 2015 Pac-12 champion Stanford was ostensibly knocked from the College Football Playoff hunt last month with a two-point loss to Oregon, some in the national media lined up to blame the Pac-12’s nine-game conference schedule for the league’s impending exclusion.
Stanford is an especially easy case-study to hold up when evaluating ambitious scheduling against the criteria of the committee. By virtue of its appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game, the Cardinal played a remarkable 12 games against Power Five competition in 2015. That’s two more than Playoff participants Alabama, Michigan State and Oklahoma, and one more than Clemson.
The Cardinal’s case is made even more compelling given the non-conference opponents they played from the Power Five, Notre Dame and Northwestern, both won 10 regular-season games and finished ranked No. 8 and No. 13, respectively.
Of the Power Five conferences, only the Pac-12 and Big 12 played a nine-game schedule in 2015. And, because the Big 12 has a 10-team round-robin, it lacks a conference championship game. That put the Pac-12 on its own island among its conference peers, and the only of the five leagues left out of the Playoff.
Scott compared it to “running a race, but over a slightly different course,” an analogy that fits Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham’s sentiment of finding a “level playing field” among the Power Five.
The Pac-12 gains a counterpart in the Big Ten, which moves to a nine-game schedule next year. Because it also has a conference championship game, the Big Ten champion is guaranteed to play no fewer than 10 Power Five games.
The Big 12 is moving in a similar direction, and it can credit schedule disparities for doing so.
While the Pac-12 might seemingly be at a disadvantage on this uneven course, Scott touted strength of schedule in his address as a virtue the committee would reward. And indeed, had Stanford finished with just one loss in its challenging schedule, the Cardinal would have been shoo-ins for the Playoff.
It’s a Catch-22.
Schedule up and guarantee your team entry into the Playoff, but only if you’re able to navigate a challenging slate. The Playoff committee already proved that once before when it denied 2014 Big 12 champion Baylor a place at the table.
Baylor’s notoriously weak non-conference scheduling deserves implicit credit for enacting change in the Big 12, moving it closer to uniformity with the Pac-12 and Big Ten. The Big 12 announced Tuesday that all members are responsible for scheduling at least one Power Five opponent in the non-conference.
With the ACC and SEC having already adopted such policy, even the two holdouts on the eight-game conference schedule ensure their champions play 10 Power Five games — so long as they don’t rely on the absurd caveat that grants Army and BYU designation as power-conference teams.
The Army-BYU angle is one wrinkle that still needs to be ironed out, but the Power Five are inching ever closer to finding some kind of uniformity. With SEC coaches like Bret Bielema feeding that conference’s mythology by touting an eight-game schedule as more challenging than other leagues’ nine-games, it will never meet the Pac-12 or Big Ten on that front.
However, throughout non-conference scheduling, the conferences could find middle ground.
A regular-season slate of 10 Power Five games, regardless conference affiliation, could preserve the SEC and ACC’s eight-game schedules, while crafting a more level playing field for the Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12.