As you might’ve noticed earlier today, we linked to a piece from SB Nation’s Team Speed Kills entitled “How Much Will Schedule Strength Affect Playoff Selection?” — which effectively dissects the merits (or lack thereof) of scheduling tougher in order to get a playoff spot. The impetus for such an article, of course, is the flurry of recent news regarding the number of conference games. When announcing its divisional realignment the other day, the Big Ten upped its conference slate to nine games, while the Pac-12 is actually discussing moving down to eight (from the current nine). Even the SEC, which has been with the ACC in the “remain at eight” boat briefly mentioned a nine-game schedule during its SEC Network press conference today. So with two alternatives seemingly on the table again, what scheduling setup makes the most sense for the ACC if it hopes to place its top team(s) in the four-team College Football Playoff?
To start, the ACC obviously has two disadvantages when it comes to pursuing a nine-game conference schedule. One of these — out-of-conference rivalries — is a shared issue with the SEC. The other, unique to the ACC, is the Notre Dame scheduling agreement. As of 2014, at least four ACC schools will have annual in-state matchups with SEC schools on the books, effectively locking them (Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville) into a ninth game on top of the eight-game conference schedule. The Notre Dame arrangement, which has the Irish playing five ACC games per year, brings that total to 10 for those teams in select years. Those same teams will likely also be at five home games and five road games by that point, making for a less-than-ideal scheduling demand of two guaranteed home dates and little calendar flexibility. If the ACC were to add a ninth game, those teams would be locked into 11 games against major-conference competition, and might also need to take a hit on home games (hosting six total, instead of seven). For schools like FSU and Clemson, it’s a tough financial hit to take, especially without an ACC Network off the ground yet.
If an ACC team went 11-1 with a slate of nine league teams, Notre Dame, an SEC foe and one FCS school, would that guarantee them a playoff spot? Absolutely. But if they went 10-2? As the Team Speed Kills article points out, probably not, regardless of how strong the opponents are:
“Yes, strength of schedule will matter if you’re a candidate to be in the top four. However, you’re only going to be a candidate for the top four in the majority of seasons if you have no more than one loss. You can’t win the lottery if you don’t have a ticket, and a weaker schedule gives a team a better chance of securing a ticket.”
If that’s not a resounding case against a nine-game schedule, I’m unsure what else is. Plus, maybe you recall that potential Big 12 alliance? This also calls that into question — especially with the grant of media rights in place. The main purposes of that proposal were to thwart Big Ten expansion (check) and improve strength of schedule. But if Texas beats Florida State in a primetime non-conference matchup, and as a result, the ‘Noles have two losses on the year, was it worth it at all? Without the extra paycheck that comes with a playoff berth, I’d think it doesn’t.
Tossing the nine-game schedule and the Big 12 alliance out the window, though, what’s the best way for ACC teams to help their strength of schedule without harming their respective playoff chances? And, for teams that are not among the top four, how do you give yourself a schedule that sets you up for an at-large bid outside of the ACC’s guaranteed Orange Bowl berth? As of right now, most ACC schedules follow one of these patterns:
- 8 ACC games, 1 SEC game, 1 major conference, 1 mid-major, 1 FCS, or…
- 8 ACC games, 1 major conference, 2 mid-major, 1 FCS
There are some slight adjustments to be made for when Notre Dame’s on the schedule (or you can just plug them into one of those random “major conference” slots), but largely, this is what ACC teams are looking at on a year-to-year basis. But is it enough. Well, take Florida State and Clemson for example, the two ACC teams most likely to contend for a national championship in the next couple seasons. Here’s 2014’s schedule right now, highlighting just marquee (likely top 25) opponents:
If Clemson goes 3-1 against that slate and undefeated against the rest, they’re likely a top-five team. If Florida State can escape that list with one loss, they could very well be the no. 1 team in the country. So let’s say Clemson goes 11-1 in 2014 with their one loss to FSU, while FSU also goes 11-1, with one loss to Notre Dame. Hypothetically, let’s compare those resumes to some teams they may be up against for a playoff bid, though:
If each of these teams goes 11-1 against that schedule, I’d contend that Ohio State should be passed up for a playoff bid by both Clemson and FSU, and Oregon should be passed up by the Seminoles at the very least. Alabama‘s resume would also underwhelm, but we have to account for some inherent SEC bias until that conference fails to win a championship. Texas, as a traditional power, is given the benefit of the doubt at 11-1, plus its resume would be just as impressive if not more so than Florida State’s in this scenario. Going through all these choices, you’re left with the following hypothetical playoff scenario: #1 Texas, #2 Alabama, #3 Florida State, #4 Oregon. In the case of every major conference champ going 11-1, FSU’s strength of schedule would appear to be a positive, and ultimately becomes the deciding factor in its no. 3-seed. But had they gone 10-2 against such a tough slate, while everyone else went 11-1, the Seminoles would have decidedly been left out in the cold.
The moral of the story here? Until the conference improves its overall strength and starts getting multiple teams in the conversation for the playoff and/or major bowls, it will nearly always be fifth in the pecking order. While there are benefits to scheduling tough if you’re in the playoff conversation (as alluded to by Team Speed Kills), there’s also the risk — especially if you’re an ACC team — that you’re completely shut out with two losses. As always, it’s up to the ACC’s teams (from one through 14) to improve their quality, and in return, they’ll get more respect from the playoff committee when that time comes. It’s great to schedule as aggressively as Clemson and FSU appear to be. But if you’re going to put those teams on the slate, you have to win the games. The playoff committee will not hand out style points for losses.