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Post Wish in one hand….

Monday April 24, 2006

One of the favorite offseason pasttimes is fantasizing about nonconference schedules. When the topic comes up most people end up with similar-sounding lists (Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and on and on). Traditional powers, traditional settings.

I don’t get the appeal of Big 10 teams – I’ve seen plenty of them in Florida bowls lately. Personally, I’d like to see North Carolina and Army – two of the best settings in college sports and two programs with plenty of history (but unfortunately not much presence now). I always wonder why UNLV never makes the cut. Vegas, baby. Vegas.

The sad, unspoken reality of these what-if exercises is that most, if not all, of these dream matchups will never take place.

Now look over at basketball. UNC-Illinois. Duke-Texas. UCLA-Memphis. Kansas-Kentucky. UConn-LSU. Gonzaga-Michigan State. That was just this past season. UConn and Tennessee play almost annually in women’s hoops. Interesting, quality interconference games are so common in November and December in college basketball that they are taken for granted.

Why? Why does college basketball get a good look at who the really relevant teams are early in the season and football is in a situation where good matchups like Texas-Ohio State are the exception? It can be boiled down to a single point – losses are a killer in college football. Football rewards above all the undefeated record. Even giving some consideration to strength of schedule, there aren’t many seasons that will produce more than one or two undefeated teams in college football. If you’re in a major conference, that’ll get you into the national title game whether you schedule Ohio State or Savannah State. I don’t buy the Auburn 2004 example as a case where strength of schedule would have changed things. No one short of the 1985 Bears was going to leapfrog undefeated Oklahoma and USC teams. Who could have moved aside USC or Texas this past year?

To change that kind of inertia, you must change incentives. EDSBS has this exactly right. People (and organizations) do what will be rewarded, and you can’t really blame them for gaming the system. You can pout about it being unsporting or appeal to ego or manhood or whatever you’d like, but that doesn’t change the optimal way to approach the system, at least for a top SEC team.

Georgia’s response has been perfect: to get the schedule police off their back, they arrange to play Arizona State and Colorado. Recognizable names, power conferences, distance, some football credibility. But unless those programs take a major step forward, Georgia should be comfortably favored against both teams. Still gaming the system, and now they get a pat on the back for it.

Football ends up with the case of the regular season meaning almost everything but gets fewer interesting matchups as a result. Basketball has the opposite problem – Carolina can travel to Kentucky for a showdown between the two winningest programs in history, but the result doesn’t mean much more than poll and seeding position down the road.

Ideally, since we’re dreaming, how about a relegation-based method that’s used in European soccer leagues? Imagine a fluid “conference” of the best programs where Texas, USC, Ohio State, Georgia, and so on play every year as long as they remain good. Each year, the bottom few drop down and make room for up-and-coming programs from the next level. Teams would be allowed one rival game outside of the conference. Teams at any level would play among their peers, making for interesting games and competition down the line. Of course there are complexities that make such a system difficult, if not an impossibility, but it’s about as likely as a blossoming of great nonconference schedules under the current system of incentives.

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