Why is everyone so hung up on schedules?
No, I know it’s July and we have little else to talk about. Scheduling debates are right up there with playoff proposals when it comes to pointless offseason parlor games. This week alone, scheduling – weak, strong, or otherwise – is mentioned in no fewer than three pieces in CFR’s weekly must-read Pundit Roundup.
So what is it about scheduling that has everyone weighing in? For most, I think it comes down to plain, old machismo. Manhood. Basically you have fans and pundits across the country calling each other chicken.
"Playing NW Georgia State, huh? Must be afraid to go outside your ZIP code for a real opponent."
"Oh yeah? At least we’re playing someone else who’s seen the Top 25 this decade. When was the last time that Wyoming Tech beat anyone?"
"We have to play them. They’re our traditional rival. It’s not our fault that they’re not Miami. ESPN still says we have the #20 schedule."
And so it goes. You’ve seen or heard that same "debate" countless times on message boards, talk radio, and so on, and now it’s bleeding into the punditry. Challenging a diehard fan’s manhood (in this case, their team’s schedule) is a quick and surefire way to provoke a response and generate some spirited discussion. But does it really change anything if you’re able to prove to the world that you really do have a tough schedule?
Who you schedule really doesn’t matter nearly as much as winning. Unless we’re dealing with a true BCS outlier like Boise, Utah, etc., an undefeated team from a BCS conference will almost always trump a team with a loss regardless of who the undefeated team scheduled out of conference. The quality within most any major conference (yes, even the PAC 10) will take care of that. Even when two teams share the same record, it’s my belief that their relative preseason rankings matter more than a strength of schedule metric.
A team certainly doesn’t need a grueling schedule in order to win the national title. In fact, Florida is the only champion in the 2000s with a Top 10 schedule. Most of the others were in the high teens to 20s. It should be noted that the strength of Florida’s schedule last year came from its conference schedule which required the Gators to play LSU, Auburn, Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia (plus two other bowl-bound teams in Kentucky and South Carolina). Florida’s nonconference schedule in 2006 was quite unremarkable with a struggling FSU as its highlight.
With that in mind, why aim to have a tough schedule at all? In terms of the goal of winning a national title, what is the payoff versus the unnecessary risk of a loss? If Texas can go through the Big 12 undefeated this year, I can virtually guarantee them a spot in the national title game even though their nonconference schedule consists of Arkansas State, TCU, Central Florida, and Rice. Sure, they’d have to have someone like LSU or Southern Cal lose along the way, but we rarely have multiple undefeated BCS teams. With this year’s Narrative already shaping up though ("USC and LSU have to play for the national championship this season. It is no longer possible to envision any other satisfying conclusion,") would bulking up the Texas schedule really do anything to sway a punditry already selling us on an LSU-Southern Cal title game? Nope.
So what does Mack Brown care if Mark Schlabach or I or some Dallas talk radio station or Raleigh sportswriter thinks that the Texas schedule is weak? All he knows is that if he wins, he’s in the national title game. Texas or any other major program won’t be lacking for exposure and airtime. What’s his incentive for another series with Ohio State or a similar team? Put in another light, if "the regular season is our playoff", why wouldn’t you make your "bracket" as easy as possible?
I will admit that I’ve come around just a bit on this subject. Though I still think that seeking out a regular season matchup between two Top 10 teams isn’t very rational (though it might be great for fans), I’m no longer 100% sold on the "path of least resistance". I can see the place for regional rivalries. I accept that you do have to placate the fans sometimes and schedule a game in South Bend. I can even buy that a tougher opponent might prepare you for other challenges down the road – perhaps even in a different season. Is it coincidence that Georgia’s three recent SEC Championship appearances have come in years when they’ve had a "real" opening game opponent? Probably, but I’m hoping that’s the case again this year.
Those unhappy with this scheduling reality can complain about weak schedules all they like and try to change things with a campaign of shame, but in the end we have to get down to talking about incentives. Which behaviors get rewarded (in terms of titles and money), and which are penalized?