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Post Understanding why teams schedule as they do

Wednesday June 10, 2009

HeismanPundit takes Georgia associate AD Arthur Johnson to task for Johnson’s candid comments about how an SEC program looks at scheduling. The title of his post is tongue-in-cheek of course, but it does raise the issue of the incentives that guide the behavior of many of the nation’s top programs.

HP’s site is valuable and his analysis (of the Heisman landscape) typically accurate because, as he frequently must explain to critics, “I analyze the Heisman race in the context of how it is, not how it should be.” Fair enough, right? You might not like that the Heisman more or less ignores defense or favors certain schools, but you have to accept those realities if you hope to follow the Heisman race with any kind of perspective, insight, and accuracy.

With that maxim guiding his site, you’d expect him to recognize that Johnson’s comments are cut from the same cloth. It’s not the job of Johnson and his peers to schedule in a way that would sit well with fans of the game. The incentive system for major college football programs – as it is – values wins (or, more correctly, lack of losses) far more than strength of schedule. It’s one of the tradeoffs of making the regular season count for so much. Teams schedule accordingly.

If scheduling reform is necessary, it’s because incentives are out of balance. When you look at what gets rewarded, Johnson’s approach is completely rational. Strength of schedule *is* overrated. Even when it’s a question of deciding who plays for the national title, other factors like conference championships or poll position often come in to play before strength of schedule. Additional wins for major conference teams mean higher rankings, bowl games, TV appearances, and money. If you can do it at home and collect the gate receipts, all the better. That the Pac-10 would consider dropping its round-robin schedule in the pursuit of more bowl-eligible teams shows how strong the pull of the financial incentives are.

Bringing about more attractive or aggressive schedules means either changing the incentives or compelling teams through top-down rules to schedule in ways that are contrary to the current incentives. Unfortunately, the same conference-based organizational structure that works so well as a money-making machine would surely be as resistant to further scheduling restrictions as it was to the idea of Congress meddling with the BCS.

As an aside, Johnson’s best comment was this:

You’d love to have a national name [opponent] that’s in a valley one of these years. It still looks great. You just don’t know when people are going to be up and down.

It’s so true. How much credit is Georgia getting for scheduling mediocre Arizona State and Colorado teams?

Since we’re in off-season if-I-were-king mode…if you really want the best regular season schedule, take HP’s 10-team conference model and use relegation to determine membership instead of geography. You’d have nine conference games and can use the other three on regional rivals in other divisions or however else you’d like. Scheduling wouldn’t matter – winning the first division (or earning promotion) would be what it’s all about. And what matchups every week…

One Response to 'Understanding why teams schedule as they do'

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  • I think some sort of conference reform would help dramatically. Having more uniform conferences or shuffling some teams could make the plane much more level when evaluating literally a hundred teams. My only concern though is the importnace of geography. Not only for tradition’s sake, but more so for the fans and travel. In that sense, geography is extremely important to me and the fanbase.