The last few weeks brought us college football media days, also known as the time of year coaches say things they shouldn’t say. This year’s winners were Gary Pinkel and Dabo Swinney, with an honorable mention to San Diego State’s Rocky Long. Pinkel and Swinney chose to bemoan the fact that Notre Dame isn’t in a conference and plays only 12 games, implying that it’s easier for the Irish to make the playoff. If you want Notre Dame to be in a conference that’s fine, but at least come up with a good reason. Schedule difficulty is not one these two head coaches should be bringing up. To me Swinney and Pinkel seem to be complaining only because Notre Dame is a playoff contender this year and thus a threat to Clemson’s, and to a lesser extent Missouri’s, playoff chances.
The best part about these complaints is not just the what, but the specific schools the complaints are coming from. Swinney and Pinkel coach two of the teams with the easiest Power 5 schedules in the country. Notre Dame’s schedule is so strong that Mizzou and Clemson’s 2nd or 3rd toughest game would only be Notre Dame’s 5th toughest. If anything, Brian Kelly should’ve said Clemson has an easier path to the playoff by being in the ACC.
This all comes down to scheduling and how it affects college football playoff positioning. Many coaches argue that having an extra conference game, whether playing 9 in the regular season or 8 plus the conference championship game, is a disadvantage compared to schools who are independent or don’t have a conference championship (like the Big 12). In these cases I think the Pac-12 is the only conference that has a leg to stand on considering their schools have to play 9 regular season conference games in arguably the deepest conference in the country, topped off by the conference championship game.
While it would be nice if the Big 12 had a championship game, it really only hurts themselves as last year showed. Big 12 teams play just as many conference games as the Big 10, SEC, and ACC; who cares at what point of the season those games occur? If anything having that extra game gives you more of an advantage as an extra opportunity to prove yourself. It is just as likely to help put you over the top of a similarly ranked team as it is to hurt you.
Oh, but that’s right. Most schools aren’t into challenging themselves. They wanted a playoff so a champion could be proven on the field, but only proven once getting to the playoff. Don’t want to have to prove it through the first quarter of their season. It has gotten better with many marquee matchups being scheduled in the next decade, but there are still far too many cases of power programs playing FCS and bottom-of-the-barrel FBS teams for multiple non-conference games (See Georgia, Missouri, TCU, Baylor). I can understand coaches wanting one or two of these games to prepare their teams for conference play, but having that ability only opens the door for teams to schedule their way to 4-0 starts and unwarranted Top 25 rankings.
My solution is to start having a pre-season game or two. It’s not exactly an uncommon opinion, but I can’t believe there hasn’t been more progress towards it. Also eliminate the ability to play FCS programs unless it is a pre-season game. The Sun Belt conference is terrible. It also has 11 teams but only plays 8 conference games. Why? Make them play 10 conference games, giving them a true round-robin to determine a champion and eliminating half the non-conference games that Power 5 teams can use as a warm-up against them. These two things would greatly diminish the number of opportunities for Power 5 schools to play garbage programs as easy non-conference wins.
These overall changes would help the college football landscape because it would increase the competitiveness of non-conference schedules and diminish the need for coaches to bash other school’s scheduling as being too easy. Maybe teams can take a page out of the scheduling playbook of Notre Dame, whose schedule includes only two teams from the bottom third of the 128 FBS teams in this year’s pre-season rankings (Massachusetts and Wake Forest). If Notre Dame can do it, why can’t everyone else? Oh I know why, with all of two bottom feeder games scheduled they have an unfair advantage. Just ask Gary Pinkel and Dabo Swinney.