Does college football need uniform schedules -- and is it possible?

ByHeather Dinich ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

On what was arguably the defining week of the 2015 regular season, when conference championship games were being played and playoff spots were at stake, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield went home to Austin, and coach Bob Stoops was enjoying his Saturday as if it were a typical day at the office.

Because, for the Sooners, it was.

"I wasn't glued to the TV at all," Stoops said. " ... I felt strongly that we would be in and was just really going about our business, probably hosting recruits and doing what we always do."

With no conference title game to play, the No. 3 Sooners' playoff resume was complete. No. 1 Clemson, meanwhile, had an undefeated season on the line in the ACC championship game against No. 10 North Carolina. A loss in the Big Ten title game cost Iowa an undefeated season and its spot in the top four.

Never before has the scheduling disparity among conferences become so clear and debatable as it has in the fledgling era of the College Football Playoff, where a committee of 13 people must compare teams with different paths not only to the top four, but to their own league titles. The Big Ten is the only league that has decided to drop FCS opponents entirely from its schedules moving forward. The ACC and SEC play eight conference games, and the Big Ten will now play nine, like the Pac-12. The Big 12 remains -- at least for now -- the only Power 5 conference without a title game, but it's also the only one that plays a true round-robin schedule, where every team plays one another in the regular season.

"My big thing is everybody should have to play a championship game or nobody play a championship game," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "That's my problem. OK, we're sitting here 12-0 and now we have to go play another one, and we're sitting there and then there's another team from another conference and they're just sitting at the house. They don't have to play another game. That's the issue I have. I don't think that is right."

Stoops, though, also has a valid point. If a Big 12 team beats everyone else in the league, what does it have to gain by playing the same opponent twice?

"The perfect example happened a year ago," he said. "It would've been Oklahoma State and us playing the very next week, and we had just won by 35 points the week before. Does that make sense? It doesn't. When you're in a league that way, it just doesn't work. In the end, I trust our presidents and athletic directors and the commissioner that if they feel something else has to be done, they have their reasons for it."

The CFP has zero interest in mandating any scheduling rules -- autonomy is a key buzzword among the Power 5 conferences -- but some coaches are outspoken that until the schedules become more even, the playoff playing field is not.

"I'm not buying the whole nonsense that, 'We play eight league games because our league is better,' " Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Whatever. Everybody's league is really good. Playing nine is harder than playing eight. All you have to do is ask the guys in the Pac-12 who have been doing it. The guys in the Big 12 are beating the crap out of each other. We have a playoff structure in FCS, we have a playoff structure in the NFL, and the data points and the way you evaluate those two levels are exactly the same.

"The next domino to fall is we have to have equal data points."

Impossible, says Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, because the conferences aren't equal.

"I just really have a hard time absorbing that," Bielema said. "I know in certain leagues -- I was in the other league and we won it three years in a row. I understand the Big Ten as well as anybody, but it's not even in the same ballpark."

Officials from the CFP insist the selection committee does not compare conferences, it compares teams. How else can they determine the difficulty of an entire schedule, though, without acknowledging the depth -- or lack thereof -- of the conference in which that team is competing?

It might be a futile debate, as the people with power to change the playoff -- the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick -- aren't even considering any sort of scheduling mandate right now. At least one selection committee member, though, said it might make their jobs a little easier if they did.

"That makes sense," said selection committee member and Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez. "I don't know how you'd do it. Obviously if everything is standardized, it's real easy, but how do you do that? Answering that question, coming up with a solution, how do you put it together? That's the problem."

Especially when it's not even a fair fight within the conferences, as ACC Coastal teams Duke, Virginia Tech and Virginia don't have to face Atlantic Division heavyweights Florida State and Clemson this fall. Last year, Iowa didn't play East Division front-runners Ohio State, Michigan State or Michigan during the regular season. Not everyone in the SEC has to play Alabama and LSU.

Even Art Briles, whose Baylor program has been heavily criticized for its soft nonconference schedule (127th out of 128 in 2014, 128th out of 128 in 2015), said he'd be 100 percent in favor of a more uniform scheduling format.

"I'd be all for it," said Briles, adding he would also approve of eliminating FCS opponents from the schedules. "I'd be all for them saying, 'Let's play nine Power 5 teams a year, or 10.' "

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said each conference is its own entity, and that football is no different than any other sport when it comes to scheduling. He made it clear he has no interest in supporting a scheduling mandate of any kind.

And if the commissioners aren't in favor of it, it's not going to happen.

"Unlike the professional leagues, of course, there is no national scheduling office for college sports, and I don't hear any talk about setting up such an office," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. "The selection committee does a good job of evaluating teams based on their performance during the season, and that will continue."

Stanford coach David Shaw said uniformity wasn't necessary under the BCS system, but the CFP has changed the entire picture. Shaw said he'd like to see as much agreement as possible on details like how many road games each team should play, how many Power 5 opponents and what times the games are being played.

"There should be some pattern we should all be able to agree on that makes everyone's road to that final four as similar as possible," he said. "We can make it harder on [the committee] and make them extrapolate, or we can make it a little bit easier and say, 'You know what, these are comparable teams because of the road they've traveled to get here.' "

The only thing that's comparable now is the road for all teams goes through the selection committee.

"It's never going to be equal," Stoops said. "They're not. Not all conferences are equal. As much as you want to go schedule uniformly, it's never going to be apples to apples."

Especially if championship Saturday continues to be a typical day at the office in the Big 12.