According to reports by ESPN and CBS Sports, the SEC and ACC are both set to make decisions on expanding their conference schedules from eight games to nine. The outcome—slated to occur within weeks—will have a tremendous impact on the 28 programs which call the two power conferences home.
Adding a league game wouldn’t only mean an additional contest against a quality opponent, it would reduce the number of non-league games from four to three. It’s no surprise that coaches and athletic directors are divided on the issue. Here’s a look at both sides of the argument.
More Attractive Matchups
In many cases a full-fledged conference game will outdraw a run-of-the-mill, non-conference contest.
To illustrate, consider Ohio State’s 2014 non-conference schedule: at Navy, Virginia Tech, Kent State and Cincinnati. Let’s say that either the Kent State or Navy game is replaced with Northwestern, a team which is not on the Buckeye’s 2014 Big Ten slate.
Which matchup would sell more tickets, generate more fan interest and attract more media attention: Ohio State-Kent State, Ohio State-Navy or Ohio State-Northwestern?
Alabama’s Nick Saban has gone as far as advocating not only nine league games in the SEC, but is a proponent of requiring one of the three remaining non-conference games be against a power-five team. Here’s what he had to say, according to Michael Casagrande at AL.com:
“My thing is I’m for playing nine conference games and still playing another team in the major conferences, so you play 10 games because of fan interest, people coming to games looking forward to seeing more good games.”
Strength of Schedule
With only four playoff spots to split between five power conferences, the issue of strength of schedule will soon loom larger than ever.
The body of work each prospective playoff team produces in a season may become the No. 1 deciding factor in choosing between the champion of the ACC, the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the SEC. The concept of scoring “style points” will be alive and well in the new format.
With the SEC getting an automatic pass and the Pac-12 and Big 12 close behind it, this leaves the ACC and Big Ten hoping they can convince the selection committee that their resume is playoff worthy. One way for leagues to beef up their strength of schedule is via solid non-conference opponents, the other is replacing one of these games all together with an in-league team.
Here’s what Miami (Fla.) coach Al Golden had to say about expansion (via Matt Murschel of the Orlando Sentinel):
“I’ve been in favor of going to nine. I think it would help balance our schedules. I like the way the league has grown and the new membership is clearly going to make us better. There are very attractive markets that are going to help our league out.”
One huge cost associated with the recent wave of conference realignment is the loss of some of college football’s best rivalries. One way to protect those that remain, at least in the SEC and ACC, is to expand to nine conference games.
The ninth game would allow cross-divisional rivalries—like Alabama-Tennessee, Georgia-Auburn, Florida State-Miami (Fla.)—to be played on an annual basis.
Georgia president Jere Morehead, who will have a vote on the nine-game option, told Seth Emerson of The Macon Telegraph that he “absolutely supports continuing the Auburn series.”
Though the cross-division designations could survive in an eight-game format, they are more likely to live on if the nine-game scheme is approved.
Loss of Control
Non-conference games are the only part of the schedule that individual programs have control over. These are the dates that athletic administrators can choose to schedule with major teams from other power conferences, teams from one of the “other” five leagues in the FBS ranks (American Athletic, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West or Sun Belt) or a team from the FCS level.
Dropping one conference game represents a 25 percent reduction in the number of games a program can schedule on its own.
This limitation hurts schools like Syracuse, which could use a solid non-conference slate to bolster its national football image. In 2014, the Orange are one of only four ACC schools that have more than one non-league game scheduled against a power five conference member. Instituting a nine-game format would limit Syracuse’s ability to use its schedule as a building block moving forward.
More Difficult to Go Undefeated
Replacing a non-conference game with a contest against an in-league opponent increases the likelihood of a loss.
For example, take a look at Duke’s 2014 non-ACC schedule: FCS Elon, at Troy, Kansas and Tulane. If the Blue Devils were forced to drop any of one these four games and replace it with an ACC team, they would be less likely to win.
Here’s what Duke coach David Cutcliffe had to say about expanding to nine-games, according to Heather Dinich at ESPN.
“I’m just not a fan of it. I don’t see the value in it, and it’s not going to get you in the playoff system, if that’s what everyone is saying. What’s going to get you in the playoff opportunity is to have no losses or one loss. I don’t care who you’re playing.”
Smaller Programs Lose
One of the reasons given to justify power programs playing lower-level teams is that the smaller school will experience a financial windfall. If this truly is a benefit to the non-power conference or FCS team, one quarter of these games—at least the ones with the SEC and ACC—stand to be lost forever if league games are expanded.
In 2014, only seven teams in a power conference (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC) will play all 12 of their games against FBS opponents. The other 57—or 89 percent—will all play at least one opponent from the FCS level.
Of the seven not playing an FCS team, six are from the Big 12 or Pac-12, the only two leagues which currently play a nine-game conference slate. It’s no coincidence that programs which must play nine league games are less likely to schedule an FCS opponent.