The Lottery: Spicing Up College Football’s Early Season Scheduling
Two weeks ago, I outlined why any college football playoff needed to have a requirement of its participants that they be conference champions. The idea was that selecting the best teams was too subjective a process; that any committee making that decision would be making assumptions based on a limited sample set of data of 12-13 games; often with few, if any, similar opponents, and would be making a determination of the best teams with little criteria for any valid analysis beyond the eye test.
The argument for, or against, any team always comes down to scheduling. Smaller schools like Boise State are often criticized for their weak schedule, but their success rarely affords them the opportunity to schedule non-conference games against quality opponents, while adhering to their required conference matchups against often inferior teams.
Meanwhile the SEC, the biggest advocate for the top-4 model, has rarely faced judgment for being the conference that typically plays the easiest non-conference schedule. The Florida Gators haven’t left the state for a non-conference game since 1991. Georgia has played two games since 1961 west of the Central Time Zone, and both of those were in the last five years (Arizona State, 2008; Colorado, 2010).
Both of those games were scheduled under previous athletic director Damon Evans, who developed a philosophy of playing difficult, high profile non-conference games to strengthen the team for their annual conference schedule. Upon his ousting for a DUI charge in 2010, Evans’ replacement, current AD Greg McGarity, opted to return to a more feathery schedule. He promptly cancelled all long-distance non-conference games, including a 2016 visit to Autzen Stadium, saying shortly before that 2010 Colorado game, “We think we’re going a long way this week (to Boulder), try Eugene, Oregon, that’s even further.”
In fairness to McGarity and the SEC, there has been absolutely no incentive for teams to play a difficult non-conference slate. The SEC plays only eight conference games (compared to nine in the Pac-12 and Big 12, conferences which do so to simplify the process of filling out a twelve game schedule); yet the credit its conference schedule gets by reputation makes it irrelevant whether their teams schedule hard or not.
That reputation, combined with a guaranteed sellout regardless of opponent, allows teams to schedule four home games against cupcakes with little risk for upset.
Upsets like what Oklahoma, a team known for their challenging non-conference scheduling, have experienced on occasion, leading head coach Bob Stoops to say in 2010, “At the end of the day, when things are all said and done at the end of the year, you’re not really rewarded for it as much as you used to be, playing a tough schedule, pretty much everyone gets ranked in the column just depending on wins and losses.”
Stoops went on to call difficult non-conference scheduling, “high risk, low reward,” and he is right. Only two AQ schools (those from automatic qualifying conferences) in the history of the BCS have failed to make the title game – Auburn in 2004 and Cincinnati in 2009, both of whom were left out because two other undefeated schools started the season ranked higher than them.
The recipe has been clear for AQ schools: go undefeated, and hope at most only one other AQ school does so as well. In 2008, had Texas Tech defeated Oklahoma and won the Big 12, it would have played for the national title despite the fact that the Red Raiders have not played a non-conference game against an AQ school since 2003.
While many have been critical of Oregon’s non-conference schedule for 2012, their soft schedule can be attributed to filling in games against non-conference opponents who have adopted similar philosophies to Texas Tech; most notably Kansas State and New Mexico. The Ducks may face criticism, but if they run the table, they will be in Miami on January 7th. Teams simply aren’t penalized for scheduling weak non-conference games, and castigated for losing when they do choose to schedule hard.
Oregon dropped from #3 to #13 following its loss to LSU last season, while Alabama only dropped one spot from #2 to #3 for a loss to the same team. Oregon was penalized more for having its loss occur during non-conference play. It was another example of teams being discouraged from scheduling hard, encouraged to pad the schedule with cupcakes. Such soft scheduling leads to an altered perception of a team’s quality at worst, and a slate of boring college football games at best.
There is a solution, and it comes from England. While the game Americans call football may be more relevant stateside than the game the British call by the same name, England possesses two concepts that if brought stateside would vastly improve the American game.
The first is the concept of promotion and relegation. (If you want a comprehensive understanding of how that would work in college football, read SBNation’s breakdown from last month.) The second is the FA Cup, England’s all-comers tournament pitting all of the nation’s clubs from every level against each other, which had 763 participants this year.
While a huge tournament featuring teams from FBS down to NAIA teams would be phenomenally exciting, the physical nature of the game, combined with a slow-evolving power structure, would make assembling such a tournament a logistical impossibility. However, how the teams are drawn for the FA Cup is what can best be applied to college football.
Prior to each round of the FA Cup, a draw is held, with teams matched up by balls drawn by the committee at random. While traditionally the results were drawn from a velvet bag, today the balls are kept in a clear plastic bubble, while still retaining the tradition of hand-drawing each pairing. The draw event is broadcast live nationally, and is a huge event in the landscape of English soccer.
It is a structure that has drawn international praise for its egalitarian nature, giving every team a chance, often creating exciting David-vs.-Goliath matchups that would never happen otherwise. Sounds like the perfect solution for the present disparity in college football scheduling.
Consider however, as random as the selections may be, there would certainly be questions of tampering, as the NBA has repeatedly drawn criticisms for the convenience of some draws recently in their draft lottery. Conspiracy-laden fan bases (Oregon knows of this all too well stemming from the 2006 Oklahoma game matchup) would have a field day if any draws in such a lottery could result in massive outcries of lottery-fixing.
One week per season, a lottery would be held pairing all 124 FBS teams against one another for a scheduled non-conference game.
When would these games take place?
Week 2. It has to be during the preseason, and since week 1 carries its own significance as the start of the college football season, that’s out. The later in the season the games would be played, the higher the risk of colliding with in-conference scheduling and the greater the opposition from conferences. Week 2 works best. They could even give it a cool moniker like “Lottery Saturday.”
How would the selection work?
Much like the FA Cup, 124 balls, representing each FBS team, would be placed in a clear plastic sphere. The pairings would be selected one-by-one, visiting team selected first, until all 62 matchups have been made. FA Cup tradition dictates that the balls be selected by hand. However, because this lottery has no such tradition, the vertical air blasting of balls like traditional televised lotteries would be the format. The balls would also display the logos of each team, adding to the visual presentation and excitement on TV.
Speaking of TV, will this lottery be broadcast?
Of course! Just like the FA Cup, this event would be broadcast live. In all likelihood, it would air on ESPN, be hosted by College GameDay’s Chris Fowler, who would be flanked by an army of college football analysts ready to break down each matchup.
When would the selections be made?
The day after the BCS Championship game. Since teams would need ample time to plan travel and other logistics related to such matchups, advanced notice would be preferred. Announcing during college football’s quietest period – post-Spring practice – would provide too limited a window for preparation, so it would be best to have it in the days following the title to build a focus towards next season.
What if two teams who already had a scheduled game that season are paired up?
Teams are re-entered into the lottery. If a matchup that was already scheduled for that season, either an existing conference matchup or a regularly scheduled non-conference game (i.e. Iowa-Iowa State) is drawn, the matchup is nullified and the teams are returned to the general pool. If this occurs on the very last pairing, the last four teams would be re-drawn to ensure a feasible matchup can occur.
What would the schedule look like versus the current 2012 week 2 schedule?
Here are the best non-conference games in week 2 of the 2012 season:
Washington @ #2 LSU
#1 USC @ Syracuse in East Rutherford, NJ
Penn State @ Virginia
Miami @ #13 Kansas State
There is some intrigue, but there are no pairings of any ranked teams. Georgia @ Missouri, Florida @ Texas A&M, and Auburn @ Mississippi State are all compelling conference games, but are outside the scope of attempting to improve the non-conference schedule.
Using a random sequence generator, here is a sample of what a drawing of teams might look like:
#4 Oregon @ Georgia Tech – Matchup of two of the best run-based offenses in college football
#13 Kansas State @ #8 South Carolina – matchup of two coaching legends
#24 Notre Dame @ #14 TCU
Miami @ #5 Oklahoma – Another historic game in the series
#12 Michigan State @ #1 USC – pairing of 2011 division winners (unofficially)
#11 West Virginia @ #18 Clemson – rematch of last season’s Orange Bowl
#6 Georgia @ #15 Stanford – Georgia plays in Pacific Time Zone for the first time in over 50 years
Others games of note: Vanderbilt @ #23 Boise State – Boise State finally gets an SEC team to come to Boise, #17 Nebraska @ Baylor – a game between old Big 12 foes, #10 Michigan @ Iowa State – college’s football winningest program goes to one of college football’s most remote outposts.
What would be the greatest objections to such an idea?
The greatest outrage would come from fans, who would complain bitterly about having another Saturday with a fantastic slate of games. (Just kidding.) The loudest objections would come from those within the power structure – the presidents, the coaches, the athletic directors – none of whom would be particularly fond of relinquishing the element of control.
Having a lottery to determine even one game per season would represent such a radical loss of control that the idea would be rejected from consideration almost immediately. Teams want to be able to plan every possible detail, wanting to avoid the element of randomness, ignore the reality that having a good season can come down to luck. An injury here, an official’s call there, and sometimes it comes down to something as simple as the bounce of a ball. The bounce of that ball may or may not be lucky, but it’s always fair. That fairness, even if it exists for only a week, can go a long way towards leveling the playing field of college football.