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Tom Oates: Inequity in scheduling hurts Big Ten football

July 24, 2018

CHICAGO — When the four-team College Football Playoff began in 2014, the Big Ten Conference told its teams to beef up their schedules to make them more attractive to the selection committee.

The Big Ten increased the number of conference games each team plays from eight to nine. In the non-conference season, it pushed its teams to play at least one team from a Power Five conference every year and to avoid scheduling FCS opponents.

But those aggressive scheduling tactics mandated by the Big Ten didn’t help the conference last year, when it was left out of the playoffs for the first time in the CFP’s four-year run.

Perhaps it was only a one-year hiccup caused by Big Ten champion Ohio State losing twice and Alabama, which the selection committee chose for the final playoff spot even though it didn’t win its division in the SEC, being the best team in the country, which it then proved by winning the national title. Perhaps the Big Ten, which many think will be the nation’s strongest conference this season, will rebound strongly when the bids come out in December.

But what if it doesn’t? What if its five potential national title contenders — Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State and the University of Wisconsin — beat each other up and the conference gets left out for a second consecutive year?

There were no knee-jerk overreactions to missing the playoffs at the opening session of the Big Ten Media Days event Monday. Two things, however, were crystal clear.

First, though the coaches can’t agree on the ideal size of the field, everyone in the Big Ten thinks the playoff is a great idea. Second, there is growing concern throughout the conference that it is scheduling itself into an unfavorable position by playing nine Big Ten games and more difficult non-conference slates than other teams.

“I think it does cause you to look at how you schedule and to make sure that the scheduling format is correct,” Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said. “Whether it’s the nine conference games, whether it’s the non-conference schedule you play, all those things matter. I think the initial effort (by the Big Ten) was to improve the competition level. That was the goal and I think that was achieved. But some other conferences have gone the other way and they’ve had some success getting in that way.”

It’s hard to argue that point. The SEC and ACC are the only Power Five conferences that have put a team in the playoffs every year and both play eight-game conference schedules. The Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 play nine.

The SEC put two teams in the field last season, the first conference to do that, and its non-conference scheduling is a joke. Alabama, for instance, hasn’t played a true non-conference road game since 2011.

It is becoming apparent that putting your team in harm’s way too often is no way to make the playoffs. Just ask Ohio State, which lost last year at Iowa in a Big Ten crossover game that might not have been scheduled had the conference not added a ninth game.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that playing nine games in the kind of rigorous schedule that we play makes achieving an undefeated season more difficult,” Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. “And it is true that the committee has not selected a team with two losses from any conference. So we’ll continue to watch it.

“We have tremendous respect for the committee. Their job is to select the four best teams and we think that they operate in good faith. We’ll continue to build a conference and be as good as we can be and we think that includes playing each other as much as we can, playing the best teams in the country in the non-conference as well as postseason and continuing to make the case that our teams are among the four best in the country.”

The biggest problem is the criteria used by the selection committee is ever-changing. When the playoff began, strength of schedule was the most important factor in determining the best four teams. As the playoffs evolved, however, it became more important for a Power Five team to be undefeated.

That’s why Big Ten coaches made a strong push for equity in scheduling Monday.

“We just have one issue that I think needs to be ironed out and obviously that’s the scheduling,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We have five conferences that all play different levels of conference games. When you look at all the data points, they’re all pretty much the same besides that one. I would like to see a conversation of that being uniform.”

As for the size of the playoff field, good luck finding a consensus on that. Penn State coach James Franklin advocated for the status quo, new Nebraska coach Scott Frost wants eight teams and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wants 16 (eliminating conference championship games). Fitzgerald thinks the field should be limited to conference champions only.

But as long as the field stays at four, the selection process is going to be subjective.

“The committee has put two teams in that people have said maybe shouldn’t have been in — Ohio State (in 2014) and Alabama (in 2017) — and they both went on to win it,” Fitzgerald said. “So they did their job.”

Yes, they did. But uniformity in scheduling would help them do it better.

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