Rethinking scheduling in playoff era

Not even West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck knows what the ideal nonconference schedule should look like in the new era of the College Football Playoff -- and he's on the selection committee.

Here's a good start: Alabama versus USC. LSU versus Wisconsin. Michigan versus Oklahoma. Notre Dame at Texas. Clemson at Auburn.

A plethora of blockbuster matchups have been scheduled for coming seasons, and while it would be faulty to assume they are all a product of the playoff, there's no question programs across the country are strategically beefing up their lineups with the intent of impressing the selection committee. "Strength of schedule" is a phrase fans are going to hear ad nauseum in the College Football Playoff era, as it will be one of the factors the 13-member selection committee considers when choosing the top four teams in the country.

Just how heavily it will be weighed, though, remains to be seen.

"I don't know if I want to give it a percentage," Luck said. "Everybody, they may view it a little bit differently on the committee, but I certainly believe it's important. ... I do think it's something that matters. There are years you may not face the conference heavyweight, or conference powerhouses. In those cases, it will be important to look at what a team has done with its nonconference scheduling."

Virginia Tech, for example, does not play defending national champ Florida State this fall -- and will see the Seminoles only twice through 2024 -- but the Hokies will travel to Ohio State for a nationally televised game in Week 2, and they've scheduled games against Wisconsin (2019-20), Michigan (2020-21), West Virginia (2021-22), Penn State (2022-23) and Purdue (2023). Tennessee, though, has Alabama as its permanent crossover partner, and the SEC has implemented a rule requiring all schools to schedule at least one opponent from another Power Five school in their nonconference schedule.

"We don't have to face any questions relative to strength of schedule," Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said. "Two-thirds of the strength-of-schedule formula is who you play in your own league, so for the people in the SEC, that's a pretty good point of departure, relative to schedule strength."

The SEC and the ACC both opted this summer to stick with an eight-game league schedule, but the Big Ten will switch to nine games in 2016. While the ACC is gaining a partnership with Notre Dame, Michigan is losing one. The last meeting between the historic rivals will be this season, meaning Michigan will have to find a replacement for the Fighting Irish moving forward.

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said he'd like to fill that void "with a compelling national game" similar to what the rivalry with Notre Dame brought. The Wolverines' future schedules currently include Florida, Arkansas, Virginia Tech, UCLA and Oklahoma.

Brandon, like most athletic directors, said his scheduling philosophy is influenced by trying to balance ticket sales, the evolution of the secondary market and the playoff.

"The combination of all those factors has put us in a situation at Michigan where we're working very hard to put together schedules that are going to be more exciting," Brandon said. "They're going to be stronger. They're going to put more pressure on our coaches and our programs. But the reality is, if you want to compete at the highest level, having stronger schedules is going to be a part of that objective."

While some coaches have publicly supported playing only opponents from the Power Five conferences, there is no uniformity across scheduling right now. The Big 12 is the only conference among the Power Five that doesn't play a league title game, and the SEC and ACC are the only conferences at eight league games.

"My ideal nonconference schedule is hopefully what everybody else is doing," said Stanford coach David Shaw. "That's been my mantra from the beginning. If we do break away and become this Big Five conference, great, let's let everybody have the same scheduling rules, whatever they are. I don't care what they are. If we only play Big Five schools, or only play local teams, it doesn't matter to me, it really doesn't. As long as we're playing by the same rules. It makes the committee's job even easier because everyone is playing similar opponents and you don't have to compare apples and oranges."

Luck said he envisions a scenario in which everyone eventually is playing a similar slate -- to the NFL. "I do think that the five highly visible conferences will begin to more resemble NFL schedules, where you've got to bring your A-game every week," Luck said. "That's what the public loves."

Odds are the committee will love it, too.