As Virginia's experience shows, scheduling tougher games isn't always wise

The Washington Post has an excellent look at Virginia’s desire to schedule tough opponents, which might result in the downfall of head coach Mike London.

Of course, London refuses to look at it that way. As the Post writes, he’s an optimist.

“You can put yourself in situations to have the type of seasons that can catapult a program to the type of success Virginia has had in the past,” London told the Post. “You can argue that you do that by playing a weaker-strength-of-schedule-type of team and catapult yourself, or do you do that by taking young men who value the type of education they get, and then you say, ‘We’re going to play these types of teams, and we want you to come to be the foundation of building this program to get us back into the winning ways.’ I’d take the way I just described.”

And yet, in the last three seasons, Virginia has faced UCLA, BYU (twice), Oregon, Penn State and TCU, and the Cavs are 2-4 in those games. This season, Boise State, UCLA and Notre Dame are on the docket and London is on the hot seat while athletic director Craig Littlepage defends the tough scheduling.

In the age of the College Football Playoff, plenty of attention is being put on nonconference scheduling, but Virginia isn’t aiming for a playoff spot. A bowl of any kind would actually be a nice step up. And recently, the recipe for that is simple: Cupcakes.

Last year, eight Power 5 programs played exclusively non-Power 5 teams in their nonconference slate. All eight went to a bowl game. None suffered a loss in the nonconference season. UVa, on the other hand, lost to BYU and UCLA and finished one win short of a bowl berth.

Since 2012, 16 Power 5 programs have padded their record with at least three wins per season against non-Power 5 foes. All 16 went to a bowl last year. Ten are ranked in the preseason top 25, and four more received votes.

And then there’s Virginia, picked last in the ACC Coastal Division with its coach atop most “hot seat” lists. The Hoos are one of just five Power 5 programs not to have a winning record in nonconference play since 2012.

London’s optimism is admirable, but realism is probably the better path to wins. This has been a topic of debate at Syracuse, too. Nonconference scheduling is one of the few ways a program can control performance, and while padding the schedule with cupcakes seems like taking the easy way out, it might also be a good way to build a team’s confidence and iron out some flaws before tougher games arise. It also generates fan interest when a team is winning, and it helps to get a bowl paycheck at year’s end.

And it’s also worth noting that scheduling light isn’t a cardinal sin in football. The NFL does it every year. Schedules are adjusted so that the team that finishes last in a division faces other last-place finishers, too. It’s part of the reason the NFL has enjoyed so much parity over the years.

When picking out playoff teams, big wins out of conference matter. But for the programs trying to scrape together six wins, knowing where to look for them is probably a great start.