Nonconference scheduling matters

If a team from the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12 -- or Notre Dame -- finishes the regular season undefeated and wins its conference championship, it's a lock for one of the four spots in the College Football Playoff, right?

"I don't think it's automatic or should be automatic," ACC commissioner John Swofford said, "but I think it would take some unusual circumstances for an undefeated Power 5 team not to be one of the top four."

Makes sense.

"Strength of schedule, head-to-head competition and championships won must be specifically applied as tie-breakers between teams that look similar." An excerpt from the College Football Playoff selection committee protocol

But then why schedule aggressively? Why put an Oklahoma or a Clemson on the nonconference schedule if the only goal is to win every game? Because winning isn't enough in the sport's new postseason.

Teams must now answer the question, "But who did they beat?"

There are 12 people tasked with comparing teams with similar résumés, and one of the criteria that "must be considered" is strength of schedule. There's no doubt the selection committee honored that mandate in its inaugural season. It's the reason Marshall was locked out of the committee's poll for weeks. It was a factor in all seven of the weekly rankings, as committee chairman Jeff Long consistently noted wins over the committee's top 25 teams as justification for where teams were slotted. It was one big reason TCU was ranked ahead of Baylor all season. TCU had a win over Minnesota. Baylor had a win over Buffalo.

Advantage Frogs.

"Clearly, teams that have faced tougher opposition are generally going to come out ahead," said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff. "There's just no question that the committee compares those nonconference schedules. I know that the playoff will usher in a whole new era of scheduling and that teams who want to be in this playoff are going to have to prove themselves with their schedules."

That's exactly what Ohio State did.

While the Buckeyes' impressive drubbing of Wisconsin in the Big Ten title game was the extra push they needed to get into the top four, they also had the edge over TCU and Baylor with their strength of schedule. Ohio State finished with three wins over teams that finished in the selection committee's top 25 (against Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin), while Baylor and TCU each had two. And while the Big 12 leaders were lining up against the likes of SMU and Samford, Ohio State beat Navy in Baltimore, lost to Virginia Tech, beat Kent State, and added a 50-28 win over Cincinnati to its resume.

Last season, Baylor's nonconference schedule included SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo -- three programs that finished a combined 12-23. In 2015, Baylor will play SMU, Lamar and Rice. Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw declined comment, but it's a strength of schedule gamble -- and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby knows it.

"I really do believe that nonconference scheduling should reside with the institution," Bowlsby said. "They know best what they think it takes to get their team ready for the regular season. Having said that, we have talked about the very real circumstance of a situation where you have a weak schedule and you've got two teams that are about the same, and one played a good nonconference schedule and one played a poor nonconference schedule. I don't think there's any question the one with the good nonconference schedule is going to get in."

That's why the Big Ten and Pac-12 aren't taking any chances.

The Big Ten calls its scheduling plan for 2016 "1910" because it will play one major intersectional game, nine conference games, a championship game, and zero FCS programs.

"We think that's a pretty good balance for us," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "I'm not of the mind to say everyone should be doing what we're doing, but we've tried to listen to the committee and take it seriously."

The Pac-12 has arguably the toughest road to the playoff, with nine league games and a conference championship game. Commissioner Larry Scott acknowledged the risk involved in that aggressive philosophy, but said the reward is worth it. Oregon's home win over Michigan State helped soften the blow of the Ducks' home loss to Arizona.

"You could have an otherwise undefeated team stumble and lose in that [championship], and there are all kinds of arguments where some might say, 'Well, that's why you shouldn't have a championship game, you shouldn't play nine conference games, you shouldn't play tough nonconference opponents,'" Scott said. "Basically, that's a philosophy where you can try to game the system, just try to get through unscathed.

"I subscribe to the philosophy, well, in some years in can hurt you, but more often than not you're going to have teams with similar records across the country and I believe it's a credit to the Pac-12 that the champion of our conference will have emerged through the toughest possible road -- tougher than any other conference -- and I think that gives us the benefit of the doubt when the committee or anyone else is comparing teams with similar schedules," he said. "I don't even think it will be a question as to who deserves to get in because strength of schedule matters."

The Big 12 is the only Power 5 conference without a conference championship game. The NCAA requires leagues to have at least 12 teams and two divisions in order to host a conference title game -- restrictions both the Big 12 and ACC have petitioned to be deregulated. With 10 teams, the Big 12 uses a round-robin format to crown its "one true champion," which was a controversial slogan last season because the league deemed TCU and Baylor co-champs.

While the Big 12's round-robin format is unlikely to change soon, Bowlsby said the conference has considered league-wide scheduling mandates. Bowlsby told ESPN.com that the athletic directors have recently considered different options for the nonconference schedules.

"There wasn't a proposal, there was just a lot of discussion around, 'Do we want to put something in place? Do we want to say that we're not going to play FCS schools? Do we want to say that we are going to mandatorily play somebody from one of the five high-visibility conferences, or maybe you have to have two from among the 10 FBS conferences?" Bowlsby said. "There was a lot of different stuff thrown up against the wall, and the discussion is not complete yet. We haven't ruled out any of it yet."

The only thing that's been ruled out?

Any notions that strength of schedule can't make or break playoff hopes in the new system.