Despite a wildly successful College Football Playoff featuring the sport's first selection committee, debate still rages on how much individual conferences' structures affect teams' standing in the process. Is it time all conferences adopt the same structure? Ted Miller makes his case for uniformity, while Mark Schlabach argues on behalf of regionalism:
Miller: Logic and fairness require uniform format across Power 5
The buzzword coming out of the Big 12 meetings last week in Phoenix wasn't what you'd think. No, it wasn't "conference championship game," something the Big 12 doesn't presently play but entered the week wondering if it should and exited the week strategically tabling for a vague future evaluation.
Instead, the leading buzzword was "data points," a term that lolled out of many mouths through a smirk and a honeyed Texas accent.
Sounds silly, doesn't it? This is football, a collision sport for manly men. "Data points" sounds like something that would squeak out of the mouth of a guy with masking tape on the bridge of his horned-rim glasses.
Yet the resistance to "data points" is the most important question in college football right now, outside of the plight of the student-athlete (academic, financial and behavioral).
A data point is what the College Football Playoff selection committee uses to evaluate teams vying for one of four spots in the CFP. We lay folk call them "games." Or, more accurately, "quality games."
If college football aspired toward logic and fairness, then the goal across each of the Power 5 conferences would be to present the committee with teams featuring the same number of important data points. That would be nine conference games, at least one nonconference game against another Power 5 conference team and a conference championship game.
Ergo, just about every team vying for a semifinal spot would give the committee 11 quality data points. Or 11 quality games, thereby reserving space for two lesser foes in a 13-game schedule. It wouldn't always be an exact science, of course. Playing a Big Ten team in a nonconference game could mean you played Michigan State or Purdue, programs in very different places right now. And some years teams worthy of consideration might not play in their conference championship game.
Still, there would be a pretty firm standard for evaluation, so comparing teams would be more like analyzing different varieties of apples instead of comparing apples and, say ... oranges. Or kumquats.
This would be easy and painless to make happen in advance of the 2016 season. The Pac-12 already mostly follows the 11 data point path. The Big Ten will start in 2016 when it adopts a nine-game conference schedule. The ACC and SEC need only to add a ninth conference game. The Big 12, as noted, is missing only a title game and perhaps a push toward tougher nonconference scheduling.
The 11 data point path requires no sacrifice of tradition. It takes nothing away. It only adds quality. It's unquestionably good for fans. It's good for TV. More conference games would create a more accurate picture of said conference's true pecking order. It would create a more equitable system regionally and nationally.
In fact, there is no legitimate argument against it. Oh, there's smokescreen blather -- "Our conference is too hard to play nine conference games!" -- but that's just obfuscation, not real counterargument.
So why is something so obviously good for the game not happening anytime soon? The biggest reason is no one has the unilateral power to make it happen. With the new autonomy of the Power 5 conferences, there should be some consideration for a commissioner who can made decisions for the good of the game, but that idea has yet to gain traction.
With no external authority overseeing things, teams and conferences are still playing the angles, looking to game the system. For more than a few coaches and athletic directors, the skillful avoidance of competition is almost as important as collecting skillful players.
A year ago, the ACC voted against adding a ninth conference game. Duke coach David Cutcliffe told ESPN.com's Heather Dinich that he "didn't see the value" in nine conference games.
"What's going to get you in the playoff opportunity is to have no losses or one loss. I don't care who you're playing," Cutcliffe said.
"I don't care who you are playing." Think about that.
Of course, Baylor coach Art Briles said his Bears' lackluster nonconference schedule had "zero effect," on his team's standing with the selection committee last December, so maybe it doesn't matter whom teams play. That said, anyone have a sneaking suspicion that if the Bears had beaten, say, Georgia in their season opener instead of SMU things might have played out differently?
A week before backtracking at the Big 12 meetings, commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, "All things equal, 13 data points were better than 12 data points," when speaking about a potential conference title game. His source for that belief, he said, was selection committee chair Jeff Long. After the meetings, however, the party line was to not overreact to a lack of data points.
There are myriad advantages to playing fewer conference games. The most basic one is fewer chances to lose. The second most basic one is it transforms a conference's overall record. By adding a conference game, half the teams in the conference add a defeat to their records. With just eight conference games and a fourth nonconference game, the entire conference can write in a victory. When you pencil this out, perhaps counterintuitively, it actually in most cases negatively affects a nine-game conference's strength of schedule.
Further, it can skew how many road games a conference plays. This fall, eight SEC teams will play just four true road games. Just one SEC team, Vanderbilt, will play six road games. No Big 12 teams and just one Pac-12 team, Arizona State, which plays Texas A&M in Houston, will play only four road games. Meanwhile, six Pac-12 teams play six road games.
TCU is likely to start the season ranked in the top three, but if you are looking for a reason to bet against the Horned Frogs it might be their six road games.
Just imagine if different divisions in pro sports leagues had different rules about scheduling, such as the New England Patriots playing 10 home games or the Houston Rockets playing Golden State only twice while the rest of their division played the Warriors six times.
In the absence of a commissioner, Long and his committee will have to react negatively to a lack of data points a handful of times before teams change their ways.
With five major conferences and a four-team playoff, at least one conference is going to be smarting every year. Controversy is part of the college football system, and some might even argue it's part of the sport's appeal. Adopting an "11 data point" model wouldn't end all controversy. No plan would do that, even if it included a commissioner.
But a general scheduling blueprint would make it more difficult to game the system. Oh, and it would give us a bunch more quality matchups to enjoy during the season. Because fans do care who you are playing.
Schlabach: Regional rivalries, not format, are most important factor
When Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was asked about other Power 5 leagues playing eight-game conference schedules, he said that college football's power conferences need to "run the race on the same course."
Do you know what makes running so mundane? Circling the same track over and over again. It's like watching paint dry. At least give me some trails, hills and valleys to make things interesting.
With all due respect to my colleague Ted Miller, uniform scheduling in college football sounds a lot like running 10 miles on a treadmill. It's boring and monotonous.
In fact, uniform scheduling sounds a lot like the NFL. I don't want college football to turn into the NFL. I want to enjoy college football's traditional marching bands, fight songs, student sections and, just as importantly, its regional rivalries.
I want Florida playing Florida State every season. I want Miami playing Florida and Florida State every year. I want Georgia playing Georgia Tech, Louisville playing Kentucky, and Clemson playing South Carolina. What I really want is for Texas to start playing Texas A&M on Thanksgiving Day again. I want to watch BYU and Utah playing in the Holy War and Pittsburgh and West Virginia squaring off in the Backyard Brawl every season.
I really don't care how many conference games a team plays, as long as it plays opponents who matter the most to its fans. I want more in-state rivalries and border wars, which often mean so much more in terms of bragging rights than playing another conference game.
Of course, Scott's argument is that teams from the Big 12 and Pac-12 play more challenging schedules because they play nine conference games every season, one more than teams from the ACC, Big Ten and SEC play. The Big Ten will move to a nine-game schedule in 2016, while the ACC and SEC voted last year to remain at eight for the foreseeable future.
Nine-game conference schedules won't make things equal in the race for the College Football Playoff. The Big 12 (with only 10 teams) is the only Power 5 conference that plays a true round-robin schedule. However, it doesn't play a conference championship game like everyone else. Under this format, the Big 12 would be guaranteed a repeat matchup in its championship game -- something no other conference would require -- and its coaches and athletics directors don't want to play one.
Because the Power 5 conferences have expanded so quickly, even league scheduling is unbalanced. In the Big Ten, for example, Wisconsin won't play Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State or Penn State during the 2015 regular season. Conversely, Big Ten West rival Minnesota has to play the Buckeyes and the Wolverines this year.
The argument that a nine-game conference schedule would preclude Power 5 teams from playing FCS foes doesn't hold water, either. This coming season, eight of the Pac-12 schools will play FCS opponents: Arizona (Northern Arizona), Arizona State (Cal Poly), California (Grambling State), Colorado (Nicholls State), Oregon (Eastern Washington), Oregon State (Weber State), Washington (Sacramento State) and Washington State (Portland State). Stanford (it played UC Davis in 2014), UCLA, USC and Utah (played Idaho State in 2014) are the only Pac-12 teams that won't play FCS cupcakes this coming season.
In the Big 12, Oklahoma and Texas are the only teams that won't play FCS foes in 2015. Sure, Baylor will play nine conference games, but its nonconference games are against FCS foes Northwestern State, Buffalo and SMU. Does it really matter how many Big 12 games the Bears play? Baylor is one of four Big 12 teams that won't play a nonconference game against at least one Power 5 opponent or Notre Dame this season. Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State are the others.
Uniform scheduling and having every Power 5 league playing nine conference games might sound like a great idea, but what would it really accomplish in the end? It wouldn't necessarily mean that we would get to see the games we want to see. Even after the Big Ten moves to nine games in 2016, we'll have to wait at least one more season to see Michigan play Nebraska and Penn State play Wisconsin.
At least the debate about playing eight or nine conference games gives us something to argue about, which is what makes college football great. The bottom line: Leagues can talk about "data points" all they want, but it's a moot point because it's never going to be apples to apples or oranges to oranges in college football.
Embrace diversity and celebrate college football for its variations.