Playoff makes winning impact on September schedule

This story appears in ESPN College Football 2016, on newsstands June 7. Order online today!

Thank you, College Football Playoff, for inspiring more fall Saturdays like the one coming up on Sept. 3.

USC opens the season against defending national champ Alabama. Last year's runner-up, Clemson, faces Auburn. Oklahoma, a 2015 semifinalist, takes on potential playoff crasher Houston. Notre Dame visits Texas, while Wisconsin and LSU square off at historic Lambeau Field.

"There are some big games," says selection committee member Barry Alvarez. "That's the way it should be."


The committee has made it clear: Man up and schedule up. The CFP has challenged not just athletic directors but entire conferences to flex their scheduling muscles. And while strength of schedule isn't the only factor used to determine the Top 25-CFP executive director Bill Hancock would be quick to point out that no criteria are weighted in this oh-so-subjective system-it is certainly one of the most oft- referenced and concrete measures the committee can point to when justifying its weekly rankings.

It's why a one-loss Bama was slotted in at No. 4 in the first CFP Top 25 last Nov. 3, ahead of four unbeaten Power 5 teams. It's why a one-loss Houston hit its ceiling at No. 18. And it's why the Sooners punched their semifinal ticket despite having fallen to 5-7 Texas.

"When we're comparing schools, we throw [strength of schedule] right up on the screen," Alvarez says. "Who had they played, what their opponents' records were. That's very important, your quality wins."

Which means fans should enjoy a philosophical scheduling shift toward more big September Saturdays.

Witness: The Big 12 has mandated that all schools (Baylor too!) play one noncon against the Power 5 or Notre Dame, effective as soon as existing contracts allow. The SEC too must face a Power 5 or "major independent" starting this year, while the ACC adopts a similar scheduling decree in 2017.

And here's what's fun about it: Losing is OK. No, really!

From 1998 to 2013, only 13 out of the 32 teams that vied for the BCS championship entered the title game with a regular-season loss.

In the fledgling playoff era? Six of eight playoff teams have done so.

"You can recover," Alvarez says. Just look at two-loss Stanford. Thanks to "body-clock" issues, or just a dialed-in Northwestern, the Cardinal fell to the Cats in Evanston in Week 1 last year ... then beat Notre Dame, won the Pac-12 and, despite a loss to Oregon, finished in the conversation for a playoff spot at No. 6 in the CFP's final ranking.

"It allows there to be more than just a statistical analysis," says Stanford coach David Shaw. "That those conversations happen makes me feel a lot better. Forget about for us but for college football."

Of course, not every team is scheduling for the CFP-many are simply after an easy W and the six- win mark. But for the 25 programs (give or take) realistically vying for the sport's biggest prize, the importance of at least trying to beat one of their own is officially a movement.

"I think we'll see more challenging schedules in the near future," says Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione. "But as much as everybody would love to see marquee nonconference games every single week, we have to realize that the difficulty of the conference schedule is always tough, regardless of what conference and what year."

In other words: What's best for the fan isn't always best for the fan's team.

The key, he says, is striking a balance in the schedule, highlighted by one blockbuster opponent. Here comes the tricky part, though: It's a guessing game. Athletic directors often schedule as much as a decade in advance, so there is no way to guarantee an opponent will be top-five or even top-25 material. Strength of schedule also evolves throughout the season as opponents' résumés change. What might look like a big win in September can morph into a shrug come November.

Clemson AD Dan Radakovich knows those potential pitfalls well. He's on the committee. His program played for the 2015 title. And he has a formula: two Power 5 opponents (one of which is always rival South Carolina), one Group of 5 team and one in-state FCS squad.

"It shows that you're going out and trying to play at the highest level of the FBS, which is the Power 5 group," he says. "In any particular year, you have to be fortunate as your body of work is looked at. Were the teams you played really good?"

Many top-ranked teams playing on Sept. 3 will answer yes-win or lose. And that, ultimately, will be a victory for everyone.