Yeah, I know that’s a typo in the header, but I didn’t get the memo this week about what to post, as it seems that everybody and their brother has written something about D-1 football scheduling in the last few days. So screw it.
I hate being the last guy to show up at the party.
Anyway, having circled around and read a bunch of posts and articles on the subject, I realize that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that there’s significant tension between coaches and athletic directors about scheduling based on the two factors that seemingly drive 99% of the issues involving college football these days: money and postseason access. Admittedly, there are some variations on the theme that make the debate more interesting, but ultimately, it is what it is.
Start with this Marc Weiszer piece which describes that tension accurately. Contrary to a lot of the criticism I’ve heard and read in response to them, I don’t have a problem with Richt’s comments about this year’s schedule.
“I could reduce that a little bit,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “The league’s tough enough as it is.”
Seriously, he’s got a point. From his selfish standpoint, what exactly is the value added to the school’s resume this year with a loaded schedule? Consider that the teams many pundits predict will face off in the SECCG this year sport Steele’s #34 (Florida) and #77 (Mississippi) toughest schedules. It doesn’t seem like Georgia’s #7 ranking is a necessary key to success. (On a totally sidetracked note, if somebody can explain to me why Steele ranks South Carolina’s schedule first and Georgia’s seventh, I’d be much obliged.)
On the other hand, I can understand Damon Evans’ strategy, as well.
… Intending to market his program, athletic director Damon Evans added an additional home-and-home series with teams from BCS conferences when college schedules expanded to 12 games in 2006.
The idea was to get Georgia’s name out in regions of the country where the Bulldogs aren’t as well known, and to give Georgia fans road trips to areas where the program had not traveled for decades. This year, that trip is to Stillwater, Okla.
And, as a fan, how can I object to a better class of opponents to see my school engage?
It’s just that the playing field here is anything but level. Which is why I have to admire the chutzpah of Mike Hamilton.
“Tennessee has always played this type of schedule,” Volunteers athletic director Mike Hamilton said. “It’s a historical thing with us. It’s tradition. We feel like we’re a small population state and we need to travel nationally to get the national exposure, and it’s proven to be true. I think we are a national name because of having done that and we’re going to continue to do that and get into different regions.”
Bully for you, pal. It’s easy to beat your chest when your in state rival is a school that you’ve owned and resides in the same conference division.
The fact of the matter is that, as Pat Forde writes in this excellent piece, notwithstanding Georgia’s recent efforts, the trend is towards fewer and fewer showcase non-conference games being scheduled.
… There were 11 games matching Top 20* teams in 1978, 15 in ’88, eight in ’98 and just four in ’08. In other words: over the past two decades, the number of Top 20 nonconference matchups has decreased by half every 10 years. And the Top 10 matchups have virtually disappeared, going from five in ’78 to seven in ’88 to two in ’98 and one in ’08.
Forde lists several factors behind that trend.
- The BCS. There’s no strength of schedule component directly factored into the rankings, so what’s the upside to a heavy duty schedule? Don’t think coaches ignore facts on the ground like this one: In 2007, Kansas rose to No. 2 in the polls after opening the season with Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International.
- Conference expansion. This one’s self-explanatory – more conference games means less opportunity to schedule OOC ones.
- Bowl games. Bowl eligibility is the mantra, and KSU’s Bill Snyder is the guru.
- Money. You were waiting for this one to show up, right? The big time schools need every home game they can get their hands on.
Some of this gets fleshed out even further in this Ivan Maisel column (it must be Good Journalism Week at ESPN) – particularly the money aspect. Maisel boils that down to one basic rule of thumb.
It’s very simple. If you can fill your stadium, you play home games. If you can’t fill your stadium, or if your stadium isn’t big enough to generate the money the athletic department needs, you play road games.
For support, he looks no farther than Georgia associate athletic director Arthur Johnson, who had this to say to Maisel: “We want to play as many games as possible at home.”
Johnson had something more provocative to add, as well.
“Strength of schedule is overrated,” Johnson said. “You’d love to have a national name [opponent] that’s in a valley one of these years. It still looks great. You just don’t know when people are going to be up and down.”
I get what Johnson is saying here – given everything else in the mix, sitting down and planning a schedule down the road is a crap shoot in terms of formulating the perfect strength of schedule, particularly when in the case of a school like Georgia, SOS has very little impact on its seasonal goals. It’s a helluva lot easier to calculate the results of scheduling a cupcake for a home game, both from a profit and a win/loss standpoint. That calculus may suck for the fans, but that’s the way it is.
The final complicating factor in this debate is the rising cost of cupcakes. After all, they’ve got budgets to balance, too.
… South Alabama, which discussed starting to play football as early as the mid-1990s, timed its leap into the market with the precision of a Wall Street ace. The Jaguars, already members of the Sun Belt Conference in 14 other sports, used that membership in an FBS conference to lure traditional schools into deals.
The Jaguars will receive $850,000 from Tennessee for a game in Knoxville in 2013.
“We could have waited a year or two more and made more money,” said Gottfried, the athletic director.
The closer a season gets, the bigger a hole in the schedule gets and the more a school will pay to fill it. The smaller schools know this and exploit it.
Veteran schedulers are aghast at how the market has changed.
“A couple of years ago, you could buy a game for $300,000,” Florida State associate athletic director Andy Urbanic said. “It’s almost impossible to do that. You’re paying $400,000 to $600,000, and if the school is far away, you pay more.”
San Jose State is discussing a 2010 visit to Alabama, two sources say. But before the Spartans can sign for a payday that could be as much as $900,000, they must extricate themselves from a game they have scheduled with Arizona State. Cost of the buyout: $200,000.
Buyout clauses once existed as boilerplate contract language, insurance to cover the embarrassment of having to break a contract. These days, buyout clauses are used as parachutes to escape in order to sign more lucrative deals, even if it means giving up a home game.
There’s a limit as to how much an AD is willing to pay for this, of course (although this will probably turn out to be another area where the new SEC TV moneys give its conference members an advantage over other BCS conferences). At some point in time, it becomes a better strategy for athletic directors in a BCS conference to tighten things up by increasing the number of conference games played. That, of course, threatens to open up a fault line with their coaches who want those cupcake games for the easy Ws.
The perfect example of this is illustrated with the recent back and forth in the Pac-10 over its round robin conference schedule. A majority of coaches in that conference recently voted to reduce the conference schedule by one game. That majority came from the lesser lights looking for that marginal win to make their programs bowl eligible.
This week, the conference athletic directors shot that proposal dead in the heart. There were several factors cited for that, but the primary one?
… Muldoon said the Pac-10 coaches expressed interested in dropping the round-robin schedule during their meeting, so the issue was placed before the athletic directors.
“It didn’t gain a lot of traction,” Muldoon said.
So what’s the status, I asked.
Why wouldn’t the athletic directors be in favor of a change that could help their teams qualify for a bowl game? Or improve their bowl position? Or possibly get a second team into the BCS?
“Most people like the nine-game schedule,” Muldoon said. “They don’t want to buy another non-conference game. There just wasn’t a lot of interest.” [Emphasis added.]
One last thing to mention – I didn’t know exactly where to fit it in, but this post of Ben Prather’s at fanblogs.com regarding the difficulties Utah faces in arranging a credible schedule is too good to ignore. What I really appreciate about it is that he looks at the economics. Utah wants to get home games out of any scheduling arrangement, but that’s hard to insist on with a lot of schools who draw far better home attendance numbers than the Utes do. As we’ve already seen, there’s only so much money you can expect the big programs to give up.
Look for this to be something that continues to rankle and fester. There are too many perverse incentives built into the system now to expect otherwise.