Scheduling schemorgasbord

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Conference expansion. This one’s self-explanatory – more conference games means less opportunity to schedule OOC ones.
  3. Bowl games. Bowl eligibility is the mantra, and KSU’s Bill Snyder is the guru.
  4. 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.

“It’s dead.”

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.

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22 Comments

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22 responses to “Scheduling schemorgasbord

  1. Mike In Valdosta

    How many of us thought this would all be solved by adding a 12th game?

    Kudos to Damon Evans. Leave winning to CMR. Damon need to focus on building brand and bank.

  2. Senator, you could make the same argument that you do about Kansas for practically the entire Big 12. The real reason why so many people thought the Big 12 South was such a juggernaut last year is the fact that they feast on cupcakes for the first 3-4 games of the season to boost their perception by the voters, then they actually begin to play conference games.

    Last year, Texas Tech feasted on the likes of Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU, and Massachusetts before playing their first conference game. The only team that played a reasonable nonconference schedule of the big 3 in the South division was Oklahoma who opened against Chattanooga, but then played Big East champion Cincinatti, traveled to hapless Washington, and also faced TCU at home.

    There certainly are many factors that decided a team’s nonconference schedule (the allure of home game revenue probably being the greatest), but I think the only way you can force teams to stop playing the cupcakes is to reincorporate some sort of strength of schedule component into the BCS formula. It obviously can’t be as strong as it was when it put Oklahoma in the title game in 2003 despite not winning its conference, but it should factor. This is another project I feel we can get Phil Steele to work on in his spare time.

    • … but I think the only way you can force teams to stop playing the cupcakes is to reincorporate some sort of strength of schedule component into the BCS formula.

      I agree completely. Assuming the powers-that-be could agree upon a viable SOS formula, that is.

      The tightrope they’d have to walk is providing an incentive to lose the cupcake games on the one hand, and on the other avoiding a scenario that essentially cuts off non-BCS conference access to the title game.

    • Dawg93

      Audit – there IS an SOS factor in the BCS formula. It’s hidden, but it’s in there – every computer poll used by the BCS uses SOS. Each computer poll uses SOS differently, but it is in there.

      • Interesting. I know that it does play a factor in the voter’s minds, but I didn’t realize there’s an actual component in the computer rankings. I consider myself a pretty decent student of the game and didn’t even know that. Perhaps it should be more explicitly stated.

        I just particularly remember the “quality wins” component that was a part of the BCS a few years ago. I remember specifically it helped the Dawgs in 2002 because they beat Alabama who wasn’t eligible to be ranked in the BCS, but the Dawgs got the quality win deduction from their BCS score because ‘Bama would have been top 10.

  3. Dawg93

    Great post, Senator. My one beef with this discussion, though, is the strength of schedule factor in the BCS. It seems as though Forde and Johnson are way too dismissive of SOS. Look no further than USC last year – only 1 loss (on the road on a Thursday night to good Oregon St. team) with an unbelievable defense and a 1st-round NFL draft pick at QB. Their OOC schedule was Notre Dame, Ohio St. and UVa. Hardly a Murderer’s Row but definitely not easy. Crushed all 3 by a combined score of 125-13. So why were they left out of the BCS mix? Their conference is considered weaker than the SEC and Big 12. Their computer ranking (which does factor in SOS) rated them lower than Utah and Texash Tech. And the perception of the Pac-10 conference meant voters left them in the 4 to 5 range rather than in the mix with other 1-loss teams like Florida and OU on the final poll prior to the bowls. Texas was rated higher than USC by the voters and Bama was rated higher than USC in one poll, tied with them in the other.

    Now relating this back to UGA – we don’t have the same conference perception problem that USC has, so I think we have to take a hard look at balancing our OOC schedule to make sure we aren’t making it harder on ourselves to win those OOC games but at the same time providing a good schedule to appeal to fans because the costs of going to games just rises every year. Between ticket costs, donations, parking, etc., it’s tough to spend all of that and be forced to watch UGA pound Cupcake U. a few times a year.

  4. too much

    that’s a long post. wish I had time to read it.

  5. dean

    Lets see if I can answer the SC schedule question for you Senator.

    SC conference oppnts.

    • Well, they’ve both got the same Eastern slate (except for each other, of course). So that makes Carolina’s list tougher.

      SC faces the following from the West: Arky, Ole Miss and ‘Bama. Georgia’s Western slate is Arky, LSU and Auburn. So, I’d give a nod to the ‘Cocks on that, given that it boils down to ‘Bama being better than Auburn.

      But look at what each faces OOC – SC’s got NC State, SC State, Florida Atlantic and Clemmins, while the Dawgs face Okie State, Arizona State, Tennessee Tech and Georgia Tech. I think Georgia has the much tougher row to hoe there. At worst, it all washes out, IMO. I fail to see why the SC schedule is tougher.

      • dean

        Sorry. I hit something that posted my first comment prematurely. It kinda sounded like I was being a prick. Not my intent. Hopefully my follow up comment makes more sense.

  6. dean

    Whoops, don’t know what happened on that first comment.
    Anyway let me try again.

    SC conference oppnts.:
    @UGA – Here I give them the advantage in SOS.

    Ole Miss – I would compare this game to LSU and give us the advantage.

    UK – push

    @Alabama- I guess since we both play Ark. I would have to put this one up against AU and give them the advantage.

    Vandy – Advantage us since we play at Vandy.

    @UT – push

    @Arkansas – push

    UF – Advantage us.

    OOC oppnts.
    NC St. – Compared to Oklahoma St., advantage us.

    Fla. Atl. – Compared to Arizona St., advantage them.

    SC. St. – Compared to Tenn. Tech, heck if I know.

    Clemson – Compared to GT, advantage us since we play at Tech.

    There ya go. That didn’t really answer anything did it? Our schedules are very similar. I have no idea how they rate their schedule 6 spots better than ours.

    • SSB Charley

      Why is Fl. Atl. an advantage over ASU? Otherwise, I think the discrepancy in schedule is simply due, as I think you note, to them having to play us, while we have to play them, increasing their SOS and decreasing ours.

      • dean

        It was really a toss up for me on FAU and ASU. I went with FAU for two reasons: 1) They won a bowl game last year. I know that may not be necessarily fair to ASU since FAU plays in the Sunbelt but still. 2) If I had to pick a winner between the two (on a neutral field) I would put my money on FAU.

        Until ASU proves otherwise I would say at the most it’s a push.

  7. Great work, Senator. FWIW Steele values NCSt. and Clemson probably higher than most and Arizona St. lower than most … add that in to SC’s tougher draw out of the West (Ole Miss/LSU is a draw, both teams travel to Arky, but at ‘Bama is MUCH tougher this year than vs. Auburn, sad to say) and that probably explains the disparity despite UGA’s grueling noncon slate.

  8. Hey, one team went 12-0 in last year’s regular season and the other went 5-7. I’m hopeful it’ll be different this year, and it should be, but until we see it …

  9. Macallanlover

    I agree with Mike, our schedule is great for fans, and I favor playing better, more interesting, games than what Florida and Bama have scheduled. OOC games have nothing to do with our achieving the goal of making it to Atlanta.

    If it requires at least one home and home OOC opponent each year, besides the one we are already stuck with, so be it. One patsy is enough for fans to endure.

    What isn’t addressed here is the voters not manning up and giving credit to close losses in quality games while just focusing on the Ws, regardless of how they were achieved.

  10. Hobnail_Boot

    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.

    Because Georgia is a lot better than South Carolina.

  11. I know it was a long time ago and a different world, but the 1978 Alabama schedule opened with: Nebraska, at Missouri and Southern Cal–back to back to back. If you’re good enough, you can take on the best both in and out of conference and prove it. I’m sick and tired of cream puffs…and cowardly scheduling. I like what you guys are doing this year, and I hope it works out really well for a team I respect and think is significantly underrated going into the season.

  12. RedCrake

    As I recall Steele takes home and away into account. So of the Western slate we get LSU and Auburn at home while SCar gets Ole Miss at home and Bama/Arky away… Not that I agree, but I can see what Phil is thinking.

  13. Scott

    San Jose State football is in negotiations to dump Arizona State from their 2010 schedule and play Alabama at their place. While this will benefit Alabama, San Jose State runs the risk of getting absolutely embarrassed in this game. Alabama will be stacked with talent, while SJSU will mostly not be able to compete.