I mentioned in passing in this morning’s buffet that even though the SEC has locked down its conference schedule for the next decade, there was still a debate in Destin yesterday about football scheduling. It’s worth understanding what that signifies.
In discussing the national title hunt, Mark Richt used to insist that all he focused on was winning the SEC. That’s all he could control and he’d let matters take care of themselves after that. The last eight years of the BCS title game bore that wisdom out.
But that’s not the world Richt and his conference peers operate in any more. With a four-team playoff that doesn’t restrict the number of teams from a single conference, there’s more than one way to skin a national title cat now. Enter scheduling debate.
Something that is making coaches jittery is the new College Football Playoff that starts this upcoming season. A 13-member selection committee chooses four teams to play for the national championship and eight other teams to play in the four non-playoff New Year’s Day bowls.
But unlike the BCS that used computers and polls to ultimately determine who played in the national championship game, the CFP is subjective. Coaches around the nation want to know what it will take for their teams to get in the final four.
“Coaches all over are interested in the criteria and I don’t blame them,” said CFP executive director Bill Hancock, who spoke to the SEC coaches Tuesday afternoon. “The core criteria is very much common sense – strength of schedule, head-to-head, common opponents.”
Notice what’s missing from that list of criteria?
Now the reality is that, barring an upset of ginormous proportions in the SECCG, the conference champ will make it into the national semi-finals. But if you’re a coach or athletic director of a powerhouse, you also have to think seriously about plotting a narrow course that will make your program attractive enough for the selection committee to choose in the event you don’t win the conference championship. In other words, for the first time, Mark Richt has to entertain the notion that he needs to factor a Plan B into the equation for achieving a shot at a national title.
That’s a subtle distinction at the moment, I’ll grant you. Nobody knows how the process is going to play out and won’t until the first postseason pool is filled. And that’s reflected in the SEC’s conservative approach to scheduling, skipping the ninth conference game in favor of a Big 5 opponent mandate. Will that be the case down the road? Who knows? But because of the nature of the selection process, it will always be a factor in scheduling from now on.
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that winning the conference isn’t the be all, end all goal anymore for that national title chance. And it’ll never be again as long as subjective criteria are used to pick the national semi-finalists. If you’re asking me to point to something about the new playoffs that affects the regular season, there you go.