The NCAA‘s new playoff system is finally here, and while there are still some flaws in its design, one of the most important and exciting changes it has created lies with the increased emphasis on strength of schedule.
This, of course, means that major conference programs will now risk missing out on the playoffs if they decide to line up cupcakes before they kick off their in-conference season; for example, Ohio State can no longer fill up their early schedule with in-state programs like Youngstown State, Miami (Ohio) and Ohio before moving on to Big 10 play. Instead, fans of college football will be treated with more than a handful of top-tier non-conference clashes with a variety of games against major conference opponents serving as true early tests rather than basically exhibitions.
There’s no reason to believe this is going to penalize contenders either. While some may worry teams could get worn out with the addition of a few more challenging games, to understand the benefits just look at college basketball where the country’s best programs — at least those with forward-thinking coaches — routinely play grueling non-conference schedules and, in turn, are battle-tested when the NCAA Tournament rolls around.
While taking on a highly-ranked opponent in the non-conference used to be a major risk in the BCS era for teams with a realistic shot at landing in the national title game, losing a big game early is less of a dream killer in the playoff system with strength of schedule’s importance in the seeding. In fact, teams that nearly run the table but lose one early game to a high-profile opponent will likely be rewarded more than before, especially if they are fighting for a spot with an undefeated major conference team that didn’t challenge themselves early. I think we actually might see more national championship games between one-loss and two-loss teams than we ever did with the BCS.
While there are undoubtedly more arduous non-conference games in 2014, fans should look no further than the string of games the Maryland Terrapins have put together to see what a good non-conference schedule looks like in the new system. As it currently stands, the Terps will not be taking on a ranked opponent in the early season, but what they did do is challenge themselves with three opponents (out of four non-conference games) from major conferences. In the past, their non-conference schedule actually would have been a reflection of many arranged by smaller programs who were being paid by major conference schools to play them.
Here are the Terrapins’ four non-conference games: vs. James Madison, at South Florida, vs. West Virginia and at Syracuse. Although South Florida is no longer in a major conference (the Big East lost their place among the big boys after conference expansion ripped their heart out and forced them to operate as the American Athletic Conference), when this schedule was arranged, the Terps were preparing to play three challenging opponents from the major conferences. While none of these teams are expected to be in the race for a national title in 2014, you can’t knock Maryland for trying. The beauty of non-conference scheduling is that you never know what level of opponent you will actually face when you agree to play a program in the future. While the best schedules will always include at least one ranked opponent from the bunch, the selection committee will still look favorably on a non-conference schedule that features a program like USC in comparison to one that features San Diego State even if the Trojans only trot out a seven or eight-win team that season.
In other words, dare to be great or accept you’ll never be in the chase.