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Fresh Perspectives on Out-of-Conference Scheduling by B.C.S. Teams

As evidenced by a series of recent postings, there is no hotter topic for offseason discussion in the college football blogosphere than out-of-conference scheduling.

Let's face it . . . nobody enjoys seeing a hyphenated opponent from the Pelican State. (Photograph from Football Fanatics.)

Additional essays upon the subject of non-league scheduling by B.C.S. conference teams have helped to illuminate this issue further. College Football Resource has looked at the out-of-conference schedules of the S.E.C. and the Pac-10 on a league-by-league basis.

Due to geographic proximity and historic rivalries, S.E.C. teams will face eight A.C.C. teams in 2007. In addition to such traditional showdowns as Clemson-South Carolina, Florida-Florida State, and Georgia-Georgia Tech, there are some quality A.C.C.-S.E.C. matchups between Alabama and Florida State, L.S.U. and Virginia Tech, North Carolina and South Carolina, and Vanderbilt and Wake Forest.

Although we still schedule too many Sun Belt teams (11), S.E.C. squads will face a couple of respectable Conference U.S.A. teams (Houston and Southern Miss), a pair of solid Big 12 teams (Missouri and Oklahoma State), a pretty impressive trio of Big East teams (Louisville, South Florida, and West Virginia), a very good Pac-10 team (California) . . . and no Big Ten teams.

The Pac-10, meanwhile, has scheduled well, but the West Coast league also has used geography at least partly as a guide. Pac-10 teams will face a total of just two teams from the A.C.C., Big East, and S.E.C., one of which (Tennessee) will travel to the Golden State to return last year's meeting in the Southeast.

If Georgia fans are lucky, the Vols will pick up another Clausen while they're out in California. (Photograph from The Topeka Capital-Journal.)

The two Big 12 teams appearing on Pac-10 slates are Colorado and Nebraska, while the one Conference U.S.A. squad tangling with a Pacific Coast opponent is Houston. The bulk of the rest of the Pac-10's non-conference slate consists of a mixed bag of 11 Mountain West teams and seven W.A.C. teams ranging from good (Boise State, B.Y.U., and T.C.U.) to bad (Idaho and San Diego State).

One interesting point illuminated by College Football Resource's breakdown is that the Big Ten is making excuses for refusing to schedule S.E.C. teams, despite overtures from the likes of Georgia's Damon Evans. The Big Ten claims that the league's reason for not scheduling regular-season games against S.E.C. opponents is the existence of bowl tie-ins between the two leagues that might produce postseason rematches in the Capital One and Outback Bowls.

If that is the case, however, why is it that Pac-10 teams will play regular-season games against three Big Ten teams in 2007? The Big Ten and the Pac-10 share bowl tie-ins to the Rose and Sun Bowls. The three Big Ten teams appearing on Pac-10 schedules next fall (Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin) were the three best teams in the league in 2006.

Is there a greater chance of a Georgia-Michigan rematch in Orlando than there is of a Michigan-Oregon rematch in Pasadena? Is an Auburn-Iowa repeat in Tampa that much more likely than a Washington State-Wisconsin repeat in El Paso? Paul Westerdawg is right: Big Ten teams are ducking regular-season meetings with S.E.C. squads, and they are doing so for no good reason. There is no legitimate basis for believing that Big Ten teams cannot compete in the Southeast, given the historical evidence, the pedigree of the players, and the option of playing the games at night.

If it's too humid during the day, just postpone the kickoff, bring in the cameras, turn on the lights, and let's play a nationally-televised night game! (Photograph from The New Georgia Encyclopedia.)

Nevertheless, while Big Ten athletic directors deserve some criticism, Big Ten webloggers have earned our praise. The Lawgiver directed our attention to The Hoover Street Rag, where Geoff has offered an impressively comprehensive breakdown of the relative strengths of the power conferences.

Geoff's research is extensive and I am unable to do justice here to the depth of his analysis, so I would encourage you to read his examination of the subject in its entirety. Here, though, is his conclusion:

At the beginning of 1997, the SEC was coming off of an impressive five year run, crushing, killing, and destroying all before them. Their impeccable regular season record was built around playing very few non-conference games against the future BCS conferences, and playing 60% of the ones they did schedule on their home fields. Ten years later, this situation is still accepted by some people as the truth, but things have changed. The ACC is the best all-around conference, the Big Ten is the best in the regular season, and their margins are both much smaller than the SEC's was. The Big East in the past five years has made up a lot of ground between "functional bye" and "contender", even if they aren't really there yet.

Finally, I'd like to again note the way scheduling has changed. The SEC's non-conference slate used to be a fraud, apart from a few rivalry games. They're still well behind some of the other conferences, but they play over 40% more BCS competition in non-conference play than they used to (1.21 vs. 0.85 g/p/s). The Big Ten has slid the other way. On average, half of its schools have dropped one of their non-conference games against a BCS school (down to 1.51 g/p/s from 2.05). The Big XII has taken over as the conference with the weakest non-conference slate. Each school plays about one non-conference game a year against competition that isn't from Directional State.

With the advent of the permanent 12-game regular season, I'd really hope to see this change. The Pac-10 plays nine intra-conference games, so they're exempt, but the other schools on this list should take it as an opportunity to play at least two of their non-conference games against quality opposition. Even if that means we see a lot more Ohio State-Baylor and USC-Indiana games, it's better than the sham that is filling your out-of-conference schedule with Eastern Michigan, Florida International, and Nicholls State.

Please note that Geoff, unlike many critics, does not berate the S.E.C. for playing most of its out-of-conference games inside the region; in his analysis, Georgia gets as much credit for playing Clemson by the shores of Lake Hartwell as Tennessee gets for playing California in the vicinity of Strawberry Canyon. For him, it's about the quality of the opposition a team faces, not how many miles that team had to drive (or fly) to get there.

Geoff also does not allow conference homerism to color his conclusions. Despite his being a Michigan fan, he does not shrink from the fact that S.E.C. schedules have improved while Big Ten slates have softened. This lends considerable credence to his judgment that, as the S.E.C.'s out-of-conference competition has been upgraded, the level of the league's dominance has been diminished.

The moral of the story is that no one ever grew hale and hearty off of a diet of these.

Geoff has done some fine work here and my lone constructive criticism was the following:

While I agree that scheduling Baylor is more respectable than scheduling North Texas, is there a way to make allowance for scheduling good teams from non-B.C.S. conferences?

In 2005, Georgia played Boise State, a W.A.C. team that wouldn't register in your calculations, but the Broncos certainly qualify as "playing somebody" to a much greater extent than scheduling, say, Duke, which would count under your approach.

If some allowance could be made for this, even crudely (e.g., giving partial credit for non-B.C.S. conference teams that played in bowl games), what is already an insightful and nuanced look at out-of-conference scheduling could be refined further still, painting an even truer portrait of how the respective conferences schedule.

To this, Geoff offered the following reasonable reply:
I struggled with that question too when I was doing the analysis, and it's an important point. In the end, I thought that the best way to get an idea of how the BCS conferences stack up against each other, top to bottom, was by excluding non-BCS-conference teams except for ND (the key words here being "against each other"). It was a nice bright line, and it made sifting through the data a lot easier. As a practical matter, double-checking the conferences' records against each other became possible and that gave me a much better feeling about my math.

So that trumped the scheduling implications, at least for now. The good news is that I still have a shiny pile of data and there's a lot of time left before September comes around. I really like the idea about giving credit for putting bowl-bound teams on the schedule. Everything's already in the spreadsheets, so it's a matter of some creative compiling and sorting. I'll let you know if I come up with something interesting.

I hope Geoff will take the time to break his analysis down in that level of detail, because I believe giving greater weight to good teams from non-B.C.S. conferences (and, ideally, giving reduced credit for bad teams from B.C.S. leagues) would bring the picture into sharper focus.

This counted for something, didn't it?

Were we to delve more deeply into the numbers, I suspect that the A.C.C. (for which allowance had to be made due to the addition of Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech during the survey period) would no longer appear to be "the best all-around conference," as the weakest of the B.C.S. leagues would stand revealed as having grown fat off of games against the weak sisters of the other major conferences.

That, though, is a discussion for another day. For now, we have a mass of new data before us, to parse, dissect, sift, and spin. Let me know what you think about it.

Go 'Dawgs!