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College football's great scheduling debate is all about incentive

Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

ACC athletic directors voted to stay with an eight-game league schedule at this week's spring meetings.

AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. -- Dan Radakovich is one of a few people in college football who must examine both sides of the great scheduling debate. As Clemson's athletic director, he must help decide how many conference football games the ACC should play to satisfy its competitive and financial needs. As a member of the College Football Playoff selection committee, Radakovich must examine every team's schedule this fall to determine which four teams will earn the right to play for the national title.

On Thursday, ACC faculty athletic representatives will probably rubber stamp an initiative that keeps the conference slate at eight games but will require, beginning in 2017, that every school schedule at least one out-of-conference game against a team from the Power Five -- Big Five? Group of Five? High Five? -- conferences. "Things could change down the road four or five years from now with some experience with the College Football Playoff," Radakovich said on Tuesday. "But that's where we need to be right now."

This dressing up of the status quo matches what the SEC decided last month and contrasts with what the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the Pac-12 are doing, as all will play nine-game conference schedules by 2016. The SEC's desire to remain at eight drew the ire of Stanford coach David Shaw, who ripped the decision last week. "I've been saying this for three years now. I think if we're going to go into a playoff and feed into one playoff system, we all need to play by the same rules," Shaw said. "Play your conference. Don't back down from playing your own conference. It's one thing to back down from playing somebody else. But don't back down from playing your own conference." Presumably, Shaw also disagrees with the ACC's decision.

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Administrators from, and fans of, the leagues that require nine conference games are worried that the ACC and SEC schools will load up on patsies to artificially inflate their records. Those teams will play FCS opponents, a practice the Big Ten has banned. Fans and administrators worry that the selection committee will simply follow the loss column -- a legitimate concern considering the polling process that placed teams in the BCS title game the past 16 seasons -- and won't critically examine the schedules each team played to reach its respective record. In many cases, an 11-1 team may be better than a 12-0 team. A 10-2 team could be better than an 11-1 team. In a lot of years, the committee will attempt to distinguish the differences between two or three teams with identical 11-1 or 10-2 records.

Still, that doesn't mean a nine-game conference schedule is automatically superior. Let's use the 2014 schedule as an example. Let's say Clemson (nonconference games: at Georgia, South Carolina State, Georgia State, South Carolina) loses to Florida State and finishes 11-1, and South Carolina and Georgia were both good. Now let's say Stanford (nonconference games: UC-Davis, Army, at Notre Dame) loses to Oregon and finishes 11-1, and Notre Dame was good. Both résumés look fairly impressive. But what if Clemson had to play nine conference games? The Tigers can't drop South Carolina, and they probably wouldn't drop their home games against an in-state FCS team and a nearby lower-level FBS team. Clemson would likely drop the trip to Athens. And what if that game was replaced by a game against Virginia? Suddenly, Stanford has the edge. So, in this case, an eight-game conference slate helps Clemson in the strength-of-schedule analysis. (Playing nine league games along with Georgia and South Carolina would have provided the strongest schedule, but we're being realistic here. Clemson is not going to punish itself just because it happens to be tied to an in-state, nonconference rival that went 33-6 over the last three seasons.)

The other difference for the ACC is Notre Dame. Beginning in 2015, the Fighting Irish -- full members of the ACC in every other sport -- will play five football games a year against ACC competition. Notre Dame will play four ACC teams this season, including defending national champion Florida State on Oct. 18. Why would the league mandate a ninth conference game when that would, in practice, become a 10th conference game for five schools per year? "It's an X-factor," Radakovich said.

Radakovich also brought up a point that few coaches and athletic directors want to admit. Not every school is scheduling in an attempt to win a national title. Some schools, whether rebuilding or perpetually down, are trying to schedule to reach six wins so they can go to a bowl game. This is important at the conference level, because leagues already have deals in place with bowls. If they can't produce enough bowl-eligible teams, it takes money out of the schools' pockets. Since most schools have already budgeted for that money, the incentive is low to add guaranteed losses. "If you have the nine games, there are going to be nine more losses," Radakovich said. "How does that affect the bowl contracts? How does that affect the standings of maybe not the top teams but some of the mid-level teams?" (It's actually seven more losses. The 14-team league would go 7-7 in these games. Theoretically, it could go 14-0 in nonconference games.)

This entire conversation is really about incentive. The ACC and the SEC have one huge incentive to stand pat. They are the only leagues to win a national title since George W. Bush was in the White House. They have no reason to change as long as what they're doing is working. If their teams suddenly begin getting shut out of national title contention because of a perceived weakness in their schedules, they'll change. More likely, change would come from internal pressure. Consider what Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany -- whose league will play a nine-game conference schedule beginning in 2016 -- told USA Today last week. "We want our fans to come to games," Delany told the paper. "We've got to give them good games. We also have a network. We also have season-ticket holders."

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Translated, that means that in the age of 60-inch televisions, conference leaders didn't think fans of Big Ten schools would continue to make the significant investment in season tickets if three or four home games a year were against MAC or FCS schools. Even with a league that has expanded to 14 schools, this keeps Ohio State or Michigan or Penn State visiting Minnesota consistently, and that should provide an incentive for fans as they decide whether to slap down hard-earned money for Golden Gophers season tickets. Ticket sales haven't been a problem in the SEC, but privately some administrators have worried about the growing number of no-shows for certain games. A person who is currently paying to not come to games will soon realize he can save money by not paying to not come. This is why SEC schools have been trying to ramp up the in-stadium experience. Of course, the best way to improve the in-stadium experience is to bring in a quality opponent, and that fact -- not criticism from coaches in other leagues -- is more likely to induce change.

But the playoff committee has been tasked with considering strength of schedule, and it will be interesting to see how seriously committee members weigh schedules. "I think it's going to be the totality of the schedule," Radakovich said. "Being a conference champion is one of the top priorities. As is a good strength of schedule. As is winning the games. So there really is not just one factor that's overwhelming the others. It's the body of work associated with the program."

That's why Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has no problem sticking with eight conference games. After glancing over his schedule -- which includes an opening-night matchup against Oklahoma State in Arlington, Texas, and a visit from the ACC's newest quasi-football member -- he is comfortable that it stacks up favorably against any other slate. "It depends on who you schedule nonconference," Fisher told reporters. "You're telling me [that] us playing eight conference games and playing Florida, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame isn't tougher than them playing nine?"

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