Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick holds a seat at the table alongside the 11 FBS conference commissioners who will discuss a potential college football playoff in a series of upcoming meetings, the next Feb. 21-22 in Dallas. He's not interested in speculating on specific formats, such as the hosted semifinal proposed by a few Big Ten athletic directors this week, but he does have an opinion on another pertinent detail.
"I hope that with whatever future model emerges, strength of schedule is an important factor," said Swarbrick. "Putting greater emphasis on that is good for the strength of the game."
Most media discussion of a potential four-team playoff (including a column I wrote earlier this week) has used past BCS standings to illustrate potential matchups. But with the commissioners reevaluating everything from the BCS' format and schedule to conference tie-ins and revenue distribution, who's to say the BCS standings will remain the same -- or even exist -- come 2014?
"It hasn't been brought up yet in this conversation, but I don't think there's any question everything will be brought up," BCS executive director Bill Hancock said of selection criteria. "Everything will be reviewed. Every possibility will be discussed."
Some have already pointed to last season's standings as a cautionary tale to keep in mind during upcoming discussions. Had the final BCS standings been used to determine a four-team playoff in 2011, 11-1 Stanford would have earned the final spot at the expense of 11-2 Oregon, which beat the Cardinal 53-30 during the regular season and won the Pac-12 championship. Perhaps voters would have treated the teams differently had their decisions impacted the national-title race, but generally the polls and computers place more value on wins and losses (undefeated teams go above one-loss teams, one-loss above two) than any other factor. Yet the Ducks only had an extra loss because they chose to take on eventual title-game participant LSU in the season opener rather than a Sun Belt or WAC foe.
"I'm looking at it through [Pac-12]-colored glasses, but you can make a good case for Oregon," said Washington AD Scott Woodward, who notes he is "definitely in favor" of a four-team playoff. "They played a No. 1 team on a quote-unquote neutral site, that was probably three-quarters purple, and they weren't ranked [ahead of Stanford] because of it.
"If we go to a four-team playoff, everything should be on the table for how we talk about it, including how the teams are picked. If you're in the final four, should you have to be the conference champion? I'm not wed to it, but it's one of those issues that needs to be debated."
The notion of a conference championship requirement has garnered particular attention in light of the '11 race, when Alabama earned a spot opposite LSU in the title game despite losing to the Tigers during the regular season and finishing second in the SEC West. Afforded a second opportunity, the Tide avenged their regular-season loss to claim the trophy, but many fans felt they should not have qualified in the first place.
Swarbrick, for one, has good reason to oppose the concept: His school has no conference to win.
What the Irish do have is an increasingly treacherous schedule -- this year's includes dates with Oklahoma, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State and Miami -- which, should they one day make it through with just one loss (something they last accomplished in 1993), would arguably be more impressive than another 11-1 team winning its conference while playing more creampuffs.
"If you're going to be an independent in a world with a limited number of postseason spots in a playoff or plus-one, you have to rebut the pretty strong presumption that conference champions should be there," said Swarbrick. "We all assume the SEC champion will be in position to be there next year, so as an independent, we have to be able to make the case we played the toughest competition possible."
The BCS standings, which began in 1998, initially incorporated a strength-of-schedule rating (comprising 25 percent of a team's score), and at one point added a "quality win" bonus for victories over top 15 foes. The BCS eliminated both elements when it went to a simplified formula in 2004 (two-thirds polls, one-third computers), citing redundancy with the computer ratings, all of which weigh the quality of teams' opponents.
Several other changes shortly thereafter, including the 2006 implementation of a permanent 12-game schedule that allowed schools to count victories over FCS foes toward bowl eligibility, contributed to the current landscape in which some power-conference schools hold drastically different scheduling philosophies than others. As an example, when Ohio State won its 2002 BCS championship, it played eventual Pac-12 champion Washington State, Texas Tech and Cincinnati out of conference. Five years later, it reached the title game with a nonconference slate of Washington (4-9 that year), Akron, Kent State and Youngstown State.
"No one in college football came out and said schedules should be softened, but anecdotally, I can tell you that the scheduling philosophy of certain institutions changed," said Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione, who continues to schedule home-and-homes with teams like Oregon, Florida State and Notre Dame. "There was a move at the time to move away from scheduling tough intersectional matchups. Some institutions felt like a stronger schedule had much more risk than reward."
Presumably, a system that rewards aggressive scheduling would incentivize schools to seek out more challenging early-season matchups, to the benefit of fans. But considering strength of schedule could also become imperative when dealing with the selection and seeding of playoff teams. Relying on the votes of sportswriters and coaches -- as the sport has done since 1936 -- may not be the soundest method.
"When you're talking about something that is essentially a four-team playoff, maybe it's time to have an oversight [committee] -- much like we see in the NCAA basketball tournament and other sports -- to deal with all the various issues that go into the selection of those teams," said Castiglione. "That concept has been proposed before, it's just never materialized. I don't know if the time is right or not, but it should certainly be discussed."
Granted, the basketball committee deals with 68 teams, not four, and selects 37 of the participants. But much like it weighs several different factors (schedule strength, road record, quality wins, etc.) when comparing at-large candidates, a football committee could account for oddities like the aforementioned Stanford-Oregon conundrum and adjust seeding to avoid regular-season rematches.
The possibility Woodward mentions of restricting the field solely to conference champions seems unlikely. Consider: Just three of the top nine teams in last year's final standings won their conference. A four-team field that includes the 10th-best team (Big Ten champ Wisconsin) would lack credibility.
But a committee could still use conference standings to decide between two or more similarly bunched teams. Or, it could use nonconference schedule strength to differentiate between champions of two similarly regarded leagues. Plus, unlike pollsters, a committee would presumably start its discussion from a blank slate.
"These are some issues an oversight committee could resolve," said Castiglione.
After enduring years of increasingly watered-down schedules, the Oklahoma AD says he's noticed a slight uptick recently back toward more intersectional games. Initiatives like the Big Ten-Pac-12 scheduling partnership for 2017 and beyond and the ACC's recent announcement that it will move to a nine-game conference schedule should help cut down on those leagues' guarantee games.
In the meantime, however, it seems Oregon learned its lesson. The Ducks' nonconference schedule this year includes Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Under the current system, those games will be meaningless when they're played, and even more so by the time the pollsters cast their final votes Dec. 2.
In the future, however, that schedule could become the difference between making or missing a playoff.