The nonconference season is important
The playoff selection committee’s criteria should become clearer as more seasons under the new system bring more difficult decisions about where to rank different teams. Yet one clear message from 2016 was that programs can’t waltz through September feasting on FCS pushovers and expect to be rewarded with an invitation to the final four. Nonconference schedules matter. Ohio State’s inclusion in the national semifinals seemed to underscore this point.
The Buckeyes, which dominated a 10-win Tulsa team in Columbus and scored a massive victory at Oklahoma in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, qualified for the CFP even though they dropped a head-to-head game against Penn State and watched the Nittany Lions win the Big Ten championship (keep in mind that the committee, according to its official protocol, is instructed to “place an emphasis on winning conference championships, strength of schedule and “head-to-head competition”). And not only did Ohio State make the field of four, it ranked ahead of Washington, a Power 5 conference champion that breezed through a putrid non-league slate (Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State).
The Buckeyes’ placement in the CFP may have rankled Nittany Lions fans who felt their favorite program should have gotten in at Ohio State’s expense, but it also suggests the committee strongly considers how programs perform before conference play. That consideration should impel more programs to schedule challenging nonconference matchups without fear that losses will seriously harm their chances of competing for national titles.