The Big Ten this week embarks on its first nine-game conference schedule, rekindling the debate whether all Power Five conferences should play the same number of league games in the era of the College Football Playoff.
The Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference have eight-game conference schedules. The Big 12 and Pac-12, and now the Big Ten, play nine league games.
Those leagues tout their nine conference games as a way of boosting schedule strength and, hopefully, increase their members’ chances of being selected for the playoff. But there is another component. Conference games tend to be more attractive inventory for league television networks and partners, and they also help keep stadiums full, compared with matchups against lower-tier competition.
Nebraska coach Mike Riley argued consistency in number of conference games across the Power Five is a matter of fairness.
“I think that probably with the playoffs at stake,” he said, “that should be equitable that way.”
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he hadn’t thought about conferences playing the same number of league games but added, “Coach Riley has a good point there.”
The College Football Playoff selection committee evaluates each team’s body of work, with strength of schedule part of the criteria, with no regard to how that schedule in composed. It also does not take a position on how conferences determine their champions.
“I really believe the data points that are going to be evaluated to decide who is going to be a national championship-caliber team should be decided the same way,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “If that means we all play nine, we all play eight, we all play 10 in the Power Five, I don’t’ really care what we do and how many we play. We should just be playing the same if we’re going to be evaluated the same way.”
The SEC decided in 2014 to continue with its eight-game conference schedule with a requirement that each team play at least one nonconference game against a Power Five opponent. Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart said last month that the SEC has not had any discussions about reconsidering conference scheduling.
ACC athletic directors are scheduled to meet next month and could discuss future football scheduling. The ACC is mulling whether to continue with eight conference games but require each team to play two nonconference games against Power Five opponents, or whether to go to nine conference games and require one non-conference game against a Power Five team.
“We’re the only sport in America that doesn’t have the same set of rules for everyone that plays,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “I’ve never figured that out. Everyone goes to their own neighborhood and makes their own rules. I’m for uniform for everything across the board in everything we do. Why can’t we play the same number of games, same conference championship?”
Even if all Power Five conferences played the same number of league games, it wouldn’t necessarily create the same criteria for the playoff selection committee to consider. For example, a team playing eight conference games along with two nonconference games against high-caliber opponents could be held in higher regard than a team with a nine-game conference schedule that, depending on the year, could include crossover games against bottom feeders and weak non-conference opponents.
Also at issue: keeping alive nonconference geographical rivalry games, many of them between SEC and ACC teams, and maintain the flexibility in nonconference scheduling that allows schools to generate the significant revenue that comes with playing seven home games.
In the Big Ten, the nine-game conference schedule is not embraced by everybody. East Division teams will have five conference games at home and four away in even-numbered years, with West Division teams following that schedule in odd-numbered years.
Minnesota’s Tracy Claeys and Northwestern’s Fitzgerald would prefer 10 conference games so each team would get five at home and five on the road.
“There is a huge advantage to playing home football games, especially in some of these cathedrals of college football we have in Big Ten play,” Fitzgerald said. “The traditional powers of our conference, it might not impact them that much. But the programs like ours, that are trying to build from historically being in the bottom of the conference to building to the middle of the conference and fighting and scratching and clawing to get to the top… having four home games and the other side has five makes it really challenging.”
AP Sports Writers Joe Reedy in Tallahassee, Florida, Dave Campbell in Minneapolis and Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, contributed.
AP college football website: http://collegefootball.ap.org