With an increased emphasis on strength of schedule when determining who will play for a national championship, the new College Football Playoff may produce fewer cupcakes and more headaches for the power conferences.
For many schools, particularly those in the SEC, it's a challenging dilemma to balance the demands of the league schedule with the need to play quality non-conference opponents and schedule enough lucrative home games. So much so, Florida coach Will Muschamp said it may be time for the Gators to cease scheduling Division I-AA opponents to bolster their schedule.
"I think every institution ought to be making their decision on what they want to do," Muschamp said. "I know moving forward that for us obviously having four non-conference games, one of those would be Florida State every year. We've talked about upping our non-conference schedule. … We're probably going to move forward without playing (I-AA) opponents."
Eliminating I-AA opponents completely may be easier said than done for schools such as Florida and Florida State.
"The issue for me is I have to have an opponent for a certain date before we play Florida State; we have an open weekend there (in the conference schedule)," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "So I think next year or a couple of years from now, we don't have a (I-AA) school because we were able to get all D-I schools. I understand what Will's saying: In a perfect world, you play all D-I schools, but also you have to have 12 opponents."
Both the SEC and ACC have decided to retain an eight-game conference schedule, with league schools also required to play at least one out-of-conference game against a member of the other power conferences: Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 or ACC. The Pac-12 will play a nine-game schedule, and some of its league coaches have publicly criticized the eight-game schedules, saying it's not a level playing field. SEC and ACC coaches generally disagree.
"I like the flexibility that we have with that," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We played Auburn three years in a row, we're playing Georgia two years in a row, we've got Notre Dame next year, of course we play South Carolina every year, and I think that is something that helps us as a league as we get into this playoff type of format."
Alabama's Nick Saban was among the minority of SEC coaches in his support of a nine-game league schedule, which he says would have helped bolster schedules and eliminated the struggle in finding other quality games to fill out the schedule. When SEC coaches and administrators gathered for the SEC's annual spring meetings last month, opinions differed over eliminating I-AA opponents.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said they favor scheduling I-AA opponents.
Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze agreed, saying it's beneficial for both sides. An advantage of such games is the larger school can schedule a lucrative home game and pay the smaller school a fee to play.
"I believe it's best for us to continue doing that," he said. "Me coming through the route of smaller school ball, I know the value it adds to those programs. I try to look at that aspect also. I find it hard to believe that one game like that out of the schedule that we play in this league, and agreeing to play another BCS opponent, that one game will hinder you if you perform well in other games."
Saban said he would like to see schools from the five power conferences play exclusively to help bolster their schedules for the playoff system, but acknowledges that isn't a simple solution.
"I don't know that we have a choice sometimes," Saban said. "… It's very difficult to do home and home with quality teams. And there's only certain teams, to be honest with you, you almost have to buy games to get people to play you. Outside of the neutral site game we do and our conference games, we struggle to schedule three other games."
To help ease the scheduling problem, Saban said the College Football Playoff committee should consider other factors in choosing teams.
"I think there should be a different way that the committee we have now that's going to pick the six bowl games that are in the championship series," Saban said. "They're picking those 12 teams and who plays who. So they should pick all the bowl games just like the basketball tournament. You don't have to win six games, you just have to be power ranking, whatever you want to call it, up there among the teams that get selected to go to a bowl game. If there are 60 teams that get to go to a bowl game, you have to be one of the top 60 teams and if you went 5-7 and you played in a really hard conference and you had a really tough schedule and you had some quality wins, you qualify to go to a bowl game."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]