With an increased emphasis on strength of schedule when determining who will play for the 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 challenge to balance the demands of the league schedule with the need to play quality nonconference opponents and schedule enough lucrative home games. It's so much of a challenge that 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 nonconference games, one of those would be Florida State every year. We've talked about upping our nonconference schedule. … We're probably going to move forward without playing (I-AA) opponents."
Eliminating I-AA opponents 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."
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 one of the other power conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC. The Pac-12 will play a nine-game schedule, and some of its coaches have publicly criticized the eight-game schedules, saying those schedules don't make for 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 who supported a nine-game league schedule. He said a nine-game schedule would have helped bolster schedules and eliminated the struggle to find other quality games to fill them out.
When 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 favored scheduling I-AA opponents. Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze agreed, saying it's beneficial for both sides. An advantage is that 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," Freeze 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… will hinder you if you perform well in other games."
Saban said he would like to see schools from the power conferences play exclusively to help bolster their schedules for the playoff system, but he 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 (picks) the six bowl games that are in the championship series," he 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 (to make a bowl). You just have to (have a) 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."