If college football mid-majors like USF and UCF want to get serious about scheduling tougher opponents, they should draw inspiration from two outside-the-box basketball ideas unveiled in the last two weeks by Conference USA and the Sun Belt.
Both leagues are revamping their conference schedules in ways that will boost their tournament resumes. C-USA teams will play 14 league games, then divide into tiers. The top five teams will play each other for the final four games of the season. The middle five teams will play amongst themselves, and so will the bottom four teams.
The Sun Belt's plan for league play is similar, although the details differ slightly in ways that aren't important here. What is important is what would be accomplished: Mid-majors get to add more quality opponents to their league schedule.
The idea would be trickier in football but not impossible, as SB Nation writes. Because football games are such big events that require travel for some fans, maybe the league sets aside a date or two for these flex games. It could decide in advance, too, which teams will host and which will be on the road, so fans can book their travel accordingly, even if they don't know what opponent they'll be watching.
How might it work practically? Here's one option, using the AAC as an example. Cut off one of the cross-division games and replace it with a tiered one. To avoid rematches, you can add some flexibility so it's not just No. 1 in the East playing No. 1 in the West. Last year, that could have been UCF (No. 1 East) against Houston (No. 2 West), USF (No. 2 East) against Memphis (No. 1 West), for example.
Does playing Houston instead of SMU put the Knights in the College Football Playoff? Probably not. But it boosts the odds, if only slightly. UCF would still need some non-conference scheduling help, which is where the other intriguing idea comes in.
The Sun Belt announced its non-conference schedules will include two dates (one home, one away) "to play against peer conference opponents." The league didn't specify what those peer conferences are, but it doesn't matter for these purposes. In football, the AAC's peer conferences would be the other Group of Five leagues.
The Sun Belt didn't say much else, other than calling it a "first step for improving non-conference scheduling." The logical way to interpret that: Have your top teams play the top teams from comparable leagues.
Now we're getting somewhere. Set aside a weekend in November for flex non-conference football games. Use the standings through the first two months as a rough guide, and pick the matchups accordingly based on whatever criteria you want. Last year, that could have meant UCF and USF playing teams like Boise State, Florida Atlantic or Troy. It's a lot like the bracket busters idea proposed by SB Nation's Bill Connelly.
Again, there's no guarantee that another top-40 win would have put the Knights in the playoff, but it would help. It'd make sense for the other leagues, too; last year UCF was in contention, but this year it might be Boise or Lane Kiffin's Owls.
The plans aren't perfect, and they pose logistical challenges in football that are easier to solve in basketball. But if USF and UCF want to boost their schedules, they need to get creative — like C-USA and the Sun Belt.