College football now has five power conferences with four different announced scheduling plans that will all be in effect by 2016 or 2017.
The SEC will play eight games with a requirement that a ninth be against a Power 5 team. The ACC will do the same, except that it has a deal that ensures Notre Dame will play at least five games a year against its teams. The Big 12 plays a nine-game schedule without a conference title game. The Pac-12 plays a nine-game schedule with a conference title game, and the Big Ten will move to that model too.
Why is everything so different? Well, one issue is that the Big 12 cannot play a conference championship game with 10 members by NCAA rule. That rule could change soon, and the Big 12 may not institute a title game even if it does, but that rule explains one difference.
The larger issue, however, is the upcoming playoff. Specifically, no one knows how important strength of schedule is going to be when it comes to how the selection committee ranks teams.
When I say that no one knows this piece of information, I really mean that no one knows how much emphasis will go on strength of schedule. Here is what the playoff has made public on the topic:
Among the many factors the committee will consider are win-loss record, strength of schedule, head-to-head results, comparison of results against common opponents and conference championships. Each committee member will evaluate the data at hand, and then the individuals will come together to make a group decision.
As presently explained by the playoff itself, each committee member gets to make his or her own mind up on the importance of schedule strength and every other factor in ranking teams. From there, the committee members will hash things out as a group. So, schedule strength importance will be some kind of function of the importance each individual committee member places on it, weighted by which members are the most forceful, influential, and persuasive. It will change from year to year as committee members' views on what is important in ranking teams changes and as members rotate in and out.
As I said: no one knows the importance of schedule strength from year to year. Therefore, each conference is placing bets on how to best game the system in its favor with each's scheduling strategies.
Would it be better if scheduling was consistent from one conference to the next? In terms of evaluating teams for the playoff, sure. College football has always been a pretty decentralized sport, though, and every conference has different priorities arisen from decades of separate development. The conferences negotiate their own TV contracts, hire their own referees, set their own rules on top of the standard NCAA ones, and behave as though they are in competition with each other rather than as subunits of a single, cohesive league. It should come as no surprise that they all want to make their own decisions on scheduling too.
The playoff could force committee members to place more importance on schedule strength than other factors, but if you go down that road and take away members' autonomy, you might as well just make a formula. People disliked the formula-based BCS enough that we've got a committee now, though, so you can forget about that. It doesn't matter that the BCS's problem was less that it was a formula and more that the elements of the formula were all bad; we're not getting another formula soon.
Long story short, we're going to be stuck with differing scheduling systems for a while. Conferences will stick to their guns as the committee shows its logic for its selections from year-to-year, but we're probably never going to get a lasting answer on the SOS question. Strength of schedule might not differ that much between teams under consideration for the No. 4 spot in some years, and again, the changing composition of the committee from one year to the next removes any hope of consistency.
Future postseason formats may provide an incentive for the power conferences to get in sync with their scheduling systems, but the current one simply does not. With schedule strength's importance always being an unknown, other considerations will simply outweigh it and continue to lead the power leagues in their own directions.