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How Much Will Schedule Strength Affect Playoff Selection?

Many in the sport have argued that the playoff will force teams to beef up their schedules. Is that really true?

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"This much. Strength of schedule will matter this much."
"This much. Strength of schedule will matter this much."
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Before diving into the implications of this, remember that coaches have no say in how their conferences are run. For example, SEC coaches voted unanimously against their conference's relatively tame anti-oversigning rules a couple years ago, and those rules still went into effect.

With that said, I find it very interesting that a day after Mike Slive made noises about the upcoming playoff possibly forcing the SEC into a nine-game conference schedule, a contingent (albeit a powerless one) within the Pac-12 is going to discuss getting rid of its nine-game schedule. The Pac-10 originally went to nine conference games in order to hold a round robin conference slate, which is also the reason the 10-team Big 12 uses it, but that rationale is gone with the west coast league up to 12 members now.

As I mentioned yesterday, I've always been skeptical about just how much strength of schedule will matter when it comes to the playoff. That goes especially for merely getting into the upper tier bowl games, whether a semifinal game or not.

In college football, the priority as long as I can remember has been less about winning than avoiding losses. You can see that in the early BCS formulas. From 1998 to 2003, the formula did have a strength of schedule component. However, it also had an explicit penalty for losses. That loss column didn't care if the loss was to No. 2 or No. 102, nor that the human and computer polls already accounted for teams' losses in their rankings. The BCS organizers saw the act of losing as such a big sin that their formula basically pinned scarlet letter Ls to teams as they dropped games throughout the season.

That mindset persists to this day. Everyone can't tell you who won the national title each year, but most everyone can tell you that it was LSU that was the two-loss national champion that one time. In 2007, Hawaii and Kansas got to go to BCS games despite playing some of the worst schedules of the whole decade because they had zero losses and one loss, respectively. In 2011, 11-1 Oklahoma State played a tougher schedule than 11-1 Alabama did (that goes for even after the Tide's rematch with LSU, according to Sagarin's ratings), but who and how they lost mattered far more to the discussion than the full slate of games did. Quick! What were OSU's two best wins in 2011? Yeah, I thought so, but you sure as heck remember they lost to Iowa State. In that same year, voters put 11-1 Stanford well ahead of 11-2 Oregon at the end of the regular season despite the Ducks having beaten Stanford, lost only to 10-2 USC (by a field goal), and taken their second loss only due to robust non-conference scheduling.

To be clear, strength of schedule will factor into the decision making process. It did under the BCS as well. In 2004, Auburn was the odd team out among the three undefeated teams not only because of the preseason polls but also because the Tigers played three nobodies in the non-conference while USC and Oklahoma had BCS conference opponents. It also hurt Texas Tech in the three-way Big 12 South tie in 2008.

Yes, strength of schedule will matter if you're a candidate to be in the top four. However, you're only going to be a candidate for the top four in the majority of seasons if you have no more than one loss. You can't win the lottery if you don't have a ticket, and a weaker schedule gives a team a better chance of securing a ticket.

College football's loss fixation wouldn't be as big a deal if sophisticated, analytical people were going to be on the selection committee. Almost certainly, they will not be. The committee will consist of establishment types who are willing to be on it, and as of right now, the only people saying they'll do it are retired coaches. For as much expertise as they have, they're steeped in the culture of losses being the end-all-be-all for determining the sport's pecking order in a given year.

I cannot say with confidence that we'll be able to count on football's selection committee to put a two-loss team with a tough schedule into the semifinals over a one-loss team with a much weaker schedule. Can you? I really don't see them being able to pull that trigger. Therefore the Pac-12 coaches, and the SEC coaches who strongly oppose a nine-game schedule, might really be on to something.

It's still not going to be a good idea to go too far with it and line up two I-AA teams and two Sun Belt teams in the non-conference as a matter of routine policy. But there's no guarantee that the playoff selection committee will consistently reward aggressive scheduling, so I don't expect the playoff to make a lasting impact on how schools choose their opponents.