College football fans can be a collectively hopeful bunch. The latest example is the belief that the advent of a college football playoff and a selection committee to pick teams for that playoff will lead to greater focus on strength of schedule.
Finally, the people making the decisions that determine whether a team will get to play for the national title will not be distracted by shiny records. Programs will be rewarded for having balls! Fans will get to see better matchups! Merit will be recognized! Brent Musburger will dance with ewoks and unicorns at midfield of the title game!
Unfortunately, there’s no good reason to believe that any of this will come true. Human beings are susceptible to overrating the importance of results without considering context. Listen to sports radio for five minutes in any city and you’ll find illustrations of this point.* Voters look at records without considering the teams against which the record was achieved or the margins by which the games were decided. Voters just look at those factors when breaking ties between teams with the same record and occasionally, they will give a one-game boost to an especially good team, usually because that team (or the team’s conference) has a recent record of success.
* - Example from my commute home yesterday: caller in Atlanta says that Hawks coach Larry Drew should be fired because the team’s record has not improved over three years. Host points out that the team traded away Joe Johnson before this season and still managed to stay at the same level with flotsam and jetsam signed before their contracts expire this summer. Caller retorts with "that doesn’t matter. The record is all that counts."
The case for optimism appears to be that committee will solve everything. If we change from a large number of writers, coaches, and … whatever it is that we can call Harris Poll voters to a small number of college football personalities, then all of a sudden, we will get better decisions. We are willing to make this leap of faith without even knowing the composition of the committee. In the same way that fans, when confronted with a struggling starting quarterback, will automatically assume that the backup is a better option, we assume that any voters will be better than the current batch.
Sports Illustrated simulated a committee selection process as a thought exercise for what lays ahead with a college football playoff, and the results showed the same old mistakes. The committee picked Oregon over Stanford, despite the fact that Stanford beat Oregon in Eugene and only had a weaker record because the Cardinal played a non-conference game at Notre Dame while Oregon played a collection of patsies. The committee picked Florida over Georgia, despite the fact that the Dawgs beat the Gators on a neutral field and only had an inferior record because Georgia played and barely lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. In other words, Terry Holland and Gene Smith are not likely to avoid the mistakes of a cast of thousands.
The Big Ten’s new schedule is evidence that not even the players in the industry believe that the new criteria for ascension to postseason heaven is going to be schedule-driven. In the aftermath of the announcement of new divisions, Jim Delany floated the idea that the Big Ten would engage in parity-based scheduling. In other words, the top teams in the East (Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State) would play more games against the top teams in the West (Iowa, Nebraska, and Wisconsin).
This idea was immediately appealing for a pair of reasons. First, it would bolster the schedules of the top teams in the league. Ohio State faces a 2013 slate that is already being mocked as insufficient for a national title contender, in no small part because the Big Ten has a smallish number of good teams and the Buckeyes miss both Michigan State and Nebraska during the regular season. Second, it would be better for the Big Ten’s fans, broadcast partners, and coffers. More Michigan-Wisconsin and less Michigan-Minnesota is better for everyone, with the possible exception of Brown Jug diehards.
The idea was both immediately appealing and quickly forgotten when the Big Ten released its 2014 slate. In fact, the conference went in the other direction. Wisconsin and Nebraska will not play Michigan or Ohio State at all. Devin Gardner’s senior year will feature cross-division games against Minnesota and Northwestern, while Braxton Miller’s senior year will see cross-division games against Minnesota and Illinois. In fact, Wisconsin will miss Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State for the next two seasons. The league is deferring until its efforts to pair up its best programs until 2016.
Thus, for the first two years of a playoff, the Big Ten’s elite programs will play some of the softest possible league slates. Does that sound to anyone like a conference office that is trying to bolster the strength of schedule of its members who are most likely to be in playoff contention?
That raises two possibilities. One is that the Big Ten does not know how to take actions in its own self-interest. We have some fresh evidence that that is not the case. The second is that the Big Ten office does not really think that strength of schedule is suddenly going to have greater weight once college football’s structure shifts.
Actually, political processes are often messy enough that ascribing intent to an action taken by a multi-party body can be a fool’s errand. Maybe Barry Alvarez wants Wisconsin to play weaker schedules as an homage to the good fortune that sent him to Pasadena three times in the '90s. Maybe Michigan and Ohio State do not want to hand an advantage to Michigan State by playing tougher league slates. Maybe the prime directive was giving the new members of the league as many marquee matchups as possible to drive interest in their first seasons as Big Ten members.
It’s possible that the advent of the playoff politburo was not a motivating factor at all. However, at a minimum, we can say that the much-hyped, hoped-for emphasis on strength of schedule was not a driving factor for the Big Ten’s schedule-makers and that, in and of itself, is news.