Do you have any interest in going for a hike this Saturday? Maybe you didn't do enough to build up football season chits with your significant other and he or she has been hinting at an outlet mall run. Or maybe you're thinking about getting married, but you are worried about violating the Geneva Conventions by scheduling a fall Saturday wedding.
If any of these options are appealing to you, then the college football gods have your interests in heart this weekend, as they have served up a slate bereft of interesting matchups:
/looks at Week 4 slate /submits crude hand turkey drawing with a pirate hat on it for Week 4 column— Holly Anderson (@HollyAnderson) September 18, 2013
There is only one match-up of ranked teams -- No. 23 Arizona State at No. 5 Stanford -- and even that game only pits two ranked teams because of the latest episode of incompetence by Pac-12 referees. Most ranked teams are playing tune-up games before conference play starts in earnest next weekend. UCLA, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Miami, Alabama, Florida State, Baylor, Northwestern, Washington, Georgia, Louisville, and Ohio State all fall into this category. (Michigan is traveling to UConn, a game that looked like a reasonable challenge when scheduled, but now also falls into the tune-up category. Then again, after almost losing to Akron, any trip to the garage for Michigan carries with it the possibility of replacing the transmission.)
The weak slate this weekend is at least in part a result of circumstance:
- Florida-Tennessee was a must-see match-up for over a decade, but Tennessee's impersonation of a drowning man and Florida's homage to a 1980s SEC offense (i.e. the decade when the conference didn't dominate nationally) renders their game a likely tussle for third (or lower) in the SEC East.
- Auburn-LSU has produced some epic matchups in the past, and it might do so again in the near future, but Auburn in 2013 is a team in transition following Gene Chizik's rapid fall.
- Kansas State-Texas was a good game as recently as last year, but Kansas State's personnel losses put the Wildcats in a position where they lost to North Dakota State, whereas Texas has continued its post-Colt McCoy wandering in the desert. This game is interesting for those who find the last days of Mack Brown compelling - his teams have struggled against Kansas State even in good years - but it won't play a role in deciding anything of significance this year.
- Michigan-UConn was an interesting idea when the Huskies were an up-and-coming program, but the decision to look at Paul Pasqualoni's 16-20 record in his last three years at Syracuse and decide "yes, that's just what we need to replace Randy Edsall" has resulted in a match-up in which an inconsistent Michigan team is an 18-point favorite.
The problem with the bad luck explanation is that one program's decline usually creates the space for another program's rise. Florida-Tennessee isn't what it once was, but Georgia-South Carolina was more interesting. Auburn has declined on the whole, but they have been replaced by Texas A&M and Ole Miss as quality programs in the SEC West. Kansas State-Texas is not as interesting as it once was, but Baylor-Oklahoma State will be more compelling.
The larger issue at work is that non-conference scheduling is getting progressively worse. Whereas many teams used to play two or three major non-conference opponents every year, the prevailing model now is to play one credible opponent and then three body bags. Pat Forde documented this phenomenon in 2009:
Big-time intersectional games have gone the way of the wishbone.
I asked ESPN's estimable Stats & Information group to run some numbers for this story. I wanted to compare the number of nonconference games between ranked teams from 1978, '88, '98 and 2008 -- to confirm or refute the theory that there's been a drop-off in ambitious scheduling.
The results: There were 11 games matching Top 20* teams in 1978, 15 in '88, eight in '98 and just four in '08. In other words: over the past two decades, the number of Top 20 nonconference matchups has decreased by half every 10 years. And the Top 10 matchups have virtually disappeared, going from five in '78 to seven in '88 to two in '98 and one in '08.
There have only been three such matchups this year: Georgia-Clemson, TCU-LSU, and Michigan-Notre Dame. The problem has not gone away. As Brian Fremeau showed in 2010, the number of connections between top 25 teams has fallen, which is a problem in a sport that (theoretically) relies on comparative analysis to decide which teams get to play for the national title:
The AP final top-25 was significantly more connected in 1989 than 2009. Only nine ranked teams played at least four games against other ranked teams last season; in 1989, 18 ranked teams did so. Twenty years ago, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of 17 other ranked teams. In 2009, the AP top-10 either played or shared a common opponent with an average of only 12.6 other ranked teams.
And as Jon Solomon explained last summer, the 12th game has not improved the dearth of quality non-conference games. The SEC and Big Ten have been the worst offenders for using that game to schedule weak opponents:
Since the 12th game started in 2006, the Pac-12 (with nine league games) has produced the most challenging nonconference schedule. Forty-five percent of the Pac-12's nonconference games have come against BCS-conference opponents, just ahead of the ACC (43 percent).
The SEC has played 29 percent of its nonconference schedule against BCS schools. That's in the neighborhood of the Big 12 (28 percent) and Big Ten (30 percent).
Not surprisingly, the SEC has lived up to its stay-at-home reputation, which is worth millions of dollars by playing an extra home game. Since 2006, the SEC has played only 17 percent of its nonconference games at opposing campuses. True road games for other leagues: Big Ten, 22 percent; Big 12, 25 percent; ACC, 29 percent; Pac-12, 33 percent.
The fact that the SEC and Big Ten -- the two leagues with the most collectively intense fan support (as evidenced by their preeminence in the list of programs generating the most revenue) -- are at the forefront of the trend towards weaker schedules illustrates the nature of the problem: greater fan interest has led to an inferior product.
Over the course of the past two decades, athletic department revenues have skyrocketed. Expenses have increased as an effect of the increase in revenue. If athletic directors have money, then they are going to spend it, whether on coaching salaries, facility improvements, or largess for non-revenue sports. Any pretense of major college football being anything other than a business has flown out the window.
As part of their efforts to maximize revenues, athletic directors of major football powers have come to depend on scheduling as many home games as possible. Thus, instead of the major powers playing one another in home-and-home arrangements, the major powers have been eating a steady diet of cupcakes in order to avoid having to play road games.
And the sad thing is that college football fans are subjected to a weekend of Bethune-Cookman at Florida State and Florida A&M at Ohio State as punishment four our own blind loyalty. Athletic directors would not schedule body bag games if they knew that fans would refuse to buy season tickets and pay seat donations for sub-par schedules. The SEC and Big Ten have a high proportion of devoted fan bases, so their programs are the most likely to schedule weak opponents. ACC and Pac-12 programs are more likely to schedule quality opponents, not because of bigger cojones, but rather because their fans are less likely to pay to see body bag games.
So if you are climbing a mountain on Saturday, enjoying the vista on an early fall Saturday instead of watching football, give yourself a pat on the back for not playing along with the "my fans will pay to see anything" charade that major program athletic directors foist on their loyal customers.