Progressive Scheduling: College Football's 'Bracket Buster' Weekend

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 02: (L-R) Brandon Weeden #3 and Justin Blackmon #81 of the Oklahoma State Cowboys celebrate after Blackmon caught a 17-yard touchdown reception from Weeden in the fourth quarter against the Stanford Cardinal during the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl on January 2, 2012 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)

What scheduling lessons can college football take from college basketball?

The idea of progressive scheduling, be it creating continuity and rivalry within a 24-team conference or preserving certain rivalries (while maintaining a limited conference schedule) in an expanded SEC, is to make worthwhile tweaks to a system that, let's face it, has been and will always be resistant to major, sudden change.

In our first two looks at progressive scheduling, we saw changes that would impact up to 38 FBS schools -- those in the SEC and the Mountain West-Conference USA merger. What about a tweak that would impact everybody while still maintaining a 12-game schedule and the current bowl structure (along with what will probably be a small playoff)?

In December 2010, Mark Cuban threw his hat into the anti-BCS ring. After reading Death to the BCS, he decided that it might be worthwhile to personally bankroll a football playoff, throwing enough money into the ring that even the most stodgy, traditionalist decision-makers would have to give serious thought to the idea.

Cuban said he envisions either a 12- or 16-team playoff field with the higher seeds getting homefield advantage. The homefield advantage, Cuban said, would ensure the college football regular-season games would not lose any importance.

The bowl games could still exist under Cuban's plan, but he said he would make it more profitable for programs to make the playoffs than a bowl.

"Put $500 million in the bank and go to all the schools and pay them money as an option," Cuban said. "Say, 'Look, I'm going to give you X amount every five years. In exchange, you say if you're picked for the playoff system, you'll go.' "

A month or so later, he had second thoughts. Interested in potentially preserving tradition and aiming for slightly less significant changes, Cuban proposed, in effect, a mid-season playoff. His sentiment was that the BCS is not, in and of itself, inherently bad, but that programs are able to game the system for their own benefit with their scheduling practices, and that while we potentially shouldn't give 12 or 16 teams a shot at the title, it is quite often impossible to truly pick the two most deserving teams by the end of 12 games.

My first thought on this is that we ask the BCS to require any school that would like to be considered for the BCS championship game to be leave as open dates on their schedule the 6th , 7th and 8th weeks of the season. Then we take the published BCS rankings and we "playoff " zero loss teams against each other. We do the same with 1 loss teams, 2 loss teams, etc. So the best undefeated teams play each other in a 3 game playoff. In the event there are an uneven number of undefeated teams, we take the highest ranking one loss team (s). You do the same all the way down the line.

In the first round the highest ranked undefeated team plays the lowest ranked. The teams are then re ranked after the results of the first games. Then we do the same thing all over again. Formerly undefeated teams are placed in the 1 loss ‘division’ , 2 losses in the 2 loss division, only this time there is one huge change. Starting with the 2nd round, each team plays the team ranked directly below them . So 1 plays 2. 3 plays 4. 5 plays 6, all the way through however many eligible teams are participating. Then we do the same thing all over again in the 3rd week.

I had two initial responses to this idea:

  1. No way in hell would this work. Three weeks is too long and too disruptive. BUT…
  2. …one week might work splendidly. We complain about the lack of connectivity among college football programs, and with more conferences going to nine-game conference schedules, connectivity is only going to get worse*. But this would be one way to ensure that most teams in the running for the national title have played at least one more high-impact game versus another contending team.

* We are all for the increased strength of schedule that nine conference games bring, but it isn't without consequences. We all pine for the good old days, when non-conference schedules were much more difficult, but we forget that teams had at least four non-conference games, even with an 11-game schedule. Until the late-1980s, the SEC had only a six-game conference schedule despite 10 teams. That allowed teams to go out and schedule interesting non-conference matchups and still score a couple of cupcakes. For instance, in 1984 Alabama played Georgia Tech, Boston College and Penn State in marquee non-conference games but still found time to play Louisiana-Lafayette and pre-BCS Cincinnati. Teams are going to find time for cupcakes no matter how much we try to game the system otherwise.

I posted some early thoughts to this at Football Outsiders last January.

Cutting the proceedings to one week would create, in effect, a "BracketBuster" type of event.

College basketball's BracketBuster takes place in mid- to late-February and pits a growing number of mid-major teams against each other. Midway through the season, the pairings are set, based on teams' levels of success to date. This gives mid-majors an opportunity to boost their resumes and, basically, give the NCAA selection committee another tool with which to judge teams from smaller conferences that don't get the opportunity to play that many big games.

It's easy to see how this might work in college football.

1. You make it a two-year (minimum) event. Each team plays a home game one year, a road game the other. Who is playing at home or on the road is set in advance, so you can schedule the rest of your non-conference slate accordingly and make sure you get your preferred number of home games.

2. After seven weeks, when the first BCS rankings are unveiled, you announce the matchups. You can either set them up for Week 8 or, more realistically, you announce them 2-3 weeks out for TV and/or travel purposes. You have any number of options for how to set up the matchups.

After 12 more months of thought, I think this is the best way to execute this idea:

  • The "BCS Buster" requires a two-year commitment. In one year, 62 of 124 FBS teams will play "BCS Buster" home games; the next year, the other 62 teams do. You know your home-road status well in advance so that you can plan the rest of your schedule accordingly.
  • Matchups are indeed unveiled the same week as the first BCS standings. (Personally, I would like to push back the date of the first release of standings -- the later the release, the less time voters have to manually adjust their own votes in reaction to the computers -- but we'll say this still takes place in Week 8.) Games are played two to three weeks later.
  • Teams are organized in 10-team (and, at the bottom, 12-team) pods based on a set of computer rankings that ranks all 124 teams. For the example below, I will simply use Week 8 F/+ Rankings. The pods will obviously consist of five home teams and five road teams. The top-ranked pod, then, will consist of the five highest-ranked home teams and five highest-ranked road teams. The No. 1 home team will play the No. 5 road team, No. 2 Home will play No. 4 Road, No. 3 Home will play No. 3 Road, No. 4 Home will play No. 2 Road, and No. 5 Home will play No. 1 Road. The idea here is simple: you shouldn't be punished for starting hot. If you are ranked No. 1 in the BCS after seven or eight weeks, then you are most likely the undefeated team that has played the most difficult schedule to date. Giving you another difficult test by forcing you to play the No. 1 team in your pod doesn't make a lot of sense. You get another quality matchup, you don't get the most high-quality matchup.
  • For obvious reasons, teams in the same conference cannot play each other.
  • Games take place on Thursday (two marquee games), Friday (two more) and Saturday (the rest).

To understand the impact this could have, we need to use an example. Using the 2011 season as our guide, let's backtrack to Week Eight, dictate that the top 60 alphabetical teams play home games, and see what matchups this would create. You can see the entire list of fake games at Football Study Hall.

Pod 1 Home Teams: No. 1 Boise State, No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 LSU, No. 11 Michigan State, No. 12 Michigan.
Pod 1 Road Teams: No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 5 Wisconsin, No. 6 Stanford, No. 7 Notre Dame, No. 8 Oklahoma State.

Somewhere around mid-October, then, we would announce the following top matchups, this time using AP rankings from two weeks later (when the games would take place):

  • No. 3 Oklahoma State (8-0) at No. 5 Boise State (7-0)
  • Notre Dame (4-3) at No. 2 Alabama
  • No. 4 Stanford (8-0) at No. 17 Michigan State (6-2)
  • No. 20 Wisconsin (6-2) at No. 1 LSU (8-0)
  • No. 6 Oklahoma (7-1) at No. 15 Michigan (7-1)

Aside from the odd presence of Notre Dame, this presents us with some fantastic matchups. Stick Wisconsin-LSU on Thursday night, OSU-Boise on Friday night (seems like the most "Tessitore magic!" game of the bunch), stick one at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, and put the other two on Saturday evening, and you've got a tremendous weekend of football.

Some more fun matchups:

  • No. 8 Oregon (7-1) at No. 11 Clemson (8-1)
  • No. 12 Virginia Tech (8-1) at No. 7 Arkansas (7-1)
  • No. 24 West Virginia (6-2) at No. 18 Georgia (6-2)
  • No. 9 South Carolina (7-1) at Florida State (4-3)
  • Toledo at No. 13 Houston (8-0)
  • Ohio State at Baylor
  • Temple at Miami (The Al Golden Bowl)
  • No. 10 Nebraska (7-1) at No. 22 Auburn (6-3)

Of course, there are some drawbacks. Some teams would get a bit unlucky, especially as it pertains to home-road status. Oklahoma State would have had a tremendous opportunity to give their BCS ratings a bump by winning on the Blue Turf™, but hackles would certainly be raised if OSU had to go to Boise while Alabama hosted someone like Notre Dame. Still, random home-road status in conference play can already impact your level of success; in the end, it's just something you have to deal with. Timing and luck have always been a part of championship runs.

Plus, as with basketball's real BracketBusters, you end up with some atrocious matchups, too: New Mexico at Army, North Texas at Memphis, Tulane at Florida Atlantic, Purdue at Colorado, etc. But that's just how these things work. As with bowls, you can avoid the terrible games if you want to.

So what would a "BCS Buster" weekend accomplish? First of all, it would serve as a wonderful mid-season college football showcase. With virtually everybody in the country playing teams of similar proficiency, close games would likely rule. Beyond that, however, it would offer championship contenders opportunities to pad their resumes. It would not serve as a series of elimination games as Cuban intended, but it would provide us with another interesting data point. For instance, if Oklahoma State did go to Boise and win (and with the way Boise State's secondary was banged up in late-October, they probably would have), that may have given them the bump necessary to get to the national title game. Plus, it would be kind to the mid-majors (like Boise State) that fight scheduling issues as the season progresses. One more showcase game for them would go a long way toward getting them a spot in the national title game for once.

It would work beautifully with a small playoff (likely a four-team, Plus One approach) because honestly, the No. 4 and No. 5 teams usually have as little separation as the No. 2 and No. 3 teams. When dealing with a 12-game schedule, we need all the relevant data possible to separate one team for another, and not only having these matchups, but bringing them about late in the season, would quite often produce de facto, unofficial elimination games.

Granted, this idea is probably only about one percent more realistic than Cuban's original, three-week plan. The installation of a Plus-One playoff would, for college football's decision-makers, likely amount to all the change they can handle for another few decades. But it is an idea that would work well within college football's current and future structure, and it would bring about a weekend of positivity that the sport could always use.

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