Conference USA is reportedly about to try something bold, innovative, and unique. From Chuck Landon, talking to Marshall basketball coach Dan D’Antoni:
“We’re going to play 13 games and your travel partner twice, which would be Western Kentucky for us,” said D’Antoni. “Then they are going to seed the schools. If you finish in the top five, No. 1 through No. 5 will play each other for the next four games to get 18 games.
”Like, if you’re No. 1 you will play No. 4. And you’ll play, I think, No. 4 and No. 3 at home and then travel to No. 2. ... There are four games in that five-team slot. No. 1 will play No. 5 and No. 4, I think. And No. 2 and No. 3 will come to No. 1.
”Then, if you’re No. 2 you will play No. 4. It just reverses all the way down until you get everybody in that top group playing each other once. That will give you 18 games.”
So this is pretty revolutionary. Rather than setting their entire conference schedule ahead of time, the final conference opponents for each school will be determined based on the standings. Do well during the first part of conference play? Then you’ll finish with games against better teams.
For basketball, and especially for a league like Conference USA, this makes a ton of sense
There are solid basketball teams there, but they’ve been unable to secure high NCAA seeds. Middle Tennessee went 23-7 last season, with an RPI of 33, and missed the tournament. The league tournament champion, Marshall, who beat Wichita State in the first round, got a 13 seed.
It’s getting harder for schools like MTSU, Western Kentucky, Old Dominion, and UAB to get enough opportunities against power conference programs outside of league play, and games against struggling league programs like Rice and FAU drag down everyone’s computer profile. Predicting exactly who is going to be good each year is a tricky endeavor.
Building in this flexibility makes the regular season more meaningful and exciting and gives their best teams more chances at high-profile league games and better RPIs. It’s a win for everybody.
Could this work for football?
If you’re a power league like the Big Ten or the SEC, you probably don’t want this. With the playoff so small, you’re probably better off trying to limit losses for your champ, even though the world would love to see more Ohio State-Wisconsin or Alabama-Georgia regular season games.
But if you’re the Sun Belt or C-USA, the calculus is a little different. Sure, we’re looking at a smaller sample size, but we have data to suggest that the selection committee doesn’t put much stock in gaudy undefeated records from smaller leagues if they don’t respect the strength of schedule. Undefeated Marshall couldn’t even crack the rankings for weeks back in 2014, and undefeated UCF was getting ranked behind multi-loss programs like Mississippi State.
One way the league could help? Put the thumb on those scheduling scales and give your best teams more opportunities to play good teams.
For example, in 2018, defending C-USA football champ FAU will skip Southern Miss and UAB, two of the stronger programs in the league. Wouldn’t everybody be better off if the fightin’ Kiffins played Southern Miss instead of Charlotte in late November?
Wouldn’t #MACTION be more meaningful if preseason division favorites Ohio and Toledo played in the regular season? What if we knew that Boise State was going to always face the best team from the West Division, perhaps instead of Nevada or New Mexico?
There’s at least one way to do it in football!
Have each team play all but one of its divisional games in a row. Then use division standings to determine the cross-divisional games (so the division leaders play each other, last-place teams play each other, etc). Leave the last week of the season for inter-divisional games.
Or save in-division rivalries for last, but have the standings-based games the week prior. However you want to do it.
(And if you really want to fix conference scheduling, just build this week into a pod system.)
Would it get a mid-major into the playoff? No. Could it help secure a G5 bowl bid? Maybe! Would it increase exposure and interest in G5 regular season football, keep fans engaged, and deliver a more interesting product? Yes.
Or, you could get really ambitious and just follow our bracket buster suggestion across the entire nation.
I mean, if we’re leaving weeks open on the schedule, no reason we have to limit it to just conference opponents, right? Why not have the best teams in the Sun Belt and Conference USA meet in November? Or the American and the Mountain West meeting to decide a New Year’s Six bid? Heck, why not blow this up for everybody so we’d get a chance for streaking FAU or Toledo teams to pick off some power opponents?
Let us free ourselves from the puritanical restrictions of traditional scheduling. We have nothing to lose but unwatchable November football.
Kudos to Conference USA for thinking outside the box.
Even if this remains just a basketball-only idea, it’s a pretty good one that may help a good mid-major get a better NCAA situation. Other leagues should look into doing something similar.
But it’s worth investigating for football too! Anything that leads to more compelling, worthwhile games late in the season is worth considering.