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Scheduling an annual college football challenge for all 5 power conferences

Five power conferences plus four out-of-conference games per team? Hmm ... let's figure out a way to have every team from a power league play one team from each of the others every year.

At Tuesday's SEC meetings, Nick Saban won himself some fan/media brownie points by suggesting that teams from the five power conferences should only schedule other power-conference teams.

Of course, this is an impractical suggestion that carries no weight, and it's a bit hypocritical coming from a coach whose school cancelled a series with Michigan State. Moreover, the power schools want plenty of home games, which means they'll continue to schedule Central Michigan over better home-and-homes.

The only way for there to be more power non-conference matchups is for the conferences to arrange them, like the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in basketball.

We'll preface this by saying that it would be extremely difficult to put together. It would require all of the Power Five conferences to go back to eight conference games apiece, and it would mean they couldn't schedule many out-of-conference games years in advance. And there are three other major hurdles:

  • The conferences are different sizes, so not everyone would be included.
  • Top teams could be punished for playing other top teams.
  • Teams could lose out-of-conference rivals.

To get around the conference size issue, the challenge could include only the previous year's top 10 in each conference's standings (with Notre Dame in the ACC). That would make scheduling difficult for the bad teams, but they likely wouldn't provide entertaining games anyway, and that's the whole point of this exercise. The challenge would change yearly, so teams will have the opportunity to work their way back in, and they're free to schedule BYU, Boise State, UCF, and other strong teams.

As for the competitive balance argument, the No. 1 teams in each conference wouldn't all play each other. The teams ranked No. 1 through No. 5 in each conference could play teams ranked No. 1 through No. 5 from the other conferences. For instance, the top SEC team might play Pac-12 No. 2, Big Ten No. 3, ACC No. 4 and Big 12 No. 5. The teams in the top group would certainly have tougher schedules than the teams in the 6-through-10 group, but the College Football Playoff committee would take that into account.

And maintaining annual out-of-conference rivalries (like Clemson-South Carolina and Iowa-Iowa State) would require giving certain teams permanent opponents from certain conferences, which would be a mess. But college football is always messy. We haven't accounted for this stipulation below, however.

So here's the template:

Pod SEC Big Ten Big 12 ACC Pac-12
Pod 1 SEC #1 Big Ten #2 Big 12 #3 ACC #4 Pac-12 #5
Pod 2 SEC #2 Big Ten #3 Big 12 #4 ACC #5 Pac-12 #1
Pod 3 SEC #3 Big Ten #4 Big 12 #5 ACC #1 Pac-12 #2
Pod 4 SEC #4 Big Ten #5 Big 12 #1 ACC #2 Pac-12 #3
Pod 5 SEC #5 Big Ten #1 Big 12 #2 ACC #3 Pac-12 #4
Pod 6 SEC #6 Big Ten #7 Big 12 #8 ACC #9 Pac-12 #10
Pod 7 SEC #7 Big Ten #8 Big 12 #9 ACC #10 Pac-12 #6
Pod 8 SEC #8 Big Ten #9 Big 12 #10 ACC #6 Pac-12 #7
Pod 9 SEC #9 Big Ten #10 Big 12 #6 ACC #7 Pac-12 #8
Pod 10 SEC #10 Big Ten #6 Big 12 #7 ACC #8 Pac-12 #9

And here's how that would play out using last year's conference standings (roughly).

Pod SEC Big Ten Big 12 ACC Pac-12
Pod 1 Auburn Ohio State Oklahoma State Duke USC
Pod 2 Missouri Wisconsin Texas Notre Dame Stanford
Pod 3 Alabama Iowa Kansas State Florida State Oregon
Pod 4 South Carolina Nebraska Baylor Clemson Arizona State
Pod 5 LSU Michigan State Oklahoma Louisville UCLA
Pod 6 Georgia Penn State West Virginia Syracuse Utah
Pod 7 Texas A&M Michigan Iowa State Boston College Washington
Pod 8 Vanderbilt Maryland Kansas Virginia Tech Arizona
Pod 9 Ole Miss Northwestern Texas Tech Miami Oregon State
Pod 10 Mississippi State Minnesota TCU Georgia Tech Washington State

So here are each of the out-of-conference pods for the 2014 season -- each of these teams would play the four others in its pod, with home games split two-and-two:

Pod 1: Auburn, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Duke, USC

Pod 2: Missouri, Wisconsin, Texas, Notre Dame, Stanford

Pod 3: Alabama, Iowa, Kansas Sate, Florida State, Oregon

Pod 4: South Carolina, Nebraska, Baylor, Clemson, Arizona State

Pod 5: LSU, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Louisville (included here despite playing in the American, because why not?), UCLA

Pod 6: Georgia, Penn State, West Virginia, Syracuse, Utah

Pod 7: Texas A&M, Michigan, Iowa State, Boston College, Washington

Pod 8: Vanderbilt, Maryland (and the same for Maryland), Kansas, Virginia Tech, Arizona

Pod 9: Ole Miss, Northwestern, Texas Tech, Miami, Oregon State

Pod 10: Mississippi State, Minnesota, TCU, Georgia Tech, Washington State

So for example, Louisville, LSU, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and UCLA would all play a round robin, and that would be each team's entire out-of-conference schedule for 2014.

★ ★

As expected, the top five pods look awesome, while the bottom five pods look "meh," but way better than any of those teams vs. Florida International.

If college football really did a challenge like this, the conference commissioners would probably want to tweak some things to make it more equitable for the bottom teams. For instance, it could move to 12 or 14 pods and include all the major-conference teams, along with the top non-power five teams each year. Or, it could only include the top five teams in each power conference.

Regardless, this is not going to happen, because of rivalries, money, the logistics of it, and the fact that college football is bad at change.

But it's clear that if the conferences did adopt this system, Saban's fans would benefit. Alabama's four non-conference opponents in the challenge would be Florida State, Oregon, Iowa, and Kansas State. Their four non-conference opponents this year are West Virginia, Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss, and Western Carolina.