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Does college football’s endless 8-game/9-game conference schedule debate matter?

Conferences play slightly different numbers of games within their own leagues.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia
It’s working fine for Nick Saban, though he wants the SEC to add more games
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

If it’s the offseason and/or any other time of the year, it’s time for college football fans to be arguing their way through a cycling list of topics.

A popular one, in the news due to the Big Ten reportedly denying it’s thinking of changing back to eight conference games shortly after two years of nine, is: how many league games should each team have to play?

This flares up most intensely around Selection Sunday, when a one-loss team from a league that plays only eight conference games makes the Playoff at the expense of a two-loss team that played nine conference games. Because the Playoff-eligible level of football includes a whopping 65 teams (mid-majors do not exist), there will probably always be a team or two that meets each of these qualifications.

Therefore, part of this argument involves referring to the many teams that have been robbed of Playoff spots because they had to play nine league games, though the list of suitable proper nouns is slim so far.

Here are your near-miss teams from nine-game conferences:

  • In 2014, Baylor and TCU missed. Their losses came in the first half-ish of the season, so it’s hard to blame the nine-game grind. TCU would’ve surely had to play Baylor even in a division format, though Baylor might’ve been able to replace West Virginia with a very Baylor-y non-con opponent.
  • In 2015, Stanford lost a non-conference game in September that can’t be blamed on the Pac-12 and a division game (which Stanford would’ve had to play no matter how many cross-division games it played) at home in November, which is only the Pac-12’s fault if you think the prior week’s cross-division blowout win at 4-9 Colorado changed the outcome. Might’ve! It was a close loss!
  • In 2016, Penn State lost a non-conference game and a division game, both in September, neither of which was the Big Ten’s fault. Playing an extra cross-division game later in the year against either Iowa, Minnesota, or Purdue didn’t keep Penn State out of the Playoff.

So for the first three years of the Playoff, the argument was largely theoretical.

  • 2017 actually gives us a couple cases. Ohio State lost a non-con game, but also got trashed by cross-division Iowa, whom the Buckeyes might’ve missed in an eight-game rotation. Likewise, weirdly distant Playoff longshot USC lost a non-con game, but also a horribly scheduled cross-division road trip to Washington State.

So! It turns out we’ve spent the whole Playoff era (and beyond, ever since the Big 12 broke out the nine-game to-do in 2011) arguing about something that pretty rarely might actually matter.

And even then, it’s not like the Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12 are playing extra conference games just to prove their valor. More games mean their TV deals have more in-house product to offer. They have hands in home-team revenue in each series. They can create nine-game branding that backfires. And so on.

The ACC and SEC have chosen differently -- so far, at least, since the ACC has considered nine for TV money reasons, while Nick Saban has been the SEC’s lone nine-game voice. Seeing as neither conference has missed a Playoff yet, they evidently find their schedule strengths satisfactory, no matter how frequently fans and coaches from other conferences call for nationalized rules after 121 years of conferences scheduling however they want.

You could argue Bama might’ve missed a Playoff if it’d, say, played an extra SEC opponent instead of the infamous Mercer, but why would we assume Mercer would’ve been the odd team out? If the 2017 Tide had to add a game against Florida or whoever from the East, wouldn’t they drop Colorado State or Fresno State and keep the gimme game? Either way, nobody forced the non-Bama conferences to add extra games.

(This also then gets into the side debates on how much the Playoff actually values strength of schedule, everyone in the country somehow playing bad teams the week before Thanksgiving, and so forth. Play the hits!)

I’d personally be in favor of as many conference games as possible, because those are more likely to feel important than non-con games are, though I don’t really have a take in this debate, other than: do what makes you happy, but don’t expect everybody else to start wanting to do it too.

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