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There’s more to life than strength of schedule

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The source of endless argument is far from the only way to decide which teams are good.

Ezra Shaw, Getty/Banner Society illustration

1. Strength of schedule matters.

Adjusting for opponent quality is great! Beating a good team by 14 should earn you more credit than beating a bad team by 14! And that applies all the way down to yards per play, not just final scores!

SOS isn’t the final authority on team quality — source: 2018 Clemson faced a bunch of Bojangles franchisees in the regular season and might be the greatest team ever anyway, plus nobody ever bets against the Patriots simply because they got to play the AFC East six times — but it helps makes raw numbers smarter. Great!

2. We just talk about it in dumb ways.

It’s only one part of evaluating how good each team is. A team can be objectively awesome while pounding nobodies, and a mediocre team can be inflated by the names of its opponents. So we have to look beyond just which teams you’ve played.

Every year, college football watchers realize each FBS team has failed to play all 130 other FBS teams within the course of a 12-game season. Whoops! Shit! Meanwhile, FBS teams are being ranked anyway*, and in rankings that matter. Dammit!

Having no on-field way to directly compare all 130 of these teams, the argument about rankings first turns to transitive victories. Everyone realizes this is dumb as soon as some smartass strings together a series that shows Alabama losing to a team that lost to a team that [repeat as necessary] lost to an NAIA team.

So we then turn to the argument that cannot possibly ever die: SCHEDULE MANLINESS and the LUCK INHERENT in the TEAMS YOU SIGNED CONTRACTS WITH EIGHT YEARS AGO happening to BE GOOD RIGHT NOW. It fires up around mid-October and dies once everyone quietly notices all its conclusions just led to the Randomized Bowl Game Results Generator anyway, and then we repeat it all the next season.

The only point of it, in the popular discourse, is to excuse your favorite team’s losses, discount all the wins of the team that ranks ahead of you, and apply a Bravery Bonus to all of your conference’s achievements.

* If you think top-level SOS arguments are cutthroat and granular, you should listen to some FCS or DIII fans on their Selection Sundays. Imagine if a 24-team FBS Playoff gave an autobid to the C-USA champ, but not to a team that only lost to Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and the Miami Dolphins.

3. There’s also little evidence SOS is quite as big a factor in the Playoff era as the committee would have us believe.

The initial committee made a branding to-do about every game mattering, and it seemed to encourage teams to schedule tough non-conference games. Getting big games in Week 3 is great for fans and the bottom lines of athletic departments and broadcast companies!

But the CFP’s main relation with SOS seems to be as a benchmark, rather than an obvious differentiator. Number of losses is still the most distinguishing metric, and as long as you’ve played well against a Power 5-lookin’ schedule, your SOS isn’t a big worry. This goes for teams not in power conferences as well, such as Notre Dame, but there’s a catch.

If your schedule isn’t mostly Power 5 teams, then your SOS problem in the committee era is this: you should’ve joined a Power 5 conference before this season began. Try again next year.

SOS can help split the CFP difference between two otherwise similar teams, but you can just as frequently chalk the distinction up to some other factor, because almost none of it gets explained anyway.

4. Despite how often fans and media people praise teams for scheduling tough, most of us fail to keep that same energy when teams lose those tough games (rather than win easy games).

Every year, Mississippi State ranks #20 in late November. Don’t look it up. Search your feelings and know it to be true. MSU ranks there because it played pretty well, winning eight games and losing four games while facing a difficult schedule. Again, this is spiritually accurate no matter what the standings say.

Yet every year, people complain about some two-loss team that Ain’t Played Nobody ranking behind MSU. (These complaints are much louder if we’re talking about a two-loss ranking ahead of a one-loss, but we’re trying to keep emotions at a low boil in this post.)

So even when the official rankers do acknowledge SOS by ranking teams by something other than raw number of losses, everybody’s still mad. When the SOS metrics don’t like our team, we just re-change the argument and decide Winners Winning With Win-y Win-itude is the most important stat.

5. And sure, watching your team win games is fun!

I root for a large public school that plays in one of Division I’s weakest conferences. We riddle smaller universities for 49-point blowouts pretty much every week. It rules! And when we do seek some exercise, we challenge a top-150 DI team, rather than a top-15. We can win these games too!

Luckily, in FCS, we can get an autobid to the playoffs via this method, but I think there’s something to it even for fans of FBS teams that are barred from the capital-P Playoff. If they’re not gonna let you in anyway, why not just run a layup line on a bunch of engineering schools and produce some cool GIFs?

Winning by a lot of points every week is a hoot. My college football fandom produces almost zero stress until mid-December. I recommend all of this to every football program considering whether to have ambition.

6. So since honor is a currency that does not spend, the postseason value of playing a tough schedule is dubious, no one will respect your tough schedule anyway, and winning is more fun than losing, here’s a proposal: play nobody.

Schedule not just regularly fluffy cupcakes. Schedule crumbling, sarcastic, Nailed It cupcakes that make you wonder if the creator has ever seen a cupcake before.

Line your football schedule with CBI semifinalist universities and laugh at anyone who tries to shame you for it. Why are they doing this? Because they are compensating for the fact that their team has tried and has failed.

Paying a lower-level team $1 million to beat you makes you look dumb. So instead, pay a way lower-level team gas money, win by 100, and get the freshmen some reps. If the CFP committee leaves you out of the Playoff because of this, then here’s a rude spoiler: they were going to leave you out of the Playoff anyway.

Your attendance will suffer due to a lack of famous names on the schedule, but everyone who does attend will go home with improved mental health, and that’s how you build lifelong customers.

You, the athletic director, will also fill your school’s record book with the names of current players, forever linking you with the greatest spreadsheet era in school history.

Valor is a lie. Get buckets. Invest in smiles. Leave an inflated mark on history. Win. Play nobody.