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Ambition Tiers: How boldly should *your* college football team schedule?

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Whether it’s a good idea to challenge yourself depends in large part on who you are.

Auburn beats Oregon in 2019. Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

In this household, we’re not big on strength of schedule as the be-all, end-all of evaluating teams. Whom you play matters, but how you play matters more, and it rarely makes sense to dismiss a team just because of their opponents.

However, schools should be thoughtful about who they put on the slate.

Scheduling decisions can be the biggest difference between:

The trick to non-conference scheduling is knowing where you stand in the pecking order and having a clear sense of your goals. Whether it makes sense for you to schedule strong or weak opponents varies wildly, depending on your answers. You’ll also need to frequently reassess your program to see how you should adjust your ambition level.

To help, we’ve assembled this field guide to the ideal level of scheduling ambition. We’ve tailored it to teams in every tier of FBS, but it could also translate to any other level.

Also, we aren’t telling teams to do exactly what we’re suggesting. Bad decisions are fun! But we have it in our hearts to at least offer some advice, no matter the cost to our own personal entertainment.

The fun of all this is: if you schedule too far out in advance, it’ll be harder to guess which opponents will meet your needs. So as professionals, we advise you to wait before scheduling (but as fans, we hope you do whatever gets you into the biggest mess).

Tier 1: Schedule whoever you want

The best of the best, the small handful who will contend for the Playoff just about every year: Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma. They’ve each made three or more CFP fields, and nobody else has made more than one. For now, this is the list, but lists change over time.

These teams are highly likely to beat anyone except each other. So maybe you shouldn’t play each other? But the benefit of a win against someone else from this group is significant. So maybe you should? Yeah, basically. If you lose in non-conference, you are the teams that are usually good enough to make a Playoff run anyway. 2014 Ohio State lost to Virginia Tech, for instance, before winning it all.

As a side effect, these teams’ games have a filtering effect. They tell us who demands attention as the year goes on. For instance, Alabama schedules USC in Week 1, and then we realize we don’t need to pay that much attention to USC the rest of the season.

Tier 2a: Avoid danger, you idiots

If you’re here, you are a Power 5 school that’s consistently good, and sometimes great, but not an unquestioned titan.

It’s possible to move between any of these tiers, including Tier 1 and Tier 2. Oregon, LSU, and Florida are often in Tier 2 but sometimes in Tier 1. Clemson and Georgia are capable of lingering in Tier 2 for decades and then jumping. Some schools are in Tier 2 perpetually, because of their natural propensity for volatility. (We’re talking about Auburn.)

Tier 2a ADs, you can possibly snag a Playoff spot, but not if you add unnecessary hurdles to your schedule. Think 2015 Stanford losing its opener on the road to a good-at-the-time Northwestern, 2016 Penn State winding up #5 thanks to upset god Pitt, or the 2019 Ducks winning the Pac-12 but not sniffing the Playoff because Auburn helped make them a two-loss outsider.

In most of these cases, all the Tier 2a school needed to make the Playoff was a non-loss against whoever.

Yes, without any decent Power 5 team on your non-conference slate, people are gonna call your schedule soft and claim you don’t actually belong in the Playoff, but those people are not the ones deciding who gets a spot, nor are they handing out the checks that come with a Playoff appearance.

Again, we do not guarantee success if you schedule too far in advance. Texas A&M’s 2014 decision to schedule 2018/19 Clemson instead of Oregon appeared to be a really good idea. It was not.

Tier 2b: Welcome as much danger as possible

These are still schools that are consistently good and sometimes great – but they’re in the Group of 5 conferences. This could be a Houston, a Memphis, an Appalachian State, a Boise State, a UCF, a Cincinnati, a Western Kentucky. Where the 2a schools know they can likely get a Playoff bid so long as they only lose once, the 2b schools have to go undefeated (probably for multiple years) AND get some good wins over Power 5 teams. And even then, that’s just how they’d get a spot in theory.

So why not see how many powers you can get to play you? These are the possible outcomes if you pull it off:

  1. You win, go undefeated, and get to make the committee uncomfortable.
  2. You win, but don’t go undefeated, so you miss the Playoff. You still have a kickass victory, like Houston opening with a win over Oklahoma in 2016.
  3. You lose a close game, which gives you good television exposure and raises your program’s profile. And you can still win your conference and get a decent bowl!
  4. You lose badly. Most people didn’t expect you to win, so it’s OK! Cincinnati got creamed by Ohio State in 2019, and they still almost made it to the Cotton Bowl.

Tier 3a: Be interesting, but don’t overdo it

Here we find schools that typically make bowl games, occasionally make their conference championship game, and wander in and out of the top 25.

Loading up on cupcakes exclusively isn’t the best strategy here; you’re still only going 8-4 or 9-3, but you’ve reduced your chances to get a noteworthy win and watered down your home schedule, hurting attendance.

Should you call LSU or Oklahoma? No! But you should embrace intriguing games with teams near your level. Go find the teams that are usually finishing around fourth in their divisions. Now you are Mack Brown, Conqueror of South Carolina!

Tier 3b: Be careful, especially if you have a permanent non-con opponent of worth

This tier is for the teams that might make a bowl in any given year but also might not.

For example, Georgia Tech has to play Georgia every year. In this day and age, that is almost always going to be a loss. The Yellow Jackets have three other non-con scheduling slots, and do they really want to make those losable games? It’s not their fault the ACC requires them to play Notre Dame every so often, but every other non-con on their slate should be against someone bad. If you insist on playing another Power 5 team, make it Maryland or Rutgers, and you should really be aiming for, like, Tulsa.

OK, let’s check Georgia Tech’s future schedules and see if they’re doing thi – oh, no.

In 2022, Tech’s schedule includes Ole Miss (a peer with more talent), UCF (a team they’re nominally supposed to beat but probably won’t), and the usual Georgia. BAD, JACKETS, BAD.

Be more like Illinois, which has lined up years of non-dangerous FCS teams, mediocre-at-best Group of 5 teams, and “powers” such as Duke, Kansas, and Virginia. That’s how you do it.

Tier 4: Think with your wallet

This tier is for the Group of 5 teams that don’t have real aspirations of claiming the non-power New Year’s Six bowl slot, along with all the non-Notre Dame independents.

There are a few benefits to playing Power 5 opponents. You’re likely to lose, but a big stage is good for recruiting and gives your players some NFL scouting exposure they wouldn’t usually get. Most important is the dollar figure, which could be seven figures. These games are key for your budget.

Also included here is any FCS team that plays a paycheck game in an FBS stadium. If you’re one of those teams, do what you feel you have to do, but ...

Interjection: No FBS team would be wise, under any circumstances, to schedule a good FCS team.

To be clear, we still want you to do this. As fans, we’d greatly appreciate it, because FBS teams losing at home to teams with 22 fewer scholarships is fun.

But if you are an AD trying to give your team the best chance, you should steer clear of any team you think might be in the top 10 or so of FCS. There are better games to schedule than one against a team that could beat you and make you a punchline for years.

2020 Oregon plays North Dakota State, winners of eight of the last nine FCS championships, in Week 1. We might not update this post with the result, because even if Oregon snaps NDSU’s six-game FBS winning streak, the net benefit to Oregon will be almost nothing.

Tier 5: Hey, shoot, do whatever you want

This time, instead of talking to Bama and Clemson, we are talking to Kansas* and Rutgers**.

*Sorry, Boston College.

**Doubly sorry, Arkansas.