College sports scheduling has been strange for 151 years now. One of its strangest features, within the context of other sports, is the non-conference game, since each school and its opponents schedule without the input of any overall scheduling body.
It’s extra strange in college football, where a conference’s moral fiber is measured by whether it grants its members a virile, patriotic three non-con games or a conniving, backwoods four non-con games. The difference is considered vast. The tough conferences are the ones that let their teams play Rutgers instead of James Madison, you see.
Non-conference games take on season-altering meaning, telling us which conferences are skilled, weak, brave, and cowardly, all despite being scheduled like a decade earlier when each of these teams employed Bobby Petrino.
Non-conference games do have serious value beyond just hollerin’, though.
College football has hilariously few data points. While each NBA team plays every other NBA team at least twice each, each FBS college football team plays about 9% of FBS, almost always just once each.
And most of those games are within tight clusters. The Big 12’s data cluster takes nine weeks to reveal Oklahoma is once again much better than Kansas. For quality analytics at the national level, we need as many FBS-vs.-FBS non-conference games as possible. Bill Connelly, the inventor of the SP+ system, says this all the time.
These games are also fun! They usually give us fresh-ish matchups, games of more novel interest than the 114th round of NC State-Wake Forest.
So we can all agree: things would be pretty bad if we got rid of non-con games.
An already regionalized sport would splinter even further, going back to 1890s scheduling, when everybody just played their neighbors and assumed the Southeast and Texas and Southern California would never be good at college football.
There’d also be little reason to even have college football in September. Wait, why are you reading a blog post about a college football season not starting until October? Oh, no reason. Any resemblance to actual discussions on this matter is entirely coincidental.
The dumbest question of all might be ... if we only had conference games, how would we figure out which teams make the Playoff?
Did someone say there’s a dumb question that needs answering? On it.
Let’s go year-by-year through the CFP era, looking at what we’d have if each season had lacked non-con games.
How are we dealing with Notre Dame, since all their games are technically non-con games? I’ll get to that below.
2014’s Playoff without non-conference games (IRL 2014 in parentheses)
- Ohio State (Alabama)
- Alabama (Oregon)
- Oregon (Florida State)
- Florida State (Ohio State)
Big 12 co-champs Baylor and TCU are still out, but less controversially so, because IRL #4 Ohio State is now the comfortable #1, thanks to having no losses against Virginia Tech. (Yes, TCU would’ve clearly been a more competitive choice than undefeated reigning champ FSU, but FSU was the undefeated reigning champ.)
So this is the same field, different order. We surely still get a Stumblin’ Jameis meme, and the Buckeye-Tide classic is now a title game, rather than a mere semifinal.
- Michigan State
- Stanford (Oklahoma)
Oklahoma’s now without a top-25 win over Tennessee. The Stanford team that lost the famous BODY CLOCKS game to Northwestern now only has a two-point loss to Oregon. Stanford also faced a harder schedule that year, per SRS, even if we include OU’s IRL Playoff game against #1 Clemson.
Stanford can’t jump past MSU here despite being a better team, because the Spartans beat the Pac-12 team that beat Stanford. Still, avoiding Bama is nice.
- Oklahoma (Clemson)
- Clemson (Ohio State)
- Penn State (Washington)
Clemson’s now without a win over a top-20 Auburn, but Ohio State’s now without a blowout win at Oklahoma. Also, Big Ten champ Penn State is now without a loss to Pitt.
IRL #4 Washington’s case gets relatively stronger, no longer watered down by Rutgers, Idaho, or Portland State (this was the year UW feuded with ESPN over Cupcake Schedule jokes.)
But Oklahoma’s now undefeated, free of IRL losses to both Ohio State and Houston (if we do a version of this that’s just non-con games, 2016 Houston might be your #1 seed). Undefeated OU means one-loss Washington’s relatively strengthened record is no longer strong enough.
- Georgia (Oklahoma)
- Ohio State (Georgia)
- Oklahoma/USC (Alabama)
SEC champ UGA’s still in, but Bama’s now out, no longer the “welp, you gotta pick somebody, and they’re somehow the least flawed” choice they were on IRL Selection Sunday.
Ohio State nearly made it IRL as a two-loss team. In our scenario, Oklahoma returns the 2016 favor: the Buckeyes become a one-loss conference champ.
OU’s still the one-loss Big 12 champ, albeit now without its best win (Ohio State).
Minus a road loss at Notre Dame, USC is now a one-loss P5 champ, only losing a short-week road game at Washington State in the final minute amid injuries. That’s way, way more forgivable than Ohio State giving up 55 points to Iowa.
By computer consensus, Ohio State was the third-best team at that point in the season even with two losses, and I think the committee would agree, if the Buckeyes had just one L. At #4, it’d come down to Oklahoma or USC. It feels too difficult to guess exactly how differently we’d think of those Trojans without that Notre Dame loss, so you pick which one gets Clemson.
Also, Clay Helton might now have a Playoff bid, thus maybe more job security, thus maybe not the most astoundingly bad recruiting class ever in 2020.
And yeah, in a world where non-powers literally can’t beat powers, the committee would give UCF even less time of day. Same goes for Lane Kiffin’s suddenly 9-0 FAU and every other year’s undefeated non-powers who didn’t face any powers.
- Oklahoma (IRL this spot went to some team that played no conference games)
- Ohio State (Oklahoma)
Pretty straightforward, with controversy toward the end.
The #4 spot would come down to one-loss Big Ten champ Ohio State vs. two-loss, SEC non-champ Georgia.
IRL, Georgia ranked #5 at the end, ahead of the Buckeyes. Losing to Bama and LSU was way, way more forgivable than giving up 49 points to Purdue.
But that ranking meant nothing. If the committee had to actually snub a one-loss team and anoint a two-loss team, meaning an immediate rematch of a conference title game, I don’t think they’d have the gall (now is when we have a big laugh at the insane idea of the media carrying out anti-Buckeye conspiracies).
All sorted! Moving right along!
- Ohio State
- Oregon (Oklahoma)
In an average season, we only have one or two undefeated Power 5 teams in November. This year, we entered bowl season with three. Ohio State-Clemson was championship-quality, and then the even better team won the actual championship.
Each had an impressive non-con win or two, but the top three stay seeded as they were. What about #4?
Oregon goes from a two-loss team to a one-loss. The committee complained about Oklahoma’s defense all year long, as always, and would’ve preferred Oregon’s top-10 SP+ defense. As of Selection Sunday, OU had five one-score wins, while Oregon had just two. Most computers preferred Oklahoma, though those include a loss to Auburn for the Ducks (that was nearly a win).
I think the committee would view Oregon as the choice less likely to embarrass the committee on a big stage by getting Tiger-mauled.
Now we have a much more competitive Peach Bowl semifinal. Joe Burrow probably needs more than one half to score seven touchdowns, for starters.
We can do this for pre-Playoff years too.
Think about 2013, when the Big Ten Championship would’ve been a BCS Championship play-in game, due to Michigan State having no losses.
This means the Kick Six no longer matters, and therefore this alternate reality is bad.
Which team did MSU lose to that year, by the way? Sorry, we don’t have time to explore this detail.
Oh right. How are we dealing with Notre Dame, since all their games are technically non-con games?
In this alternate reality, Notre Dame simply does not exist, and therefore this alternate reality is good.