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It’s time to change non-conference schedule protocol

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Everybody get out a legal pad and a pen.

Getty Photos. Banner Society Illustration.

Of the many lies and half-truths Covid-19 has revealed or confirmed about the college athletics universe, “non-conference games must be planned years in advance” is not the most consequential. Still, it’s interesting that after we spent years being told matchups couldn’t just be created without a ton of planning, Kansas just announced its third different opponent for its opening game in the span of a month.

And it’s not like the Jayhawks are alone! The ACC scrapped divisions, added Notre Dame as a temporary member, and gave everyone a spot for one non-conference game. Some schools, as of the time I’m writing this, still haven’t figured out who those opponents will be.

The revelation of the scheduling lie presents an opportunity, however. We can now impose a long overdue non-conference requirement: you have to play every team in FBS once before you can start repeating opponents.

(Calm down, we’re going to carve out some exceptions for your precious rivalry game.)

Let’s take Michigan, one of the sport’s oldest and most storied programs. In 140 years of Wolverine football, Michigan has somehow never played Clemson, Louisville, Texas Tech, TCU, Iowa State, or LSU. They haven’t played Kent State or Ohio in the MAC, and they haven’t faced East Carolina, USF, Temple, or Tulsa from the American. Michigan’s only played one current member of the Sun Belt. Can you guess which one?

Nor is Michigan special in this regard! (Yes, I am aware this is the meanest thing you can say to or about Michigan.) USC brags about never having played an FCS team, but there are four SEC teams (Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and both Mississippi schools) they’ve yet to put on the schedule. Nebraska’s record is 0-0 against Boston College, Virginia, and Louisville. There are thirteen Power 5 teams Florida’s never squared off with.

What do we get in exchange? Michigan beating Eastern Michigan every few years? Six USC wins over Hawaii since 1999? We can do better than that, using this system:

  1. Every team can designate one non-conference opponent to protect, provided it’s a traditional rivalry game. We’re not going to let Syracuse, for example, claim Buffalo, unless they also concoct a suitable traveling trophy, like Paul Bunyan’s Garbage Plate.
  2. The rest of the non-conference schedule must consist of opponents a team has never played before. Pick a traditional powerhouse or an up-and-coming Group of Five school – we’re not doing this to force a tougher strength of schedule on anyone. That said, use up all your easy slots now and a few decades down the road you might be loading up on Power Five teams you really, really didn’t want to play.
  3. Once a program has checked off every team on their FBS list, they are free to schedule however they wish. Perhaps there will be some old scores to settle, like a theoretical 2028 UCLA loss to Middle Tennessee State.
  4. The independent programs only have to schedule two games a year that meet these criteria. (Notre Dame, to its credit, was going to play Arkansas this season before everything went haywire. We will not let that promise go unfulfilled.)
  5. Every non-New Year’s Six bowl is going to help with this effort. Whenever they can pick a matchup that hasn’t been played before, they will do so. The traditional selection process has given us three bowl games between Mississippi State and NC State, and there is no need for a fourth if it can be avoided.

Voila! Now we’ve turned non-conference scheduling into a fun little game, like completing all the small tasks in a video game or filling out a trading card checklist. Group of Five teams know they’ll get a shot against the aristocracy. Power Five teams don’t have to answer questions about why they’re dodging one team or another. Television producers get to come up with new narratives every season. And, most importantly for my purposes, Florida doesn’t have to play Georgia Southern for a long, long time.