The new college football playoff: will it hurt FCS schools?

As a fan of an FCS program, one thing stood out to me in all the hoopla about the new four-team FBS playoff. It may have just become a lot tougher for the department of athletics at an FCS school to balance its budget. Why?

Strength of schedule is apparently going to be a factor in determining which teams make the playoff.

From a June 21 article by Sports Illustrated writer Stewart Mandel:

Weighing schedule strength could prove beneficial beyond just the playoff. Unlike the AP and Coaches’ Poll, which tend to place the most importance on simply not losing, a committee could theoretically elevate, say, an 11-2 Pac-12 team over a 12-1 Big Ten team if the former played three power-conference foes in September, while the other played three MAC or FCS schools.

“How do you encourage people to play [tough games]?” said [Big 10 commissioner Jim] Delany. “And I’m talking about our people and other peoples’ people. I don’t think we served ourselves particularly well with the 12th game.”

Delany wants his league to play a challenge event of sorts against the Pac-12, beginning in 2017 (or thereabouts), which would account for one non-conference game for each school in both leagues. Some of the Pac-12 schools aren’t so crazy about the idea, in part because of that conference’s nine-game league slate.

The Big 10 only has an eight-game conference schedule, though there has been talk of that changing. Not all Big 10 schools are in favor of moving to nine, however. For Wisconsin, which is evaluating its future schedules with a possible strength of schedule component in mind, one gets the impression that proposed contests against the likes of Notre Dame or Alabama may not be as likely if the conference adds a league game.

Notre Dame, which plays a difficult schedule almost every season, is not surprisingly also on board with measuring a school’s SOS in evaluating playoff fitness.

West Virginia director of athletics Oliver Luck was direct when discussing the possible pitfalls of scheduling an FCS school in the future:

 “[The strength of schedule component to the playoff] is going to force everybody to look at their non-conference schedule and figure out if we can still play a I-AA school.”

That sounds ominous if you are an AD at an FCS school which needs to play (at least) one FBS opponent every year to help balance the budget. Larry Leckonby of The Citadel (with department expenses in FY 2012 of $10.1 million) is in such a position:

For 2013, Leckonby said budgeting is complicated by the fact that The Citadel will have only five home football games [during the 2012 season]. A home game is worth about $130k. The game at N.C. State will bring a guarantee of $375K…

…To help make up the numbers, Leckonby said basketball will be asked to play three guarantee games next year. Basketball guarantees can bring in from $50k to $80K or so, depending on the foe.

Leckonby confirmed that 2013 football non-SoCon foes will be CSU and VMI at home and at Clemson and at East Carolina for a 12-game schedule. In 2014, the Bulldogs will play at Florida State and at VMI, with Charlotte and Coastal Carolina coming to Johnson Hagood Stadium on one-year deals.

In 2014, the regular season for FCS schools will also be 12 games, as in 2013, but The Citadel is only playing one FBS team that year instead of two. Otherwise the Bulldogs would play seven road games, with two of them against FBS competition, and only five home games. Thus, the games against Charlotte and Coastal Carolina.

Back to Mandel: from a recent SI “mailbag”, he suggested that FBS teams “may (hopefully) see a decline in FCS foes, simply because of the blight that puts on one’s schedule, but we’ll still get plenty of games between the Big Ten and MAC, the SEC and Sun Belt.”

Well, I obviously disagree with that characterization. Some of my tomato plants might suffer from blight (though not if I can help it), but playing an FCS school is not a “blight” on an FBS team’s schedule. Of course, Mandel went to Northwestern, a Big 10 school; perhaps he’s hoping that the conference can avoid embarrassing losses to FCS opponents by simply not playing those games at all.

I got a slightly more positive response from Mandel’s SI colleague, Andy Staples, on Twitter. Just slightly. After saying he was “thrilled” there would possibly be fewer FBS/FCS matchups, he did acknowledge that smaller schools need those games.

I received a few negative tweets on the subject from the Twitterverse. My personal favorite was this one:

“we want your money” not a valid reason. Sorry.

Yes, how dare money-grubbing schools like The Citadel attempt to defile the pristine pastureland of major-college football.

The real reason the strength of schedule issue is getting so much play from people like Jim Delany is because of the recent dominance of the SEC. With six straight BCS titles, that league has demonstrated it can A) win the big game, and B) schedule its way to the big game. I am sure Delany and company would like to force the SEC powers to replace their annual “series” versus Southern Conference teams with games against, say, Big XII schools.

If the Pac-12 and Big 10 can have what I described earlier in this post as a “challenge event”, why not the Big XII and SEC? You could have a high-profile game like Florida-Texas, for instance. That’s right, the Gators would play a non-conference regular season game outside the state of Florida (which never happens).

I suspect there would be few “big-time” matchups, however, even if a Big XII-SEC challenge came to pass. One reason for that is RPI, even with strength of schedule a consideration.

The commissioners want strength of schedule emphasized and to give conference champions some preference. They are also working on power rankings, similar to the RPI used by the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee.

I’m not a professional mathematician, so this is going to be dangerous, but here goes…

RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) is formulated by a team’s winning percentage (generally 25% of the total), along with its opponents’ winning percentage (50%) and the winning percentage of its opponents’ opponents (25%). That’s the basic concept; there are usually small built-in bonuses and penalties (for road games, etc.).

Sure, Texas could play Florida (in this example, I’m assuming both the Longhorns and Gators are outstanding squads, as opposed to what they have been for the last two seasons). However, in such a matchup one team would obviously lose. Strength of schedule or no strength of schedule, any loss is going to be extremely harmful to a playoff aspirant, since there are only twelve regular season games.

What Texas and Florida would really want is the value of the other’s SOS without having to play, and risk a loss. Instead of playing each other in a Big XII vs. SEC “event”, they could schedule (presumably lesser) opponents of each other. Texas could play Kentucky while Florida faces Kansas. This would take advantage of the opponents’ opponents winning percentage (built up by playing an SEC or Big XII league schedule), not to mention the team’s own winning percentage, without having to play a truly elite opponent.

I think you would see a lot more of those kinds of games than Texas-Florida, LSU-Oklahoma, etc. In some cases, it would be more than justifiable.

Southern California already plays nine Pac-12 games, plus Notre Dame out of conference, each season. There is no real benefit for the Trojans in participating in Delany’s challenge, and having to face a Big 10 opponent like Ohio State or Michigan in another regular-season game.

In addition, there is a “connectivity” issue with RPI. This is especially problematic in college baseball, which is a much more regional sport than college hoops, and as a result teams from parts of the country with fewer baseball schools tend to get hosed by the RPI (and the reverse is also true). I would guess that college football would be even worse in this respect, because there aren’t nearly as many games, and so there would be far less connectivity.

Even if the football playoff selection committee uses a different version of RPI (or “power rankings”), it is likely to run into similar problems.

All of that is assuming that the landscape for non-conference scheduling changes at all. I realize I’ve just written several paragraphs about the potential for FCS schools to lose out on guarantee games, but ultimately I think that most FBS schools will ignore strength of schedule when putting together their non-league slates.

When he wasn’t calling FCS schools a “blight” on FBS schedules, Mandel was making a good point about the need for big-time programs to play as many home games as possible, for financial reasons. Those schools need to buy at least two guarantee games every season.

Another factor is the simple fact that not many schools will need to schedule with the post-season in mind. Only 3% of the entire FBS is going to be in a playoff each season, as opposed to the NCAA basketball tournament, where 20% of D-1 teams make the field. Unless there is a dramatic shift in college football’s hierarchy, Mississippi and Iowa State aren’t going to be in the mix for a playoff berth in football. Neither are Indiana or Oregon State. Playing an FCS school isn’t going to cost those schools a shot at a national title, but it will be good for their budgets and (usually) win totals.

Strength of schedule matters in college basketball because many more teams have a chance to advance to post-season play. Playing a weak non-league slate can hurt middle-of-the-pack schools in major conferences. In football, those schools aren’t in the running anyway.

I think that in the future a school may occasionally adjust its schedule for a potential title run. For instance, Florida State may decide it has a great chance to win it all in 2014. If the Seminoles go 12-0, they are a lock for a playoff berth — but what if FSU slips up and finishes 11-1? Would the ACC be strong enough as a league for Florida State to get a bid anyway?

FSU does play Florida in non-conference play, so its schedule strength should be helped by that matchup. Florida State has so far only announced one other OOC opponent for 2014. That school? The Citadel.

It wouldn’t surprise me if FSU were to decide (perhaps in the winter of 2013) that it needed to replace The Citadel with a BCS opponent in order to shore up any lingering questions about its schedule strength. In that case, though, FSU would buy out the game, so it wouldn’t be a total loss for the military college (and I could see Florida State arranging for The Citadel to play another FBS team to make up for it, perhaps another ACC school).

It may be, then, that the threat of guarantee games drying up for FCS schools is overstated. I hope so. It does bear watching, however.

For many FCS schools, annual games against FBS opponents are not only important for budgetary reasons, they are a recruiting tool and often a way to energize the fan base. They also help programs maintain a connection to major-college football, which at the very least is of some historical interest. Occasionally, they become something more. It’s not strictly about the money.

It’s just mostly about the money.

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