By: Ross Weber, KCOU Sports
Now that conference play in college football is starting up, America will be able to observe as the best teams within each conference battle it out for one of the coveted four spots in the first ever year of a college football playoff. As most upper-level power five conference schools and AP Top 25 programs have nearly spotless records at the moment, a staggering 74-11 combined entering week five (no teams with more than one loss, all above .500 records), it has come as the result of playing extremely lower-level teams.
It’s almost like college football’s version of the NFL’s preseason; taking a few weeks at the beginning of the year to get into a rhythm, pad onto statistics totals and put in the subs after halftime to avoid injuries as the scoreboard is already broken from how lopsided the game is. It’s something that is the exact opposite of what all of the teams competing for a championship should be embodying.
Among the top 10 in the AP Poll entering week five (Florida State, Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas A&M, Baylor, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ole Miss from 1-10) the combined record is 33-1. That one loss was Oregon defeating Michigan State, in a fantastic early season matchup that has helped Oregon climb to #2 and gain 11 first place votes since the first preseason poll in the process. Other than that game, those 10 teams have played a total of six games against out-of-conference power five opponents, two of those games by Notre Dame who is independent of a conference. Of those six teams, only one was ranked (Auburn took on then-#20 ranked Kansas State and left with a narrow 6-point victory).
The other 19 games played by these top 10 teams were against out-of-conference and non-power conference competition, were barely even football games. A 19-0 mark with an average margin of victory of 42.3 points. Beating up on the likes of Rice, SMU, Wyoming and Louisiana Tech, who all have two games against a current top 10 team on their scheduled, is no way to determine who should get a spot in the playoff.
Now, conference play will sort things out for sure. Oklahoma and Baylor will play, Florida State and Notre Dame (due to Notre Dame’s “all sports but football” contract with the ACC have to play a certain number of games against the football members of the conference each year), and the entire SEC will be playing and beating each other up to a point that it’ll be a shock if somebody comes out without a loss.
If it comes down to a situation where we have a team like Baylor; who played the likes of SMU, Northwestern State and the University of Buffalo before, hypothetically, beating everyone in Big 12 play except Oklahoma; and Texas A&M; who destroyed Lamar, Rice and SMU before, again hypothetically, losing one game and missing the SEC championship game (because let’s face it, if anybody goes undefeated and wins the SEC, they’re in), who gets in between those two?
Three spots are already (hypothetically) filled by an undefeated SEC team, an undefeated Big 12 champion (hypothetical-Oklahoma) and an undefeated Pac-12 team, and since the Big Ten doesn’t really have any teams good enough, Baylor and Texas A&M are all that’s left, but they didn’t challenge themselves out-of-conference.
Here is where college football should take a page out of college basketball’s early season playbook. When it comes to evaluating teams and seeds in the big dance, the selection committee for the field of 68 looks at strength of schedule and key wins and losses that are generated by a couple different avenues in terms of out-of-conference matchups. One is by tournaments sending the teams to fun locations like Maui or New York City, which would be an extreme impossibility for college football for obvious reasons. What is possible, are the inter-conference challenges that occur in every college basketball season. The ACC-Big Ten Challenge and the SEC-Big 12 Challenge always produce headliners because of the talent within the conferences, and it can be a key game looked at for certain teams given certain seeds in the NCAA tournament in March, if they get a big win. The December 3rd matchup between powerhouse Duke and Wisconsin, a Final Four team last season, has been circled on my calendar since it came out. Plus the SEC-Big 12 connection keeps another potential Mizzou vs Kansas, no-holds-barred, winner-take-all Border War sequel (Border War 2: REVENGE OF THE BORDER!!!), and who wouldn’t want to see that?!
It is different for college basketball than football, as in basketball you can take a few losses to good teams and not have your championship chances fade away. Still, now more than ever in college football, the mindset should be more about aggressively pursuing those four playoff spots than preserving your ranking to keep a clean and polished record. In my opinion, and hopefully in the opinion of the selection committee, a one-loss team that played an extremely tough in and out of conference schedule looks a lot better than an undefeated team that plays nothing but cupcakes.
If a college football program would rather wimp out to “play it safe” with their record and obliterate the weakest teams in the country, rather than challenge themselves with elite out of conference competition to prove that they are truly worthy of a playoff spot, THEY DON’T DESERVE TO PLAY FOR THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP!
Who knows, in our hypothetical situation if there was an SEC-Big 12 Challenge in college football, maybe it would be Baylor vs Texas A&M in an epic week 5 top 10 showdown. A game where the winner would actually deserve to make it into college football’s first final four, instead of choosing whose 40+ point romping of SMU was more impressive.
The college football playoff has been clamored for and demanded since the likes of Auburn and Utah in 2004. Will there be a debate over who gets in and who deserves to be in? Absolutely, there is no way to avoid it. But if teams truly challenged themselves in out of conference scheduling then the regular season would be more meaningful and entertaining, there will be fewer egregious mistakes and missed opportunities at national championships for deserving teams and college football would be a better place for it.