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In these days of carb counting and fad diets, it's time to change the menu for college football's opening weeks. Far too many programs remain hopelessly addicted to cupcakes, playing empty-calorie games against directional schools and FCS foes that don't help their teams on the field and don't excite their fans in the bleachers. Fortunately, the four-team playoff scheduled to take effect after the 2014 season might finally provide the incentive for schools to pack more protein into their schedules.
Strength of schedule will be a key consideration for the playoff selection committee, and all other things being equal, a team that faces tougher opponents should get the nod over a team that feasts on lightweights. At least that's how it's supposed to work. If it does, it might beef up an opening-week schedule that once again failed to inspire.
Of the 78 scheduled opening-weekend games, only two (Alabama-Michigan and Boise State--Michigan State) matched teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Only eight games matched teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. Most top programs preyed on lesser competition (see Oklahoma State 84, Savannah State 0), while a few were humiliated by lesser competition (see Youngstown State 31, Pitt 17).
In the meantime neutral-site games between power-conference teams have created compelling competition. Some event organizers can draw big-name teams by nearly matching the financial take from a home game. Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan, whose Atlanta Sports Council paired up Tennessee and North Carolina State last Friday at the Georgia Dome and then hosted Auburn-Clemson on Saturday, says each set of Tigers will pocket between $2.3 million and $2.4 million from Saturday's game. In an age when healthy programs gross between $3 million and $4 million for a home game and must spend between $600,000 and $1 million to play a sacrificial lamb, losing a few hundred thousand on the net take is an acceptable trade off for the prestige and recruiting bump provided by appearing on national television against a challenging opponent.
Plus, some coaches believe scheduling a high-profile team out of the gate improves the quality of off-season workouts. For a program that is expected to compete for a national title, facing another ranked team at the front of the schedule creates more urgency than playing an FCS foe would. "It's great for the off-season program for the development of your team," Alabama coach Nick Saban said before his team beat Michigan 41--14 in Arlington, Texas. "It really gives the players something to look forward to in the first game, and it gives the fans a lot to look forward to in the first game."
Meanwhile, the on-campus blockbuster isn't dead yet, thanks to administrators such as Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis. To get Boise State to play at Spartan Stadium last Friday, Michigan State paid the Broncos $1.2 million and agreed to a home-and-home series in 2022--23. Hollis isn't afraid of competition—he has scheduled home-and-home series with Oregon and Alabama over the next few years—but he understands why some of his counterparts are reluctant to agree to similar matchups. "There's no incentive to schedule hard," says Hollis, whose elite basketball program routinely loads up on tough out-of-conference opponents and uses that experience to its advantage in March. "There's no carrot like there is with the NCAA basketball tournament," he says.
That should change if commissioners stay true to their word about a meaningful strength-of-schedule discussion during selection committee deliberations. The first time a school gets left out of the playoff because of a watered-down schedule, Stokan's group and the one led by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, which hosted LSU-Oregon last year and Alabama-Michigan this year, will field phone calls from athletic directors eager to play up instead of down. "As we move more toward the differentiation criteria of who gets into the Final Four, strength of schedule is coming back into play," Stokan says. "It gives us an opportunity for a coach and an AD to say, 'If we can make a run, we need to play in a game like this.' That's how we're going to market it."
For years, those who opposed a college football playoff worried that it would devalue the regular season. Instead, the playoff may make the regular season better on the front end by reducing the unsatisfying bloat caused by too many cupcakes.