Schedule light and pack your bags for the National Championship game

Yesterday in a discussion about scheduling, member Fsujab and I had a discussion over whether an aggressive non-conference schedule is worth the risk.

My theory is that teams should play the weakest possible non-conference schedule, because it is the pre-season rankings combined with a 0 or 1 loss season that gets a team to the National Championship.  Additionally, playing cupcakes allows teams to rest their starters, leaving them less exposed to injury.  Further, playing bad non-conference teams forces the national championship contender to have a greater focus on the conference games, which could potentially be overlooked when balanced with a difficult non-conference schedule. 

I decided to take a look at the past 14 BCS National Championship Game Participants and examine their non-conference schedules...

Let's first look at 2008

UF Oklahoma
Non-Con Game 1 Hawaii 7-7 1AA
Non-Con Game 2 Miami 7-6 Cincinnati 11-3
Non-Con Game 3 1AA @ Washington 0-12
Non-Con Game 4 FSU 9-4 TCU 11-2
Non-Conference Opponents Record 23-16 22-17
Bowl Teams Faced 3 2
BCS Conference Opponents 2 2
BCS Conference W/L 16-10 11-15
Non-BCS Opponents 1 1
Non-BCS Opponents W/L 7-7 11-2
1-AA Teams faced 1 1

As we will see, both of these squads played a more difficult schedule than the teams that follow, but neither played against anyone who deserved to play in a BCS bowl.  Oklahoma, in particular, played their only road non-conference game against one of the worst teams in recent memory (Washington).  

Let's now look at 2007.

LSU Ohio State
Non-Con Game 1 VT 11-3 1AA
Non-Con Game 2 MTSU 5-7 Akron 4-8
Non-Con Game 3 @ Tulane 4-8 @ Washington 4-9
Non-Con Game 4 La Tech 5-7 Kent State 3-9
Non-Conference Opponents Record 25-25 11-26
Bowl Teams Faced 1 0
BCS Conference Opponents 1 1
BCS Conference W/L 11-3 4-9
Non-BCS Opponents 3 2
Non-BCS Opponents W/L 14-22 7-17
1-AA Teams faced 0 1

These two combined to beat a single non-conference bowl team.  Ohio State's schedule was one of the worst we've seen in a long time.  Credit LSU for playing a team that could at least play with the big boys, but the Tigers didn't play any out of state non-conference games.  This will be a trend throughout. 

Now to 2006 

Florida Ohio State
Non-Con Game 1 So. Miss 9-5 N. Ill 7-6
Non-Con Game 2 UCF 4-8 @ Texas 10-3
Non-Con Game 3 1-AA Cincinnati 8-5
Non-Con Game 4 FSU 7-6 Bowling Green 4-8
Non-Conference Opponents Record 20-19 29-22
Bowl Teams Faced 2 3
BCS Conference Opponents 1 2
BCS Conference W/L 7-6 18-8
Non-BCS Opponents 2 2
Non-BCS Opponents W/L 13-13 11-14
1-AA Teams faced 1 0

The university of chicks with fat arms and guys with short denim didn't play much of a schedule and again, didn't leave the state in their non-conference.  Ohio State played one of the most impressive slates by a national championship game participant in quote some time.  Texas was very good and would have given most teams all they could handle. 

Here's 2005

Texas USC
Non-Con Game 1 La Laf 6-5 @ Hawaii 5-7
Non-Con Game 2 @ OHST 10-2 Arkansas 4-7
Non-Con Game 3 Rice 1-10 Notre Dame 9-3
Non-Con Game 4 11 Gm Sched Fresno State 8-5
Non-Conference Opponents Record 18-17 26-22
Bowl Teams Faced 1 2
BCS Conference Opponents 1 2
BCS Conference W/L 10-2 13-10
Non-BCS Opponents 2 2
Non-BCS Opponents W/L 7-15 13-12
1-AA Teams faced 0 0

Both teams played one good team out of conference, and the rest was complete filler.  That USC struggled with Fresno State was a harbringer of things yet to come. 

How about 2004?

USC Oklahoma
Non-Con Game 1 @ Virginia Tech 10-3 Bowling Green 9-3
Non-Con Game 2 Colorado State 4-7 Houston 3-8
Non-Con Game 3 @ BYU 5-6 Oregon 5-6
Non-Con Game 4 Notre Dame 6-6 11gm Sched
Non-Conference Opponents Record 25-22 17-17
Bowl Teams Faced 2 1
BCS Conference Opponents 2 1
BCS Conference W/L 16-9 5-6
Non-BCS Opponents 2 2
Non-BCS Opponents W/L 9-15 12-11
1-AA Teams faced 0 0

 Oklahoma's schedule was particcularly horrific and no reasonable observer would argue that Bowling Green saved the Sooners.  They went to the National Championship Game over Auburn because they started the season ranked number one and Auburn did not.  USC must be given credit here, as they played two road games against non-conferene foes, including hopping a plane 4,000 Miles away to play @ Virginia Tech at night, where they promptly showed that Reggie Bush was just as good a reciever as he was a running back.  I don't think it's insignificant that OU didn't play any bowl teams from the major conferences.

Finally, 2003

LSU Oklahoma
Non-Con Game 1 @ Washington 1-10 1-AA
Non-Con Game 2 La. Laf 4-7 Alabama 6-6
Non-Con Game 3 Tulana 5-6 Fresno State 9-3
Non-Con Game 4 La. Tech 5-6 @ UCLA 6-6
Non-Conference Opponents Record 15-29 21-15
Bowl Teams Faced 0 1
BCS Conference Opponents 1 2
BCS Conference W/L 1-10 12-12
Non-BCS Opponents 3 1
Non-BCS Opponents W/L 14-19 9-3
1-AA Teams faced 0 0

And 2003 LSU wins the prize for the weakest non-conference schedule for a BCS Championship game participant.  No bowl teams, and nobody that the Tigers weren't favored over by at least two touchdowns (and as many as 4 in the case of the Louisiana Junior Circuit).  Oklahoma on the other hand at least attempted a difficult schedule.  It's doubtful they knew that 'Bama would be on probation when they scheduled that game, or that UCLA would be in the midst of a down year as USC had begun to re-take Los Angeles just a few years prior. 


The bottom line here seems to be that playing tough non-conference games doesn't do much to sway voters, and any sway that those games might provide is heavily outweighed by the potential for a loss, be it in those games, or in conference games that players overlook because their schedule is too much of a grind and it's difficult to have maximum focus multiple times a year.  And speaking of grind, you might also have noticed that many of these teams stayed remarkably healthy throughout the season, including Oklahoma 2003, who didn't lose a single starter due to injury.  Again, you can rest starters in blowout wins over bad teams.  Injuries do not happen sitting on the bench. 

Another message here is to avoid 1-AA teams.  Voters seem to be averse to those who play the lower division schools.  The key is to shell out the extra $300K payment that it takes to secure a garbage 1A school over a 1AA school.  There's a good chance that the 1A school is actually worse than the 1A school, and the name recognition value it totally worth it. 

Finally, if an athletic director is confident that his team will rank highly to start the season, he should drop any road games against likely bowl teams from the BCS conferences.  That move is sure to be unpopular, but voters want to achieve self validation, and if their initial highly ranked teams are undefeated at season's end, they will not drop them, regardless of those school's scheduling cowardice. 

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