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FSU's Search For An Opponent: Scheduling To Maximize Under The BCS System

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 29: Coach Jimbo Fisher of the Florida State Seminoles celebrates a bowl victory over Notre Dame.  Bowl games, where non-conference victories really matter. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 29: Coach Jimbo Fisher of the Florida State Seminoles celebrates a bowl victory over Notre Dame. Bowl games, where non-conference victories really matter. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
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West Virginia's cancellation of its 2012 game at Florida State has left a gaping hole in the Seminoles' upcoming schedule. On short notice, FSU's Athletic Director Randy Spetman has apparently reached out to Oklahoma, USC, the 1972 Miami Dolphins, and the cast of The Longest Yard remake to fill this void and has been turned down by just about everybody. Has the difficulty in finding a top tier opponent become a blessing in disguise for Seminoles fans? In a way, probably so. If the Athletic Department is serious about playing an Oklahoma or Boise State, they might have been saved from a huge scheduling mistake. Now I don't really need to explain to Tomahawk Nation readers why scheduling a top level BCS opponent would be a ridiculous idea, but a quick scan of other Nole-related websites in the two weeks since the cancellation shows that a lot of Nole fans have unrealistic expectations when it comes to scheduling. Since everyone loves a good dead horse beating, I figured we'd take a look at how FSU should play this situation going forward.

Let's play a quick game of College Football trivia, shall we? What do the following three things have in common?

"We'll play anyone, anytime, anywhere."

"He's not just a successful coach, he's the King of the Road."

"Clemson just won a major bowl!!"

If you answered "They haven't been said since the 80s" then you are absolutely correct.

There was a time in Florida State's history when it made sense to play marquee opponents on a week to week basis. Florida State was a younger program without a record of success and needed to prove itself on a national stage to gain credibility and respect. Keep in mind that these were also the days before FSU had joined the ACC. The Seminoles simply had to schedule nationally recognized opponents because they didn't have a conference schedule to fall back on. But in 2012, Florida State really doesn't have anything more to prove as a program. High preseason rankings in the past decade despite poor on-field performance is just one indicator of the level of respect the Noles have among the media and coaches (and since they're the ones voting for national championships, they're the ones that matter).

For those of you who read the Tomahawk Nation preseason magazine, you'll remember my discussion of why strength of schedule isn't that important in the current BCS landscape (you can find it somewhere I'm sure, maybe we'll post the full article here sometime in the future). Strength of schedule is only a minor component of the computer rankings in the BCS formula and historically has not had a strong correlation with the teams ranked at the top of the polls. Human voters, and to some extent even the computer rankings, value overall record much more than quality of opponent. In the current climate, it is better to beat bad teams than it is to lose to good ones. Until the system is changed, i.e. the computer polls are adjusted and given more weight compared to the fickle human voters, there is little incentive to over-schedule yourself as a team.

Take the 2011 LSU Tigers for example. It took an incredible amount of talent, skill, and LUCK to get through the regular season unscathed. LSU beat three teams who won BCS bowls in addition to a typically difficult conference schedule. After all was said and done, what did the Tigers have to show for it? Nothing. What LSU did last season was highly inadvisable and, in the end, didn't actually benefit them at all. They don't give out trophies for tough schedules.

Strength of schedule simply has not been the deciding factor in the majority of seasons since the current rules were adopted.

Year Team Rank Wins Losses SOS Average 2nd Place SOS Average
2006 Michigan 3 11 1 16 15
2007 Va Tech 3 11 2 39 40
2007 Oklahoma 4 11 2 46 40
2008 Texas 3 11 1 6 20
2009 Cincy 3 12 0 46 47
2011 Oklahoma State 3 11 1 4 16

Under the current format, four of the six BCS-conference teams that finished outside the national championship game with the same number, or fewer, losses as the second place team have had better strength of schedule averages than the second place team (using an average of the BCS computers' strength of schedule rankings). Notice that even last season, Oklahoma State had a more difficult schedule (according to the rankings that matter) than Alabama, yet it was still left out of the title game. Something other than schedule strength kept these teams from the title (some might suggest SEC bias, the effectiveness of groveling head coaches, etc). Teams simply do not need to play ridiculously difficult schedules in order to make it to major bowl games.

After the jump, we'll take a look at how this applies to Florida State and the vacancy in the upcoming schedule.

Maximizing the success of the FSU football program means two things: generating revenue and fielding successful teams.

Smart scheduling increases the likelihood of meeting each of these goals. Smart scheduling is identified by reducing the number of true road games, reducing the potential for significant injuries that affect the overall quality of the team, and limiting the number of losable games as much as possible. Occasional major non-conference matchups can additionally generate national interest and be helpful for the brand, as long as they are scheduled judiciously.

Florida State should look to schedule a team that will not significantly threaten its chances of meeting its goals for the 2012 season. Why run a 110 meter hurdle race when everyone else is running a sprint? Florida State already plays two non-conference BCS opponents in the 2012 season. Adding a third challenging opponent from a BCS conference significantly harms the team's chances of winning the ACC and making a BCS bowl, probably the foremost goal of the program in any season. There's a real chance the Noles could make a run next season, wouldn't the average fan rather see his/her team play another BCS team in Miami in January 2013 than play them in September in Tallahassee? It's obviously not an either/or situation, but would you willfully reduce your chances of seeing your team play in the Orange Bowl or championship game?

The most important thing for FSU to do is to ensure that whatever opponent it schedules in 2012 will not demand a home game in 2013. FSU is already scheduled for five road games in 2013, including trips to Clemson, Atlanta, and Gainesville. Another road game would mean only six home games this season which would sacrifice a ton of potential revenue, alienate local businesses, and reduce FSU's advantages in what looks to be a rebuilding season (FSU could lose half of its two-deep rotation). The potential vacancy in the 2013 season left by West Virginia must be filled by a team that will travel to Tallahassee, this is simply the way major college football is played in the current climate.

Here is a list of all of the Big 6 teams who played 2 BCS caliber (BCS conferences+Boise State+Notre Dame) opponents in their non-conference schedule in 2011: Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Cincy, UCONN, Pitt, USF, Syracuse, West Virginia, Ohio State, Stanford, USC, Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, UNC, and Wake Forest. That is 21 out of 66 BCS teams (67% of these teams come from the Big East and ACC... I think those conferences are well aware of their national reputation). How many of these teams played 3 BCS caliber opponents, like some are suggesting FSU should do in the 2012 season? Only Pitt, USC, Miami, and Wake Forest. Why should Florida State try to do something with its schedule that only 4 other teams did last season? FSU should play by the same rules as everybody else.

How many Big Six teams played only 6 true home games in 2011? Mississippi State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati, Louisville, Northwestern, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah, Washington State, Boston College, and Virginia Tech. Florida State needs to be smart and play by the same rules as the rest of the country.

"Smart scheduling" when applied to Florida State would look something like the following approach:

  1. Keep the rivalry with Florida- This one is obvious for so many reasons. Tradition, recruiting, and national prominence to name a few. FSU-UF is the premier non-conference rivalry in all of college football and will traditionally be enough to satisfy national pundits who want a team with a marquee non-conference victory. Additionally, the timing of the game confers an extra benefit on the winner.
  2. In years that FSU plays the top Coastal division squads, schedule light- When FSU is matched with one of the ACC's Tech schools (or whoever rises to the top in the future), there really isn't much incentive to schedule additional difficult non-conference games. FSU will already play Miami and Florida, in addition to Clemson and at least one more quality Atlantic division rival every season. Playing the top teams from the other division will be more than enough to satisfy BCS pollsters as long as the team is winning. And don't forget a quality opponent in the BCS championship game.
  3. Schedule no more than one additional BCS conference opponent- Middle of the road BCS schools can enhance the schedule when the conference slate is weak. However, FSU should never schedule top tier non-conference opponents if it is looking to maximize its chances at major bowls (these games serve a particular purpose, but they do not help reach the BCS). Home and home series with BCS caliber opponents should only be scheduled in seasons when FSU plays the weaker members of the Coastal division.
  4. Judiciously schedule occasional big time non-conference games- There's no denying that these games can generate pre-season excitement and can energize a fanbase if you win. However, matchups like the recent home and home with Oklahoma should only be scheduled when FSU faces weak Coastal division opponents and non-conference cupcakes. These types of games will be less of a fixture when the ACC moves to a 9 game conference schedule.

These steps will maximize the possibilities of making BCS bowls both as ACC champions and as an at-large team. Virginia Tech used a much more extreme version of this approach, scheduling zero bowl teams from BCS conferences, and became the ACC's first at-large team in the history of the BCS.

FSU's Athletic Department knows this is the optimum strategy for playing in BCS games and making money. I fully believe that the current discussion in the media is simply to put Florida State in the best position for a future lawsuit against West Virginia. Regardless, if the current reports are true, Florida State might not have much of a choice but to schedule another cupcake. BCS schools are not going to agree to travel to Tallahassee with no reciprocation. Teams like Middle Tennessee State and UL-Lafayette are rumored to already have said no to the Noles' offers. Florida State might be backed into a corner with the 2012 schedule, but it might turn out to be the best possible position for the program. With improved OL play, development from EJ Manuel and a little injury luck, 2012 could be a very special year for the Seminoles. Spetman and Bonasorte simply must put the team in a position to excel in the upcoming year.

Starting in either 2013 or 2014 the ACC will begin playing nine conference games. There is simply no advantage in playing nine ACC teams, Florida, AND another difficult non-conference game. Additionally, when the conference schedule adjustments are made, Florida State administrators must use whatever influence they have to ensure that the seasons FSU plays five conference road games are when UF travels to Tallahassee. Having seven home games each season is simply a must for this program. Hopefully the Athletic Department recognizes these facts when scheduling in the future.

*The views expressed in the following column may not necessarily reflect the entirety of the Tomahawk Nation staff, but they should (jk... maybe).