College football schedule takeaways: SEC additions, the Notre Dame experiment and more

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Monday, August 17, 2020

Under a typical college football timeline, the season would be within arm's reach right now. Games were originally scheduled to begin on Aug. 29's Week 0, with Notre Dame vs. Navy in Dublin as the headliner. Under normal circumstances, we'd be excitedly pointing out, "That's next week!"

Instead, the coronavirus and its extended effects have rendered any concept of a normal timeline moot. The NBA is getting ready to start the playoffs that typically begin in April, the Kentucky Derby will run in September, the Masters will tee off in November and the next college football season could theoretically kick off in either mid-September, January or, well, next September. It might not exist, it might last three months or -- depending on how things play out -- it might last about seven months.

There's no telling what the coming weeks will offer, but we still have a fall schedule to talk about until we don't. So let's hurry up and talk about it!

(And if you're among the many believers that the fall schedule is destined for cancellation in the coming weeks, then come with me and gaze upon it like a piece of art. What does it tell us about the artist's use of space and balance? What is your first reaction to the piece? Et cetera. We can still learn things.)

I'm not saying the SEC tried to make sure its champion ends up with a great record and doesn't accidentally get spurned by the College Football Playoff committee for going 8-3 or something ...

I'm just saying that if that was the goal, giving Alabama the conference's eighth-best (Kentucky) and 12th-best (Missouri) teams per SP+ for its two bonus games, giving LSU its 12th- and 14th-best (Vanderbilt), giving Georgia its 11th- (Mississippi State) and 13th-best (Arkansas) and giving Florida its 13th-best team would be a pretty perfect way to go about it.

The SEC's choice of additions certainly made sense from a CFP standpoint -- again, I'm not accusing anyone of anything,(even if others are) -- but wow, did it make for some ridiculously hard schedules for others.

Missouri's projected record just went from 6-6 before the scheduling changes to 3-7 after, but the Tigers got off easy. Arkansas is now scheduled to play the teams ranked first, fourth, sixth, seventh, 10th, 11th and 19th in the February SP+ rankings (Mizzou at least misses Nos. 10-11); Sam Pittman's first Hogs squad is a projected underdog of at least eight points in every game, while Vanderbilt is a projected underdog of at least 13 in every game. Mash those odds together, and there's about an almost 10% chance of these SEC schedules producing two 0-10 teams.

4-6 and 4-7 are the new 6-6

One fascinating subplot of large, conference-only schedules: The idea of what an average season is will shift pretty dramatically.

Look at a team like NC State. The Wolfpack are projected 62nd in SP+, almost directly in the middle of FBS, and using SP+, their original schedule produced an average of exactly 6.0 wins. They were taking shape as the most .500 team in the history of .500 teams. But the new 11-game schedule, which features two extra ACC foes and only one nonconference game (like many in the ACC, they scheduled Liberty), gives them an average record of 4-7.

On average, when I reran projected ACC, Big Ten and SEC records based on the new schedules -- and based on only a 1-point home-field advantage instead of the normal 2.5, which I'll explain below -- projected win totals decreased by an average 1.6 wins. That's to be expected when you replace a couple of tuneup games with conference battles, but think about how much that 6-6 benchmark has come to mean for a given coach's job security.

Assuming coaches will still be fired for disappointing performances if we get through this patchwork season, how much of an aesthetic difference will it make to fans and athletic directors if a team with bowl-eligibility goals under normal circumstances goes only 3-7 or 4-6 or 4-7? If, say, 10-game conference schedules were to become the norm down the line-- something a subsection of fans, writers and administrators has expressed a desire for -- would it result in more panicky firing decisions and further instability in a conference's middle class if something like a 6-6 record and bowl bid were less attainable?

Pods are the future

Despite the jarring shift in schedule strength, Missouri does now get to actually play LSU for just the second time since joining the SEC in 2012. (LSU still won't make its inaugural trip to Columbia until 2023, though.) Despite having been an SEC member for nearly a decade, Texas A&M still hasn't made a trip to Knoxville to play Tennessee, but the SEC's recent schedule additions mean that will change this fall.

Meanwhile, in the ACC, thanks to the arbitrary, non-geographical divisions it drew up years ago -- in part with the thought of creating annual Florida State-Miami title games (how'd that go?) -- the Atlantic Division's Wake Forest had played Boston College (775 miles away) every year since 2003 but had played North Carolina (82 miles away) only once since 2013, until the Demon Deacons and Tar Heels agreed to a "nonconference" battle last fall. In this period of redrawn schedules, however, Wake skips BC but plays North Carolina, Duke (83 miles) and NC State (105 miles), all in actual conference battles, for the first time since 2015.

This new scheduling quest is, in other words, reminding us of how great things could be if conferences scrapped divisions in favor of a pods model. I wrote about it last October. Most teams have only a small handful of true rivals they must play every year, and strapping teams with five or six permanent opponents (or, in the SEC's case, seven) means it can take forever to execute home-and-homes with teams from the opposite division.

A pods structure -- in which teams play only three (or so) permanent rivals, while the rest of the schedule rotates, and they reach the title game by finishing in the top two in the standings -- means a fairer and less arbitrary conference race and allows teams to play everyone in their conference more frequently. Win-win.

Are spring FBS vs. FCS games the future?

Follow me on this one.

  1. In the future, when something approaching normalcy has again been attained, basically every school left playing football is going to be looking to make up for all the massive revenue shortfalls that have beset schools during the pandemic.
  2. That could result in a push for larger conference slates or more high-profile, TV-friendly matchups between powers. But that would probably mean fewer buy games against FCS and lower-level FBS opponents. No big loss for the power schools, but a huge loss for the schools that depend on those games for revenue.
  3. One way to bridge that gap that delivers something for both sides: spring or preseason games against those FCS squads. This idea has been floating around on the internet for a while, and there might not be a better time to give it a shot. This concept has been common through the years in European soccer -- Bayern Munich will play a financially troubled minnow in the minnow's home stadium, sell the place out, and let the team keep all the gate receipts -- and it might be time to explore the concept.
  4. You don't think we'd enjoy something like an LSU-Southern game in Tiger Stadium in April (with Southern taking between half and all the revenue)? Florida State-Florida A&M? Rutgers-Princeton?

I bring this up here because, as my co-worker Sam Khan Jr. pointed out to me recently, we might see a trial run of the concept, only in reverse, this fall. Missouri State is still scheduled to play Oklahoma despite the fact that the Missouri Valley has postponed its season until the spring. The Southland Conference has, too, but Houston Baptist is still scheduled to play Texas Tech, and other Southland teams have expressed openness to the idea. If it proves worth it and doesn't cause logistical nightmares, this could be an impetus to try something similar in more normal times. It's time to be creative.

The Notre Dame experiment should be fun (and temporary)

In 1969, under Paul Dietzel, South Carolina went 6-0 in the ACC and won its first league title. Within a year, the Gamecocks said, "Bye, guys," choosing a life of independence over the binds of conference play.

In theory, Notre Dame could do the same thing even faster this fall.

I have to admit: The thought of Notre Dame joining a conference for a single season, winning it and then going independent again would make me laugh for a very long time. It probably won't happen since, last I checked, Notre Dame is temporarily joining the conference that has Clemson in it, but please allow me to dream for a moment about a funnier future.

Notre Dame indeed agreed to take on an ACC schedule and is eligible for the conference title game in 2020. My initial thoughts about this experiment:

  • The Irish's schedule got easier. While almost every Power 5 team's projected win percentage (per SP+) dropped after the removal of nonconference games, Notre Dame's actually improved from the original 0.744 (8.9 wins in 12 games) to 0.762 (8.4 in 11). The Irish went from playing three projected top-20 teams to two and from six top-50s to five. For the "they're too chicken to join a conference" crowd -- and yes, that crowd exists and represents itself frequently in my Twitter mentions -- this was not the best year for all this to go down.
  • Even if Notre Dame wins the ACC, I doubt the Irish are more likely to join permanently. Even if, in this altered reality, the league stuck with eight-game conference slates -- which would allow the Irish to at least keep scheduling Navy and USC every year and leave two slots open for everybody else -- this would still alter a lot of secondary Notre Dame rivalries. The Irish have played Stanford in 30 of the past 32 years and have it scheduled at least through 2024. They have Purdue lined up six times in the 2020s. Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Cal, Texas A&M, Arkansas ... they have a lot of interesting matchups scheduled with power programs from every region, and they've long tried to schedule with the entire nation in mind. It would take quite a shift in thinking -- or a significant financial upgrade -- to change that.

What this does to advanced stats

While plenty of fans and pundits have been rooting for every power conference to move to nine conference games (or more), I've always tried to tap the imaginary brake pedal on the topic. From the perspective of my own aesthetics, there is such a thing as too much homogeneity and too little variety. And from the perspective of my SP+ rankings, having more conference games means having less interconference connectivity. You want as much of that as possible to make sure the numbers understand the relationships and hierarchy among conferences.

Along with everything else, then, SP+ is going to be dealing with a new normal this fall.

  • Playing on your home field won't be that much of an advantage.When European soccer restarted this summer without fans in the stands, we found that while there was still a slight advantage derived from playing at home, it wasn't nearly as much of one. Since the stands will either be empty or mostly empty this fall, I'm likely going to drop the home-field adjustment down to 1 point instead of its normal 2.5. That could get adjusted as we go along and learn more, but that's where I'm probably starting.
  • We won't learn much of anything about conference strength. The ACC features only 15 nonconference games (one per team), and with three of them going to independent Liberty and two more, for now, going to FCS opponents, they offer almost no interconference reference points whatsoever. It will be a similar story with the Big 12, too. This means that the projected conference averages from the preseason SP+ projections will carry through for much of the season. Now, this won't have much of an effect on the week-to-week accuracy of SP+. It should get a pretty good read on each conference's strong and weak teams, after all. We just won't really know whether it's right or not about, say, the SEC's superiority, until whatever postseason we get. And even then, we'll only learn so much.

From the 'You take your wins where you can get them' file:

If there's a season, Louisiana Tech and UL Monroe will play each other!

To fill gaps created by cancellations, the Bulldogs and Warhawks agreed to play each other in Shreveport on Nov. 21. The teams are separated by only 37 miles and played 42 times over the latter half of the 20th century. They haven't played since 2000, though -- among other things, there's long been a belief that Tech wants to, shall we say, aim a bit higher for its rivalries -- and not only are they playing again, they're giving us the Independence Bowl to end all Independence Bowls.

Also great: the unexpected return of the Iron Skillet (SMU and TCU arranged to play on Sept. 12). There is positivity in the college football world, however brief it might last.

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