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True nonconference road games prove hazardous to College Football Playoff hopes

August 10,2018 23:17

In the College Football Playoff era, scheduling might be more important than ever before. It's not just about winning every game these days; it's about who you beat along the way, and often, who you lose to as well. It's a topic that's come up quite a ...and more »


In the College Football Playoff era, scheduling might be more important than ever before. It's not just about winning every game these days; it's about who you beat along the way, and often, who you lose to as well. It's a topic that's come up quite a bit this summer among coaches from the different Power Five leagues. Talk to a coach from the Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12, and there's a good chance they'll tell you they believe every Power Five conference should play a nine-game conference schedule. Talk to a coach in the ACC or SEC, and most will tell you they're just fine playing eight.
Is it a coincidence that the three Power Five conferences that play a nine-game conference schedule are the only three conferences to miss the CFP at least once? Statistically, it's too soon to tell, but my gut tells me it's not.
But nonconference schedules can mean just as much -- if not more -- as a conference schedule when it comes to building a resume. On Thursday, we saw LSU and Florida State will reportedly take part in a two-game series to be played in 2022 and 2023, with the games being played in New Orleans and Orlando. The fact that -- per the usual -- these games were being played at neutral sites rather than on campus disappointed me, but it also gave me an idea.
I decided to look into which teams, and by extension conferences, play more true road nonconference games than others during the CFP Era. I believed that I could find another correlation between reaching the playoff and nonconference schedules like there seems to be between eight and nine-game conference schedules. What I learned was both expected and slightly less so. 
We'll start with a look at how things break down by conference. Now, if you're wondering what the parameters are for a true nonconference road game, they're pretty straightforward: You played a nonconference game on somebody else's campus at their home stadium.
Here's how it looks by conference.

ACC

65

4.64

Big 12

33

3.30

Big Ten

41

2.93

Pac-12

41

3.42

SEC

34

2.43

I wish I could say I was surprised by the SEC's results, but I wasn't. The only conference to play fewer nonconference road games than the SEC was the Big 12, which has 33 compared to the SEC's 34. Of course, the Big 12 has four fewer teams than the SEC. When it comes to average per school, the SEC is at 2.43 nonconference road games per school with the next lowest number being the Big Ten's 2.93 nonconference road games per school.
What surprised me was seeing the ACC's total. The ACC has played 65 such games in the last four seasons, which is 24 more than the nearest Power Five conference with both the Big Ten and Pac-12 having played 41. The average ACC school has played 4.64 of the games, and the next highest average number is the Pac-12's 3.42.
It was surprising to see that the SEC and ACC -- the two conferences to qualify for the CFP every season -- played the fewest and most nonconference road games on average, respectively.
Next, I took a look at how things break down by individual teams. Among the 64 Power Five schools, there have been a total of 214 road nonconference games played over the last four seasons. That breaks down to an average of 3.34 games per Power Five school. In that same time span, there have been nine schools to be selected to participate in the College Football Playoff, with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma being chosen multiple times. Those nine schools have combined for a total of 24 road nonconference games, or an average of 2.67 games per school.
That number is skewed a bit by Alabama, however.

Alabama

0

0

Clemson

4

1

Florida State

3

0.75

Georgia

3

0.75

Michigan State

3

0.75

Ohio State

2

0.50

Oklahoma

3

0.75

Oregon

3

0.75

Washington

3

0.75

Since 2014, Alabama is the only Power Five school that hasn't played a single road nonconference game. In fact, Alabama hasn't played a true road game outside the SEC since a 2011 win over Penn State in Happy Valley. Furthermore, since Nick Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, the Tide have only played two such games (2011 at Penn State, 2010 at Duke), and odds are both of those games were previously slotted on the schedule when Saban took over. It's pretty clear what Saban's scheduling strategy is: he'll play Power Five teams outside Tuscaloosa but at neutral sites. Whether you think that's the smart way or the cowardly way to do things probably depends on what you think of Alabama, and which team you choose to root for.
As for the rest of the CFP teams, I was surprised to see that Clemson was the only one of the nine to have played four games, making the Tigers the only CFP team to play more than the national average. Every other playoff qualifier except Alabama (none) and Ohio State (two) have played three in that time span.
Of course, I feel it's necessary to point out that two of Clemson's four games are part of its annual rivalry with South Carolina, but the other two have come against Georgia and Auburn. Still, it appears that even Clemson may be reconsidering its strategy despite the success it had these last four seasons.
Looking at Clemson's future schedules, it has a road game against Texas A&M in 2018. After this season, however, the only road nonconference games the Tigers currently have scheduled are road games against South Carolina every other season, as well as trips to South Bend in 2020, 2022, 2028 and 2034. Those four Notre Dame games are all part of the ACC's scheduling contract with the Irish. When it comes to scheduling nonconference road games on its own, it appears Clemson may be following Nick Saban and Alabama's strategy.
And who could blame them?
Unfortunately, I think it's a pattern we'll see continue nationally as the College Football Playoff era moves forward. We'll continue to see teams schedule series like the one between LSU and Florida State, but they'll continue to set them at neutral sites. The strategy is proving to be a boon for programs not just from a financial standpoint, but from a playoff resume angle as well.

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