How a 10-game conference schedule would improve college football

How a 10-game conference schedule would improve college football

A 10-game conference schedule for the SEC, Big 12, ACC and Big Ten would make things much easier for the College Football Playoff committee.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Feb 11, 2024, 6:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Feb 11, 2024, 6:00am CST

(Berry Tramel produces two newsletters every week. To receive his newsletters, go here.)The Southeastern Conference still hasn’t decided whether its future football schedules will consist of eight or nine games. 

Chances are, the SEC will wait on the 2024 playoff field to be selected, to see how SEC teams will be treated in the league’s first year with 16 members, each playing eight league games.

Choosing eight is a sign that the SEC wants to avoid teams playing their way out of the field, as opposed to teams with nine conference games playing their way in.

And while it’s none of Mike Gundy’s business, he has a solution to the SEC logjam. Play 10 conference games.

Gundy would like to see all four power conferences play 10 league games.

“If you could get a bipartisan agreement amongst the conferences, which now would be the Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and SEC, that we’re going to play 10 conference games, we all are, it would benefit everybody,” Gundy said.

Gundy, of course, advocated for an 11-game Big 12 schedule, back when the conference was a dozen teams. He’s also been fine with a variety of one-sided non-conference games, so let’s not pin a blue ribbon on his Pistol Pete logo just yet.

The 10-game conference schedule is a longshot. The U.S. House of Representatives has more trust across the aisle than does the pirate ship of power conferences, where an arm around the shoulder often is precursor to a shank in the back. It’s a wonder we can get the leagues to agree on the shape of a gridiron.

But a 10-game conference would do wonders for a very important organization: the College Football Playoff committee.

The CFP committee is undergoing an extreme makeover. The committee has a new chairman, in Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel, and six new members: Washington State athletic director Patrick Chun, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades, Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek, Virginia athletic director Carla Williams, former Arizona State all-American Randall McDaniel and retired Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.

Solid array of decision-makers as far as I know. And brave. Very brave.

The new playoff committee will have a much more difficult job than in years past. Heck, hardly ever has the committee had a real decision to make.

2023 was an outlier, of course, when Sophie’s Choice matched 13-0 Florida State vs. 12-1 Alabama.

The committee picked Bama and was skewered by the crowd that prefers push-button selections, based solely on record. 

But no matter how you come down on the Chief Osceola/Rammer Jammer debate, it was a simple decision.

A or B. Mountains or ocean. Tomato tamato. Boxers or briefs. 

As Yogi Berra said, when you get to a fork in the road, take it. Make a decision and make it the right one.

Picking four teams for a playoff usually was easy by season’s end. Heck, the order of teams fell in place most years. The seedings discussion rarely needed more than five minutes.

But now the 12-team playoff arrives, which means the decision-making multiplies like Tribbles aboard the Starship Enterprise.

The top four seeds won’t necessarily be what the committee considers the top four teams, since seeds 1-4 are reserved for conference champions. 

Seeds 5-8 are paramount, because to those blessed programs come playoff home games. The only cataclysmic decision in years past has been the difference between four and five. Now, the difference between eight and nine, or even seven and 10, will be but a sliver of margin but will come with massive ramifications.

The difference between Ole Miss at Wisconsin or Wisconsin at Ole Miss for a mid-December playoff game is the difference in perhaps 50 degrees. In other words, the difference in winning the game.

And the committee will be saddled with making decisions based on data that is no better, and potentially even worse, than the data of seasons past.

Each team in the new-look Big 12 will play 60 percent of its conference mates (nine of 15 other members). That’s a virtual round-robin compared to some.

The SEC schools will play 53.3 percent (eight of 15 other members). The Big Ten members will play 52.9 percent (nine of 17). The Atlantic Coast Conference teams will play 50 percent (eight of 16).

Compare that to 2022, when those percentages were Big 12 100 percent, Pac-12 81.8 percent, Big Ten 69.2 percent, and SEC and ACC 61.5 percent each.

The playoff committee would have a devil of a time just seeding some of these teams intra-conferences, they’ve gotten so big,  much less now trying to sort how the Big 12 runnerup compares to the Big Ten’s No. 4 team, or how the ACC runnerup compares to an SEC team that finished off the medal stand.

But the more real games played, the more data to make informed decisions. 

And 10-game league schedules would indeed mean more real games.

Gundy sees the 10-game schedule as good for business — better television ratings, better success at the box office.

The former absolutely is true; the latter, maybe. Fans long have ponied up for non-conference mismatches, so when Western Carolina or Missouri State appear on the schedule, it’s the paying public’s own fault.

And at least as far as ESPN is concerned, television so far has not been willing to up the ante to play for extra conference games. They’ll hold. So an OU replacing Temple with Florida, or Georgia replacing Massachusetts with Texas A&M, would not mean more money, at least not now, for SEC schools.

Which is a pity. Trying to shame teams into playing better non-conference schedules finally was starting to work. Then came major conference realignment, and even proud programs, like OU, are slinking back into the garden of exhibitions.

Playing more conference games would counter that but is a hard sell. It would cut into home games, which probably makes it a non-starter. Some SEC and ACC teams play eight home games in certain seasons. The idea of playing six in some seasons would cause convulsions on some campuses.

The idea of exposure to more defeats would send even more coaches fleeing. They’re already having to work for their exorbitant salaries; having to earn most of their victories might be a bridge too far.

But man, a 10-game conference schedule be great for the playoff committee. More clarity between teams in the same conference. Potentially more clarity between teams in other leagues. And something approaching scheduling equitability, though the SEC and Big Ten would argue, quite accurately, that their roads are much tougher.

Apples to apples, though, would help the committee make decisions. A 10-2 Kansas vs. a 9-3 Missouri is a lot easier to gauge if one of the teams didn’t play three rumdums. Same with a 9-3 Wisconsin vs. a 10-2 North Carolina.

“We would have (scheduling) parity amongst the conferences, and when we decide who makes the playoffs, we can’t say, ‘Well, they played eight, three teams that were way below their level, and this conference played nine, and they played two Power Fives,’” Gundy said. “And it would create some parity and it would help at the end of the season.”

Gundy is right. A 10-game conference schedule would be great for college football. But it won’t happen. College football doesn’t do much anymore that makes itself great.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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