Nearly a decade has passed since the last time the NCAA adjusted the length of the college football season. It may be time to start considering it as an option once more.
While conferences and fans are bickering over whether or not conferences should be playing eight or nine conference games per year, it seems most are missing the best possible solution that could help solve all of the problems. No conference is going to see eye-to-eye on the best scheduling practice because every conference is unique in membership, strengths and weaknesses, geography and proximity within the conference. While there may be no perfect solution to the debate over eight or nine conference games in the uncertainty of the College Football Playoff selection process, there does seem to be one potential solution worth considering.
Expanding the regular season in college football to 14 games could silence all of the debate without the need to go to a 16-game schedule like the NFL.
The demand for a longer college football season was obvious when the power conferences opened up the realignment process and started making moves to increase to 14 members. The SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri to get to 14 and the ACC welcomed Syracuse and Pittsburgh to get there as well. Not to be outdone, the Big Ten invited Maryland and Rutgers — joining later this summer — to get to 14 members as well. One of the biggest issues with 14-member conferences is the limited conference scheduling available in a 12-game regular season. With 12 games total, eight or nine games are locked into conference play, and six of those games are tied up in division games tat have to be played. This leaves just two games to work with to balance out the conference schedule, which leads to concerns over the fairness of the conference schedule on an annual basis.
LSU Athletics Director Joe Alleva was vocal with his concerns about the SEC’s decision to keep an eight-game conference schedule. LSU is paired up with Florida on an annual basis. Alabama is matched up with Tennessee. Ole Miss gets Vanderbilt. Mississippi State gets Kentucky. Part of the reason for these protected crossovers is to preserve some historic rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia, but it ends up giving some schools, such as LSU and Florida, a raw deal in the process. Sure, it makes for more entertaining and attractive games for fans (and more importantly, television partners), but why should one school be locked into a potentially more challenging schedule year in and year out while another team in the same division is handed a likely win at the same time? If only division games counted it would be a different story, but games against the other division count just as much as those within a division. That creates an internal scheduling conflict regardless of playing eight or nine conference games, but it could be eased if the season was extended and allowed for one or two more division games.
When Nebraska joined the Big Ten in 2011 the conference set-up divisions for the first time in conference history, matching one division member with a school from the other division in permanent crossover rivalries protected on the conference schedule. The move was necessary to keep most people happy, most notably fans of Ohio State and Michigan. Nebraska was given Penn State as a protected crossover rival, the two schools representing the far reach of the conference but also bringing a bit of a national recognition to the conference given the history of the programs. All things considered, it was a good fit for the entire conference.
Now, with the Big Ten moving to 14 members with the additions of Maryland and Rutgers the Big Ten has scrapped the protected crossover match-ups, realigned the divisions and no longer guarantees teams in the west division to be featured in the newly acquired east coast markets, even once the conference expands to nine-games starting in 2016. If the regular season were to expand to 14 games, then the Big Ten could move to a 10-game conference schedule and get more of the conference’s western teams to play in front of more eastern audiences. Afterall, what is the point of having those markets to use if you do not take full advantage of them?
With a 14-game regular season a power conference could hold as many as 10 conference games, require a non-conference game against a school from another power conference and still have three games to spare to boost the overall win total or strength of schedule. Scheduling seven or eight home games would figure to be easy enough as well, with a 10-game conference schedule guaranteeing five home games right from the start.
Is it a perfect solution? Of course not. There are flaws in just about any decision that can be made in college football. But what fans are going to turn down an opportunity to watch two more college football games per season? Probably nobody. Sure, it would rewrite the record books in a short time and concerns about more games will spark concern over safety and so on, but if there is money to be made (and there would be money to be made through extra home games and rising television and media rights deals), then there would likely be support and interest worth recognizing.
College football has evolved. Now it is time for the schedule to do the same.