For Argument's Sake

We've all heard the question before; we've seen it discussed on television, in newspapers, and at work. If you look at the right time of year, it's everywhere. We've all gotten involved with it ourselves, and surely we will again. It's the same question, every season: Which college football conference is the best?

The question generally lingers throughout the fall, and it inevitably rises to a head as the bowl season approaches. Its answer, however, never comes definitively. Instead the annual question mostly leads to unsubstantiated and circular arguments that eventually boil down into little more than regionalized pissing contests.

The last time I remember participating in the argument was during the buildup to the 2005 National Championship game between USC and Oklahoma. My entrance into the argument wasn't even intentional; it was simply unavoidable.

A few coworkers and I were talking about who we thought would win the upcoming championship, and I offered my opinion, saying that I thought USC looked too powerful for even Oklahoma's vaunted defense.

No sooner had I finished speaking, than had my coworkers conferred amongst themselves, taken a vote, and gladly returned my two cents to me. Now, I am from Texas, in the heart of Big 12 country, and, to say the least, my coworkers held their local allegiances deeply. Our discussion over the impending National Championship quickly became an argument over the level of play in the Big 12 and Pac 10.

They said the teams out West were soft and didn't play any defense; I said it just seemed to be a different style of play, not intrinsically better or worse. They said the Pac 10 only had one or two legitimate teams in it; I said that the Pac 10 was underrated and that the Big 12 seemed pretty top-heavy too that year. They said Oklahoma would out-muscle and out-grind the kids from Southern California; I said Southern Cal was too fast. They said the Sooners would take it, hands down; I said, "We'll see."

But, who argued what, and who eventually won the game isn't even important. It doesn't matter that USC went on to annihilate OU and its Big 12 playing style. This story isn't told to make me look smart and my coworkers dumb. Simply, I cannot really take credit for being right, and they can't be blamed for being wrong. In essence, we were all just arguing what we felt; no one's claims had much basis, and really no one could tell who was informed and who wasn't. For all I knew the Big 12 really did have a defensive style that would wear a Pac 10 team out. Maybe the Pac 10 really was that much weaker.

The point is no one knew, because the conferences wouldn't allow us to know. Prior to that game, Big 12 and Pac 10 schools had played each other a grand total of three times during the season. Washington State lost to Colorado in the second week of the season, and a week later Oklahoma beat Oregon in Norman, while Arizona State manhandled Iowa State.

Three games, 2-1 result, not a lot to go by.

And here's the larger issue. Beyond that my coworkers and I didn't really know what we were talking about, two of college football's preeminent conferences had only scheduled three games against each other that season. Despite the fact that between these conferences, they had 88 non-conference games to play, (the Pac 10 season was only 8 games then), they played only three against each other.

But this is not simple Big 12 versus Pac 10 disinterest.

In what is a quickly growing trend in college football, these power conferences were simply busy scheduling mid-majors and below to help fatten up their overall records, and to ease the slide into conference play. This practice is by no means limited to the Big 12 and Pac 10, and it certainly is not a 2004 anomaly.

To learn more, I have recently researched the non-conferences schedules for the teams within the seven BCS chosen conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac 10, and SEC) for the upcoming season, and the findings are less than encouraging.

Here's a rundown of the 2006 non-conference schedules for the six power conferences:

Altogether, there will be 220 non-conferences games played this season, which feature at least one team from a BCS conference. Of these 220 games, only 39 feature match-ups wherein both schools are from one of the six power conferences. If you add the 9 games to be played against independent Notre Dame (the only other school with special BCS privileges), then only 48 of 220 the non-conference games are between schools within college football's power ranks. That's barely more than one-in-every-five games.

To compare, the MAC alone gets to play 32 games against BCS conference opponents, and Conference USA plays another 25. Added together, this means that BCS teams will play nine more non-conference games against teams from these two conferences than they will against each other. Even more telling, there are 45 games next year that pit power schools against foes from Division I-AA. That's right, the BCS schools are almost equally likely to play teams from a lower division , as they are to play each other out of conference. In fact, roughly 70 percent (45 out of 65) of BCS conference teams have scheduled a game against a Division I-AA opponent for the upcoming season. The Big 12 appears to be the worst offender for the upcoming season, with only 11 out of its 48 non-conference opponents coming from another power conference. Coincidentally, the Big 12 schools scheduled exactly 11 Division 1AA opponents as well. (Oklahoma is the only school in the conference whose non-conference games all come from Division I-A.) The Big 12 also features three schools (Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech) that did not manage to schedule a single school from another BCS conference. My award for least challenging non-conference schedule of any single school happens to go to Texas A&M as well. Though in recent years the Aggies have scheduled non-conference challenges like Virginia Tech, Clemson, and Pittsburgh, next year the Farmers will play Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana Tech, Army, and Division 1-AA Citadel.

On the flipside, though it's hard to pick a winner from these conferences, The Big East can boast that every one of its schools plays at least two BCS schools out of conference, but to be fair, the Big East schools do play five non-conference games apiece, compared to most schools' four. I also suspect that some of their scheduling weight comes from their opponents' perceptions of the Big East as the weakest major conference, however the Big East's non-conference lineup certainly exceeds the other five conferences. The individual award for strongest non-conference schedule has to go to USC. With only three non-conference games, Southern California plays Arkansas, Nebraska, and Notre Dame. Ohio State and Texas get kudos for the second half of their non-conference home and home series, however Southern Cal appears to have done the most with its available non-conference games.

So what does all this mean?

Well besides the fact that we can't count on much help in determining what conference is the best through head-to-head match-ups, more importantly this is sobering news to a college football fan. Turn on the television early in the season and you can bet you'll find your fair share of BCS powerhouses playing against assorted directionally-named schools from conferences that you can hardly even identify. Looking for an out-of-conference game between two of college's upper echelon? Good luck.

Fans certainly don't like this watering down of competition, sponsors can't want it, and you know that broadcasting networks wish it were different.

So how do we fix it?

Well, I actually have a relatively simple solution that, while not quite turning the college football schedule into one of my dreams, could go a long way to helping alleviate the increasingly depressing state of non-conference schedules.

To borrow a phrase from everyone's favorite sports commissioner Bud Selig, I say it's time for college football to introduce interleague play.

The logistics of it are simple, really. With the current format of college football, all that it would take to ensure that these schools play each other out of conference is the enforcement of the Bowl Championship Series. In essence, the BCS could lay down non-conference guidelines that needed to be followed in order for a conference and school to maintain its place within the BCS power structure. I've given this quite a bit of thought, and the guidelines could be rather simple, really.

First, I would mandate a 12-game season. All of the schools in these conferences seek out a 12-game season anyway, and mandating it is a simple way to make sure all of the schools are on the same playing field for the rules that will follow. As an added bonus, Notre Dame fans would get to ensure that the Irish stick with their current trend of playing 12 games.

Now to the meat of my proposal.

All of the teams within the BCS conferences should be required to play at least 10 games against BCS opponents. This means that in most conferences, which feature eight in-conference games, teams will need to play two BCS opponents out of conference each. For the Pac 10 and its nine-game conference schedules, the teams only need to play one BCS opponent out of conference, and in the Big East they will need to play three, as their conference schedules are only seven games. There may be some complaints at first over the number of out-of-conference requirements, but as all BCS schools are equal under the eyes of God, the standard rule of ten BCS opponents per season, should suffice no where they come from.

Since Notre Dame too holds a special place in the BCS contract, it will be held to roughly the same standards. Like everyone else, the Irish would have to play 10 of 12 games against fellow BCS schools, and games against the Irish would count for other teams quotas as well. Overall Notre Dame's schedule would encounter very little change thanks to the new rules, although there would be no more three service-academy seasons in the foreseeable future.

Additionally, under the new guidelines, Division I-AA opponents should be limited. It is becoming frankly absurd how many BCS schools play teams from the lower division, and the trend really should be quelled. I wouldn't leave the I-AA teams out altogether, but rather, conferences would only be allowed three games total against them per year, and no team would be allowed to play a I-AA opponent more than once every three years. Conferences could dictate a rotation for their schools, though it would be far more entertaining to leave it to the schools themselves to fight over who gets the three allotments on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Who wouldn't love to watch as Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer waged an all-out bidding war over the rights to schedule Eastern Carolina with the SEC's third I-AA allotment. Exactly, everyone would. Again Notre Dame would be allowed to schedule a I-AA opponent, but only once every three years, and I certainly hope that the Irish would fire whatever athletic director first tried to schedule that.

Enforcement of these rules would be simple, with violations resulting in a team being suspended from it's conference's BCS privileges for that year, and thus having to qualify for the bowls the same way that Central Michigan or North Texas would have to. Too numerous violations within a single conference could have the entire conference suspended, and too frequent violations could result in more prolonged penalties.

In all, this proposed plan would ensure a minimum of 78 non-conference match-ups between BCS teams, a sizeable increase from the 48 for the upcoming season. More importantly, much like in interleague baseball, the extra emphasis on inter-conference competition could likely lead to some new and interesting rivalries. At its best, a mandate of this sort could result even in rivalries between entire conferences. Much like the annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge in college basketball, conferences could set aside a few years to schedule an entire slate of match-ups between their respective schools. I can only imagine how exciting the start of the college football season would be if it meant that I had an entire Cross-Conference Showdown week to look forward to.

In the end, all of this inter-conference competition likely wouldn't result in much more enlightening arguments over conference power at the office, but it certainly would make the climb to that inevitable question a lot more fun to watch.

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