NFL Schedule?

Although much of the Big East men's 2005-06 conference basketball schedule was done to appease the television gods, it also will have an unintended consequence.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that the regular season Big East schedule was designed in accordance with the wishes of ESPN and ABC in mind. The TV mavens want good matchups or interesting storylines, and in many cases, they want them twice. As a result, many of top teams in the league will square off in home and home battles this year.

You have to look no further than West Virginia's home and home schedule to see that at play. The Mountaineers will battle Georgetown (like WVU, a fast-rising team with a patient offense), Pittsburgh (the hardwood version of the Backyard Brawl) and Cincinnati (homecoming for Bobby Huggins before he ran afoul of a) the law and b) Nancy Zimpher).

Other top schools have even tougher pairings Connecticut faces Louisville, Syracuse and Villanova – arguably the three best teams in the league other than the Huskies. The Cardinals get UConn and Nova twice, along with a local rivalry set with Cincinnati. And the Orange likewise have home and homes with the Huskies and Wildcats.

While these matchups make for good TV, they also could result in a side effect I'll call the NFL corollary. The relationship is based on the way the NFL does its scheduling, which at its heart does one thing – promote parity.

When the NFL schedule maker fires up his computer each year to make the schedule, it's a pretty simple matter. The worse a team's record was a year ago, the weaker its schedule is this year. A team that finished last in its division in 2004 enjoyed a much easier schedule than the team that won the division crown. Of course, games inside the division aren't affected, so some teams (say, NFC North members) have lighter going than, for instance, NFC East foes. Still, there's enough latitude to give the weaker teams from a year ago a much more favorable schedule.

That philosophy results in two things. First, it allows teams that finished poorly a year ago, but made some improvements over the offseason, to quickly vault into the playoff chase. It also puts more challenges in front of the top finishers from the prior season, who will now face the league's tougher slates.

While that's not the primary intent in the Big East's scheduling philosophy, it certainly figures to be one of the results. The teams at the top of the league will have more chances to absorb losses, as they square off against other top league foes. Conversely, those teams that aren't expected to be as strong will have a chance to make a dash for a postseason berth, because they don't have to face off against the conference powers.

Again, it doesn't take much searching to prove the corollary out. West Virginia doesn't face DePaul or Rutgers this year – two teams that will likely finish closer to the bottom of the standings. UConn also doesn't face either of those teams. Syracuse misses out on Marquette and Providence.

A quick look at the expected lower regions of the conference also supports the every-strengthening theorem. Rutgers doesn't play UConn or WVU, but gets Seton Hall and South Florida twice. USF gets the Pirates and Scarlet Knights twice, with Georgetown as its lone difficult home and home foe. The Pirates have St. John's as its toughest dual pairing. Providence doesn't play Syracuse or Villanova, but gets DePaul and Notre Dame in home and homes.

The end result of all of this might be more losses at the top of the conference, and fewer losses at the bottom, than expected. If that comes to pass, you can expect a number of the more shallow scribblers and analysts that cover the Big East to observe that the conference wasn't as good as expected, because there aren't any "dominant" teams. Of course, because you've read this, you'll be fully prepared to rebut their unfounded claims.

TEAM NFL
EFFECT
Connecticut 34
Villanova 28
Syracuse 30
Louisville 26
Cincinnati 23
West Virginia 20
Marquette 11
Georgetown 4
Pittsburgh 4
South Florida 1
Notre Dame 0
St. John's -1
Providence -4
DePaul -9
Seton Hall -14
Rutgers -17
To make it simple, I've created this ridiculously simple formula to measure the "NFL Effect" on each Big East team. Using the preseason conference coaches' poll as the yardstick, a team gets points for each team it plays twice, then subtracts points for each team it does not play. Points are determined by each team's predicted conference finish. Villanova, picked first, is worth 16 points, Connecticut 15, and so on down to South Florida (1).

For example, Connecticut plays Louisville, Syracuse and Villanova twice. That's 43 points. The Huskies don't play DePaul or Rutgers (9 points). So, UConn's NFL Effect is 34. The higher the number, the more pronounced the effect, and the more difficult the schedule. Get into negative numbers, the team has a decided scheduling advantage over the top tier of the league.

Of course, I don't mean to suggest that the NFL Corollary will accurately predict the finishing position of each team, or that it's a perfect power ranking. However, it likely will result in some teams (think St. John's or Georgetown) getting a couple more wins, and being higher in the Big East standings, than their relative strengths might suggest.


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