By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Developing a college football schedule is difficult enough, but it will get even trickier when the College Football Playoff system begins in 2014.
The top four teams will meet in a three-game playoff to determine a national champion. Those teams will be selected by some type of committee and it would seem that strength of schedule should be a major factor.
West Virginia Director of Athletics Oliver Luck, who was in Princeton on Wednesday for the WVU Coaches Caravan, knows just how tricky it can be to build a competitive, but reasonable non-conference slate around the nine Big 12 games that the Mountaineers play on an annual basis.
“Schedules get made in advance and we have to look our schedules as we go forward and see if we should be able to upgrade the quality of our opponents,” Luck said. “At the same time, the Big 12 is a grind. Kansas has struggled in football, but everybody else is pretty darn good and certainly gave us good games.
“We have to be a little bit careful where we won’t end up with 12 powerhouse games like an NFL schedule.”
Much of it is simply perception. Even though West Virginia must continue on with Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State in the Big 12, there will be critics who will point to non-conference games — such as FBS schools William & Mary and Georgia State this year — as a reason why the Mountaineers shouldn’t be included in the top 4.
It works the same with just about any school. Alabama has to play in the toughest league/division in the nation, but there are plenty of naysayers who point to the Crimson Tide usually playing two FCS foes each season.
“My sense is that all the so-called power top-5 conferences will be upgrading their out-of-conference schedules. Most conferences will be going to nine conference games and three out-of-conference games,” Luck said. “At some point there could be some policy where you can’t play (FCS) schools.
“I think there is a trend toward upgrading that out-of-conference schedule and I am starting to see that and hear that from talking to other AD’s. I think the good news is with a college playoff, you can lose a game, maybe even two games and still be among the best four in the country.”
That is especially true in the 14-team Southeastern Conference where many of its coaches are fighting a proposed move to nine conference games largely because of the difficulty of the regular league slate.
“The SEC is a tough conference and if I had to vote I would say they are number one,” Luck said. “It is a grind, having said that they have gone to 14 (teams) now. The more you have, the more that the chance there are a couple of games that may not be as difficult as playing Alabama or Florida or LSU.
“I don’t want to criticize their scheduling, they want to do it for a particular reason…I can understand why the SEC coaches feel that.”
It isn’t just the SEC. Nearly all the power conference teams have one or two games against ‘lesser’ opponents that are needed to fill the schedule. Yet, it can be a difficult proposition because the perception of a selection committee could be that a particular team made the non-league slate a little too easy. Luck has tried to improve the slate with the addition of Alabama in 2014 and Brigham Young two years later.
“If you are loading up the schedule with Alabama like we are next year, what if we beat Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma in the same season, that is the trifecta, but I do think we will see the out-of-conference schedules get a little a bit tougher and that is good news,” Luck said.
The move to the Big 12 costs West Virginia its rivalry game with Pittsburgh, and the Mountaineers only have Maryland remaining as a natural non-league rival, and that could end when the Terrapins may the questionable move to the Big 10.
“I would love to get Pitt back on the schedule, I would love to get (Virginia) Tech back on the schedule, I would to get UVa back on the schedule, another school that we used to play a lot, and even Penn State,” Luck said. “Is that possible? Well, it takes two to tango, but I think the good news is we will see some stronger non-conference schedules as we go forward.”
Yet, like every other athletic director dreaming of challenging for the biggest prize of all, Luck knows it won’t be easy to find the perfect schedule, which results in wins, while pleasing those who will decide the four teams to play for the national championship.
“I am going to have to see how we can fit some of these schools in without overdoing it and coming into the week nine and 10 and being absolutely beat up because the Big 12 is a grind,” said Luck, who said there are discussions of matching Big 12 schools up with teams from the ACC on a regular basis. “I do think it is gradually moving and evolving toward tougher non-conference schedule.
“In college football, there is no revolution, it is all evolution, it takes a while, but I do think there is more discussion about that which is good.”
Luck said there are no plans to expand the Big 12 from 10 teams. The Big 12 is the only one of the five power conferences that doesn’t have a conference championship game, which could also be used against the league. It could also help them without that extra game being played.
Alabama nearly lost its shot at a national title last year when the Crimson Tide barely held off Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
“It hasn’t come up in our recent meetings. I think we are happy with 10,” Luck said. “I think it is going to be very interesting as this new playoff system comes to see what happens with these five conferences. You have got the Big 12 with 10, the Pac 12 with 12 and then you have the other three with 14 and the ACC has Notre Dame so that is like 14 1⁄2.
“The question really is who is better off? The ultimate goal is to get as many teams from your conference as you can in one of the four playoff spots. Are we better of with 10 and playing a true round robin schedule?”
That is a question that must also be answered by the committee in another year. Luck mentioned Wisconsin, which doesn’t play Big 10 powers Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or Penn State in 2014. How will that slate to be perceived if the Badgers are in contention at the end?
“The Big 10 is a great conference, good football teams, but if you miss all the big boys because of a scheduling quirk, is that really fair,” Luck said. “I don’t know, it is going to be very interesting to see as we go into the new playoff system how that affects the five power conferences...”
There is another idea that was discussed by Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who was actually on the coaching staff at West Virginia when Luck was a quarterback for the Mountaineers.
“I have heard Coach Saban — a good West Virginian and a former coach of mine way back in my old days — I think Nick said we should just really play amongst ourselves, the five power conferences…,” Luck said. “If we are serious about this let’s all scrap it up and play 12 tough games. That has some merit as well.”
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at bwoodson@bdtonline