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College Football: No Whining Edition

When the Big-12 was left on the outside looking in at the first annual college football playoff last year, the conference’s two disappointed suitors, TCU and Baylor, took remarkably different paths in response. Ohio State pretty much ended the debate about who should have gotten the No. 4 spot in the playoff by winning the title, leaving the Bears and the Horned Frogs without persuasive arguments for their selection over the Buckeyes.


In fact, only one of them was doing much complaining. Baylor coach Art Briles went public in a big way with his criticism of  the selection process, arguing, among other things, that the South was not adequately represented on the committee. Briles lamented the committee’s loss of Archie Manning as a member (“He understands football down here”), pleading that Texas football somehow lacks “a voice”. Not as long as you’re around, Art.


By contrast, TCU coach Gary Patterson, who to my mind had the better case to make, kept it more low-key. TCU, who had just a 3-point loss to Baylor blemishing their record, allowed only that they were “puzzled” about how their team could have tumbled from a solid No. 3, all the way out of the top four in the final week, despite having won their final game by 52 points.


The Horned Frogs preferred to speak with their play, demolishing a top ten Ole Miss team 42-3 in their bowl game. Meanwhile Briles and his Bears squandered a 21-point 4th quarter lead to Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl, falling to the Spartans 41-40, a few miles up the road from home.


Undeterred by the postseason results, Briles was once again speaking out late in January, quoting “a source” within the NCAA saying the Bears lost out by an 8-4 vote to Ohio State - a charge immediately dismissed as logistically impossible by CFP committee chair Bill Hancock - as if it would change minds even if it were true.


Briles wanted the committee to look at his 61-58 shootout win over TCU as his ticket to the final four...and obviously, to look past his loss to West Virginia by two touchdowns the very next week. (Moral of the story: If you’re going to lose a game by two touchdowns, do it closer to Labor Day than to Halloween)


It’s About Your Schedule, Art


The new playoff system was not sprung fully-formed on the college football world in 2014. It was discussed for years and was formally approved in June, 2012. From the outset, it was apparent to every team and every conference that strength of schedule would become a crucial factor in determining the top four teams each year. The SEC soon mandated that their members schedule non-conference games with Power 5 conference opponents each year. Athletic Directors and head coaches scrambled to beef up their non-conference schedules for future seasons.


Not Art Briles.


In 2014, the first year of the new system, Baylor played non-conference games with SMU, Northwestern State and Buffalo, but surely with three years notice of the coming playoff system, Briles would see to it that future schedules would be more challenging. If anything, Baylor has gone the other direction. Here’s what’s on tap for the Bears’ short term future:


2015: SMU, Lamar, Rice
2016: Northwestern St., SMU, Rice
2017: Liberty (I’m not kidding), Texas-San Antonio, at Duke.
2018: Abilene Christian (seriously), UTSA, Duke
2019: Incarnate Word (stop laughing), UTSA, Rice


In 2020, a 3-game series with Louisiana Tech kicks off.  Can you say trap games?


Baylor has not played a non-Big 12 Power conference opponent in the regular season since 2009, when they played their opener at...wait for it...Wake Forest. And it will be a seven year drought before it is broken in 2017, by which time the Baylor administration will have summoned the fortitude to face….Duke.


They are one of 11 FBS programs that will not play a Power 5 conference opponent in non-conference play in 2015.


TCU Steps Up


Not only did TCU’s Gary Patterson keep the postseason whining to a minimum, he and his athletic department have for several years been scheduling name programs as a way to build a strong resume, just in case he manages to get all the bounces to go his way in any given season. The Frogs played LSU in 2013, and faced a rising Big Ten squad in Minnesota in 2014 and will meet the Gophers again in 2015. Okay, Minnesota’s not all that, but look at the next several seasons for TCU in non-con play...


2016: South Dakota State, SMU, Arkansas
2017: SMU, Arkansas
2018: Ohio State, SMU
2019: at Ohio State
2020: at California
2021: California


Later 2-game sets with Colorado and Stanford will follow, so the pattern is clear. TCU will play at least one Pac-12, Big Ten or SEC opponent in non-conference play for the next seven seasons. In that same time frame, based on what is currently scheduled, Baylor will play two non-conference games with Power 5 conference opponents….both Duke.


Whine on, Art Briles.


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Dragging Nick Saban, Kicking and Screaming, Out of the Southeast


It will be endlessly interesting to see how the SEC handles the new mandate to play at least one Power 5 conference opponent every year, which takes effect for the 2016 season. (Wake, Purdue and Iowa State...wait by your phones!)


Maybe the mandate can drag Nick Saban and Alabama out of the southeast region for a true road game one of these years. To their credit (and profit) Alabama has entered into a lucrative multi-game  arrangement with Jerry Jones and Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, where they played Michigan in 2012, and have return dates for two more made-for-TV, neutral site season openers, against Wisconsin (2015) and USC (2016). But Saban and the Crimson Tide have resisted agreeing to many 2-game home-and-home series in the last dozen years.


In the last 11 seasons, (2015 will make 12) the Tide have played exactly ONE true road game outside the southeast in their non-conference schedule...that at Penn State in 2011. (They played at FSU in 2007 and at Duke in 2010...both in the southeast...where their toes couldn’t get cold.)


Over that same 12-year span, Ohio State, (to pick another program at random), has played 2-game series with Texas, USC, Miami, California and Virginia Tech, among other Power 5 foes. In the decade to come, the Buckeyes have 2-game series lined up with Oklahoma, TCU, Oregon, Notre Dame and Texas. I would challenge anyone to show me a program with a greater commitment to playing Top 20 caliber non-conference opponents year in and year out.


Yes, OSU schedules their share of Florida A&M’s and Kent States, but the differential between them and the Alabamas of the sport in granting true road games at hostile venues, with elite program opponents, is still worth noting.


Although there are reports that the CFB gods want to pair Alabama and Florida State in another neutral site opener at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in 2017, there are no true non-conference, Power 5 road tests awaiting the Crimson Tide anytime soon, according to what they have currently scheduled.


The argument that the SEC conference schedule is such a meatgrinder that its members are entitled to three or four cupcakes each season as a reward might be less convincing after last year’s humbling bowl season. For the record, after Alabama plays Wisconsin (last seen getting wiped out 59-0 and losing their coach) in Texas this fall, they’ll face a non-conference murderer’s row of Middle Tennessee, Louisiana Monroe, and Charleston Southern.


Prosecution rests.


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On the Road


When the Big Ten Conference considered expansion a few years ago, Commissioner Jim Delany went looking for large TV markets rather than traditional midwestern institutions of higher learning. A primary goal of this approach was to enrich BTN, the then fledgling television network that has since paid B1G members more TV money than any other league, and has inspired other conferences to follow suit.


With their wallets fattened, there are few complaints coming from the league’s athletic departments, even as new members Maryland and Rutgers have done little to upgrade the Big Ten’s sagging reputation as a football conference. But the expanded geographic footprint of the league has made road game travel more arduous for all members.


When Penn State joined the league in 1993, they became its easternmost member, and teams and fans alike bemoaned, for example, the 774 mile trek from Iowa City to State College for the Hawkeyes, or the 974 miles the Lions would have to endure to play the Gophers in Minneapolis.


Those road trips now look like strolls in the park since the league has expanded again...in both directions. When Nebraska plays at Rutgers this November, it will be a 1,288 mile jaunt for the Cornhuskers. That span is, for the moment, the longest distance between B1G members, but my tinkering with Google Maps got me wondering what kind of impact expansion and conference realignment might be having outside the B1G.


Out west of course, the PAC-12 has been doing this for years. When Arizona plays at Washington this October, they’ll have to go 1,529 miles to do it. Just two weeks later, the Huskies have a road trip only slightly shorter when they fly 1,422 miles to play ASU in Tempe.


The New Normal


For examples of football conferences cobbled together with little regard for geography, one need look no further than Conference USA, the nascent American Athletic Conference and the slightly older, but no less illogical, Sun Belt Conference. Operating on considerably smaller athletic department budgets than the big boys of college football, these leagues take the cake for insane road trip distance. Consider some of the games on the schedule for the 2015 season.


Note: remember, these are not one-off non-conference games, but league games with travel that will be repeated over and over.


10/24 - (Sun Belt) Troy at New Mexico State - 1,427 mi.


11/7 - (AAC) UConn at Tulane - 1,450 mi.


10/24 - (C-USA) Florida Atlantic at UTEP - 1,887 mi.


11/14 - (C-USA) UTEP at Old Dominion - 1,980 mi.


10/17 - (Sun Belt) New Mexico St. at Georgia Southern - 1,670 mi.


The worst?


On October 17, the Idaho Vandals will travel to Troy, Alabama to play their Sun Belt rivals, the Troy Trojans...a 2,495 mile trip. And this is just the second craziest road trip of the 2015 season.


Because on November 14, the Appalachian State Mountaineers, from Boone, NC, will cross the Rockies for a conference game in Moscow, Idaho, a mere 2,497 miles away. At that time of year, it’s probably best that the contest will be played at the Kibbie Dome , the Vandals’ indoor facility….because, you know...Sun Belt.


For a little perspective, that’s a longer road trip than a hypothetical conference matchup of Ohio State and UCLA would be. (2,243 mi.)


So if the theme of this column is “Stop whining”....(and it appears to be)...maybe Big Ten partisans should quit crying about the distances of their road trips.


It could be...and someday probably will be... worse.


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