It didn’t take long for the new college football season to revive a classic debate over strength of schedule and marquee programs padding their nonconference record with underdogs.
Nick Saban — whose top-ranked Alabama team has taken the opposite tack, starting against third-ranked Florida State — suggested this week that schools from the Power Five conferences ought to pick on opponents their own size.
“Just like in the NFL, you play all NFL teams,” Saban told ESPN. “You don’t play three teams from Canada or the Canadian league or whatever so you can get your record good enough so you can go to a bowl game.”
As the 2017 season begins in earnest Thursday, the majority of the Pac-12 Conference has not exactly hewed to this way of thinking.
Before No. 4 USC gets to No. 23 Texas, the Trojans open against Western Michigan, a Cinderella team from last season that has lost its coach, quarterback and top receiver. No. 8 Washington faces Rutgers, which is Big Ten Conference in name only, having produced a 6-18 record over the last two seasons.
This kind of scheduling seems curious for a conference that is hungry for more respect on the national scene.
“That big picture,” Washington coach Chris Petersen said. “Everybody from the national stage pays attention to what conferences are winning the most and bringing home the most national championships.”
Before going any further, a couple of quick disclaimers:
Though Alabama will continue its trend of the last few seasons of opening against solid competition, it will also play Fresno State and Mercer.
And schedules are usually arranged years in advance, so even if a major program were inclined to boost the strength of opposition, it might take a while to adjust.
At Washington State, where the No. 24 Cougars go against Montana State, coach Mike Leach thinks an all-Power Five schedule sounds fine, with one stipulation.
“Just make sure everybody does it the same way,” Leach said.
Uniformity is an issue with Pac-12 coaches, who tend to complain about beating up on each other with nine conference games each season, more than some other conferences play.
“If you’re able to win this conference, you’ve accomplished something very difficult and hopefully you have an opportunity to get to that playoff,” Stanford coach David Shaw said.
But inserting a weaker opponent into an otherwise treacherous Pac-12 schedule may not be the best approach.
When the College Football Playoff selection committee devises its weekly rankings starting in late October, strength of schedule will be high on the list of criteria.
And Leach points out that facing a non-major or Football Championship Subdivision opponent does not guarantee a victory. Washington State has lost its last two openers to schools from the FCS Big Sky Conference.
Kyle Whittingham, whose Utah team faces a respected FCS-level opponent in North Dakota, acknowledged the pressure that can come with playing the role of Goliath in a David-and-Goliath game.
“There is a little bit of that that creeps into it,” he said. “An everything-to-lose, nothing-to-gain scenario.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a high-risk, high-reward opener has advantages, Saban told reporters at a news conference this week. He believes it adds a little more motivation to the players’ offseason training regimen.
A win can generate momentum out of the gate. A loss isn’t necessarily devastating, leaving time to rebound before the first CFP ranking comes out.
“You certainly know what you need to go to work on and fix,” Saban said. “And it’s a lot of exposure for the program, and that’s always good.”
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