Expected playoff expansion, decreased attendance have college football teams strengthening schedules
A look at why Power Five teams have been building their nonconference schedules as far out as 15 years
Scott Stricklin is among the mystified. Florida's athletic director doesn't quite get how announcing a game to be played a decade from now is worth its weight in page views.
"I don't know why that is," he said. "It's really a fascinating deal."
Stricklin found out in the space of three days earlier this month. He combined the announcement of a home-and-home with Colorado in 2028-29 with the tease of something bigger. A couple of days later, he tweeted out that Florida had agreed to a home-and-home series with Texas in 2030-31.
There was a bit of obvious jaw-dropping around college football. Florida hasn't gone outside the state for a nonconference regular-season game since 1991, and it has not played a home-and-home out of state since 1989.
The Gators haven't been alone in that space. But something has changed in college football scheduling. It's about the College Football Playoff because, frankly, it's always about the College Football Playoff.
We are entering an era where administrators locked into decades of tradition have finally grown a pair. They're risking everything with a new round of tasty nonconference games, some as far as 15 years away.
Those administrators have determined those risks are worth the potential reward – a CFP berth.
"Otherwise," Georgia AD Greg McGarity said, "you wouldn't be doing this."
McGarity is among a growing group of ADs who believe scheduling "up" is a natural reaction to an obvious future -- expansion of the playoff bracket. At the conclusion of this season, we'll be halfway through the 12-year contract for the current four-team CFP.
While there is no tangible evidence the four-team bracket will grow before the end of that contract in 2025, the scheduling market has reacted to that possibility.
In the space of three months, from February to May, eight national nonconference games were announced. All but one of them was scheduled after 2025.
"The distinction between some schools is very thin," McGarity said. "If I'm sitting in the room and I'm a selection committee member, I'm going to value who you play and how did you schedule up. You get extra credit there. I think that's where it's leading."
If we've learned one thing in the first five years of the CFP, it's that schedule strength matters.
The last three Big Ten champions have been left out. The Pac-12 has missed in three of the five years. The SEC has yet to be left out. In fact, it has been the only conference to be guaranteed a national championship (in 2011 and 2017) before the title game was even played. In each of those two years, two SEC teams played for the BCS (2011) and CFP (2017) titles.
The cost of scheduling those body-bag nonconference games has risen in many cases to seven-figure payouts. So why not upgrade the schedule?
That's why you see Auburn scheduling a home-and-home with Penn State in 2021-22. LSU is playing Texas each of the next two seasons. Clemson (2025-26) and Oklahoma (2027-28) have also done home-and-homes with the Tigers. Notre Dame will come to Georgia on Sept. 21, returning the 2017 game in South Bend, Indiana.
For those schools, risking a playoff berth outweighs scheduling an automatic W against, say, Furman.
McGarity and Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart get most of the credit lately. Smart made upgrading the nonconference schedule a priority shortly after taking the job. He did so for a singular reason.
"We both feel that [the playoff] is going to eight teams, eventually," McGarity said.
Thus, the rush to schedule -- and schedule hard -- out into the future.
That's where Dave Brown comes in. The 60-year-old former ESPN programming executive has software on his laptop that contains every schedule -- and every opening -- for decades to come. As the most noted contractor in the college scheduling space, Brown is the president of GRIDIRON out of Austin, Texas. Teams come to him almost exclusively to arrange big games.
"If [schools] don't have something [scheduled in the nonconference] for '27, '28, or '29, boy, we'd better start looking," Brown said. "There's not a lot out there."
Those taking on the highest risk are willing to seek the highest reward. Between 2020-33, Georgia will play 13 nonconference games against Power Five opponents and Notre Dame. That's the equivalent of one full season of must-see nonconference games. The current slate includes home-and-homes against UCLA and Clemson (twice). The total doesn't include the annual rivalry game with Georgia Tech.
"I wouldn't say that Georgia's [future] schedules are competitively balanced," Brown said. "They're incredibly strenuous. … We could be dealing with an expanded playoff. If we are dealing with an expanded playoff, they've got the games that other people may not have, so they'll have a superior schedule strength to get them in."
… or too much competition that could knock the Bulldogs out of the CFP.
McGarity say that, in 2028 and 2029, Georgia is "rolling the dice." In each of those years, the Dawgs play three Power Five nonconference opponents -- Georgia Tech, Florida State and Texas in 2028; Georgia Tech, Clemson and Texas in 2029.
Brown suggested that just might be two of the toughest nonconference schedules ever.
Even the much-critiqued Pac-12 has 112 nonconference games scheduled against other Power Five opponents from 2019-33.
Whatever the outcome, the theater of it all should be fascinating.
McGarity said we are watching a culture shift in real time. For decades prior, the groupthink was to schedule nonconference wins. The SEC groupthink went something like this: We're the best conference in the country, tested on a weekly basis within our own league. How can the BCS/CFP possibly keep us out?
Then, it happened. An unbeaten Auburn won the SEC in 2004 but was left out of the BCS because unbeaten Oklahoma and USC had superior credentials.
"The tables have turned," McGarity said. "At one point in time, we might have taken our fans for granted to a certain degree. What puts us in the best position to be successful? I think these young men who play the sport are competitors, too. The dynamics have changed."
The CFP has basically guaranteed that any undefeated Power Five team is in. There have never been more than three such teams since 1998.
However, an eight-team bracket might make it possible for a quality two-loss team to get in. That has not happened in the five-year history of the playoff. LSU in 2007 was the only such team to win a championship in the BCS era.
"If some of those schedules Georgia put together, if they were 11-2 … you gotta think they'll be seriously considered [for the playoff]," Brown said.
While Clemson-Georgia looks like a juicy series in 2032-33, who knows what shape either program will be in 14 years from now? Will there even be an NCAA … or college football as a whole?
"I hope I'm [still] the athletic director at Florida," Stricklin said. "The good Lord tells us we're all day to day."
Still, we're accustomed to the mere announcement of such matchups typically causing social media, sports talk and satellite radio tsunamis. Stricklin says there are four subjects that captivate college football masses short of actual games: facilities improvements, recruiting, scheduling announcements and uniform changes.
College football long ago capitalized on scheduling as clickbait. The Power Five leagues all require their teams to schedule at least one Power Five nonconference opponent.
"There was a long time where playing as many home games as possible regardless of the opponent was satisfying to our fan bases," Stricklin said. "Their tastes have changed."
In terms of that unknown future, does it matter that Colorado has the second-worst record of any Power Five team over the last decade at 42-82? (Only Kansas is worse.) That at least qualifies the Buffs as a Power Five warm body for the Gators.
Whether it was warranted or not, the SEC is criticized each November for its usual spate of lightweight nonconference games, though Florida-Florida State and South Carolina-Clemson, not to mention Georgia-Georgia Tech, are annual rivalries. The league has -- and will -- argue that its conference schedule tests its teams enough.
"In the SEC we have a natural built-in strength of schedule," Alabama AD Greg Byrne said.
But since Byrne arrived in town 2 ½ years ago, he (and Nick Saban) have added home-and-homes series with Texas, West Virginia, Notre Dame and Oklahoma. Saban has a long history of playing neutral-site games with upcoming contests against USC (2020 in Dallas) and Miami (2021 in Atlanta).
Alabama's last home-and-home nonconference series ended in 2011 at Penn State. That's the blink of eye compared to others. Florida's series with Texas in 2030-31 might be the biggest nonconference home-and-home for the program since Charley Pell took on USC in 1982-83.
Stricklin and McGarity both agree this is an investment in their fans. Earlier this year,.
Among the top 30 in attendance in 2018, Florida had the fifth-highest decline in average per game, which is particularly notable considering the Gators improved by six wins from 2017 to 2018.
"One thing that has a huge impact is visiting teams don't travel like they used to," Stricklin said. "We hold about 8,000 for visitors, and they usually bring about 3,000. There's where the 75-inch TV is hurting us."
That's a reference to the concerns of those who oversee even the most packed stadiums. The temptation is enjoy the comforts of home is becoming greater for the consumers of college football.
"We're trying to find that balance where we're creating a demand," Stricklin said. "At some point, we might have to have an NFL model from a stadium standpoint and make seats a little more precious."
That's almost easy in the NFL where a new stadium (aided by public money) can spring out of the ground in short order to address the need for that premium ticket.
In this century, 17 NFL teams -- more than half the league -- have either built or taken over new stadiums. In the 20 years prior, only eight teams built new stadiums.
While there is nothing on the books currently at Florida, Stricklin says the school is "studying" a plan that would create "fewer [but overall] better seats" at The Swamp.
Combine that with more, better nonconference opponents, and you've got a glimpse of a future playoff race, including the Gators.
"I think that's such a moving target," Stricklin said. "It's hard to plan that far in advance. They're going to help you if you win the game. But depending on how many losses you're sitting with, that could be the game that knocks you out of contention."
That's why the upcoming theater is so attractive. The fan benefits in this ultimate game of nonconference chicken.
An increasing number of teams are willing to take the schedule risk to get the ultimate CFP reward.
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