Which Top NCAA Football Teams Would Love or Hate a Conference-Only Schedule?

Sep 28, 2019; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) catches a pass over North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Chazz Surratt (21) for a 38-yard touchdown in the second half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. The Clemson Tigers won 21-20. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

With the COVID-19 pandemic still going on, athletic directors and conference directors alike are looking for solutions to make sure everyone is as safe as possible. One of the potential solutions to this is a conference-only schedule.

In theory, a conference-only schedule would work well. Most conferences have teams that are very close together in terms of distance, alleviating some travel concerns, and most rivalries are in-conference, allowing those to continue.

However, a conference-only season would still be different. Many power-five teams that are considered to be at the top of their conference, such as Alabama or Clemson, schedule “gimme games” early in the season against lower-tier teams that will help their teams get acclimated to the football season.

For example, Clemson has a game scheduled against Akron on Sept. 19, and Alabama has a game against Georgia State set to be played on Sept. 12. If these games are not able to be played, these powerful teams may not be conditioned and in “football shape,” therefore increasing the likelihood for early-season upsets.

On the topic of reduced games, that also affects the College Football Playoff. With the elimination of non-conference games, there is less margin for error. While a power-five team may have been able to get into the playoff with a one-loss record, if conference games are eliminated, it may lead to a stronger emphasis on zero-loss teams. After all, an 8-1 team is far less impressive than a 9-0 team.

One team that could be positively impacted is the North Carolina Tar Heels. If non-conference games are canceled, UNC gets to bypass both their Sept. 4 game against UCF and their Sept. 12 game at Auburn. These are two of the hardest games on their current schedule and eliminating them could boost their record.

On the opposite side, a team that could be negatively affected is the Tennesee Volunteers. While their team is expected to do well, there is currently a non-conference game on their schedule that could determine if the team is legit or not: Sept. 12 against Oklahoma. While it is unlikely that Tennessee will win, if they play Oklahoma close, it could show a noticeable improvement in Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure.

A conference-only season could also have a positive impact on teams in a lower-tier group of five conference if teams such as Georgia State and Akron do not have their non-conference games against football giants such as Alabama and Clemson. These games are almost guaranteed losses, and not playing them could improve their overall record and maybe lead them to a better bowl game.

So far, it appears that having a conference-only schedule benefits some teams and burdens others. However, there is an underlying issue with a conference-only schedule that hurts everyone: a loss of money. Many schools rely on football for a considerable amount of their school’s funding. In 2018, the total spent on non-conference “gimme games” was around $175 million. Clearly, a conference-only schedule would mean that smaller schools will feel the pinch.

Perhaps the NCAA can come together with all of the football schools to create a solution that works for everyone.

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