In these days of carb counting and fad diets, it's time to change the menu for college football's opening weeks. Far too many programs remain hopelessly addicted to cupcakes, playing empty-calorie games against directional schools and FCS foes that don't help their teams on the field and don't excite their fans in the bleachers. Fortunately, the four-team playoff scheduled to take effect after the 2014 season might finally provide the incentive for schools to pack more protein into their schedules.
Strength of schedule will be a key consideration for the playoff selection committee, and all other things being equal, a team that faces tougher opponents should get the nod over a team that feasts on lightweights. At least that's how it's supposed to work. If it does, it might beef up an opening-week schedule that once again failed to inspire.
Of the 78 scheduled opening-weekend games, only two (Alabama-Michigan and Boise State--Michigan State) matched teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Only eight games matched teams from BCS automatic-qualifying conferences. Most top programs preyed on lesser competition (see Oklahoma State 84, Savannah State 0), while a few were humiliated by lesser competition (see Youngstown State 31, Pitt 17).
In the meantime neutral-site games between power-conference teams have created compelling competition. Some event organizers can draw big-name teams by nearly matching the financial take from a home game. Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan, whose Atlanta Sports Council paired up Tennessee and North Carolina State last Friday at the Georgia Dome and then hosted Auburn-Clemson on Saturday, says each set of Tigers will pocket between $2.3 million and $2.4 million from Saturday's game. In an age when healthy programs gross between $3 million and $4 million for a home game and must spend between $600,000 and $1 million to play a sacrificial lamb, losing a few hundred thousand on the net take is an acceptable trade off for the prestige and recruiting bump provided by appearing on national television against a challenging opponent.
Plus, some coaches believe scheduling a high-profile team out of the gate improves the quality of off-season workouts. For a program that is expected to compete for a national title, facing another ranked team at the front of the schedule creates more urgency than playing an FCS foe would. "It's great for the off-season program for the development of your team," Alabama coach Nick Saban said before his team beat Michigan 41--14 in Arlington, Texas. "It really gives the players something to look forward to in the first game, and it gives the fans a lot to look forward to in the first game."
Meanwhile, the on-campus blockbuster isn't dead yet, thanks to administrators such as Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis. To get Boise State to play at Spartan Stadium last Friday, Michigan State paid the Broncos $1.2 million and agreed to a home-and-home series in 2022--23. Hollis isn't afraid of competition—he has scheduled home-and-home series with Oregon and Alabama over the next few years—but he understands why some of his counterparts are reluctant to agree to similar matchups. "There's no incentive to schedule hard," says Hollis, whose elite basketball program routinely loads up on tough out-of-conference opponents and uses that experience to its advantage in March. "There's no carrot like there is with the NCAA basketball tournament," he says.
That should change if commissioners stay true to their word about a meaningful strength-of-schedule discussion during selection committee deliberations. The first time a school gets left out of the playoff because of a watered-down schedule, Stokan's group and the one led by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, which hosted LSU-Oregon last year and Alabama-Michigan this year, will field phone calls from athletic directors eager to play up instead of down. "As we move more toward the differentiation criteria of who gets into the Final Four, strength of schedule is coming back into play," Stokan says. "It gives us an opportunity for a coach and an AD to say, 'If we can make a run, we need to play in a game like this.' That's how we're going to market it."
For years, those who opposed a college football playoff worried that it would devalue the regular season. Instead, the playoff may make the regular season better on the front end by reducing the unsatisfying bloat caused by too many cupcakes.
Crimson Tide proved it didn't just bask in the glow of their national title this off-season.
Offense looked potent with QB Zach Mettenberger at the helm, but it was North Texas.
Matt Barkley--to--Marqise Lee combo is as dangerous as expected.
RB De'Anthony Thomas had seven touches for 119 yards and three touchdowns. Yikes.
5 MICHIGAN STATE
RB Le'Veon Bell had 50 touches and got stronger as the game went on.
Hogs will be tested by Alabama on Sept. 15.
7 WEST VIRGINIA
When the Mountaineers play, take the over. Followed 70 in Orange Bowl with 69 against Marshall.
8 FLORIDA STATE
Seminoles' dilemma? Don't get bored before Clemson visits on Sept. 22.
9 SOUTH CAROLINA
Gamecocks looked sloppy, but RB Marcus Lattimore is back playing at 100%.
Sputtering offense gets one more warmup before Big 12 play.
The horses are out of the gate, and Matt Barkley's 372 yards and four TDs put him at the top of a tight field that includes Geno Smith, who ran for 65 yards and a TD in addition to his impressive throwing performance. SI will track the top candidates as they jockey for position throughout the season.
MATT BARKLEY QBUSC
372 YDS, 4 TDS
GENO SMITH QBWVU
323 YDS, 4 TDS
MONTEE BALL RBWISC
151 TOTAL YDS, TD
DE'ANTHONY THOMAS RBORE
119 TOTAL YDS, 2 TDS
AARON MURRAY QBGA
258 YDS, 3 TDS
MARCUS LATTIMORE RBS.CAR
131 TOTAL YDS, 2 TDS
TYLER WILSON QBARK
367 YDS, 3 TDS
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS
DAZED AND BLUE Vincent Smith and Michigan didn't do squat in their opener against the defending champs, but it still made for better TV than almost every other game.
TIM WARNER/CAL SPORT MEDIA (OKLAHOMA STATE)
NOT IMPRESSED The Cowboys hung 84 on the Tigers, but they won't score any points with the voters in the future with routs against similar competition.
CRAIG MITCHELLDYER/GETTY IMAGES (THOMAS)
DALE ZANINE/US PRESSWIRE (MURRAY)
JOHN AMIS/AP (LATTIMORE)
JIMMY JONES/ZUMAPRESS.COM (WILSON)
JOHN BIEVER (BALL)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (BARKLEY)
CHRISTOPHER JACKSON/AP (GENO SMITH)