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Scheduling a Champion

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What is the best scheduling strategy for a team that has College Football Playoff aspirations.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Media Day Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Jude reported earlier in the week that Washington had locked down its previous agreement with the University of Michigan to play a “home-and-home” series against the Wolverines. The Dawgs will host Jim Harbaugh and his Wolverines on September 5, 2020 and then make a return trip to Ann Arbor on September 11, 2021.

This is big news for UW on a couple of fronts. First, it confirms a big-time opponent for Washington after several failed attempts to land similar caliber competition on the schedule. You might recall that the Huskies got close to having Wisconsin on the schedule for this season (actually, they were originally scheduled for 2017 before getting pushed to 2018) in an agreement originally booked in 2009 before the Badgers cut bait and cancelled altogether.

Second, it appears that this game will happen despite Michigan’s rumored attempt to cancel. The Wolverines had, at one point, both Washington and Virginia Tech scheduled in the same season which would have made for a difficult schedule. But Harbaugh and his team opted for, apparently, the lower cost to cancel option and compensated the Hokies with a $375k cancellation fee. Virginia Tech immediately replaced Michigan on their schedule with Arkansas State.

Washington fans, undoubtedly, will be relieved to hear that a marquee opponent is staying on the schedule. After all, the Huskies have been branded (rightly or wrongly) as a program that feasts on weak competition in boosting its record but who fails to compete when presented with like competition. Chris Petersen’s dismal showing in his last two bowl appearances in addition to disappointments in games like Stanford and ASU last year and USC the year before have cast a pall over what has been an otherwise remarkable programmatic turnaround as far as national pundits are concerned.

Washington AD Jen Cohen gets the credit for helping to straighten out UW’s schedule and keeping the teams that were locked in during the Scott Woodward era on the schedule. UW’s future schedules include the following OOC competition:

2018: Auburn (in case you hadn’t heard)

2019: @ BYU

2020: Michigan

2021: @ Michigan

2024: Ohio State

2025: @ Ohio State

That’s a pretty good lineup, but there are clearly gaps still left to fill. The road trip to BYU next season may be viewed as not challenging enough given that UW’s other OOC games are home sets against Eastern Washington and Hawaii. There are no FBS opponents scheduled for either 2022 or 2023 and, to be frank, the options for scheduling a top opponent in 2026 are already dwindling. This is the time to be thinking about those outer years.

We know that the athletic department is working on the schedule and it is reasonable to assume that we will hear about more additions in the coming months. This does raise the question: what is the optimal scheduling strategy for Washington on a go-forward basis?

It cannot be denied that the best season UW has experienced since their reign of supremacy in the early ‘90’s happened in 2016 when they became just the second PAC 12 team to appear in the College Football Playoffs. Washington’s schedule then was not made up of juggernauts. They played all of their OOC at home against Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State, they played just four conference road games and they missed two bowl teams from the South in UCLA and Colorado. And, yet, they still squeaked into the playoffs ahead of Big Ten champ Penn State.

One could surmise based on that experience that maybe scheduling weak and winning your conference with the best overall mix of records and stats is the best path to the playoffs.

Perhaps.

However, one could also argue that 2016 was a weird year and that the Huskies were lucky to be included in the playoffs. Recall that Penn State was a two-loss team that season but had won the Big Ten after beating Ohio State during the regular season. The Buckeyes, nevertheless, were selected to playoffs based on their total body of evidence ahead of Penn State.

Interesting to note, however, was the seeding for Ohio State. The Buckeyes were actually the three seed ahead of the Huskies. This implies that it was the Huskies and not the Buckeyes who the committee viewed as Penn State’s competition for that final spot in 2016.

Consider what chairman Kirby Hocutt had to say about Washington in defending the decision to grant UW the fourth seed:

“Had Washington had a stronger strength of schedule, I don’t think the conversation and discussion would have been as difficult,” Hocutt said. “We looked at key statistical categories, which translate to performance on the field each week—statistical values that we see value in. Washington has the advantage. We talked about performance and what the coaches [on the committee] say over the course of 13 games, and Washington seemed to have the advantage.”

Nothing in that quote suggests that Penn State didn’t win the scheduling advantage. It was UW’s “statistical values” paired with Penn State’s two losses that ultimately gave Washington the spot. The Buckeyes, by contrast, didn’t have the same kind of glossy stats that UW had. But they did have just the one loss and, importantly, a win over a top ten Oklahoma team. And they got the three-seed as a prize.

So, if you are Washington, what then is the optimal scheduling strategy if the goal is to compete for a spot in the College Football Playoffs every year? To answer that, I think we need to agree on a few basic assumptions:

  1. the optimal strategy for a team like UW might be different than that of a team just looking to get into the mix for the first time or than that of a blue-blood (e.g. Ohio State, Alabama) who will always be given the benefit of the doubt
  2. The most important factor is the loss column. A two loss team has never made it in the playoffs.
  3. Beating good competition is important: no playoff team before Alabama (a blue blood) last season had made the playoffs without three wins against CFP top 25 teams.
  4. With the Big 12 now having a conference championship game, we should assume that there will, on most years, be an extra gate that either the Big 12 or PAC 12 have to get past in order to secure a playoff spot.

With those assumptions in place, it does seem clear that the Huskies will have to be aggressive in taking on top competition when it comes to their schedule. The 2016 experience looks like an anomaly that was fueled by the lack of a Big 12 playoff game, no serious Group of Five on independent competition and the fact the Big Ten champ had two losses. Should UW expect to get into the playoffs in any given year, it is going to have to put an A+ kind of opponent on every schedule and manage no more than one loss across the entirety of any given season.

With that in mind, I would argue that the traditional “A, B, C” format is still valid, but no longer the best formula. I’d instead argue that something more resembling an “A+, B-, C” format is more conducive to maximizing a playoff resume.

I define “A+” as a match up with a team who a rational analyst would expect to be able to compete for the playoffs in any given season. UW has that in place with Auburn this year as well as with Michigan and Ohio State in future schedules. The presence of an A+ team on the schedule not only grants UW an opportunity at a definitive win but also a path to the playoffs should they otherwise falter. An undefeated run through the PAC 12 paired with a respectable loss to Auburn, for example, is still a plausible playoff resume in 2018.

This might not be the case with an “A” style opponent like a Virginia Tech, Texas, Florida, or Iowa. All of those programs are good opponents and there is definitely value in scheduling them. But these are programs not automatically assumed to be in contention for their conference every season. The impressiveness of their presence on another team’s playoff resume is tied more to how they perform in that particular year. In fact, one of the challenges that UW will have in scheduling “A+” teams is that they are themselves an “A” kind of opponent at this stage of their evolution.

A “B-” (think about programs like Minnesota, Virginia, Purdue, and Utah State) and “C” tandem to fill out a schedule maximizes the odds for winning without giving the appearance of your program just filling out a sham schedule. SEC blue bloods can get away with scheduling two “C” opponents every year, but a program like UW that is already contending with east-coast bias would get crucified for such a tactic. A little bit of balance is still necessary.

Going for a straight “B” opponent every year (I’m thinking of the Northwesterns, Louisville, Kansas States and Texas Tech’s) have little value. Any of these teams are good enough to win on any given Saturday but don’t often add a lot of extra value to your resume if you beat them. Lots of downside, limited upside.

This begs the question about what to do with 2019. UW’s schedule is already locked with Eastern Washington, Hawaii and @ BYU. Weird things can happen and, if the opportunity so presents, UW ought to be willing to pounce. I expect that opportunities like the one that occurred with Auburn might still be out there. In this case, two teams with weak schedules and aspirations for a playoff run might be in a position to cut out an FCS opponent and add a single game at a “neutral” site. It wouldn’t be out of the question, though the window for such a match up is getting very tight. A cursory look around FBS reveals that there might be a few teams in the same boat as UW: Penn State, Alabama (their OOC is Duke, New Mexico State, Western Carolina and Southern Miss), Ohio State, Baylor, Oklahoma State, Iowa, and TCU.

That said, a schedule change this late in the process would still be tough to pull off. The path for 2019 will far more likely require that UW put together an undefeated season. We’ve already seen that a one-loss, conference-championship, great-stats season like 2016 is barely enough.

I’m sure Jen Cohen and her team are more focused on the outer seasons right now. The home-and-home formats are much more equitable from a financial and logistics perspective. In addition, there is undoubtedly much more interest from potential scheduling partners to reevaluate their own scheduling strategies in light of what we are learning from the four previous cycles of playoff and New Years Six bowl scheduling.

Nobody said it was going to be easy. But if UW wishes to continue to be a factor in future CFP races without having to carry the burden of going undefeated every season, scheduling is the most important administrative task to tackle.