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ACC Bowls and the College Football Playoff: Does Non-Conference Strength Of Schedule Even Matter?

As we enter the final stretch run for the inaugural College Football Playoff, as well as the first year of the ACC's bowl agreement with Notre Dame, I'm starting to wonder whether non-conference strength of schedule matters at all.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

We've known about the ACC's new "Notre Dame rule," for lack of a better term, for quite some time. As part of the Irish's complex contract with the conference, Notre Dame can step over an ACC team and take its place in one of the non-New Year's Six bowls if its record is better than, equal to or within one win of the ACC team or ranked higher in the CFP standings.

The ACC has what it's calling a two-tiered bowl system. The supposed "Tier I" consists of a set of four bowl games: the Belk, Pinstripe, Sun and one of the Music City and Gator. There are 1-2 non-New Year's bowls ahead of this group—Tier I Platinum?—that go to the ACC's #2 (Russell Athletic) and sometimes #2 (Citrus) and #3 (Russell Athletic) selections.

By virtue of the "Notre Dame rule," Florida State (12-0), Georgia Tech (10-2), Clemson (9-3), Louisville (9-3) and Duke (9-3) all took that decision out of the bowl selection committees' hands this year. None of those five teams can get passed over for 7-5 Notre Dame, essentially locking the Irish out of the conference's top, non-New Year's Six bowl game (the Russell Athletic Bowl vs. the Big 12). However, since the ACC's four Tier 1 bowls have equal selection, I suppose it is possible for Notre Dame to land in a bowl game over 9-3 Louisville or 9-3 Duke.

What we only recently learned is that teams that finished the year at 6-6—Miami, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech—are not eligible to be selected for one of these four "Tier I" bowl games.

Obviously we'll let the dust settle on Sunday as the College Football Playoff has been ranking teams weekly based on an incomplete data set. But if there's one thing we've learned throughout the year during these weekly theatrical playoff selection committee performances, it's that the Selection Committee very clearly values loss avoidance over non-conference strength of schedule. So long as you are a member of a Power 5 conference, loss avoidance is paramount to playing a difficult non-conference schedule.

Here are the non-conference schedules for several teams ranked in the top 15 of last week's CFP rankings (Sagarin ranking in parentheses):

4. Mississippi State (1 loss) -- Southern Miss (139), UAB (90), @ South Alabama (115), FCS UT Martin (155)
6. Ohio State (1 loss) -- @ Navy (76), Virginia Tech (50), Kent State (164), Cincinnati (54)
7. Baylor (1 loss) -- SMU (208), FCS Northwestern State (143), @ Buffalo (138)
11. Arizona (2 losses) -- UNLV (157), @ UTSA (132), Nevada (66)
13. Arizona State (2 losses) -- FCS Weber State (188), @ New Mexico (120), Notre Dame (36)

All six of those teams have one or more losses on the season, which muddies the picture a bit. But ask yourself this: if Mississippi State, Baylor or Arizona hadn't been tripped up during the regular season, is there any doubt that they'd be in the driver's seat for a top four seed and a College Football Playoff berth? The selection committee wouldn't think twice to elevate an unbeaten Mississippi State / Baylor / Arizona into the top four spots, forgetting that the toughest non-conference opponent each faced this season was UAB, @ Buffalo and Nevada, respectively. The message is very clearly being delivered that loss avoidance is paramount to playing non-conference programs with a pulse.

This is the part where you tell me that Boston College plays in the ACC, perceived to be the weakest of the Power 5 conferences. That may or may not be true, but based on the incentives structure that college football currently has in place, it's far more important to avoid losses than it is to schedule BAMA, or Texas, or Ohio State in non-conference play.

There's no doubt in my mind that a BC miracle season—an unbeaten or 1-conference loss champion—puts the Eagles deeper into the CFP playoff discussion than an ACC unbeaten conference champion with a loss to another Power 5 conference team in non-conference play. BC wouldn't get the "Ohio State" treatment for an early season loss to what ends up looking like a thoroughly average Power 5 conference program (Virginia Tech). That one loss would haunt their candidacy for the rest of the season. The risk/reward of scheduling tough in non-conference play for a program like BC just isn't there right now.

Which brings me back to the ACC. The benefits of scheduling one FCS opponent are very clear vis-a-vis the "Notre Dame rule" above. Since the Irish are one of just three FBS programs never to have dipped into FCS waters, ACC teams scheduling a win over an FCS opponent at least partially help them finish ahead of Notre Dame (though scheduling a school like Rice or UMass vs. a very good CAA school is probably closer to a wash these days).

It's not just that "everyone else does it," but that's certainly part of it. Why would Boston College put itself at a scheduling disadvantage vis-a-vis its direct ACC competition for bowl games by no longer scheduling an FCS opponent? Not only does playing an FCS opponent annually level the playing field between BC and the rest of the ACC in terms of bowl selection, it also gives the Eagles the slightest scheduling advantage over Notre Dame as well.

You don't get brownie points for putting the FBS-FCS scheduling genie back in the bottle.

It's this latest supposed ACC bowl selection procedure—the fact that 6-6 teams are precluded from the Tier I bowls—that is equally problematic. If this does end up being the case, the conference is providing programs with zero incentive to schedule tough in non-conference way as a way of basically gaming the system and ensuring a better bowl game.

Again, here are the non-conference schedules for the ACC teams in line for a Tier I bowl game (Sagarin rating in parenthesis):

Clemson (3-1) -- @ Georgia (6), FCS South Carolina State (178), Georgia State (187), South Carolina (37)
Louisville (4-0) -- FCS Murray State (211), @ FIU (125), @ Notre Dame (36), Kentucky (45)
Duke (4-0) -- FCS Elon (219), @ Troy (169), Kansas (103), Tulane (130)
Boston College (3-1) -- @ UMass (145), USC (19), FCS Maine (193), Colorado State (47)
N.C. State (4-0) -- Georgia Southern (67), Old Dominion (117), @ South Florida (140), FCS Presbyterian (163)

And here are the non-conference schedules for the ACC's bowl-eligible teams that are supposedly not eligible for the Tier I bowls by virtue of a 6-6 regular season record:

Miami (3-1) -- FCS Florida A&M (230), Arkansas State (80), @ Nebraska (26), Cincinnati (54)
Pittsburgh (2-2) -- FCS Delaware (192), @ FIU (125), Iowa (41), Akron (136)
Virginia Tech (3-1) -- FCS William & Mary (158), @ Ohio State (13), East Carolina (63), Western Michigan (81)
North Carolina (2-2) -- FCS Liberty (106), San Diego State (74), @ East Carolina (63), @ Notre Dame (36)

The conference has inadvertently created an incentives structure that rewards teams for staying perfect in non-conference play and amassing more total victories than the other team, wholly irrespective of things like the head-to-head result and strength of schedule.

When absolute win totals are the sole factor in determining the pool of teams eligible for either tier of ACC bowls, there's no disincentive to schedule like 2014 Duke and N.C. State and load up on transitional-FCS-schools-that-count-as-FBS and low-level FBS schools and really, really bad Power 5 ones in non-conference play. Had any of the ACC's four 6-6 teams replaced a non-conference loss with a victory over a MACrifice or a low-level Sun Belt team, they'd be getting the same treatment that the schools in the Tier I bowl game pool have this year. You've now discouraged Miami from playing at Nebraska, from Pitt hosting Iowa (can't do anything with your loss to Akron, sorry guys), or anyone from playing Notre Dame.

The ACC's new "strength of schedule" scheduling requirement—where ACC teams have to schedule at least one non-conference opponent from the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, Pac-12, or Notre Dame every year starting in 2017—should correct for this a bit in theory. But even then, not all Power 5 conference opponents are created equal. When a win over Indiana or Purdue counts the same as a win over Notre Dame, you've created sufficient wiggle room where teams can once again game the system and schedule their way to a better bowl game.

I'm sure that, short of expansion to an 8-team field with auto-qualifiers, the College Football Playoff committee selection criteria will continue to evolve as things go. College football has proven time and again to be extremely reactionary in its policies and procedures; putting out fires it alone created in the first place with a convoluted set of rules on top of more rules. I suspect that the ACC's bowl selection process will similarly evolve over time, if for no other reason than to placate member schools that will quickly grow tired of the "Notre Dame rule," this "Fighting Irish bowl sweepstakes," preferential treatment of 7-5 schools vs. 6-6 ones, and other moving target bowl selection procedures.

But today's bowl selection procedures and playoff selection criteria reward loss avoidance above all. So, what's the point of scheduling tough? Other than to move the needle for attendance, college football has created disincentives for Power 5 conference teams to schedule tough in non-conference play. Even still, what is the attendance boost that a mid- to low-tier Power 5 conference opponent (e.g. Northwestern) provides over teams from the MAC or Mountain West? My guess is not much.

The moral: in today's current college football landscape, when a win over Tulane counts the same as a win over USC, you give Tulane a call first every single time.