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USA TODAY
Dan Wolken, @DanWoken, USA TODAY Sports

Though the scheduling format released by the Southeastern Conference last week included practically no substantive changes, one stipulation caught the eye of several officials in lower-level conferences.

Beginning in 2016, every SEC school will be required to play an out-of-conference game against an opponent from the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac-12. Most SEC programs have been scheduling those games anyway: This year, 10 of the 14 will play another so-called "Power 5" team, and last year all but Texas A&M and Arkansas would have met the requirement.

But in other leagues, there was concern about whether codifying that practice heading into the College Football Playoff era would send a message that the days of big-conference schools giving the upstarts a semi-equal shot are over.

"I think they're just trying to protect themselves for the playoff, and I understand why they're doing it," East Carolina athletics director Jeff Compher said. "But at the same time, I think schools like us, UCF (Central Florida) and several others in our league are as good if not better than several schools in the other Power 5 leagues.

"I think it could be something that affects us down the road. I don't want to jump to conclusions on that, but I'm going to be watching it to be sure it doesn't have a negative impact.

"And we have to figure out strategically what we can do about it."

Starting in 2014, ECU moves into the American Athletic Conference, a league that was born last year from the remnants of the dissolved Big East. Though the AAC lost its place in the power conference discussion through realignment, several of its football programs have had scheduling relationships with the SEC.

Though those games have often been mutually beneficial for strength-of-schedule purposes -- UCF, for instance, was the third-highest-rated opponent South Carolina played last season -- they wouldn't satisfy the new SEC standard. But games against traditional bottom-feeders such as Indiana and Kansas would.

That left some wondering whether the rule's intent was truly to bolster Southeastern Conference power in the eyes of the playoff selection committee.

"I don't know if I understand the purpose of it," UCF senior associate athletics director David Hansen said. "There are plenty of teams outside the Power 5 that can support a strength of schedule."

Hansen, who is in charge of scheduling games for UCF, has been frustrated recently by the lack of interest in playing the Knights after they won the inaugural AAC championship game and smacked Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl.

Even with strength of schedule supposedly increasing in significance with the playoff looming, UCF has two open slots on its 2015 schedule. "My phone has been pretty quiet the last six months or so," Hansen said.

Part of that has been the uncertainty about whether the SEC or ACC would move to a nine-game schedule -- the ACC is expected to discuss that issue further at next week's spring meetings -- but Hansen wonders whether those leagues would make a mistake by ignoring UCF in favor of scheduling a school from the Football Championship Subdivision.

"I don't really have an issue with requiring a Power 5 game; my question is why do they continue to schedule FCS?" Hansen said. "How is that going to be counted? In basketball, a game against a Division II school doesn't count in the RPI. It'll be interesting to see how that is (viewed by the committee), but that's the thing that's a little more perplexing."

Memphis athletics director Tom Bowen said he didn't expect the SEC rule to affect the Tigers' scheduling opportunities, though they already have home-and-home series with UCLA, Mississippi, Missouri and Kansas on the books for the next few years.

Memphis has had an off-and-on relationship with Tennessee, a series that got put on hold when the SEC considered going to a nine-game schedule. Bowen said he hadn't had any substantive discussions recently with Tennessee but continually got calls from Power 5 athletics directors interested in scheduling home-and-home series.

"I think every conference is going to look at best practices just to try to get yourself in the best position to be ranked in that top 25 and eventually top 12 and maybe the top four," Bowen said. "The way this committee is formed, it's important to play the right opponents."

Though strength of schedule is important for the national championship contenders, it's also crucial for schools in the AAC, Mountain West, Mid-American, Sun Belt and Conference USA. The highest-ranked league champion out of that group will automatically earn a spot in one of the four lucrative access bowls connected to the College Football Playoff, and strength of schedule almost certainly will play a part in that process.

For schools such as ECU, which always has scheduled aggressively outside of its conference, continuing to play and beat Power 5 opponents will have to be part of the formula to earn that playoff bowl bid. But will the Pirates get those opportunities if Power 5 schools just want to play each other and fill the back end of their schedules with cannon-fodder opponents?

"I'm concerned, but I'm not worried too much yet until I see the long-term impact," said Compher, who has home-and-home series scheduled with South Carolina, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and North Carolina State.

AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco, however, said he thought the scrutiny on schedules would drive the marketplace to a point where playing top teams from his league would be more attractive for the SEC and others than playing bottom-rung opponents from another power conference.

"With nine-game conference schedules, it's not going to be as easy for us," Aresco said. "There's no question that we're going to have to work. But ESPN is our TV partner, and they help us find really good matchups.

"Also, our league has almost developed a quasi-alliance with BYU. We really did that on purpose. They're going to be in our first bowl game at Miami Beach, and we've got a lot of teams playing them over the next five or six years two or three times. And we might even do more of that."

 

May 6, 2014

 

 
 

 

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