Sharp: College football about who you choose to play, not who you must

The early-season non-conference matchup have as much to do with College Football Playoff berths as how you fare late

Drew Sharp
Detroit Free Press Columnist
In this Jan. 12, 2016, file photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban poses with the championship trophy during a news conference for the NCAA college football playoff championship in Scottsdale, Ariz.  Saban is one national title away from matching Bear Bryant's record and, with his 65th birthday coming up on Halloween, shows no signs of slowing down.

There’s an appropriate parallel between today’s college football and the current political fulcrum balancing the merits between globalism and nationalism.

The sport has grown beyond recognition the past 20 years. Conferences expand across traditional regional borders. Cross-sectional matchups previously thought of as heresy are now the more attractive games each season. All in the name of establishing a “true” national champion. And of course making millions more for the elite few power brokers.

But there’s also a high price paid. The game effectively has betrayed its ancestry and killed off the storied conference rivalry.

This new day doesn’t particularly look kindly on old habits.

It matters more now what happens earlier in the season.

The sport’s parochialism always was its most enduring characteristic. The late-season conference battles stood out more. But those moments are increasingly shrinking in importance. In terms of the College Football Playoff, the most anticipated game this season isn’t Alabama-Auburn. It certainly isn’t Michigan-Ohio State. It’s actually Ohio State at Oklahoma in the season’s third weekend because the playoff selection committee values overall strength of schedule more than the BCS computers ever did — placing an even higher priority on nonconference scheduling.

“A lot that’s determined now regarding playoff consideration,” said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio, “is based as much on who you voluntarily choose to play earlier in the season as opposed to who you must play later in the season.”

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Michigan State vs. Oregon were two of the biggest games on the national schedule the past two seasons. It isn’t a coincidence that the winner in each of those games advanced to the College Football Playoff. Both eventually won their respective conference championships, but also earned considerable favor with the selection committee for playing a top-10 ranked nonconference foe.

The three most important games in the Big Ten this season don’t involve a conference game with a heated history. It’s the Buckeyes against the Sooners, Michigan State traveling to Notre Dame on that same weekend, and Wisconsin hosting LSU on opening night next weekend at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

The Big Ten erred going to a nine-game conference schedule, thinking that it insulates the conference from potential criticism against less-than-challenging nonconference slates. In fact, it only worsens the playoff chances for the conference champion because an extra game only improves the likelihood of another sub-.500 foe that lowers schedule strength.

The Pac-12 bailed on an early-season nonconference collaboration with the Big Ten four years ago that would have started next season. The Pac-12 no longer thought it logistically feasible scheduling 12 games against Big Ten competition every year. But there’s no reason the leagues can’t execute a modified version of what the SEC and ACC do in the first couple weeks of the season.

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There’s Clemson vs. Auburn and Ole Miss vs. Florida State among other cross-conference matchups at the start of the season. In the eyes of the selection committee, the winners are rewarded with an early playoff favorite status, and the losers aren’t necessarily penalized should they win their conference because they at least played a highly regarded foe while the season’s still young.

Those games aren’t rivalries, and nobody cares.

CBS Sports created a minor stir recently when it rated Michigan State-Ohio State as the biggest “current rivalry” in college football. The problem is that “current” and “rivalry” indeed are mutually exclusive. The term “current rivalry” is a contradiction.

It has become the most important game in the Midwest and one of the biggest nationally the past three years in that the winner of that game the past two years represented the Big Ten in the college football playoffs and decided the Rose Bowl berth in the Big Ten championship game three years.

Contact Drew Sharp: dsharp@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @drewsharp. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/drew-sharp/.