Why not make September count?
DALLAS - If Bob Bowlsby had his druthers, the college football season wouldn't have much of a warm-up period. Games in the first four weeks of the season would be nearly as interesting as those in the last eight.
West Virginia vs. James Madison or Florida A&M at Oklahoma? Sure, those would still happen. But there would also be a healthier dose of, say, the West Virginia-Alabama game scheduled for 2014 or the Oklahoma-Notre Dame skirmish set for October.
As one of the movers and shakers involved in structuring college football's looming four-team playoff - and, more specifically, the criteria for qualifying for one of those spots - Bowlsby is making it his goal to see that those blockbuster games happen.
"As we talk about the postseason and how it's structured and what we would like to do with it, one of the things that is factual is that the regular season in college football is the best in any sport in college athletics,'' the new Big 12 commissioner said Monday at the league's football media gathering. "But when we talk about that, we're really talking about the months of October and November. The second two-thirds of the season are terrific. But the first month of the season is not always terrific.
"And as we shape what will become the new postseason, one of the things that we have to build into the system is we have to make sure that it's fair, it's transparent [and] it's understandable. But we also have to do things in terms of how we structure the selection process to make sure that we encourage high-level matchups in the month of September.''
Bowlsby isn't advocating doing away with what are essentially scrimmage games for the kind of high-level BCS teams that will be in the playoff mix once the system is structured and put in place for the 2014 season. He understands that, for example, West Virginia can't be expected to play three high-level BCS opponents in non-conference play and then tackle nine more in the Big 12 schedule. No one does that.
Preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma, for instance, plays UTEP and Florida A&M in addition to Notre Dame this season. Added to the nine-game league slate it's a pretty representative schedule and one that should certainly suffice in any sort of formula - mathematical or otherwise -that determines playoff qualifiers.
The flip side, though, would be teams playing an entirely soft non-conference lineup and hoping to gain entrance to a playoff by going 12-0, be it in one of the power conferences or elsewhere.
"Don't mistake what I'm saying. I think September is a part of the season that we use to get teams ready to play the rest of the season. And so playing a steady diet of Top 25 teams is not necessarily what any coach wants to do and in most cases is not what's required to get a team ready to play in the conference schedule,'' Bowlsby said. "So that isn't what's going to be encouraged in the context of the postseason playoff.
"Having said that, putting together a schedule that never takes you off your campus, that doesn't play against intersectional opponents, that doesn't create matchups that are significant for the media and significant in terms of comparison of the best teams around the country - the complete absence of that will also likely be penalized.''
Truth be told, West Virginia's schedule this season would be iffy, at best, in that context. The Mountaineers do go off campus once, but it's to play FCS opponent James Madison. There are also home games against Marshall and Maryland, but only one of those is against a team from what is now an automatic-qualifying BCS conference, and neither can be considered intersectional.
Ditto the 2013 slate, which has William & Mary and East Carolina at home and Maryland on the road. In future years, though, West Virginia has those neutral-site games with Alabama (2014) and BYU (2016). In order to fulfill what could be the criteria Bowlsby speaks of, one of those types of games might have to be scheduled.
But the idea is to make sure everyone does it and not just a few. Last year Oregon opened its season with a loss to LSU in Dallas. Had that game not been scheduled, the Ducks would have finished in the top four. As it was, they were fifth in the final BCS standings and probably would have missed out on a playoff.
"It is not satisfactory to lose a game in September and be taken out of the national championship dialogue [because of being one of the few teams to schedule a high-profile game],'' Bowlsby said. "I think if the University of Oregon had to do it over again they might not have played that game against LSU last year because they fought back from behind for the entire season as a result of it.
"We need to encourage those games [by everyone], we need to relish those games, and we need to make the month of September as good as the months of October and November are. And so as we move forward, we're certainly going to try and do that.''
How to manage that is the tricky part, of course. A difficult intersectional game is often in the eyes of the participants. There is also the fact that what may look like a great test in September looks like another scrimmage if the opponent fails to live up to expectations. The reverse is true, too.
Establishing some sort of mathematical rating system isn't necessarily the answer - see the ever-tweaked BCS formula - and a selection committee approach has its flaws, too. But Bowlsby wants to make sure that as the playoff architects work on the answer, they give those September schedules a long, hard look.
"I don't know that there are enough data points for the same kind of ratings percentage index that you have in basketball, but I think that there will be some measure of how one has gone about scheduling in the preseason,'' he said. "And if that's valued in terms of the selection process in the postseason, there are incentives there that will, I think, create quality matchups.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.