Buy or sell: Are neutral-site clashes eroding the integrity of home-and-home scheduling?
I’m a walking contradiction these days, when it comes to casting a ‘Yay’ or ‘Nay’ vote on the necessity of neutral-site showdowns among Power 5 football programs.
Are these TV-friendly clashes great for college football, or are these special matchups slowly eroding the sanctity and integrity of scheduling non-conference games?
For me, it’s a yes-yes vote.
In one respect, it’s dispiriting that back in 2013, Alabama abruptly canceled a home-and-home series with Michigan State – 2016 in Tuscaloosa and 2017 in East Lansing – in favor of scheduling more neutral-site outings against top-notch competition.
Fast forward to the present: Alabama opens this season in Arlington, Texas against Southern California.
Consequently, the Spartans had to remake their 2016 schedule on the fly, which explains why MSU has its lone bye in Week 2 – with 11 uninterrupted games to close the regular season.
On the other hand, how can any college football fan not be super-pumped about the LSU-Wisconsin season opener at historic Lambeau Field in Green Bay?
Or what about Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee at the NASCAR track in Bristol, Va? This non-conference clash on Sept. 10 will easily shatter the all-time NCAA record for game attendance, perhaps drawing 150,000-plus fans to the unique venue.
Living in Atlanta after being born and raised in the Midwest has also clouded my thinking over the years. I love the purity and romance of teams stepping out of their comfort zone and traveling to hostile campus venues in different parts of the country.
However, I also couldn’t imagine a Labor Day weekend in the South without the Chick Fil-A Classic at the Georgia Dome, annually pitting an SEC power (typically Alabama, Auburn or Georgia) against a nationally renowned club.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a major concern for most college fans. After all, Can’t they have their cake and eat it too?
If it only were that simple.
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The Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 currently endorse nine-game models for conference scheduling. That leaves each member school with only three condensed opportunities to find quality non-league competition every year, thus rounding out the 12-game regular-season slate.
The SEC and ACC currently played eight conference games.
Most schools traditionally adopt the practice of scheduling one daunting opponent from a Power 5 program and then filling out the rest of the non-conference slate with respectable – but ultimately winnable – matchups against Group of 5 foes from the Mid-American, American Athletic, Mountain West, Conference USA or Sun Belt conferences.
This leaves little wiggle room for scheduling one juicy neutral-site game and being contractually obligated to a grueling home-and-home challenge in the same season.
Sure, Big Ten powers Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State, Wisconsin and Michigan State have the cachet to strike a nice balance with this conundrum over a 10-year period, but for the likes of Iowa, Indiana, Maryland, Rutgers, Northwestern, Minnesota, Purdue and Illinois, these schools are usually at the mercy of sporadic second-tier matchups.
Take Rutgers, for example: What would be the scheduling fallout if the Scarlet Knights hypothetically landed a home-and-home with Clemson in 2018 and 2019, but one year from now, the Tigers inexplicably wanted out of the agreement, in pursuit of higher-profile neutral-site games?
For a red-hot program like Clemson, this would be an easy fix for that scheduling hole. But Rutgers wouldn’t be so fortunate, especially since the Big Ten frowns on any future games against FCS opponents.
VERDICT: I’ll happily buy the chic concept of neutral-site games played in classic and/or quirky venues (like Wrigley Field or any NASCAR track). But I won’t stand for Power 5 programs pulling out of home-and-home agreements, without just cause and without fear of reprisal.
In the logistical context of college football, it’s the closest thing we have to dirty pool.
BIG TEN: NOTABLE HOME-AND-HOME SERIES
Michigan State: Notre Dame (2016 and 2017), Arizona State (2018 and 2019), BYU (2016 and 2020), Miami (2020 and 2021), Boise State (2022 and 2023)
Ohio State: Oklahoma (2016 and 2017), Oregon (2020 and 2021), Texas (2022 and 2023), Notre Dame (2022 and 2023), Boston College (2023 and 2024)
Michigan: Arkansas (2018 and 2019), Washington (2020 and 2021), Virginia Tech (2020 and 2021), UCLA (2022 and 2023), Oklahoma (2025 and 2026), Texas (2024 and 2027)
Penn State: Auburn (2022 and 2023), Pittsburgh (2016 through 2019), West Virginia (2023 and 2024), Virginia Tech (2020 and 2025)
Nebraska: Oregon (2016 and 2017), Colorado (2018 and 2019, 2023 and 2024), Oklahoma (2021 and 2022), Tennessee (2026 and 2027)
Maryland: West Virginia (2020 and 2021)
Illinois: Virginia (2021 and 2022)
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.