(Photo: Mark Zerof, USA TODAY Sports)
AUBURN, Ala. -- When the College Football Playoff was put together, the buzz phrase for the new era was "strength of schedule." With the formation of a four-team playoff and a human committee rather than a computer formula deciding who competes for a national championship, who you played and who you beat were supposed to matter like never before.
Suddenly, conferences shifted and tried to figure out how to best position themselves for 2014 and beyond. Schools beefed up non-conference schedules, afraid that backing down from tough games would cost them in the eyes of the committee.
Everything was supposed to change.
So of course, in the final year of the Bowl Championship Series, college football is on the verge of once again sending the message that strength of schedule doesn't really matter.
No offense to No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State, who are on a collision course to play for the BCS title if they win their respective league championship games, but it's clear that evolving beyond the simplistic value of won-loss record is going to be a tall task in the new era.
To be perfectly clear, there's no right answer here. If you think Florida State and Ohio State should play for the title if they're unbeaten, fine. If you think others such as Auburn or Missouri (both 11-1) are more deserving, that's fine, too.
But what can't be debated is that, among the five power conferences, no presumptive champions have played easier schedules than Florida State and Ohio State. And it just so happens that they're the two major-conference teams without a loss.
According to Jeff Sagarin's formula, Florida State has played the nation's 66th-toughest schedule while Ohio State has played the 61st most difficult. By contrast, Auburn's schedule is ranked 26th, Missouri's is 41st and Oklahoma State's is 43rd.
Not that you need computers to tell you Florida State and Ohio State have had laughably easy paths. Ohio State's best win came against a 9-3 Wisconsin team barely hanging in the top 25, its second-best win was against 8-4 Iowa and its third best win was against either Penn State, San Diego State or a mess of a Michigan team. Florida State, meanwhile, has faced two legitimate opponents amidst the Atlantic Coast Conference dreck: A Clemson team that just lost decisively at South Carolina and 9-3 Miami (Fla.).
And yet here we go again, with voters rewarding schools who played nobody in the non-conference schedule and skated by in weak conferences - just because they're the only two schools who have a zero in their won-loss record.
Imagine if you replaced the brand name of Florida State or Ohio State and replaced it with the TCU team from 2010. Would there not be national outrage at the idea of the Horned Frogs getting into the BCS title game over Auburn? And yet, if you start to compare that TCU team's schedule with what Florida State has faced this season, you won't find a whole lot of difference. (For what it's worth, TCU had the 76th-rated schedule in 2010.)
But college football is addicted to the won-loss record, with far too little consideration given to what that record means.
By the time the Southeastern Conference title game is completed, Auburn will have faced 10 bowl-eligible teams and Missouri will have played eight. For Ohio State, the Big Ten championship game will be its seventh test against a bowl-eligible team, though it's also true the Buckeyes haven't played a team as highly regarded as either Auburn or Missouri since beating Arkansas in the 2010 Sugar Bowl.
That's why, despite Auburn's 35-21 loss at LSU on Sept. 21 and Missouri's 27-24 double-overtime loss to South Carolina on Oct. 26, there'll be heavy politicking from the SEC for its champion to jump into the top two.
"Any one-loss team in the SEC, based on strength of schedule, people should look at that and take that into consideration," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Sunday.
Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs went a step further Saturday night, saying it would be impossible to leave out a one-loss SEC champ, especially if it had knocked off the No. 1-ranked team as Auburn did.
Despite the natural and understandable backlash against the SEC, which has claimed the last seven national titles, there's validity to that point of view. Would Ohio State be 11-1 playing Auburn's schedule? Would Auburn be 12-0 playing Ohio State's schedule?
Voters may say that's not their responsibility to parse that out, but if the playoff selection committee is doing what it's supposed to do beginning next year, that's exactly the kind of scenario it will have to consider. And it also brings to mind the question of what you do with a team such as Arizona State, which scheduled tough non-conference foes (Wisconsin and Notre Dame), is playing as well as anyone and is favored to win the championship of the Pac-12, which has been neck-and-neck with the SEC all year in depth and quality.
But because the Sun Devils lost early to Stanford and Notre Dame, they're out this year. And based on the traditional criteria the BCS has used for years, it's questionable whether they'd even really be in the conversation for a four-team playoff.
So the question remains: Does strength of schedule matter? If the BCS gives us Florida State vs. Ohio State in Pasadena, Calif., on Jan. 6, we'll know the answer.