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Are Big Name Non-Conference Games Worth Playing for Power Five Schools?

Tennessee experienced heartbreak at the hands of the Sooners in 2015. Was it necessary?

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Tennessee Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Every year as I stare down the long empty barrel of Summer, I end up looking forward to week one of College Football. Those first games are probably some of the most analyzed of the entire season, simply because we have several dead months leading up to them. Week one usually features five to six stout non-conference games, pitting two powerhouses against one another. But if you’re already playing in a power five conference, what’s the point?

I’ll use Tennessee as an example, since this is a Tennessee blog. Roll back to 2015. Momentum is starting to slowly churn forward after years of disappointment. For the first time in a long time, people are picking you to win the SEC East. It’s way too early to think about making the playoff at this point, but bare with me.

Remove Oklahoma from the schedule and replace them with a pushover. There’s a win. You’re 3-0 heading to the swamp to take on Florida. Let’s pretend like the Vols didn’t absolutely choke that game away.

(I’m sorry to keep bringing up all of these horrible memories.)

We’ll keep the Arkansas and Alabama losses because the Vols were outplayed in those games. But look what you come out with.

A 10-2 record. That gets you at least into the conversation with essentially a play-in game coming in the form of the SEC Championship. At worst, that’s a trip to the Sugar Bowl over the Outback Bowl.

Here’s the bottom-line. The SEC schedule is good enough to sustain your standing with the playoff committee. A big time non-conference game looks great and might even act as a tie-breaker if needed, but you still have to win it.

Look at a couple more examples from last year alone.

  • Colorado: Lost to Michigan. If they play a cupcake on that day instead, they are sitting 11-1 heading into the Pac-12 title game, likely as a playoff team before kickoff.
  • USC: If USC doesn’t get absolutely demolished by Alabama week one and plays a cupcake game, they end the year 10-2 as the hottest team in the country and don’t have to play in a conference title game. They’d be on the bubble, but you’d have to think the committee would have a different idea of them without that Bama blemish.

There’s no reason for power five schools to put themselves out there with these games. If you go 11-1 with three cupcake wins and seven SEC wins, you’re likely going to the playoff. Period.

These games make for fantastic fan experiences and big time national exposure, but in the grand scheme, all you’re doing is putting yourself at risk.

Maybe the issue here lies in the fact that you have to schedule these games 10-20 years out. You have no idea where your program is going to be a decade from now. We saw that situation rear its ugly head when the Vols had to take a trip to Oregon. That’s a whole separate issue.

Perennial powers like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Florida State can usually get away with it. But I just don’t see the need. If these teams play three cupcakes and do what they’re supposed to do in conference, they’ll be in the final four.

If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best — but I’d rather get my chance to beat the best with everything on the line in January. That’s just my two cents.