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It’s Time for the AAC to Change Its Scheduling Model

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Between conference realignment and the College Football Playoff expansion on the horizon, conferences are re-thinking how they build conference schedules. The AAC should too.

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NCAA Football: The American Athletic Conference Championship-Houston at Cincinnati Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

For years now, the SEC has had a major scheduling issue. At fourteen teams in two divisions, it can easily be a decade before one school visits every campus in football. The B1G 10 and ACC have the same problem. It’s so bad in the ACC that North Carolina and Wake Forest, teams that share the same state and conference, agreed to an out-of-conference game to make sure they actually played one another.

Now that the SEC has expanded to sixteen teams, keeping divisions is simply impractical. According to Iowa athletic director Gary Barta, the B1G 10 is looking into new scheduling formats too.

Think about it like this. Fanbases are currently bored with playing the same teams every year and want to play every conference opponent. As ticket sales plummet, that’s a big deal. On top of that, the expansion of the College Football Playoff is going to change how teams schedule. If the twelve-team Playoff eventually goes through, then you don’t need to fight over who played the toughest schedule as much. You need your best teams to win more than ten games. Plus, the “Alliance” of the ACC, PAC-12, and B1G 10 want to go down to an eight-game conference schedule to play each other more.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You can’t wait for that Syracuse vs. Cal series. I can’t wait either. It’s gonna be so gross. However, there are a few points that the AAC needs to be cognizant about going forward too.

The AAC sees itself as a Power Six conference. The AAC just sent a team to the four-team Playoff, which no one thought was possible for the Group of Five. In an expanded Playoff, especially one that guarantees G5 access, the AAC should be in nine years out of ten. Furthermore, no conference has been more tied into conference realignment than the AAC.

Take out the 2013-14 seasons, when Rutgers and Louisville were still in the AAC but were already on their way out and teams like Navy weren’t yet in the conference, and look at the history of scheduling in the AAC. At twelve teams, AAC teams played the five teams in their division, plus three from the other division. After two years playing those three teams, at both campuses, you’d switch to playing the other three.

At eight conference games, this was a good model for the conference. It gave four out of conference games to play traditional rivalries that fans care about, like Army-Navy and SMU-TCU. It gave room to schedule an easy FCS game. Then, if you needed a pay game, you had time for that too. Otherwise, you could fill out the schedule as you needed. It worked well.

Then, UConn left, killing the divisions. At eleven teams, where the AAC stands now, they play eight games. There aren’t divisions, and it’s just the top two records that go to the conference championship game. This, itself, is a good thing. The AAC also has a habit of making sure that rivals still play each other, like UCF-USF, in this current format.

The conference structure is about to change, though. Three teams are leaving, and six new ones are coming. That will leave the conference at fourteen teams, and it’s going to be tempting to move back to divisions. Play the other six on your side, and two from the others on a rotational basis. But, this would lead to problems. The AAC would run into the simple issue of not playing enough of their opponents or potentially losing rivalries. On top of that, if the AAC is trying to get a team in the Playoff, you want your two best teams in the conference championship game. Divisions can lead to an 8-4 team upsetting your best shot at the Playoff.

So, it’s important that the AAC gets creative and stays creative once they hit fourteen teams. That way, each team plays on every other campus in a four-year span, and the conference is positioned as well for the College Football Playoff as possible.

Pods

Pods refer to small groupings of teams within a conference who play each other every year. For instance, in the current AAC, you might have a pod that includes Houston, SMU, and Memphis. Those three teams play each other every season. They, then, would play two teams from the other three pods on a rotational basis to play eight teams a season.

However, at fourteen teams, pods aren’t really possible. If the conference had sixteen teams, then you could have four, four-team pods. At twelve, you could have four, three-team pods. At twelve teams, however, that’s not really possible.

Locked-In Rivalries

Having locked-in rivalries would look something similar to the AAC’s current format. Essentially, this works where one team would have two or three teams they play annually, but those teams aren’t necessarily grouped together. Saying a team plays three other teams annually, the other ten in the conference would then be played on a rotational basis. The top two conference teams would go to the conference championship game.

Here is what this might look like:

Charlotte

  1. ECU
  2. Navy
  3. FAU

ECU

  1. Charlotte
  2. Memphis
  3. USF

FAU

  1. USF
  2. Charlotte
  3. UAB

Memphis

  1. UAB
  2. ECU
  3. Temple

Navy

  1. Tulane
  2. Charlotte
  3. Temple

North Texas

  1. Rice
  2. UTSA
  3. Tulsa

Rice

  1. SMU
  2. UTSA
  3. North Texas

SMU

  1. Rice
  2. Tulsa
  3. UTSA

Temple

  1. Navy
  2. Memphis
  3. USF

Tulane

  1. Tulsa
  2. UAB
  3. Navy

Tulsa

  1. Tulane
  2. SMU
  3. North Texas

UAB

  1. Tulane
  2. Memphis
  3. FAU

USF

  1. FAU
  2. ECU
  3. Temple

UTSA

  1. Rice
  2. North Texas
  3. SMU

The AAC has, generally, done a good job scheduling in the past. Now, with all the changes going on in the sport, the conference needs to stay creative. Otherwise, they could easily lose the position of strength that they’ve gained among the other Group of Five teams.