Yesterday at the Big Red Network, Steve Hanaway asked if it was wise for Nebraska to play Virginia Tech. His theory is that a non-conference win does little for your national resume, and a loss does far more damage. Hanaway subscribes to the theory that going undefeated is sufficient to earn a berth in the national championship game, so why take unnecessary chances in the nonconference schedule? (Of course, tell that to Auburn after they went undefeated in 2004 yet failed to get a BCS Championship Game berth.)
Today over at DoubleExtraPoint, Sammy Vegas released his preseason BlogPoll ballot featuring #8 Notre Dame, #9 Ole Miss, #23 Rutgers, and #24 Pitt. His reasoning: they play relatively easy schedules compare to other teams, and to him, it's the win totals that matter, not who you beat. (For comparison purposes, I ranked Ole Miss #16, and did not rank Notre Dame, Rutgers, and Pitt on my preseason ballot.)
I'm not going to deny Steve and Sammy's arguments that wins matter most. Tom Osborne used that argument to some extent after the 1997 season when he claimed "We won 13, and that's all we played." The most absurd case of this is Brigham Young in 1984. 25 years ago, BYU won the WAC and defeated a 6-5 Michigan squad in the Holiday Bowl. The reward: A national championship as they were the only undefeated team in the nation. But does anybody REALLY believe that BYU was the best college football team in 1984?
I'm a firm believer that sportswriters seriously damaged college football when they criticized the BCS formula in 2000, when Florida State edged out Miami for the right to play Oklahoma. Miami won a head-to-head matchup, but Florida State's strength of schedule was higher, and the Seminoles got the bid. The next year, Nebraska's strength of schedule was sufficient to edge out Oregon and Colorado for the right to play whipping boy for Miami, and the BCS formula was refined further to favor wins over all else, no matter the quality. And ever since, teams have scheduled down since rules of the game encourage weak schedules. Lesser opponents don't demand home-and-home series, which means not only more wins, but more home games (and thus, more money from ticket sales).
So now Nebraska finds themselves playing for the Sun Belt Conference championship this season, with non-conference home games against Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State, and Louisiana-Lafayette. Is that really good for fans? To a casual fan, maybe. It's an extra opportunity to wear your red, eat a Runza, and see the Huskers with an almost assured victory. But when it's all said and done, will it be satisfying? Will you remember those three games after the season? Not if they win them.
From my perspective, Texas' non-conference games and Nebraska's Sun Belt games really shouldn't count. It's bad for college football; they are being played for the money, not for the sake of competition. They are almost like NFL exhibition games; the sole purpose is to see who's ready to play and to work out the kinks in a game setting. I understand a game or two like that is necessary to get the team ready. But three? One too many as far as I'm concerned.
So how does this change? Simple. Bring strength of schedule back into the equation. Use the NCAA basketball tournament's bracket philosophy: total number of wins isn't nearly as important as who you beat. Beating quality opponents should count for much more than victories by themselves, and playing a quality opponent and losing shouldn't be viewed as negatively. Look at the Nebraska/Texas Tech game last season: was your opinion of the strength of the Huskers higher before or after the game? From a traditional pollster mentality, Nebraska would have fallen in the rankings after the loss (if Nebraska had been anywhere close to being ranked at the time.) But I think most fans felt better about the state of the Huskers after the game than beforehand.
As such, who you play and how you play will count much more to me than just the fact you won. Or as it's engraved into Memorial Stadium:
“Not the victory but the action;
Not the goal but the game;
In the deed the glory”