Opinion: Coastal Carolina-BYU game’s success shows how in-season flex scheduling could be huge for college football

When college football looks back on the lessons learned from the improvisational nature of playing during a pandemic, it will be worth remembering that one of the season’s most interesting games was scheduled with three days notice. 

For a sport where Oklahoma and Clemson have a home-and-home series scheduled for 2035 and 2036 while Virginia Tech has a trip to Ole Miss on the books for 2037, it almost defied gravity for 9-0 Coastal Carolina and 9-0 BYU to figure out a way to play last Saturday when Liberty, the Chanticleers’ previously scheduled opponent, had to cancel due to COVID-19 issues. 

“I think the factors aligned well for us,” Coastal Carolina athletics director Matt Hogue said by phone this week. “It wasn’t as hard as it could have been to put everything together.”

By the end of Coastal’s thrilling 22-17 win, which generated the highest rating on an ESPNU broadcast in five years, it had parlayed the willingness to take a risk into a moment that was genuinely good for the school and the sport. And it has sparked a conversation, particularly at the Group of Five level, about whether the post-pandemic future might need to include some in-season scheduling flexibility. 

The Coastal Carolina-BYU game was a major success. (Photo: SCOTT CLAUSE, USA TODAY Network via Imagn Content Services, LLC)

“I think this year has shown that at a high level, both from an institutional and conference standpoint, that games can be aligned in haste and can be aligned in a nature that presents really good games for the casual fan but also creates interesting matchups across college football,” Georgia Southern athletics director Jared Benko said. “It would behoove all of us to step back and say, ‘Is the current way we schedule games and look at games the best practice?’ This year has shown us with the right flexibility to make last-minute changes, it can be somewhat seamless.”

Nobody would argue that throwing together games on a Wednesday afternoon is practical or sustainable in a normal environment. But why couldn't college football build its own version of the old ESPN Bracket Busters event where mid-major teams from various conferences were matched up in made-for-TV games late in the regular season to help boost their schedule strength for the NCAA tournament selection committee?

Here’s one version of how it could work: On some designated weekend in November, every FBS school must leave the same open date. Before the season, schools know whether they would be the home or road team, which would alternate every year, so that they could sell it as part of their season-ticket package.

Then on the Sunday before the games, you learn your opponent. If you’re among the top four teams in one of the power conferences, you’d be matched up against a randomly selected top-four team in another power conference. The rest of the matchups would be completely randomized. You could do the same thing among the Group of Five or engineer it to produce the matchups you want among ranked teams. 

This would produce a massive two-pronged boost for the sport. First, there would be huge intrigue in how the games get selected. Imagine the ratings on an ESPN Sunday afternoon show where we’d learn who Alabama or Clemson was going to draw in one of their last big hurdles before the conference championship games. Then, of course, the games themselves would be more likely to draw in casual fans because they’d generally be pretty competitive while giving us matchups we don’t see very often. 

Now, would schools go for it? At the Power Five level, it’s unlikely unless the extra money involved was significant. In an informal survey sample of one athletics director in every power conference, only one of the five said they’d be personally interested in that kind of arrangement, and all agreed it would be a difficult sell for their leagues.

The bottom line is, schools with nine-figure athletics budgets like to control their schedules, and schools that typically contend for the College Football Playoff would likely be opposed to that kind of risk exposure late in the season when they’re already trying to grind through their leagues. 

But the calculus at the Group of Five level is different. Just look at what’s happened this year with the Playoff selection committee, which pretty much threw up the middle finger at 8-0 Cincinnati by moving two-loss Iowa State ahead of them this week into the No. 7 spot. Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina’s win over BYU, which was the 13th-ranked team last week, only allowed the Chanticleers to take their place. Never mind that Coastal also has a win over Louisiana, which is ranked 19th this week and beat that vaunted Iowa State team early in the season.

That shows what a narrow path the Group of Five teams have to walk to be taken seriously by the Playoff committee. So what do they have to lose, really, by putting themselves out there in games that have the potential to draw more eyeballs? 

“Maybe it does change the mindset a little bit. I hope so,” Hogue said. “I think we’re in a position these days where things are changing rapidly and we have all the technology and resources available together to pull games together at the last minute, so the more we look at that and take advantage of it, the better.

"Will it create a long-term trend? It’s hard to say, but I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t contemplate some concepts. Maybe two conferences could work it out and align their better teams late in the season. I think it definitely bears some concentration as to how the framework might look and getting the other parties involved like TV and see where it could go.”

There are some challenges with that, too. As one Mid-American Conference athletics director pointed out, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the speculative nature of the topic, it could be hard for programs in their league to commit to a non-conference game where they have to play on the road without a seven-figure guaranteed payday that they would be able to get by playing a Big Ten or SEC team. 

But even as that athletics director acknowledged, the overwhelming response to Coastal Carolina-BYU made a flexible scheduling component worth exploring.

And the upside is potentially tremendous. When Coastal Carolina’s baseball team won the College World Series in 2016, the school invested in analytics tools that track how much they’re being talked about on various forms of media and whether those impressions are positive or negative. Hogue said that in three days around the BYU game, Coastal Carolina generated around $44 million worth of earned media coverage, which was also well-timed for recruiting in athletics and the general population of high school seniors making college choices. 

“That’s astounding,” he said. "So that’s what really excites you about the possibility of when you take some chances and do something creative and be ahead of the curve, it can really pay off.”

It also proved that college football doesn’t have to be rigid in its concept of a schedule to produce great games and benefit the sport. Even when the pandemic is over, it's a lesson everyone should take with them. 

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