Cornhuskers scheduling proactively in preparation for potential future changes to the College Football Playoff
Scott Frost taking Nebraska to the College Football Playoff National Championship Game obviously isn't a realistic goal for at least a few years. However, that's not stopping the Big Red administration from planning for the eventual possibility. A major component that makes or breaks a team's chances is its schedule. While many schools are still in a state of confusion about how to approach this if the CFP committee implements some significant changes, Nebraska appears to be in full prep mode.
The current ESPN-CFP contract expires after the 2026 season, meaning teams with a reasonable shot at taking part have to be proactive. Questions regarding expanding the field from four participants to eight have been constant from the beginning. Programs able to make a case for a chance to win it all but don't sniff an opportunity are and have been rather furious. Also, money is being left on the table, perhaps the largest cardinal sin of college football.
In a January 2018 interview, former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson discussed that year's championship playoff between No. 2 Georgia and No. 4 Alabama. He felt the nation wouldn't be as engaged because of the All-SEC tilt. Despite that, the game provided the second-highest television ratings for a postseason contest in history. This is fantastic news for the SEC, a conference clearly not responsive to any format change, but the rest of the Power 5 not only wants a piece of the pie, but they also crave a larger meal to gorge on.
Pilson pointed out the Big Ten footprint — an area as rabid about its football as its Southern counterpart — includes a quarter of the United States' population. Should a team from that conference take on mean old Alabama or challenge today's only true ACC threat in Dabo Swinney's white-hot Clemson teams, one could make the argument viewers would tune in to see two different cultures clash. Ticket prices would be a hotter commodity across the country, more people would travel (imagine if Nebraska fans showed up), and the merchandising opportunities would flourish.
Before we put the cart too far in front of the horse. How we consume college football now may be different by 2026. There's already frequent discussion of stadiums downsizing to offer a more fan-friendly experience. Television packages could present an NFL Sunday Ticket one-time fee for a smorgasbord style of college football consumption.
If the SEC has taught us anything through the CFP era, it's that schedule strength is irrelevant when a team has big names dotting its conference slate. Alabama can play Duke, New Mexico State, Southern Miss, and Western Carolina next season while Georgia has no problem taking on Murray State and Arkansas State. The Bulldogs have Notre Dame in the mix, and besides, what is the committee going to do? Deny an undefeated or one-loss SEC champion?
Why should the Big Ten do any different in the interim? If you review Nebraska's 2019 docket, the Huskers open the season against South Alabama followed by a trip to face Colorado and a return home to challenge Northern Illinois. This is shrewd booking considering not only is their first conference game on the road (Illinois), but they battle Ohio State and a new full-time head coach in Ryan Day come game five.
Next year's non-conference slate features Central Michigan, South Dakota State, and Cincinnati. The most daunting of starts? Not at all. An almost guaranteed 3-0 run? You bet and therein lies the importance. Future Nebraska schedules also include Buffalo, North Dakota, Georgia Southern, and Akron. However, the Nebraska administration is doing something important in case the CFP Powers That Be ratchet up the need for a higher strength of schedule.
Note Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, also the Chairman of the College Football Playoff Board of Managers, who made a somewhat non-committal statement in January saying, "At some point down the road, as part of our regular review of all matters pertaining to the playoff, the management committee will meet, and it will consider all aspects of the playoff, as it routinely does. We are very satisfied with the playoff and look forward to its continued success."
In case Keenum and his colleagues pull the trigger on the popular eight-team format, Nebraska appears to be increasing the difficulty of their schedules and they're not alone. Georgia is doing so with the likes of Clemson, Florida State, Texas, and Oklahoma already lined up starting in 2027. Let's also remember these contracts can be bought out and if they are, chances are it won't matter. A frequent winner in college football means money is there to be made and as referenced, dollars and cents are at the heart of this sport.
The Huskers have a home-and-home with Tennessee scheduled just as the current CFP contract expires and the second of two scheduled series with Oklahoma is set up for 2029 and '30. The only other matchups set during this time frame are North Dakota in 2026 and South Dakota State in 2028.
It's important to keep in mind Huskers athletic director Bill Moos has often alluded to clashes with familiar foes. Kansas, Kansas State and other programs within easy driving distance are names that continue to pop up. These games would provide Nebraska with Power 5 opponents rather than Group of 5 teams, yet seemingly with a similar probability of coming away the winner.
In the meantime, the Husker brass can work channels behind the scenes to get an idea of what the committee will or won't demand from programs when it's time to line up future opponents. If it still doesn't care playoff-bound teams are beating up on Pawtucket State, Power 5 programs can continue to target the Sun Belt conference and those like it. If Keenum and Co. require programs to beef up their slates, no problem.
Nebraska hasn't scheduled the same number of quality teams Georgia has but is poised to do so. Even better, the Huskers are not sitting on necessary buyouts if things go awry. The Huskers are no doubt in a holding pattern while dipping a toe back into the Big Six/Eight/12 crowd for nostalgia-tinted match-ups. Regardless of how the scales tip regarding schedule weight, the Huskers are so far navigating their way back to the brightest of spotlights about as well as anyone could hope.