There’s no fixed formula to schedule non-conference opponents in big-time college football.
As for his program, Penn State head coach James Franklin said he ultimately leaves those decisions to the university’s athletic director, Sandy Barbour.
That doesn’t mean, however, he leaves his opinions unsaid.
The construction of Penn State’s schedule was sure to be a big talking point this week, as the No. 5 Nittany Lions prepare to host unheralded Georgia State on Saturday night, Sept. 16, at Beaver Stadium. First-year head coach Shawn Elliott’s program has only been playing since 2010, and it has only been in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision since 2013. The Panthers were just 3-9 last season, and they haven’t won a game outside of the Georgia Dome since the last game of the 2015 regular season at Georgia Southern.
Reportedly, Penn State will pay Georgia State $1.2 million to come to Happy Valley as heavy 38 1/2-point underdogs.
But the question for major programs facing developing ones has long been a question of value. A week after two programs — Oklahoma and USC — jumped ahead of them in the AP and Coaches polls because they beat ranked opponents, it stands to reason the Nittany Lions won’t receive much acclaim from voters no matter how impressive they look against the Panthers. In the long-run, however, that might not matter much to Franklin or Barbour, who know they now may have to weigh greater goals against the value of short-term reputation.
“I have strong feelings about scheduling,” Franklin said during his weekly teleconference Tuesday, Sept. 12. “It’s something that me and Sandy spend a lot of time talking about and discussing. We’re kind of looking at how the playoff system kind of played out last year. You kind of got a bunch of different scenarios to factor in.
“But I think the most important thing you can do, year in and year out, is schedule in a way that’s going to give your team the best chance to win your conference. Then, everything else will take care of itself from there.”
Scheduling Georgia State: The bottom line with scheduling Georgia State is this: During the summer of 2014, Franklin and his staff were guests at Georgia State’s football camp led by then-head coach Trent Miles, a longtime friend of Franklin’s. The two sides opened discussion on playing a game, with the athletic departments ultimately agreeing on a deal that would provide Georgia State a big financial windfall and Penn State a chance to fill a hole in its schedule leading into the 2017 Big Ten slate, which begins next Saturday at Iowa.
It was, at the time, a no-brainer. Penn State wasn’t competing for national championships, and even if it could surprise, Franklin said he put a lot of stock in the College Football Playoff committee’s assertion that it would place more value in winning major-conference championships than it would in playing a stronger early strength of schedule.
Of course, that changed last season, in Franklin’s mind, when the committee chose Ohio State to compete in the College Football Playoff and left Penn State — the Big Ten champion and an October winner over Ohio State — on the sidelines.
So, Franklin said scheduling will play a big role for national championship contenders moving forward. He just doesn’t know what role it will play. For now, he said he stands by his original assertion: Play to win the conference championship, because it’s likely the most sure way to get into the playoff.
But, even that doesn’t seem so certain anymore.
“I don’t know if there is a model that you could say this is the model, because things they have said they were factoring in in the past are not factoring in,” Franklin said. “The narrative is changing. So until we have a couple years worth of data to study, it’s going to be hard to say. But the problem is, we’re dealing with people, not computers anymore. The people in the room change year-to-year, so I don’t know how consistent the data is going to be.
“I think if you win your conference, that’s the best case that you can make. And then after that, humans are going to make decisions.”