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SOS Formula Should Reflect More Than Just Current Rankings

What happens when a tough opponent you scheduled earlier collapses into a shell of itself?

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Baylor v Duke
Background: DURHAM, NC - SEPTEMBER 16: Quay Chambers #19 of the Duke Blue Devils leads the team onto the field during the game against the Baylor Bears at Wallace Wade Stadium on September 16, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In the Back to the Future sagas, Marty McFly was able to travel back to the 1960s (and ahead to to 2015 – still waiting on those flying cars!). Unfortunately college football programs don’t have access to a souped-up DeLorean to figure out how to create the ideal schedule. Yet strength-of-schedule has become a large focus point for rankings and ratings, particularly over the last 10 years, that coaches probably do wish they could look ahead and see how well their opponents will be.

Take this week’s upcoming game against Baylor. A January 24 article in the Chronicle looking ahead to the 2017 football season listed Baylor as headlining a tough home schedule for the Blue Devils. In April 2015, the Blue Devils and the Bears had agreed to a home and home series, with Baylor traveling to Durham first this upcoming weekend. In terms of strength of schedule, the series seemed to meet the needs of both teams. According to a CBS report, then Baylor head coach Art Briles saw Duke as an upgrade on the teams’ week non-conference schedule, even if Duke football was not then what it is today. For Duke, they had the opportunity to take on a team that went 11-2 in the 2014 and 10-3 in 2015.

In the second Back to the Future, Marty grabbed a sports almanac and went back to the 1950s, and considered wagering on games he already knew the outcomes about. Of course, the book got into wrong hands and altered history (at least in the movie). I would bet that if fans were able to place a wager on the 2017 Duke-Baylor game in April 2015 that the Blue Devils would be listed as mighty underdogs. Fast forward to this past weekend and Duke was listed as a 12 point favorite. The Blue Devils were the hot team heading into the game. And it’s the Blue Devils that came out with a 14-point victory.

Strength of schedule (SOS) certainly has its value. It encourages top teams to take risks to face one another, even if one team will end on up on the losing side. It is probably one of the reasons why this year’s football season began with games like Alabama-Florida State, Michigan-Florida and even Oklahoma-Ohio State.

However, I wish that there was a way for SOS to have some sort of value when a series is created in addition to when a game is played.

Back in 2015, Duke agreeing to take on Baylor today looked like a big boost for Duke’s SOS. I give Coach David Cutcliffe and his staff full credit for the willingness to take on Alabama back in 2010, a game that was a 62-13 blowout. Scheduling such a game (a home game for that matter) demonstrated a willingness to play against the top teams in the nation. The Blue Devils will face the Crimson Tide again in the opening football game of the 2019 season – a game where without any other college football teams in action, will have the eyes of the entire nation.

Unlike the Baylor game, I doubt there is any scenario where Duke will be favored (not to mention favored by 12 points) against Alabama in two years. But as we have learned, there’s no way to tell the future. No matter what the spread or how well Alabama does in 2019, I believe there needs to be a way for the Blue Devils to get credit for scheduling tough opponents (even when those opponents may be very different come game time). And with the upward trend of the Blue Devils, soon opponents may be turning to Duke to increase their SOS in the same way the Blue Devils added Baylor to its schedule in 2015.

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