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Chuck McGill: College football schedules beef up in new era

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —The fast-food chain Wendy’s has leaned on two slogans over the past three decades: “Where’s the beef?” and “Here’s the beef.”

The Southeastern Conference’s unprecedented strength-of-schedule mandate is a modest — and potentially flawed — attempt to get its 14 member institutions to move from the former slogan to the latter when it comes to non-conference opponents.

The SEC, which produced seven consecutive national champions from 2006 to 2012, moved Sunday to force schools to schedule at least one non-league game against a program from another power conference — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 — for every season starting in 2016.

This is compelling for West Virginia University athletic director Oliver Luck for a couple of reasons.

One, obviously, is because he will be part of the first-ever 13-person College Football Playoff committee, and, along with a dozen others, will select the four teams that will vie for the 2014 title. The SEC’s scheduling mandate doesn’t kick in for two more seasons, but it seems to show league commissioner Mike Slive is preparing for the sport’s new era and readying his league to be as attractive as possible when it comes to selecting the four teams that will enter the three-game event.

That can’t happen if member institutions are shying away from quality opponents, regardless of the league’s reputation.

“This is Slive’s attempt to upgrade the schedule from top to bottom,” Luck said Monday afternoon. “How much of an upgrade will that be? We’ll see.”

While Luck waits for the answer to that question, here’s another: Does the mandate really matter? Only four SEC teams — Vanderbilt, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Texas A&M — do not have a team from one of the other four power conferences on its schedule this season. Plus, this doesn’t force SEC schools to add Texas or Wisconsin or Virginia Tech. They can instead satisfy the requirement with Indiana or Kansas or Washington State.

Nothing beefy about Vandy vs. Purdue or Ole Miss vs. Rutgers.

The second reason this might involve WVU is, perhaps, this opens more opportunities for Luck to enhance future schedules with teams from the SEC. By remaining an eight-team league, which was another one of the league’s decisions, each program is going to need four non-conference opponents instead of only three. If there aren’t teams from the other four power leagues on future schedules, they’re going to need to arrange deals ... and quick.

The Big 12, unlike the SEC, plays a nine-game conference schedule, thus ADs like Luck only need to find three non-conference opponents. The Mountaineers’ schedule is full for this season and next, but there is only one commitment for 2016 (BYU), 2017 (East Carolina) and 2020 (ECU again).

Luck hasn’t been bashful about signing up to play SEC schools.

The Mountaineers open this coming season against Alabama in Atlanta as part of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic. WVU is also close to finalizing a one-game deal to play Tennessee in Charlotte, N.C., for the 2018 season. Once that is a done deal, the Mountaineers will join rare company among the 51 non-SEC power conference programs.

Only seven other power conference — or “highly visible" — schools are signed up to play multiple SEC teams in the future: Wisconsin, Michigan, Louisville, Clemson, Georgia Tech, UCLA and Oklahoma. Among that group, Louisville (vs. Kentucky), Clemson (vs. South Carolina) and Georgia Tech (vs. Georgia) are in-state games.

Not many programs are willingly signing up to play out-of-state SEC games, but that will likely change. The mystery of the CFP is that school officials and coaches are unsure what will ultimately make teams the most attractive for at-large selection. Will a two-loss team that had the nation’s toughest schedule leap ahead of an undefeated or one-loss team that has a weaker schedule?

“It’s like with our men’s basketball team,” Luck said. “We knocked off three top 25 teams in Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas. Why? Well, you have to play top 25 teams to start knocking them off.

“With our baseball team, our RPI is great right now because coach (Randy) Mazey totally upgraded the schedule and the Big 12 teams are coming into Morgantown. We’re going to have our share of top 15, top 20 and top 25 teams.

“We know we’re going to do that in college football, too. We’re going to have probably three or four games against the top 15 or top 20 every season. That’s the way it is in the Big 12.”

The Mountaineers played eight nationally ranked teams in football the past two seasons, all Big 12 teams. WVU would need five years of Big East regular seasons to reach that number.

Luck isn’t in talks with any other SEC schools, but the first-ever meeting with the Volunteers at a neutral site should be done soon. Negotiations are underway about a WVU-Virginia Tech game at FedEx Field, where the Mountaineers are scheduled to play Brigham Young in 2016.

“Virginia Tech, Alabama and Tennessee — these are great regional games or they are rivalry games we’ve wanted to rekindle,” Luck said. “By and large, as you go through the highly visible conferences, you’ll see some really good matchups in September just as you will when conference play begins in October and November.”

Luck added that strength of schedule “is going to be a very important factor in this new era of college football.”

WVU will play 11 of 12 regular season games against power conference schools this season. Expect 10 or more in future seasons.

Like Luck said, it’s the new era.

Where’s the beef? Here’s the beef.

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