I Just Fixed College Football by Smashing All the Cupcakes

A humble idea for scheduling college football: The Lottery Game. John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Exactly 125 member schools exist in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), and yet the three programs that most experts agree are at the top of the class this season – University of Alabama, Florida State University, and University of Oregon – chose to look beyond that lengthy membership roll to fill out their 2013 schedules.

On August 31 the Oregon Ducks hosted Nicholls State of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), a lower division based on smaller enrollment size and athletic budget, which resulted in a 66-3 wildfire.

On September 21 the Florida State Seminoles welcomed FCS member Bethune-Cookman and then promptly shooed them out after a 54-6 pink belly.

And on November 23 the Crimson Tide, the vanguard of the Deep South and winners of three of the past four national championships, will play T. Rex to the chained goat that is Chattanooga, also an FCS program, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Can you imagine if NFL teams were allowed to schedule their own non-divisional games? Worse, can you imagine if the league’s premier teams, such as the San Francisco 49ers or the Denver Broncos, added the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League to their schedules? You would think that’s crazy. So why do we blithely ignore the even crueler mismatch of Alabama vs. Chattanooga?

It is incumbent upon every revenue-generating sport that there be schedule integrity. Schools in the super-conferences, such as Alabama in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) or Oregon in the Pac-12, believe that their conference schedules are demanding enough. As for their three to four non-conference games, they’d rather play three or four patsies, all at their home stadiums, than provide college football fans a greater show.

The result is schedule stagnation, unwatchable mismatches, and parochialism—when Florida traveled to Columbia, Missouri last month to play SEC newcomer Missouri (Hey, a conference game!) it was the farthest the Gators had traveled from their home in Gainesville in more than 20 years. Their last such expedition, to Syracuse in 1991, resulted in a 38-21 defeat, a loss that kept the 10-1 Gators from playing for the national championship. Hence the reticence on behalf of the sport’s leviathans to risk a championship season for the sake of our entertainment.

What if, for one Saturday every season, every FBS program exposed itself, for the greater welfare of the sport, to the same amount of risk? I humbly submit for your consideration The Lottery Game.

Here’s how it works. Each season, the first Saturday of every November would remain open on every team’s schedule. Before the season begins, perhaps during the week before fall camps open in August, a network would host The Lottery Game Selection Show, which would resemble the NCAA basketball tournament selection show.

The name of every FBS school would be placed into a hat, or any machine that draws numbers for a lottery, and we would proceed thusly:


1) Begin either at the top or the bottom of the list of FBS schools, in alphabetical order. For the sake of argument, let’s go in reverse alphabetical order and start with Wyoming.

2) Pull a name out of the hat. For example, the name University of Texas-San Antonio (yes, that’s an actual FBS school) is drawn. (I ran this experiment myself and you can, too, if you have the patience to write out the names of all 125 FBS schools.) So, the University of Texas-San Antonio plays at Wyoming.

3) Move on to the next school – Wisconsin – and repeat.  And so on…

Of course, this idea has some potholes. Allow me to address them here:

A) You pull out the name of your own school.

B) You pull out the name of a school that is already on your schedule.

C) You pull out the name of a school that is in your conference.

In the case of all of the above, you simply return that name to the hat. And this is what makes for compelling television. Say this happens for Western Michigan, which was the third school on the list in reverse alphabetical order. Instead of just selecting another school for the Broncos, we would move on to the next school (West Virginia). Western Michigan must now wait until every other school has chosen – during which time the Broncos may be selected by another school – until its spot in the draft comes up again. If the Broncos have already been selected by another school before we return to their turn, then their turn is eliminated.

The first 62 schools on the list (half) to draw a foe will be the home teams. So whereas Western Michigan picked third – after Wyoming and Wisconsin – and seemed a sure bet to host a Lottery Game, now the Broncos are vulnerable to being chosen by someone else and being the visitor.

Again, more suspense.

The beauty of the idea, of course, is that no school controls its destiny – unlike what transpires now, as schools such as Alabama, Florida State, and Oregon (and they’re not the only ones) use one of their 12 games as a glorified scrimmage. Also, it creates matchups of either geographic or stylistic opposites, matchups that might otherwise never occur for generations. If you are an NFL fan, would you want to know that you might never see your hometown team face, say, the Denver Broncos except possibly in the Super Bowl for your entire lifetime? No. So…

The results of my selection process yielded 17 matchups between Automatic Qualifier (i.e., major conference) schools:

North Carolina State at Wisconsin

Nebraska at Washington

Ohio State at Southern California

Rutgers at Texas Tech

Indiana at Texas A&M

Michigan at Syracuse

Iowa at North Carolina

Colorado at Kansas State

Mississippi State at Iowa State

Minnesota at Georgia

Arkansas at Clemson

Arizona at Baylor

Miami at Arizona State

Oklahoma at Temple

South Florida at Stanford

Memphis at Oregon State

Florida State at Brigham Young

Some of the more prominent schools not featured above:

Buffalo at Oregon; Notre Dame at San Jose State; Auburn at Nevada; Alabama at Fresno State; Florida at Central Michigan.

Of course, because there are 125 FBS schools, one school would be left out. In my draft that was Navy. The Midshipmen could take a bye week, or they could choose to schedule an FCS opponent.

Coaches, you say, would never go for this idea. You’re right. But maybe TV executives could see the $$$ potential, and that message is passed on to school presidents and athletic directors, who would influence their coaches. Would the oligarchs of the game, would Alabama and Oregon and Texas be in favor of this? Maybe not, but a majority of the schools would be.

Another item: If forced into this, most coaches would prefer this game be played in September. Sorry. You play it in November, once records are established and once the stakes for the remaining unbeatens are higher. An undefeated Alabama knows what to expect from fellow SEC teams it plays annually. But a visit to Fresno State in November might throw the Tide out of their comfort zone.

Which, for fans of everyone except the Crimson Tide, is infinitely more exciting.

Of course, in a given year some teams will draw the short straw (Ohio State at Southern Cal is a bowl game, not a breather) while others get an easy “W.” That’s why it’s called the Lottery Game.

Something to keep in mind. During the 1980s the University of Miami was an independent, which meant that the Hurricanes had almost no leverage when it came to scheduling. Head coach Howard Schnellenberger sought to upgrade his program into a national power, so he (and his successors, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson) agreed to play games at Oklahoma, at Michigan, at Notre Dame, at Penn State, and at LSU, among others.

Between 1983 and 1992 the Hurricanes, playing the most arduous and random road schedule in the nation of that era, won four national championships. Fortune favors the bold. And the Lottery Game would favor every college football fan who is tired of watching the modern-day equivalent of Christians vs. lions.