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Column: How much does order of schedule matter in college football?

Does a weird game week one throw things off for the whole year?

Akron v Ohio State Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

In 2014, JT Barrett got his first start at quarterback when Ohio State traveled to Baltimore to take on the Navy Midshipmen. The Buckeyes won 34-17.

We all know what happened the next week — Ohio State’s sole loss of the season against Virginia Tech.

Of course, the rest is history. The Buckeyes grew together as a team and improved over the course of the season to the point they beat Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game 59-0 and defeated Alabama and Oregon in succession to win the inaugural College Football Playoff.

But what’s particularly interesting about the 2014 season is that, that year, the Buckeyes had to open the season against a triple-option team in Navy, which is almost assuredly the bane of every defensive coordinator’s existence. It means essentially a completely altered week of practice to prepare for an offense that simply can’t be defended with the usual schema. In a way, it’s something of a distraction.

However, with the drama of Virginia Tech, it’s easy to forget what happened immediately after in the milieu of the championship season. Yes, the memory of the Buckeyes’ third game of 2014 is less salient, but Ohio State did indeed bounce back with a definitive 66-0 win over Kent State.

It’s easy to chalk that big win up to the Buckeyes’ violently getting back on track; a renewed motivation to put things back together the way they were supposed to be. But it’s also rather clear that it’s a heck of a lot easier to defeat a team like Virginia Tech when all attention is focused on beating a team like Virginia Tech — without the relative diversion of needing to overcome a triple-option threat.

So what might have happened if Ohio State had flipped Navy and Kent State, playing the Golden Flashes week one and opting to face the Midshipmen week three? It would have meant a better tune up opportunity before facing the Hokies, that’s for certain. It would have meant time to get ready for an offense with some nuance, rather than a completely different scheme. Of course, there’s no guarantee such a strategy wouldn’t backfire spectacularly, since the Buckeyes would need to prepare for the triple option at the end of the non-conference season.

But what we saw in 2014 wasn’t isolated to 2014. In 2017, the Buckeyes opened with Indiana. It certainly wasn’t the same kind of complication as a triple option, but it was a high stakes conference game that culled more attention than an elite program might normally give to its week one opponent, and Ohio State followed up its Thursday night win in Bloomington with a loss at home against No. 5 Oklahoma.

(As an aside, the Thursday game feels like a trap, too, throwing off the rhythm of the practice schedule.)

Fast forward to 2021, where the schedule fit Minnesota, Oregon, Tulsa and Akron into the first four weeks. Opening with a conference opponent and then heading into a premium non-conference matchup, in retrospect, looks like a bad pattern.

The challenge is clear: It’s hard to open with an opponent for whom Ohio State must specifically prepare, because it’s easy to dedicate more than the fair share of practice time to said opponent, rather than more generally preparing for the season.

And that need is obvious. In the case of Navy, Ohio State had to be prepared for an offense they were not built to defend and which they only faced once every decade or so.

More recently, the trouble with opening with conference opponents is that, though every game is a must win in today’s college football landscape, conference games have even more heightened stakes. Losing a conference game on opening weekend means not controlling your own destiny when it comes to the conference championship.

That means teams will put all their energy and efforts into preparing for that team and that team alone. And as much as we say that we don’t want Ohio State to look ahead, it’s a heck of a lot easier to fit in some Oregon prep if the week one opponent is Akron and not Minnesota.

Sure, there are benefits to having teams like Akron a little later. As we saw Saturday, CJ Stroud had a chance to rest from a minor injury. TreVeyon Henderson only carried the ball eight times and got to rest for much of the game. Younger players got a chance to get in-game experience that will certainly aid them later in their careers (or even this season).

However, there’s a reason these games are often referred to as tune-ups, and there would seem to be a benefit to having those games sooner rather than later. In other words, you’ve got to crawl before you can walk. While no one is arguing that being able to beat Akron would mean Ohio State could beat Oregon, it is reasonable to surmise that Ohio State would have been in a better position to beat the Ducks having had a game to get better.

Obviously scheduling plays a role in that pollsters have short memories, and earlier losses don’t seem to hurt teams when it comes to College Football Playoff consideration as later losses do.

Of course, with the high-stakes of the CFP and contending for a Playoff spot, along with the pressure of lucrative media deals while balancing nine-game conference schedules, Power Five teams are all-but required to schedule a premier out-of-conference matchup early in the season. The era of playing a set of mediocre out-of-conference opponents are gone.

That being said, even title contenders seem to be forgiven an annual gimme. But scheduling it in the right spot might be half the battle.