Cowards. That's what the Wall Street Journal called the Wisconsin Badgers in so many words last week, and I imagine it was a message that Gophers fans enjoyed.
Wisconsin won its 30th consecutive nonconference game Saturday -- coach Bret Bielema is 22-0 in such games -- and while Badgers fans celebrated, the national business newspaper sniffed, "It's easy to get all A's when all you're taking is underwater basket weaving." The Journal's point: Wisconsin has played the easiest nonconference schedule in the nation over the past eight years.
But it's not like the Badgers are alone in their reluctance to plunge into a September full of land mines. The .314 winning percentage of their nonconference opponents, as calculated by the Journal, is joined by Northwestern's (.343) and Indiana's (.387) as the three easiest. And look around the Big Ten -- schedules are full of Eastern Illinois and South Carolina State. Of the 48 nonconference games that Big Ten teams will play, only five -- two with Notre Dame and single games with Arizona State, Alabama and USC -- will involve Top 25 teams.
It's not difficult to understand the reluctance that schools feel toward playing their peers. The Big Ten schedule, especially with Nebraska adding one more hurdle, is difficult as it is, and there is virtually no incentive to add more tough games -- or even competitive ones, if it can be avoided.
Stadiums at the top programs sell out regardless. Coaches afraid for their jobs are protective of their won-loss record. And unlike basketball and its RPI, there is virtually no penalty for gobbling down cupcakes; an undefeated team is virtually certain to be rewarded with a BCS bowl game, so why imperil that possibility with games where the outcome is uncertain?
There is a solution, however, and it's one most football fans are in favor of already: Hold a football playoff.
If league champions were given automatic berths into a tournament, the imperative to remain unbeaten in September would disappear. Nonconference games could become good dress rehearsals for the league season, and losses wouldn't carry such a heavy penalty. UConn's basketball team lost nine games last season, but nobody considers the Huskies unworthy of their NCAA championship.
And so it would be in football. If Wisconsin, for example, was convinced to test its two-back attack against Oklahoma in September, the benefits of a potential victory would outweigh the risk of losing, because winning a Big Ten championship game would remain the goal.
It wouldn't entirely remove the incentive to pad teams' records with easy victories -- teams still want a few low-intensity games to prepare players for what's ahead, and coaches still worry about their records -- but perhaps teams would be more daring, knowing that conference championship games still provided an avenue to the tournament.
ESPN and the other networks that broadcast college football are plagued with uninteresting, low-rated matchups in September. Maybe those networks would begin brokering better September games, as they do during the nonconference season in basketball, to boost ratings.
An eight- or 16-team tournament undoubtedly would help interest skyrocket in January. But it might do the same in September, too. And fewer teams might resort to cowardice.