With many conferences increasing in size in recent years, there are fewer leagues playing a balanced conference schedule. Unfortunately, an unbalanced schedule introduces conference schedule strength as an additional variable that can influence the chase for a conference regular-season title. However, if this is keeping you up at night, it shouldn’t. It’s rarely that big of a deal.
One way to demonstrate this is by looking at the conference record projections on my site (or anybody else’s). If an unbalanced schedule were a big deal, there would be inconsistencies between the order of the teams’ ratings and their projected record, given than most conferences have yet to start conference play. But there are very few of these. As of Wednesday, here are the inconsistencies between national ranking and projected record among conferences that do not play a balanced schedule…
Big Ten: None.
SEC: #76 LSU (9-9) over #75 Mississippi (8-10).
Mountain West: None.
MAC East: #119 Akron (11-7) over #122 Bowling Green (10-8).
MAC West: None.
Conference USA: None.
OVC East: None.
OVC West: None.
Big South: None.
Big Sky: #251 Northern Arizona (10-8) over #241 Idaho (9-9).
MEAC*: #345 Howard (5-11) over #346 North Carolina A&T (6-10).
*The MEAC is in the thick of conference play already, so numbers were taken from last Monday.
In 13 conferences with an unbalanced schedule, there are four inconsistencies, all by a game and mainly in the middle of the conference. Unbalanced schedules can swing things by a game or so, but it would take some incredible scheduling circumstances to ever see a two-game difference based on the schedule.
Actually, I don’t think that’s even possible. The three current cases shown above are the result of rounding. The schedule actually has less than a half-game impact in those cases. For instance Akron is forecast for 10.4 wins while Bowling Green is expected to get 10.8 wins. Rounding exaggerates the difference.
It’s true that the best team doesn’t always win its conference title. And in rare cases, the schedule can swing a conference race to one team or the other. But the biggest factor in preventing the best team from winning its conference is more often going to be the random things that influence the outcome of close games.