If you thought early-season college football games have gotten more boring over the years, you might be onto something. Analysis from the Wall Street Journal shows blowouts have become more common for ranked college football teams in non-conference games.
The Journal looked at 40 years of early-season non-conference games played by teams ranked in the preseason top 20. In the first 10 years of analysis (1974-1983), the median margin of victory hovered around 12, and 18 percent of these games featured two ranked teams. But in the past 10 seasons, the median victory margin has been about 23, and ranked teams play each other in only seven percent of these contests. These results are reflected in the Journal's chart seen below, which displays median margin of victory for ranked teams in non-conference games.
There are several reasons behind this trend. In the 70s and 80s, college football teams played 11 regular season games, whereas they now play 12. That extra game has often involved big programs scheduling FCS (formerly 1-AA) teams, since this allows schools to consistently schedule seven or eight home games for as cheaply as possible (FCS schools charge less than FBS schools for visiting opponents).
The rising number of bowl games also plays into scheduling patsies. As recently as 1990, there were just 19 bowl games. Last season, there were 35 bowl games. It used to be difficult for 6-6 teams with shitty records to reach bowl games, but with so many bowls now, pretty much any team with a .500+ record can scratch its way into a bowl, regardless of how soft its schedule was. Getting into a bowl is of the utmost importance for these teams, because bowls bring in money. Even crappy bowls, like the New Orleans Bowl, payout $500,000.
The Journal's analysis looked at ranked teams, which do not need help getting to 6-6, but these teams are still just as likely to pick games against soft targets early in the season. Scheduling cupcakes in advance reduces the risk of missing out on a more lucrative bowl by a win or two. This is why you see school's like Nebraska already locking up games against weak teams like South Alabama in 2019.
These games are little more than a waste of everyone's time, but with any luck, the new playoff system will force teams to construct tougher schedules.