Pretend for a moment you’re a company with a few manufacturing lines. Some are big, some are small, some are complex, and there’s one that gets a lot of attention because it makes a really popular product with mighty margins.
In the spring you tore out some significant pieces of your strongest profit-generating line and replaced them with newer units. You spent a few weeks installing the new units, but then you and your committee got pulled away for other projects while the manufacturing line sat idle.
Cut to mid-summer and all of a sudden you have a huge short-run production order due by the end of December on this line. You’re now thrown back onto the line to get it completely installed and firing out good product by September 1. Therein lies a problem – you don’t have a chance to create test product samples and confirm that all of the machine’s settings and processes are optimized. Everything that comes out of the machine has to be customer-ready. You’ve gotten a chance to generate some practice pieces just to make sure the machine has a semblance of working order, but it’s just stuff that would never leave the plant. Generating samples for testing and quality would have been helpful, however that’s a luxury you’re not afforded.
But once September 1 hits, the switch must be flipped and the machine must start making customer-ready product. And if you have any quality issues between now and mid-December? You miss out on a pretty sizable bonus and award, and your customers will be angry with you and call for your job. You have one chance to get it all right and you don’t get a chance to truly try the process out before hitting the ground running.
It might sound like an extremely ridiculous manufacturing scenario, but in a nutshell this is a description of big-time college football and the severe lack of PDCA through the use of exhibition games.
Every big-time sport here in the United States has a series of practice exhibitions or preseason games.
NFL? Yup. In fact, they have a quarter season’s worth of preseason games.
MLB? Almost a full month of practice games in Spring Training.
College basketball? A couple of games.
College baseball? A few, including some against the big leaguers that some MLB teams would rather forget.
NHL? They have preseason games.
But college football? None.
Each program is permitted a few practices in the spring (including an inter-squad scrimmage that signals the end of the first practice season) and a few practices in the summer before kicking off the regular season with game results that matter.
In addition, each team has about 12 individual “orders” or games they must “fill” or win. Only 12 opportunities to get it right. If they do well, they are in line for a “bonus order” of a bowl game.
PDCA stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act. PDCA is a continuous improvement framework that entails having a plan and trying it out to see what works and doesn’t work (the Plan and Do stages), identifying the achieved results and checking them against expectations, and inspiring action to improve what is in place or proceed with the plan as is.
Preseason or exhibition games act as a PDCA for sports teams. You’re no longer force to only learn internally against those whose tendencies are already known (a team pitting its offense against its defense), and you get a chance to try some new ideas and new players out in real-live game action at full speed. Coaches will learn what works and doesn’t work based on game results, and implement improvements as needed.
But for now, many teams will be breaking in brand new quarterbacks who have never taken a snap of live in-game college football in their life and are now expected to start producing. New wide receivers. New defensive backs.
So much could go wrong, with little opportunity to optimize it before it truly matters.
So why don’t college football teams get preseason games?
Is it because of money and travel arrangements? Bring in a lower-division opponent for a single game, just so you can tweak some ideas and changes to personnel or the playbook against a team that hasn’t already seen it and that you haven’t seen for 30 days of practice. Logistics issues like travel? Find a team that isn’t too far away. Besides, college football is so popular and there are so many fan bases ripe with hope that they might happily travel a short distance just to get the first glimpse of their team’s action after eight months of nothing.
Is it about injuries? Well, each NFL team has four preseason games against other NFL teams and their players get injured from time to time. Nothing says you have to play your best players 100% of the time – it’s an exhibition, it doesn’t count. Be careful about how much you play your superstars, give them just enough work to remind them of how fast the game can be, and get them out.
Is it about school and the student-athlete? Perhaps. (I’m not going to get into a philosophical debate about “student” vs. “athlete” right now.) Maybe it would be difficult to organize a preseason game before classes begin for the players…but maybe it wouldn’t be difficult after all.
Look, right now there are lots of college football teams trying to generate a semblance of a preseason game. Programs like South Carolina and Alabama and Michigan have been known to host games against allegedly-inferior opponents from lower division levels so that they minimize the risk of having poor production (I said minimized, not guaranteed) in the form of a game loss while also doing a little PDCA. It’s the closest thing college football has to production trials.
Many teams get ripped for following this practice of scheduling “cupcake” teams, but if it helps them prepare for the grueling schedule ahead of them and they can get a leg up by experimenting and confirming expectations (or fixing what falls short) with little risk, why not?