Pac-12 teams should start paying more attention to UCLA's scheduling philosophy. It may improve the league's image.
UCLA has played Tennessee, Kansas State and Texas twice in the past five years. This year the Bruins will play at Nebraska as part of its non-conference schedule.
That's a tough stretch for a football program trying to reverse a decade of underachievement. But scheduling high-profile teams in well-respected conferences has helped UCLA build a pipeline to high schools in states with fertile recruiting grounds.
Super-recruiters Adrian Klemm and Demetrice Martin have undoubtedly made a huge impact on UCLA's imprint in Texas and Florida. But it is not just the recruiting factor that has given rise to UCLA's resurgence in college football.
It is the respect factor.
The Bruins' non-conference scheduling practices are a loud, in-your-face statement. They're not afraid to play anyone. And they don't cherry-pick an elite conference's teams.
Tennessee football has recently fallen on hard times. But when the Bruins first played the Volunteers in 2008 as part of a home-and-home series, Tennessee was the defending 2007 SEC East champion. It is a well-respected program with excellent credentials.
USC had also scheduled SEC teams but that has stopped. USC played Auburn in 2002 and 2003 and Arkansas in 2005 and 2006. The Trojans went 4-0 against the SEC and both Arkansas contests resulted in routs.
Why has USC stopped scheduling SEC teams? Maybe the SEC wants no part of USC and is content to schedule Washington and Washington State.
But USC has instead resorted to scheduling Virginia, Boston College, Syracuse and Minnesota. The Trojans' home-and-home series with Ohio State was the lone exception to an otherwise boring five-year, non-conference slate of BCS teams.
Pollsters aren't impressed with a 17-14 win over Virginia. Neither are the fans.
USC does have its annual game with Notre Dame and that does bode well for both teams. But if USC and its conference brethren continue to schedule non-compelling games just for the sake of claiming they are scheduling BCS teams, they won't have much of an audience.
Transparency is key.
We recognize that teams schedule FCS teams to have a very winnable game on their schedule. We also recognize that teams scheduling elite BCS teams are making a statement: Bring it.
If the Pac-12 wants more respect, it needs to schedule more SEC and Big 12 opponents associated with winning traditions. Scheduling teams that are trending up, like Baylor, Mississippi State, Texas A&M or TCU would be excellent alternatives.
The league's teams also need to schedule FCS opponents because the College Football Playoff is coming.
Nine Pac-12 teams played FCS teams last season. USC, UCLA and Stanford did not. If Stanford had scheduled an FCS team instead of Notre Dame, the Cardinal most likely would have had a 11-1 regular-season record instead of 10-2.
Would Stanford have jumped Alabama in the BCS poll and gone on to play Notre Dame in the title game? Probably not. But if the College Football Playoff had been in the picture last year, Stanford's loss to Notre Dame would probably have made it difficult for it to get into the semi-finals.
Likewise, how much an impact did Oregon's non-conference schedule have on its strength of schedule rating? Oregon played Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech in the first three weeks of the 2012 season. Oregon's final SOS was ranked No. 38 by Sagarin. Oregon's SOS was the lowest of the Top 10 teams—Georgia's No. 27 ranking was the next lowest.
The ACC, SEC and Big Ten still play four non-conference games a year—last year the Big East played five. The Pac-12 either needs to follow suit and reduce its current nine conference-game schedule to eight, or every team needs to add an FCS school to even things out.
There are some outstanding non-conference games in the Pac-12: Oregon vs Tennessee, UCLA vs Nebraska, Cal vs Ohio State, Stanford vs Notre Dame, Washington State vs Auburn, Arizona State vs Wisconsin, Arizona State vs Notre Dame and USC vs Notre Dame.
But Arizona plays Northern Arizona, UNLV and UTSA. Washington plays Boise State, Illinois and Idaho State. Colorado plays Colorado State, Central Arkansas and Fresno State. Oregon State plays Eastern Washington, Hawai'i and San Diego State. Utah plays Utah State, Weber State and BYU.
Excited for those slates?
If a team's non-conference schedule doesn't have the potential to bolster its standing or credibility among its peers, it can not cry about its entire strength of schedule. At least 25 percent of its schedule comes from its athletic department's own doing.
UCLA is doing it right. And it is paying off handsomely.