Why are some college football programs so afraid to go out on a limb?
I fully understand what the BCS has done to the game. College football’s unofficial governing body has turned the season into a four-month playoff, and many fans applaud the excitement that has resulted.
And, to be honest, I can’t say I’m not one of those fans. Every game is essentially a do-or-die scenario, and the urgency that now dominates Saturdays in late summer and all of autumn has made college football a thriving brand with momentum and profits to burn.
But at what cost are a majority of teams from major conferences attempting to achieve the perfection that the BCS so gluttonously covets?
Nowadays, nonconference scheduling is an absolute joke. In the three weeks or so that precede conference play, pathetic matchups dominate because schools are afraid to essentially put their seasons on the line.
And when it’s all said and done, the only real winners are the tiny FCS programs who gladly incur a 50-point beating if it means going home with a paycheck.
Of course, there are those programs that refuse to play it safe, some of which are actually big-time contenders who take it upon themselves to flirt with danger in September.
And those teams should be lauded, for there are far too many who’d rather take their chances in conference play than schedule any real competition in the first month of the season.
Here are just a few of the guiltiest culprits.
All photos provided by Getty Images
I hate to rag on my hometown team, but athletic department officials, try as they may (or so I hear), haven’t exactly landed a plethora of marquee opponents to aid the Tigers in their ascension from prolonged obscurity.
The Arch Rivalry against Illinois is nice, but its one-sidedness (Missouri has won each of the five games in the series) has taken some of the luster off of a matchup that both schools have agreed to discontinue after the 2010 season. Mississippi was a worthy adversary for two seasons, in 2006-07, but playing the Rebels then was like scraping the bottom of the SEC barrel.
Gary Pinkel’s Tigers haven’t lost a nonconference game since 2005, and it’s easy to see why. Missouri is a lock to play one solid opponent outside of its conference each season, and the program has made a habit of paying small schools from the immediate region to come to Columbia to get waxed.
And the trend will continue. McNeese State, San Diego State, and Miami (Ohio) visit in 2010, and Indiana, Wyoming, and Memphis are featured on future schedules.
It was rather easy to include the Tigers on this list, but I find it hard to blame them much.
After all, why should they make much of an effort to seek out high quality opponents when everyone else in the Big 12, with the exception of Oklahoma and possibly Nebraska, lays out their schedules with similar caution?
Notre Dame is a staple of tradition in the Michigan schedule, but the Golden Domers are nothing more than the lipstick on the pig.
Like any other major program, the Wolverines seldom take many chances with the nonconference schedule, and you can’t dismiss the possibility that recent early-season struggles at The Big House (i.e. Appalachian State, Oregon, and Utah) have made the Wolverines a bit gun-shy about who they invite to Ann Arbor.
Michigan does go to South Bend in 2010, but home games against Bowling Green, UMass, and a mediocre UConn team make up for the rarity that the Wolverines’ schedule doesn’t feature any of the smaller universities from the state (Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, and Western Michigan).
As of now, empty spaces fill much of the Michigan’s future schedules, but if Rich Rodriguez’s seat continues to warm, it may not be long before those voids are filled with various community colleges from around the country.
When Bill Snyder assumed duties as head coach in Manhattan, he inherited a moribund program that had won just 299 games over the previous 93 seasons.
As dreary as the situation was, Snyder knew what he had to do, and his plan involved scheduling tactics that would allow KSU to take out a little pent-up frustration from years of futility.
And the ploy worked. From 1989 to 2005, Snyder’s first stint at Kansas State, the Wildcats played only two ranked nonconference opponents (No. 4 Washington in 1991; No. 11 USC in 2002), but the wins kept mounting.
From 1993 to 2003, Snyder and Kansas State went undefeated in games outside of the Big 8/Big 12, and by 1998, the school had its first-ever No. 1 ranking.
Now one season into his second go-around, Snyder still enjoys spoon-feeding his team early-season sweets, but things have been ratcheted up a bit. Wrapped around games against Louisiana-Lafayette and Tennessee Tech, KSU ventured out West to play UCLA last season, and the Bruins will make the return trip to Manhattan in 2010.
Even more surprising, however, is what lies ahead. Beginning in 2011, the Wildcats will begin home-and-home series with Oregon and Miami (Fl.) — arrangements that seemed unthinkable during the early stages of Snyder’s reconstruction efforts.
No one will ever confuse Rutgers for being a much of a football juggernaut. As such, I suppose it really doesn’t matter much who the schedule features as long as head coach Greg Schiano and the Scarlet Knights continue in the right direction in their quest for national relevance.
The Rutgers football program has experienced somewhat of a renaissance in recent past, but how much of that success was merely a byproduct of soft nonconference scheduling? The banner season of 2006 was heartwarming, and natives of Piscataway won’t soon forget how it culminated in the school’s first-ever bowl victory.
But how many Rutgers fans will readily acknowledge the fact that the 11-win season was catalyzed by wins over 3-9 North Carolina, Ohio, Howard, and an Illinois team that lost each of its last seven games to finish that season at 2-10?
The Scarlet Knights have yet to regain the magic of 2006, but it’s not because of any uptick in early-season competition.
While its Big East comrades have taken on the likes of Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Florida State, Miami, Auburn, and Fresno State, Rutgers has failed to go big, scheduling games against Army, Florida International, Texas Southern, and Morgan State.
Someone will have to fill me in as to what exactly initiated the nosedive of Maryland football.
Once regarded as one of the stronger programs in the ACC, the Terrapins won 21 games between the 2002 and ’03 seasons and have had intermittent periods of success since then.
But after a nine-win campaign in 2006 and eight wins in 2008, head coach Ralph Friedgen and the Turtles spent last season spiraling out of control, winning just one ACC game en route to a dismal 2-10 finish.
Even when Maryland was winning, the schedule wasn’t very daunting. The Terps paid a visit to South Bend to begin the 2002 season, and an annual duel with West Virginia, by virtue of the Moutaineers’ recent consistency, has helped keep Maryland’s schedule from being completely putrid.
And you could say the same for the recent home-and-home against California. But, for the most part, Maryland’s ACC roadmap has been preceded by some real clunkers, including Delaware, Middle Tennessee, Eastern Michigan, James Madison, William & Mary, and Florida International.
The SEC is king. The current string of national titles validates the very notion. If you’re still not on-board, any number SEC fans within the Northern Hemisphere will be courteous enough to tell you upfront why you are wrong.
Or they could just slap you in the face with a lazy rant laced with expletives and arrogance on any one of their favorite Internet message boards.
Yeah, the SEC is so great, and every other conference out there must pay homage. I’m aware of the highly competitive nature of the SEC, but if its member schools form the end-all, be-all conference of major college football, why schedule cupcakes?
For that matter, if you want to schedule an FCS opponent, why do so in the month of November?
I don’t mean to pick on Tennessee; I could put several other schools from the conference in this spot. But the Vols haven’t exactly frontloaded their schedule with the same kind of marquee opponents as some of their SEC brethren, such as Alabama’s agreement with Virginia Tech or Georgia’s with Oklahoma State.
The home-and-home series with California was entertaining, and after coming up empty-handed in consecutive losses to the Bruins, I doubt UT will want to renew acquaintances with UCLA anytime soon.
This season, the Vols get Oregon in Knoxville in what should be one of the better nonconference games. But it’s likely the Ducks won’t be able to compensate for the listlessness of UT’s three other non-SEC opponents: Tennessee-Martin, UAB, and Memphis.
I nearly slid Ohio State into this slot, but then I remembered the Buckeyes’ matchups with USC and Texas in recent seasons. As a result, Penn State earns the moniker of being one of the Big Ten’s most cowardly programs when it comes to nonconference scheduling.
Save for a two-year agreement with Nebraska in 2002-03, the Nittany Lions have rarely broken a sweat in September, pummeling the likes of Akron, Youngstown State, Coastal Carolina, and Temple in preparation for Big Ten play.
And it seems the grayer Joe Paterno gets — and the higher his patented khaki slacks slide upward — the softer the non-Big Ten slate becomes.
The Nittany Lions outscored the fearsome foursome of Akron, Syracuse, Temple, and Eastern Illinois 142-23 last season, and three of the four nonconference dates in 2010 promise to be just as ugly — with one large exception.
Kicking off a home-and-home arrangement over the next two seasons, Penn State will travel to Tuscaloosa on Sept. 11 to take on the defending national champions.
Sadly enough for me, there seems to be a trend developing. The Jayhawks are the third Big 12 North team on this list, but, in my unbiased opinion as a Missouri fan, Kansas is right where it should be.
Like Kansas State and Missouri, KU doesn’t enjoy straying too far out of its comfort zone in terms of nonconference scheduling. The only thing is, no one realized how scared the Jayhawks were until they actually made some headway in the Big 12.
In its Orange Bowl-winning season of 2007, KU encountered little resistance during what some considered a relatively friendly conference gauntlet, but that theme was consistent with what the team had to deal with outside the Big 12.
By the time the Jayhawks opened conference play in early October, they had whipped Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo, and Florida International by an average of 47 points. Two seasons later, while the unprecedented success has subsided in Lawrence, the September walkthroughs have not.
Florida International returned to Kansas in 2008. Sam Houston State also visited. Last season, Southern Mississippi put up a fight, but the trio of Northern Colorado, UTEP, and Duke offered little competition.
But, hey, maybe new head coach Turner Gill, in his efforts to bring sweeping change to the program, will schedule with a little more moxie than his predecessor, Mark Mangino, whose method was to plaster the names of several FCS lightweights on a wall and throw a dart blindfolded.
As a result of the unified design of the Pac-10, which shuns the notion of splitting into divisions, teams play nine games each season against conference foes, leaving all of three Saturdays to somehow assimilate a balance between devouring inferior competition and finding time for worthy opponents from other BCS conferences.
In the case of Arizona, three weeks is more than enough time to dispose of the schedule’s excess fat. With the exception of head coach Mike Stoops' first few years in Tucson, when the Wildcats took on Wisconsin, LSU, and Utah and BYU twice, Arizona has not scheduled nonconference games with the same fervor as USC, UCLA, and Oregon.
Over the past three seasons, major BCS players have been replaced with Northern Arizona, New Mexico, and Idaho.
And 2010 offers much of the same, as Arizona kicks off the season at Toledo and at home against the mighty Citadel before hosting the Iowa Hawkeyes to round out the non-Pac-10 schedule.
For years now we’ve been hearing how ready Stoops and Arizona are to enter the same realm as the Pac-10 elite. Last season’s 6-3 in-conference mark and second-place finish was a nice start, but if the Wildcats want to be considered on the same national pedestal as USC and Oregon, they’ll have to cause some damage outside of the Pac-10, and do it consistently.
Gators fans can boo-hoo all they want, but Florida’s one chink in the armor remains crystal clear.
I don’t know whether there is a joint effort between head coach Urban Meyer and athletic director Jeremy Foley to keep worthy opponents from entering Gainesville, but at least one of them has to rise up and grow a set, because the Gators’ current nonconference scheduling practices are downright appalling and, quite frankly, a little embarrassing.
Dating back to when the NCAA expanded the regular season schedule to 12 games prior to 2006, other than its yearly bout with Florida State, Florida has played just one non-SEC game against an opponent residing from a BCS conference (Miami in ’08).
It goes without saying that a program as intimidating as Florida will naturally have problems establishing agreements with schools that are perhaps as equally skittish about getting too brave with nonconference scheduling, but it wouldn’t kill the Gators’ perennial national title hopes to go outside of the traditional box.
During last season alone, Florida played Troy, Florida International, and Charleston Southern, which arrived at The Swamp as a 62-point underdog. The Gators outscored the three 180-12. What good does that do? What is gained by running up 70 points on the Citadel?
Never mind the lack of competition. Why is Florida content with spending unnecessary dollars on the paychecks of battered FCS and low-rung FBS opponents every season?
Florida is arguably the preeminent program in all of college football, and the accolades, conference championships, and national titles it receives are certainly earned, playing in the rugged SEC. But how much of that luster deserves to be chipped away when every season is guaranteed to feature at least three wins against outclassed opponents by an average of more than 50 points?