After an 0-3 start to the season that has included two crushing defeats at the hands of Pac-10 programs, there may have never been a better time for San Jose State to be hosting an FCS opponent.
But as the Spartans prepare to face Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo this Saturday, there are legitimate concerns about how they'll handle their latest challenge, given the demoralizing start to 2009. Having sandwiched a potential upset of then-No. 17 Utah between two blowouts at the hands of USC and Stanford, rising to the occasion could be extra hard on a team that has cultivated zero momentum thus far.
Can Head Coach Dick Tomey rally his squad to the start of a winning streak, or has the treacherous out-of-conference schedule laid waste to the rest of the season?
We can can give credit to Tomey and the Spartans for having the stones to take the field against such formidable opponents--but should that credit be positive? On paper prior to the start of the season, San Jose State appeared under-manned and outclassed in its first three games—and it turns out the paper didn't lie.
It's a questionable scheduling strategy on the part of Tomey and Athletic Director Tom Bowen, one that is in part based on financial need, and also supposedly aimed at gaining exposure for the program.
It's already a harsh reality for mid-major programs that so-called "body-bag games" are necessary to raise money. USC served that purpose this season, and a trip to Alabama in 2010 is reported to be worth close to $1 million for the Spartans. Throw in the current financial despair of California's public universities, and it makes sense that schools like SJSU would throw themselves to the wolves once a season.
But scheduling two BCS bowl winners in a row, to start the year, is almost a death wish.
Granted, schedules are made several years in advance, but USC and Utah have been leaps and bounds ahead of San Jose State in terms of talent and success for years now. To force the out-manned Spartans to face these teams two weeks in a row, with no prior warm up, has left them in a hole from which they may not be able to dig themselves out.
The many reasons why San Jose State shouldn't be stacking its OOC schedule begin with the overall situation Tomey inherited when he took over the program in 2004.
Under the previous regime of Head Coach Fitz Hill and Athletic Director Chuck Bell, the Spartans' football program was in shambles. The team was falling miserably short of the NCAA's attendance requirements, and graduation rates and overall players' academic performances were sub par as well. The performance on the field was painfully similar to the team's classroom performances.
Tomey was practically a knight in shining armor when he accepted the challenge of revitalizing San Jose State's program. The fourth winningest active coach behind Joe Paterno, Bobby Bowden and Mack Brown, his mere presence brought instant credibility to a team that was on the brink of being folded.
But much like his 2009 squad, Tomey started his tenure with a hole he had to dig himself out of. The academic failures of the program prior to his arrival left the team short on scholarships, thanks to NCAA sanctions.
Because the NCAA evaluates teams based on academic progress rates (APRs) that are computed over the course of four years, Tomey's first five seasons have been marred by NCAA disciplinary actions relating to players he didn't bring to San Jose State.
The team is just now beginning to recover, and according to website Inside Sparta, the Spartans' scholarship count this season is up to 75—ten below the maximum allowed under zero restrictions—and the team is on pace to regain the maximum within two years.
Long story short: San Jose State has been severely undermanned the last five years, and by Tomey's own admissions, have had to field players too young, too soon. In fact, his rationale for being able to face teams like USC and Utah this season has been his declaration that the 2009 Spartans have the most depth and talent of any team he has coached in San Jose.
Clearly, he has overestimated his squad.
The fallout could reach far beyond wins and losses, injuries, and a sunken team morale.
San Jose State has been at a recruiting disadvantage for years, and if they continue to play the role of punching bag to college football's elite, that likely won't change.
Another reason for San Jose State's trip to USC was supposedly the exposure to Southern California recruits. Could that loss have done more harm than good for recruiting efforts?
It goes without saying that recruits want to play for winning teams, be it in a BCS conference or not, an FBS program or not. Having the balls to get their teeth kicked in by USC likely isn't swaying any recruits in their direction.
Prior to Tomey's arrival, recruiting played a crucial role in the team's sub par performance. Under his leadership, San Jose State has managed to improve recruiting in the high school ranks, land three and four-star juco recruits and lure some heralded transfers from Pac-10 programs such as USC, Cal and Oregon State.
But when did he land his best recruiting class?
In the 2007 offseason, following the 2006 season in which San Jose State won the New Mexico Bowl after a 16-year post-season drought, Tomey landed probably his deepest class. Nine current starters or regular contributors to this year's team were signed that offseason, including 2008 All-WAC safety Duke Ihenacho and promising running back Brandon Rutley.
Also inked in 2007 was four-star wide out David Richmond, who was a two-year starter for San Jose State after choosing the Spartans over, among other schools, Oregon. Perhaps the most surprising acquisitions that offseason were transfers Kyle Reed, Jeff Schweiger and Coye Francies.
Reed was a four-star quarterback out of high school who transferred from Cal after being dropped on their depth chart. Schweiger was a five-star defensive end in high school who transferred from USC after injuries and personal issues dropped him out of their starting lineup. Legal troubles had gotten Francies kicked off Oregon State's team, but his resurgence in junior college earned him another chance with the Spartans.
Francies is currently in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns, and while Schweiger had a mediocre senior season in 2008 and Reed hasn't been able to secure the starting job for the Spartans, there is still a great significance to their transfers: three players that would have never considered San Jose State in the past suited up for them under Tomey.
And who did San Jose State's OOC schedule consist of that year? Washington, a terrible Stanford squad under Walt Harris, Cal Poly and bottom-feeder San Diego State.
Fast forward to the 2009 offseason, following a year in which the Spartans were pummeled outside of WAC play by Nebraska and Stanford en route to a 6-6 finish and no bowl birth, and recruiting isn't quite as rosy.
No big time transfers. No higher than a three-star recruit (based on Scout's ratings). Their highest-profile commit, quarterback Austyn Cart-Samuels of San Jose's Bellarmine College Preparatory, turned on the Spartans and followed former offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo to, of all places, Wyoming.
Obviously, recruits were more impressed by the 9-4 record and bowl victory in 2006 than by the high profile opponents the Spartans played the following two years.
Recruiting didn't take a real sharp decline after going 11-13 the last two seasons, but the momentum gained after the New Mexico Bowl has evaporated. Most recruits and the rest of the college football audience seem to regard San Jose State as the same mere afterthought they were for most of the last 20 years.
If the Spartans' brass thought the Fresno State model of "anyone, anywhere, anytime" was the right path to follow, they were mistaken.
Despite having earned a lot of respect throughout college football, Pat Hill's Bulldogs have yet to crash the BCS and haven't won an outright WAC title since Boise State joined the conference. By the time Fresno State gets to conference play, they are usually too battered from their stiff OOC schedule to contend for a title.
Meanwhile, WAC kingpin Boise State has laid out the blue print for mid-major success clear as day.
Schedule one powerful opponent (in 2009, Oregon) that you're familiar with, and a few lower-end BCS conference programs or other teams from mid-major conferences.
Even when Boise State doesn't go undefeated or, as in last year, have a schedule the computers deem good enough for a BCS birth, they still enter WAC play healthy, fresh, and confident. BCS bowl or not, a WAC title nets them a top-25 finish, and leads to strong recruiting classes.
In fact, in recent years it has become common for Boise State to lure recruits away from Pac-10 programs, especially in the talent-rich California regions.
So while the body-bag games, for the time being, are inevitable, it's clear that the Spartans need to think in terms of moderation.
One or two losses to major programs are affordable. Three straight shellackings to start a season may be insurmountable.
Because for all the positive spins Tomey and his staff can put on a 56-3 loss to Southern Cal, the results in terms of team morale and recruiting could send this team on a tailspin right back to where it was when he arrived.
And having been resurrected from its death bed once before, San Jose State can't afford to run circles through the past.