college football

Tom Oates: College football programs in no hurry to upgrade opponents

2012-08-09T10:00:00Z 2012-08-09T11:29:07Z Tom Oates: College football programs in no hurry to upgrade opponentsTOM OATES | Wisconsin State Journal | toates@madison.com | 608-252-6172 madison.com

Danny Hope was only out of the Big Ten Conference for six years, but when he returned to coach the Purdue football team in 2008, the landscape had changed.

"I was really surprised when I came back to the Big Ten how many of the teams had gone in the direction of scheduling easy non-conference opponents," Hope said at the recent Big Ten Media Days.

It's not just the Big Ten, of course. Over the 14 years of the Bowl Championship Series and especially since the 12th regular-season game was added in 2005, schools from BCS conferences generally have fallen into a pattern of scheduling one team from a BCS league, two from smaller FBS conferences and one from the FCS (the former Division I-AA).

Fans howled about the weak schedules, but nothing changed because the BCS postseason format provided little reward for teams that played difficult non-conference opponents. That's one reason the recent approval of a four-team playoff to crown a national champion was so warmly received.

The formula for determining which four teams will make the playoffs has yet to be hashed out, but the sport's decision-makers have said strength of schedule will be a key factor when the first tournament is held in 2014. Many are hoping such an incentive will force teams to become more ambitious in their non-conference scheduling.

But while that is all good in theory, the reality is you probably shouldn't be holding your breath waiting for the University of Wisconsin to play Alabama or Texas anytime soon.

A sampling of coaches at the Big Ten Media Days revealed a wide range of opinions on whether non-conference schedules will be toughened up, though most are taking a wait-and-see approach.

"I think we've got two years to look at it," Michigan coach Brady Hoke said. "A lot of it has to do with what kind of metric they're going to use to (determine) who those teams are."

UW is one school that has already taken steps to upgrade its schedule. That's ironic because the Badgers have played some of the Big Ten's weakest non-conference schedules under coaches Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema.

UW already had games scheduled with BCS opponents Washington, Washington State and Virginia Tech and recently added a home-and-home series with BYU. Of course, any benefit from those games will depend on BYU becoming a Notre Dame-type program now that it is an independent.

Bielema feels the new formula "has to" change the way teams schedule. Alvarez, now UW's athletic director, holds the same opinion.

"If you want to be a player (for the national title) and strength of schedule is going to be a part of it, then you really have to consider" a different approach, he said recently.

Still, there are many obstacles to overcome before non-conference slates are improved across the board.

For one thing, it's not easy to put together schedules these days. And playoff or not, teams still need to schedule guaranteed wins and lucrative home paydays.

Another potential obstacle is that programs are in different stages of development. If it's an upper-tier Big Ten team with national title hopes, it will probably want to beef up its schedule. But if it's a rebuilding program, getting wins might be more important than earning style points. Also, some BCS teams might not have the depth to withstand a season without some breathers on the schedule.

Scheduling priorities could also change depending on what conference a team is in. If a team plays in the SEC or Big 12, its conference schedule might be strong enough to secure a spot in the final four no matter who it plays in the non-conference season. That could also be true for the Big Ten and Pac-12, though schools in those leagues might feel pressure to upgrade just to catch the SEC. Teams in the ACC and Big East will almost certainly need tougher schedules to help their resumes.

Schools in the top leagues have another thing to think about as well. If a team loses only to an undefeated team and finishes second in the conference, it will need a strong non-conference slate to aid in landing a bid.

Teams in leagues that play nine conference games or have conference title games also will have decisions to make. Pac-12 and Big 12 teams might want to play weaker non-conference schedules because they play one more conference opponent than schools in the other top leagues. A conference title game would also become a consideration since it would assure a team of one more high-quality opponent.

Clearly, there will be a balancing act in non-conference scheduling for BCS schools. Still, it sounds like people will proceed cautiously, if at all.

"They're still going to look at some of your national rankings and things like that," Indiana coach Kevin Wilson warned, "but you do not want to overschedule."

Chances are, schools won't upgrade their schedules until when — or if — the selection committee forces them to.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

Copyright 2014 madison.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(7) Comments

  1. biasauth
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    biasauth - August 10, 2012 12:56 pm
    I am struggling to understand how scheduling a 1AA team (2 next year) for home games is considered lucrative. It is proving out that these games do not sell out, and there is a payout of 6 figures or higher going out to the visiting team. It would be more lucrative to get a neutral site game with television revenue paying out in the 7 figures plus the brand name recognition that comes with it. Excuses are exactly what they are. UW will lose to Nebraska this year because this non-conference schedule will not prepare this team to play a quality opponent on the road.
  2. RichardSRussell
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    RichardSRussell - August 10, 2012 4:29 am
    The Badgers won't do it unilaterally. They'll only do it if everyone else has to do it, too. That requires bold vision and leadership at the conference level. Seen any of that lately? Notice the 2 words totally absent from the whole Penn State fiasco? (Hint: 1st one is "Big".)
  3. ABDGRFN
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    ABDGRFN - August 09, 2012 3:53 pm
    I think that the easiest way to upgrade scheduling is to add one more conference game and only have three non conference games. In our case we could try to resume our every year rivalry with Iowa. UW is still pushing ticket sales for the three non conf. games this year and it's August. I know the coaches seem reluctant to go to another B 10 game each year but they are not filling the stadium for the poorer competition. I don't have a lot of experience with away games and absolutely love being in Camp Randall, I don't understand why teams wojuld not want to come here for a game.

    On Wisconsin
  4. notvanilla
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    notvanilla - August 09, 2012 1:08 pm
    Hey, Tom! Why aren't you the AD at Wisconsin? There is more to changing schedules than just saying so. How many top notch schools want to come to Wisconsin and get knocked around as if they were playing an NFL team? Get their best players knocked out of the game before the season starts? That would really get them to a championship game wouldn't it?
  5. PapaLorax
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    PapaLorax - August 09, 2012 12:57 pm
    until a loss to a good team is 'worth more' then beating a bad team this will continue. right now it's not even close.

    if the powers really wanted to change this:
    cap the maximum number of non-conference home games equal to the number of road games for every two year stretch
    give automatic byes into the championship for major conference winners

    not sure the powers really think this is a problem. TV can convince at least a couple teams to schedule a worthy game for early broadcast. Big schools rack up ticket sales. Little schools get lucrative appearance fees.

    This will be given lip service until the people buying the tickets take action.
  6. whiteflight
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    whiteflight - August 09, 2012 12:35 pm
    Its pretty hard to get a shot and the national title when you play cupcakes. The real men play Alabama, Notre Dame and so on as opposed to little sisters of the blind and weak. I sitll love bucky but it would be nice to see someone good in the preseason. When NIU is in town you can buy tickets cheap. When ASU was in town tickets were a in demand. I can usually tell when one of my vendors values my business. If they like me I go to the Ohio St game, if I give them some business I get to see Marshmallow Tech.
  7. RichardSRussell
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    RichardSRussell - August 09, 2012 11:49 am
    "UW is one school that has already taken steps to upgrade its schedule. That's ironic because the Badgers have played some of the Big Ten's weakest non-conference schedules ..."
     
    Irony? What irony? If you're already bottom-feeding, pretty much ANY change you make has to go up, right?
     
    You make an excellent case as to why individual colleges may choose to load up on the Marshmallow Techs, Creampuff U's, and Western Pussycat A&M's — as UW is notorious for doing — but that's because everybody around them is doing the same thing, and it's always fun to see those lopsided 81-3 scores showing up on SportsCenter early in the season. Gets some of that national name rec, y'know. Also heaps of scorn and fully justified doubts about the team's self-confidence.
     
    But if everybody else HAD to upgrade at the same time, there'd no longer be any advantage to be gained by playing the weaklings while everyone else was playing Big 10-level competition. And where's the best place to FIND Big-10 level competition? Why, the Big 10 itself! The conference should take the lead in insisting that all its members start playing all its OTHER members by adding 1 more conference game every 2 years, starting in 2018, until we're finally playing 11 of our 12 games against worthy opponents.
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