The Doc, Holly Anderson and Doug Gillett wrap up the week with our written equivalent of tossing a beach ball around the office. This week's topic: The perilous fate of the big-on-big non-conference game.
Doc: Pat Forde had some good numbers last week on how many fewer games there have been recently between ranked teams in non-con games. Alabama is playing Georgia State! Even my dad thought that was ridiculous.
Doug: If they only have to get to six wins to be bowl-eligible, and can now count wins over D-IAA teams with virtually no strings attached, why would a middle-of-the-pack major-conference team schedule anything more than the bare minimum in terms of difficulty? If you think the best you can do in-conference is 3-5, hook up with at least three layup opponents in out-of-conference play and bickety-bam, you got yourself a bowl invite.
Doc: Middle-of-the-pack teams are one thing, but there certainly aren't as many national-interest games as there used to be. It's not like big games are going extinct -- Alabama's still playing Penn State next year, too. You can rack up some of those numbers to the disappearance of independents and a couple big non-con games (Oklahoma-Texas, Miami-Florida State) becoming conference games. But definitely it seems like the elite programs are moving gradually to schedules that have one other elite team and three soft, delicious cupcakes instead of a respectable middle-tier opponent.
Holly: I wonder whether it actually ends up costing programs money, though. I'd love to see attendance levels at games with major opponents versus patsy games. I know when I was in school the throwaway matches were happily rare, but I can't remember being all that riled up to play Northern Illinois or whomever. I mean, when Tennessee used to play Miami and Notre Dame (back when both were good), UT lost most of the time, but those were can't-miss events regardless of the scoreboard.
Doug: I don't think the cupcake games end up costing teams any money. The tickets are sold, people just don't use them.
Doc: If not in attendance, they're losing money in other ways: Alabama is paying San Jose State a million dollars to beat the Spartans' brains in next year. That's a lot of money for a win, especially one that's not going to have anything to do with 'Bama recouping the payout in a bowl game (if it does, then that bowl's entire payout probably won't be $1 million) or the BCS. The going rate for "guarantee" games should be a deterrent, but there's no limit in sight.
Holly: Doug's right, though -- the drawbacks are nil, unless the teams get sloppy. I mean, if Florida never has to leave the state to play a non-conference game, why would they expend the extra effort for games they're likelier to slip up in? Right now they don't even want to go too far in their own state -- they're balking at extending the series with Miami right now. That's a classic game lost.
Doc: I think the drawbacks of a soft schedule are pretty clear when a loss to the one or two quality teams on the schedule can cost you a shot at the BCS or the mythical championship game. Why did Florida and Oklahoma make last year's title game over Texas and Penn State?
Doug: I know that as an SEC fan I'm supposed to slit my own throat before I say anything nice about USC or Ohio State, but I have to give them some credit in all this: Over the past few years they've averaged at least one BCS-conference, conceivably loseable game per year. The Trojans deserve particular credit because they're a) playing a full nine-team Pac-10 schedule each year, which b) leaves them with only three OOC slots to fill in the first place. (One of which is always taken by Notre Dame, so they're not above scheduling gimme wins, but still.)
Doc: I give the entire Pac-10 major scheduling credit for the nine-game, round-robin conference format, and USC, UCLA and Washington are consistently among the most ambitious non-conference schedulers. Every team in that league has at least one interesting non-conference game. Ohio State has done a really admirable job of lining up marquee, national-interest home-and-homes for the next decade (after Texas in 2005-06 and USC down after this year, OSU already has series set with Miami, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech, California and Tennessee through 2019). But they're just as set on filling the other three non-conference slots with cupcakes. That will matter less whenever Michigan rounds back into form, but I think it hurts them right now, when the only really impressive win in the Big Ten is Penn State. (Or, from a Penn State perspective, Ohio State.)
Holly: So with the very recent revival of more of these big neutral site games (the return of the Chick-Fil-A season kickoff, etc.), is the big non-con game on its way back? Matt wrote yesterday about the Cotton Bowl taking all comers -- will games like this ameliorate the rise of cupcake scheduling, or even overcome it someday?
Doc: I love the neutral site games -- the upcoming Arkansas-Texas A&M series in the Cowboys' new digs is pretty intriguing if those teams get their feet under them, and the Chick-Fil-A game is a nice, bowl-like atmosphere for opening day -- but I don't really see them as representing a different animal than big on-campus games. Neutral site games have been around forever (Alabama and Auburn refused to play on each other's campuses for decades), but none of the new games will reach the heights of Notre Dame-Army in the Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium back in the day.
Doug: And anytime there's a neutral-site game like the Chick-fil-A, chances are someone's gonna have to give up a home game to be there. Not a lot of coaches or ADs are in a huge hurry to do that even when the opponent is beatable.
Doc: Unless you're Notre Dame, and you have your own network for home games, and a neutral site game you can classify as "home" gives you one more date under that contract.
I will give Alabama credit on the Georgia State game for the presence of Bill Curry alone. If you're going to schedule a cupcake that's barely out of the oven, at least provide the writers with an angle.