January 15, 2009
Rivals had an interesting story Wednesday from the AFCA convention in Nashville on philosophies in non-conference scheduling in the age of the BCS, wherein most of the coaches interviewed said they looked to schedule at least one "A-list team," in the words of Jeff Tedford, or what Jim Tressel called "a game of national interest," while balancing "B- and C-level opponents" and giving "in-state, mid-level teams a chance to play in Ohio Stadium," etc. In other words, they want to have their cake -- a big, high profile game for the rankings -- and eat it, too, in the form of fluffy cupcakes whose visits pay for women's field hockey.
The Austin American-Statesman puts the dilemma into very clear focus today, reporting on Texas' unsuccessful efforts to beef up its non-conference schedule in 2009, which currently consists of home games with Louisiana-Monroe, Central Florida and UTEP and an unfathomable trip to Wyoming (some ace prep quarterback toiling on the prairie or what?). At ESPN's request, UT had originally agreed to move the UCF game to another year, and briefly filled that date with a very interesting visit from Wisconsin. But the return trip to Madison wouldn't happen until at least 2013, and the deal fell through. Oh well.
After this year, Texas knows better than anyone how critical a strong non-conference schedule is to BCS ambitions: The key reason Oklahoma jumped the Longhorns had less to do with the Sooners' ridiculous point totals after losing to UT in October than it did with OU's big wins outside of the Big 12: Oklahoma victims TCU and Cincinnati ended the year in the top-15, easily trumping Texas' wins over Arkansas and Rice. This is the same effect that left USC on the outside looking in according to the computers in the three-way logjam in 2003 (the Trojans' non-conference that year consisted of Auburn, BYU, Hawaii and Notre Dame, none of which finished in the vicinity of the final polls) and Auburn in the cold in 2004 (the Tigers played UL-Monroe, the Citadel and Louisiana Tech), and that I addressed specifically for a Texas-centric publication before the 2007 season, when the Longhorns were preparing to line up against Arkansas State, TCU, Central Florida and Rice. That slate didn't cost the 'Horns anything that year -- they lost three games in the Big 12 -- but when they needed the boost in 2008, the lack of a credible test outside the league was a death knell.
Of course, it's something of a crapshoot: When the schedules were made, Arkansas certainly seemed as viable as TCU or Cincinnati; Oklahoma just got lucky that the Frogs and Bearcats happened to peak at the same time Arkansas was undergoing severe growing pains, just like Auburn and Notre Dame were when their unexpected mediocrity submarined USC's title hopes in 2003 (Virginia and ND didn't do the Trojans any favors last year, either). It didn't help that a planned series between Utah and Texas that would have sent the Longhorns to Salt Lake City last year fell through.
But it's no coincidence the 'Horns are currently pursuing Notre Dame to add to a slate that already includes Ole Miss, UCLA and Arkansas over the next five years -- the Irish are not the safest bet for an elite opponent right now, but the odds of a big payoff in the polls are much better than with, say, UTEP. More behemoths with high ambitions might want to look into creating their own luck that way.