Commentary

Big nonconference games vanishing

Where have all the big-time intersectional games gone?

Originally Published: June 8, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

For two seasons now, Alabama has been the savior of Labor Day weekend college football. While the vast majority of FBS schools seek out season-opening chumps, the Crimson Tide have dared to play somebody.

Last year Bama played a neutral-field game in Atlanta against Clemson to start the season. This year it will face Virginia Tech, also in Atlanta.

Taking on ranked nonconference teams right away? That qualifies as a profile in courage these days. But compare it to 30 years ago, and Alabama looks positively soft by its own standards.

In 1978, the Tide opened the season by playing Nebraska in Birmingham, then facing Missouri on the road, then hosting USC. In October they worked in a road game at Washington.

Beyond Clemson and Virginia Tech, Alabama's other six nonconference games of 2008 and '09 are: Tulane, Western Kentucky, Arkansas State, Florida International, North Texas and Chattanooga. You don't even need to ask whether any of those are road games.

And that pretty well illustrates where scheduling has gone in college football. Into hiding, namely. Everyone at the high end of the sport has taken their ball and their competitiveness and gone home -- to play Directional Tech and count their cash.

Big-time intersectional games have gone the way of the wishbone.

I asked ESPN's estimable Stats & Information group to run some numbers for this story. I wanted to compare the number of nonconference games between ranked teams from 1978, '88, '98 and 2008 -- to confirm or refute the theory that there's been a drop-off in ambitious scheduling.

The results: There were 11 games matching Top 20* teams in 1978, 15 in '88, eight in '98 and just four in '08. In other words: over the past two decades, the number of Top 20 nonconference matchups has decreased by half every 10 years. And the Top 10 matchups have virtually disappeared, going from five in '78 to seven in '88 to two in '98 and one in '08.

(* We used the Top 20 instead of Top 25 for consistency. That was the size of the poll back in 1978 and '88.)

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAfter Virginia Tech, Alabama's 2009 nonconference schedule doesn't look very tough.
If you go by Phil Steele's 2009 Preview Top 20, we could be looking at five such intersectional matchups this season: Alabama-Virginia Tech, BYU at Oklahoma, Georgia at Oklahoma State, USC at Ohio State and USC at Notre Dame. Not much meat on the nonconference bone.

Even with teams like Penn State, Florida State and Miami joining conferences in the 1990s, that doesn't fully explain this decrease in marquee intersectional games.

Fact is, almost everyone is trying to find the easy way to success -- which, depending on the level of your program, could be bowl eligibility, a BCS bowl or a national championship.

"All schools manage their own schedules by balancing the needs of the fans, season-ticket holders and sponsors with the needs of being competitive within their conference," said Dave Brown, vice president for programming at ESPN and the network's scheduling czar. "Some people don't mind playing more tough ones, and some people, given the demands of their conference, will not."

The number of will-nots has grown over the years. And could continue to grow in the near future, some believe.

"[Scheduling] is the most challenging it's ever been," said Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione, one guy who still believes in selective blockbuster scheduling. "I'm concerned, because I just don't see the strength-of-schedule philosophy being shared by as many people as we would hope if we're really concerned with the health of college football."

Here's how we got to this position of potential infirmity for what has been a robustly healthy sport:

The BCS

Shocking that America's least favorite sports computer system would be a factor, isn't it? Even with strength of schedule as part of the BCS formula for selecting two teams to play for a national championship, the system can encourage user-friendly scheduling.

LSU, Florida and Oklahoma all have ridden strength-of-schedule advantages into the BCS National Championship Game the past two years despite losses. The Tigers played seven ranked opponents in 2007, while the Gators played five and the Sooners six in '08. LSU got a boost from playing Virginia Tech out of conference, and Oklahoma squeaked past Texas in part by playing TCU and Cincinnati.

But it's just as true that Texas Tech made a strong push for the title game last year while playing a nonconference schedule of Eastern Washington, Nevada, SMU and Massachusetts. If the Red Raiders had gone 13-0, they would have played for the national championship despite that travesty of a nonleague schedule.

In 2007, Kansas rose to No. 2 in the polls after opening the season with Central Michigan, Southeastern Louisiana, Toledo and Florida International.

"Everyone should schedule in a way that helps their own school," Castiglione said. "Having said that, there are some things on the horizon that make some of us wonder if it's a disincentive to scheduling harder nonconference games."

Such as?

"The premium on going undefeated."

Conference expansion

More teams in the major conferences generally produces more league games. As recently as 1987, the Southeastern Conference played only six conference games -- now eight. The ACC played a six-game schedule until 1984. The Big Eight played a seven-game schedule but went to eight games when it became the Big 12.

And the addition of a league championship game is seen by some as one more reason to schedule a cupcake, since the strength-of-schedule hit can be overcome on the back end if the school is good enough to play for a league title.

Conference realignment also switched traditional nonconference games like Oklahoma-Texas and Florida State-Miami to conference games.

More bowl games, more bowl revenue and more pressure to play in bowl games

What's the easiest way for a traditionally weak program to get to six wins and bowl eligibility? The Bill Snyder way, popularized during his first tenure at Kansas State: find as many beatable opponents as possible.

In 2007, Indiana went to its first bowl game in 14 years, in no small part thanks to a nonconference schedule of Indiana State, Western Michigan, Akron and Ball State. Kentucky has been to three bowls and won 23 games the past three season -- with nine of those victories coming against opponents from the Sun Belt (Louisiana-Monroe, Florida Atlantic, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky) the Mid-American Conference (Central Michigan, Kent State) and FCS (Texas State, Eastern Kentucky, Norfolk State). Rutgers has used a similar formula in its four-year bowl run, with victories over Villanova, Howard, Norfolk State, Morgan State, Army (twice), Navy (thrice) and three opponents from the MAC.

Problem is, the cost of bringing in those opponents for "guarantee" games is skyrocketing. Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said he recently shelled out $975,000 to a school for a guarantee game. Castiglione said he heard of programs paying as much as $1.2 million.

And now smaller programs are turning the guarantee game even more to their advantage. If they signed a contract five years ago to play a powerhouse for, say, $500,000, what's the financial disincentive to pay a penalty and opt out of that deal and sign a new one with another power for twice as much?

"They know [the power programs] need them," Evans said. "They know they're a hot commodity."

Money

As football has become an ever-bigger meal ticket for athletic departments, the premium on home games has increased. If you're trying to fund volleyball, softball and a new weight room, what better way than to schedule a seventh or eighth home game and rake in that many more millions?

That means one more chance per year to grab that Sun Belt or FCS opponent. And that's why the 12th game was voted into existence -- not to beef up schedules, but to beef up revenue.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesJoePa and Penn State face Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois in 2009 nonconference games.
Of the 65 teams in the big six leagues, 39 will play at least seven home games this season. Seven of them -- Tennessee, Auburn, Penn State, Michigan, Oklahoma State, NC State and Syracuse -- will play eight.

There aren't many Georgias out there -- schools that are using that 12th game to schedule more aggressively. Last year the previously isolationist Bulldogs played at Arizona State -- their longest regular-season trip west since 1960. This year they open with a trip to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State, and future schedules include home-and-home arrangements with Colorado, Louisville and Oregon.

"I felt we needed to gain more national exposure and recognition," Evans said. "We want to get out there and let people see the Dawgs. [Annual opponent] Georgia Tech is an A-list opponent, but that doesn't get us outside the region."

Admirable of an SEC school to resist the temptation to simply line up a cadaver and fill the seats, as most can any given Saturday. Because nowhere is it more rewarding to schedule cupcakes than the SEC, where demand for tickets is always high. They'll put 80,000 to 110,000 in the stands to see the home team play just about anyone -- including, at Alabama, itself.

It's not quite so easy at some other locales. According to one source knowledgeable in the ways of scheduling, that's why Pac-10 teams are willing to (a) play nine league games and (b) schedule high-caliber nonconference opponents -- because the fan base is a bit more fickle.

"USC will sell tickets," the source said. "A lot of other schools will not unless the game is good."

College football might be the most recession-proof sport in America, but that still doesn't mean it isn't susceptible. Especially if the major programs are continually asking fans to shell out big bucks for the Louisiana-Lafayettes of the world.

"If the steady diet is mismatches, just puffing up the winning side of the column, I'm not so sure how long people are going to acquiesce to that," Castiglione said. "Or how long they'll have the financial inventory."

Even if schools start experiencing fan backlash at the turnstiles, don't expect a return to the days of fearless intersectional scheduling. Alabama won't play a 1978 schedule again, and neither will anyone else.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.