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Ways to break into the big time

9/23/2004

As everyone knows, the college football world is segregated into Haves and Have Nots. But if a school has enough ambition, there is a way to upgrade to Have Territory -- and the right schedule to get there.

There are two proven methods, one requiring maximum gusto and the other requiring maximum flexibility:

  • The Road Warrior Method. This is the Fresno State/Southern Mississippi model of playing anyone, anywhere, any time.

    In the past six years, fearless Fresno has gone to UCLA twice, Wisconsin twice, Ohio State, Colorado, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Oregon, Kansas State and Washington. In the same time span Southern Miss has played at Nebraska twice, at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, at Penn State -- and, of course, at Alabama. This will mark the 13th straight season the Golden Eagles have visited Alabama, and the 41st time overall. Number of Crimson Tide trips to Hattiesburg: zero.

    Sooner or later the Road Warrior puts together a really good team and beats a few of the Haves. Suddenly he's the people's champion and a national player, as Fresno was in 2001 and is again in 2004.

    "The philosophy, obviously, is that if you play the best teams and win, not at their stadium with most likely with their league's officials, people will have to take notice of us," Hill said. "A lot of people aren't so excited about going to Oklahoma and Tennessee. We don't mind doing it. We're all-in every week, without even seeing the cards."

  • The Weeknight Warrior Method. This is the Louisville/Marshall model of taking the exposure where you can get it, and using it to pump up recruiting and visibility. (Utah has embraced this method lately as well.)

    Counting this season, the Cardinals will have played 44 percent of their games over the last four seasons on days other than Saturday (including three bowl games). Marshall has played in just about every time slot but opposite "Good Morning America." A couple of years ago, Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich and Louisville QB Dave Ragone were on weeknight TV more often than Ted Koppel -- and it helped make both of them Heisman Trophy candidates.

    Louisville fans have grumbled about the school-night games, and former coach John L. Smith despised the helter-skelter preparation schedule. But it's priceless publicity for a program that would be overshadowed on Saturdays.

    "You can't put a price tag on that," said Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich. "I think that exposure built this program. For all the inconvenience it might have caused the fans, it helped our recruiting that much more. We were pretty far down as a program."

    In fact, Louisville's signature football moment -- and a game recently voted as the No. 1 moment in the star-crossed history of Conference USA -- was a Thursday night upset of No. 4 Florida State in 2002. That stamped the Cards as a legitimate national program -- even as it killed future scheduling.

    "Nobody would play us after that," Jurich said. "We went through the list of Top 50 programs, called everybody. Nobody wanted to come here."

    Which is one reason the Cards have only five home games this year. Jurich said he's done giving two-for-one deals to bigger programs. Louisville now will schedule teams home-and-home only, including a two-year series that starts in October with Miami.

    Scheduling should get easier for Louisville with its move to the Big East in 2005. For WAC member Fresno, the difficulties remain.

    Not that Hill really cares. He's had big-time schools cancel visits to Fresno, but that's OK. He'll go where he needs to go to chase the dream of a BCS bowl game.

    "We have never played more home games than road games since I've been here," he said. "If we go run the gauntlet and play all comers and win, the nation is going to demand that we're in a BCS bowl. If we have one slip-up, we're out. We understand that. We've got to go undefeated.

    "It's a tough life. But you know what? That's what we're in it for. We're in it for all the marbles."

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