Conferences struggle to cram games into calendar
The Division I-A schedule expansion to 12 games in 2006 has the schedule makers reaching for the Rolaids, writes Ivan Maisel.
Athletic directors, having viewed the 12th game as just another trip to the all-you-can-eat buffet of college football, are suffering from digestive problems. In conference offices across the country, cramming 12 games for 12 teams into 13 Saturdays has overtaken Sudoku as the maddening mathematical puzzle of the moment.
Last year, the NCAA approved expanding the Division I-A football schedule to 12 games. But the organization did not adjust its scheduling calendar. Games may not begin until Labor Day weekend. That leaves only 13 Saturdays through the end of November. Toss in the prerequisites of blending conference and nonconference games, competitive balance and the demands of television contracts, and you find schedulers sitting cross-legged in a corner, thumb in mouth, teddy bear in arm.
In a sport where LSU and TCU just agreed to play in 2014, some schools still haven't completed their schedules for 2006. Syracuse and Rutgers are still looking for a 12th game. Oklahoma and LSU just found theirs. The Sooners will play Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 23, and the Tigers announced only last week that they will play Fresno State at Tiger Stadium on Oct. 21.
Coaches who expect to take the Saturday off before a Thursday night game are about to find out what a luxury that is. Clemson and Virginia Tech, in a matchup that might be a preview of the ACC Championship Game, play on Thursday, Oct. 26, five days after the Tigers play Georgia Tech and the Hokies play Southern Mississippi.
Coaches who work in the Big Ten will be disappointed if they expect to have any Saturday off. The league, which has resisted extending its regular season beyond the third Saturday in November, will play 12 games in 12 weeks -- bye-bye, byes.
"It's a lot harder than doing 12 games in 14 weeks," said Mike Finn, the ACC assistant commissioner for football. "This year, the conference put in a rule that everybody needs to play Thanksgiving weekend so that, if you're in the championship game, rest time is equal. It was a tough situation for Clemson. They have not played on Thanksgiving. Just to get an open date, they have to."
The ACC schools took great pains to make the 12th game settle softly on the palate. Only four ACC schools play more than one nonconference game against a BCS conference school or Notre Dame. The Pacific-10 Conference presidents voted for a 12th game only on the condition that it be a conference game. The league will play a round-robin schedule for the first time since it expanded in 1978.
Some schools added an intersectional game that will look good on television. Georgia will play Colorado. Auburn opens the season against Washington State. LSU became the latest trophy in Fresno State coach Pat Hill's "Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere" campaign. Truth be told, LSU senior associate athletic director Dan Radakovich felt pretty much the same way. The number of schools he contacted about filling a hole on the Tigers' schedule numbered "in the 40s," he said.
"There are not a lot of folks who desire to come to LSU on a Saturday night and play in Tiger Stadium on a onetime basis," Radakovich said. "The folks in Fresno have embraced that opportunity. As it played out, they were the best school to bring in there. It ended up being a great match."
LSU had been scheduled to play at Auburn on Oct. 21. Moving that game to Sept. 16 prevented LSU from opening the season with five consecutive home games. It also allowed Auburn to break up a streak of five consecutive conference games.
The Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Big 12 have made their problems more acute with self-imposed scheduling limits. The Big Ten is reluctant to play on Thanksgiving weekend. The other three conferences have championship games scheduled for Dec. 2. The leagues without a playoff can employ Dec. 2 as the coveted 14th Saturday.
"ESPN wanted two games of ours on Championship Saturday," Big East associate commissioner Nick Carparelli said. "Connecticut will go to Louisville, and Rutgers will go to West Virginia. ESPN will televise both of them. That gives those four teams a second bye during the season. Without that, I would have had a really tough time making the schedule."
Carparelli and Finn said there is already some discussion about NCAA legislation that would allow football games to begin on the last weekend in August, which would restore the flexibility everyone craves. The legislation would be considered in 2007. Although the NCAA allows games to be played on the second weekend in December, no one is suggesting moving the conference championship games back a week.
"No one plays then because of exams," Finn said, "and the bowls."
With bowls beginning the week before Christmas, ending the season on Dec. 12 could make the logistics of staging a bowl difficult. If the NCAA moves the beginning of the season up to August, scheduling problems will ease. Until then, the schedulers will continue to reach for their Rolaids.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.