Pac-12 administrators say putting together a worthy nonconference slate is a tightrope act that involves juggling strength of schedule with economic constraints while also delivering a watchable product for fans, and picking games that are challenging but not impossible to win.
Three weeks ago, as half the Pac-12 was getting ready to start its seasons against FCS or Group of Five conference teams, Arizona State was prepping for a highly anticipated season opener against Texas A&M of the Southeastern Conference.
Why take a game against such a competitive opponent, Sun Devils coach Todd Graham was asked on the Pac-12’s weekly media conference call.
“The main reason is that we want to be the best,” he proclaimed. “And to be the best, these types of games need to be played. We want to be a championship-caliber program.”
3-4 Pac-12 teams vs. Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC teams this season
24-3 Pac-12 teams vs. Group of Five, ACC, FCS and independent teams this season
After starting the season with high expectations, with talk of them being a sleeper candidate for the Pac-12 title, the Sun Devils got chased out of Texas in a 38-17 defeat.
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Now, with Pac-12 Conference games in full swing, the Sun Devils are 2-1 while their in-state rival Arizona Wildcats (3-0) are undefeated after victories against iconic names such as Texas-San Antonio, Nevada and Northern Arizona.
Does the gamble of throwing a heavyweight opponent into a team’s nonconference slate pay off?
There are no slam dunks or perfect solutions in the world of college football scheduling. Pac-12 administrators say putting together a worthy nonconference slate is a tightrope act that involves juggling strength of schedule with economic constraints while also delivering a watchable product for fans, and picking games that are challenging but not impossible to win.
Schedules now are being put together as far out as 10 years into the future. So athletic directors who try to strategize when scheduling have to hope and pray that their crystal balls don’t implode.
As Utah athletic director Chris Hill notes, there’s also a healthy dose of sheer blind luck thrown into the scheduling equation.
“People ask me, ‘How did you know you could get Jim Harbaugh coming here with Michigan when you scheduled them four years ago?’ ” Hill said.
He stressed that the Utes got very lucky with Harbaugh’s debut, but added it was the sort of game where, “If we win, I’m a genius. If we lose, I’m a bum.”
Scheduling also has become more crucial recently, in part because of how strongly the new College Football Playoff selection committee emphasizes strength of schedule — as shown last season when the Big 12’s Baylor and Texas Christian were left out of the playoff because their strength of schedule didn’t measure up against playoff candidates from the other four power conferences.
Method to the madness
So what’s the secret to putting together a winning nonconference schedule? Well, it depends on who you ask.
Teams like Oregon, USC, UCLA and the two Arizona schools have different scheduling parameters than teams such as Utah, Washington State and Colorado.
There’s also the question of whether it’s acceptable to schedule FCS teams in what’s commonly known as “buy games,” where one school pays a lower-level opponent to come to its home stadium.
The Big Ten recently voted to stop playing FCS teams starting in 2016. The Pac-12 has no such rule, and most athletic directors say they don’t think the league should dictate policy on the matter. But UCLA proudly maintains it has not scheduled an FCS team in more than 30 years because that’s just part of the Bruins’ scheduling philosophy.
Arizona, on the other hand, has no problem including an FCS team every year as it tries to maintain that elusive strength/competition balance.
“We have nine conference games. If you win your division, you’re playing a 10th conference game, and 10 Power Five games in one year is significant,” said Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne. “You have to have that as an underlying thought.”
FCS teams also are cheaper to “buy.” The going rate for an FCS game is anywhere from $400,000 to $600,000. In contrast, Group of Five teams now are demanding seven figures for a one-game appearance at a Power Five stadium.
Utah State, for instance, cashed a $1 million check when it played at Husky Stadium last week. Even Idaho — which has won five games since 2011 — will get $1 million to play at Auburn later this season.
That’s part of the reason why Washington State has had to schedule more two-for-ones with Group of Five teams, while also including an FCS opponent in its annual nonconference slate.
WSU athletic director Bill Moos puts together the Cougars’ nonconference slate guided by what he calls the “A-B-C” scheduling method.
The “A” school generally is a Power Five opponent WSU signs to a home-and-home agreement. The “B” school commonly is a Mountain West team the Cougars either pay a buy guarantee, or sign to a two-for-one contract, with the Cougars traveling to the Mountain West school once in exchange for two return trips to Pullman. The “C” team is usually an FCS school “where you have a pretty good chance of knowing you can win, and you can break in some of your younger guys without lining them up against Auburn off the bat,” Moos said.
Still, as the Cougars found out this year when they paid Portland State $525,000 to come beat them 24-17 at Martin Stadium, playing an FCS team to open the season doesn’t necessarily guarantee a victory.
And even though fans won’t necessarily be lining up outside Martin Stadium to watch WSU play Eastern Washington and Idaho in 2016; Nevada, Boise State and Montana State in 2017 or San Jose State and Eastern Washington again in 2018, Moos stands by the schools he’s slotted into WSU’s nonconference slate over the next few years.
“What we need at Washington State right now is to be bowl eligible every year, and we have a better chance of that, with a nine-game schedule in the Pac-12, if we have a realistic chance of winning the three nonconference games,” Moos said.
Bowl games are important for a developing program because they allow for some extra practices at the end of the year. Moos said he did the math once and calculated that if a program goes to a bowl game annually for five years, by a time a player becomes a fifth-year senior, he would have had what amounts to a whole extra spring season worth of practice and development.
Demand and supply
Across the state, however, the Huskies are dealing with a whole other set of concerns.
The 2013 remodel of Husky Stadium came at a cost of $280 million, and now Washington faces the challenge of drawing big crowds to help ensure a return on its investment.
So even though Chris Petersen’s current squad is every bit as young as the Cougars, playing games against the likes of Montana State and Idaho won’t cut it for UW. Brand names sell tickets, and it’s UW Senior Associate Athletic Director for Development Jen Cohen’s job to find brand-name teams that will agree to play the Huskies in Seattle.
This isn’t always easy. For one, UW operates on a business model that works best with seven home games every year. That, coupled with declining attendance in college football stadiums nationwide and the recent trend toward more neutral-site games between Power Five schools — Arizona State’s season opener against Texas A&M, for instance, was played in Houston — makes it tougher but more important than ever for schools to tout attractive home nonconference slates.
Washington’s location also factors into the equation, and teams are hesitant to make a long trip.
“What’s challenging in Seattle is that the geography works against us,” Cohen said. “We don’t see it that way because we’re so proud of what we are and we think we have the greatest setting in college football, so why would you not want to come play in Seattle?
“Well, most of these schools don’t have an alumni base in Seattle, and they don’t recruit in Washington.”
Washington also schedules based loosely on the “A-B-C” model Moos uses at WSU, but as Cohen has learned, the Huskies’ definition of an “A-list” team might not align with their fans’ expectations.
“To us, an ‘A’ team is a Power Five school. But for our fans, what we’ve heard from them is that they want a brand-name team, a recognizable team that has had a history of success. National brands seem to catch their eye more,” Cohen said. “They get more excited about a Michigan or Ohio State. Even Miami would be exciting to them because they have great memories of that team.
“Those are really hard to schedule. But what we’ve found is we can’t go with ‘A’ opponents all the time that don’t have a national brand.”
The Huskies are excited about upcoming home-and-homes with Brigham Young (2018-19) and Michigan (2020-21).
Now, Cohen is on the prowl to sign some big-name Power Five opponents for the Huskies’ 2022 season.
“It’s a constant balance between selling tickets, keeping fans happy and being competitive,” Cohen said.
|WSU’s future nonconference schedule|
* Denotes home-and-homes where schools trade guaranteed funds to cover travel costs, with the home school writing the away school a check. # Denotes “buy” games where a school is paid to come play a one-time game in Pullman
|@ Boise State||$300,000 paid to WSU|
|2018||@ Wyoming*||$300,000 paid to WSU|
|San Jose State#||$525,000|
|@ Central Michigan*||$250,000 paid to WSU|
|UW’s future nonconference schedule|
* Denotes home-and-homes where schools trade guaranteed funds to cover travel costs, with the home school writing the away school a check # Denotes “buy” games where a school is paid to come play a one time game in Seattle** Amount was more than the trade guarantee BYU gets in 2018 because it’s part of compensation for a canceled game a few years ago
|2017||@ Rutgers||$400,000 paid to UW|
|Fresno State#||$1 million|
|@ BYU*||$250,000 paid to UW**|