By David Randall
Anyone who wants to get anywhere in college football knows it”s not just winning and losing, but who you play that gives teams a shot a recognition and the championship.
Yet with teams trying to balance conference and non-conference match-ups and scheduling games more than a decade in advance, scheduling is tricky business for coaches and athletic directors – especially at BYU.
Last year, Cougar fans ranted, even planning an anti-BCS rally when their undefeated team failed to break into the top slots in the polls.
However, it was no secret that BYU”s weakness in the polls was due to the lack of strong competitors.
“Going into the season, Mississippi State was a favorite to win their division,” said Val Hale, BYU Men”s athletic director, who schedules the games. “When they fell on their face, people used that to criticize our strength of schedule.”
The situation highlighted the problems of scheduling for teams like BYU. Mid-major and minor conference teams have to find the scheduling balance that will keep their teams winning, but also keep them in the running for a BCS bowl game bid.
The BCS rating, which ultimately determines what teams play for a national championship is based in part on the records of a teams” opponents and their opponents” opponents. Other polls, while more subjective also take into account a team”s competition.
For a non-major conference school like BYU, even arriving at a schedule that could produce a national championship team involves a lot of planning and luck.
First, mid-major and minor conference teams, have to worry about stocking their non-conference schedule with big name schools. Wins in the seven conference games they play every year will most likely do little to up the BCS rating for the team.
“Our only chance is to schedule good teams for our non-conference games and go undefeated,” Hale said.
The six major conferences the Big 12, the Big 10, the ACC, the SEC, the PAC-10 and the Big East, created the BCS system. Teams from those conferences are guaranteed a slot in a BCS bowl game if they win their conference.
Teams like Nebraska in the Big 12 can pad its non-conference games by paying large sums to smaller, weaker schools for home games two years in a row.
This year Nebraska played Utah State, an independent team they beat 44-13, and next year they play again.
These games are lucrative for major schools because home games generate more revenue, and the stronger teams make up for the strength of schedule points in conference games, Hale said.
Other teams are only guaranteed a BCS game slot if they finish in the top six in the BCS ranking.
Hale said he would like to see a playoff system including all conference winners, but that any prospect of a playoff is remote.
Another major obstacle for BYU and other non-major conference teams is the scheduling timeline. Non-conference match-ups are scheduled years in advance, long before schools can know what players or coaches they will face.
Arizona State recently signed a deal to play Notre Dame in 2013 and 2014. BYU has a series set up with the University of Washington in 2010 and 2011. The earliest open game slot for the cougars is 2006.
Any freshman playing in 2006 will be entering high school this fall, and any freshman playing in the Notre Dame/ Arizona St. match-up is a third-grader this year.
“It”s kind of a crap shoot because scheduling is done so far in advance that you never know how good the teams are going to be,” Hale said.
While coaches can have some confidence that a traditionally powerhouse team, such as Notre Dame will perform well, there is no way to say they won”t.
Last year Notre Dame went 5-6 after a coaching change.
Even some teams who look good at the first of the season, such as Mississippi State, can perform dismally, and a game planned years in advance to help a teams” BCS rating will actually hurt a team.
The ideal for coach Gary Crowton is to play two major schools and two lesser-know schools each year, in the non-conference match-ups, Hale said. This provides a challenge, but also a balance.
In the coming years the Cougars play Notre Dame, Florida State, Georgia Tech, USC, UCLA. If those teams perform at their usual level, and BYU wins, the games will help establish a strong strength of schedule rating for BYU.
“We certainly have the schedule that could make (a BCS bid) possible in the next couple of years,” Hale said.
However, as much as winning and ranking is a concern, it is not the only concern when it comes to scheduling. Scheduling can impact the team and the fans, Hale said.
“We want to schedule teams that are appealing to out fans, in a geographic area that will get a lot of media interest or appeal to recruits, and teams that we have a chance to be competitive with and are like us in some ways,” said Hale.
Hale said the schedule can change interest in the team. As many home games as possible would be nice, but a large number of home games drives up season ticket prices and keeps some fans away.
Also, scheduling a big non-conference game to start the season can be critical in keeping fans involved in the team from the beginning and boosting season ticket sales, he said.
Top recruit freshman quarterback Ben Olson said while a strong schedule was not the main reason he came to BYU, he was made well aware of the teams BYU will be playing in coming years.
“It”s definitely appealing for me, but it wasn”t a huge thing,” Olson said.
For team members having big games on the docket can create a lot of hype, although it may not affect the way the team prepares or plays, said senior wide receiver Reno Mahe.
“They”re just another team,” Mahe said. “For me, every team”s the same. The only team I care about preparing for is Utah.”