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Thursday, September 23, 2004
Bottom line often dictates matchups

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

We have this programming update for the remote-clutching citizens of Recliner Nation: You might want to reacquaint yourselves with the family unit and take this Saturday off. Many of college football's best teams did.

No fewer than seven unbeatens are taking a powder this weekend: California, Colorado, Fresno State, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Only four Big 12 teams are suiting up, and one of those is Baylor (memo to the league office: how did that happen?). Forty percent of the Pac-10 will sit this one out.

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The art of the deal
In the cautious world of scheduling, it's the bottom line that often dictates the matchups.

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Trying to make a last-minute schedule change requires patience and flexibility. Just ask Oregon and Oklahoma.

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And here's the other part of this sparse Saturday equation: Intersectional games with any juice are rare. In fact, there are just three non-league, BCS-member-vs.-BCS-member contests Saturday: Boston College at Wake Forest, Syracuse at Virginia and Washington at Notre Dame.

In an entire September of football, there will be just one intersectional matchup of Top 25 teams: No. 19 Maryland at No. 8 West Virginia last Saturday. That's partly luck of the draw (Oregon-Oklahoma figured to be a Top 25 game, for instance) and partly by design.

In the art-meets-science-meets-the-bottom-line world of modern scheduling, cautious is in. Adventurous is out. Home games rule -- and you don't find big-name opponents who are willing to come to your place without a return to their place.

Football is the fatted calf that feeds the athletic department, from the Jumbotron scoreboard to the volleyball team's knee pads. And football revenue flows from home crowds -- about $2.6 million from each game at Oklahoma, for example.

That economic reality has dictated what we've seen -- and not seen -- this September.

In years past, said Loren Matthews, ABC's senior vice president of programming, "there seemed to be a bigger willingness to play the non-conference matchups. There was a better selection of interconference games. ... I'm concerned a little this year, because I thought we'd come out of September with some soft (Nielsen) numbers. We're going to have a little ground to make up."

Instead of big shots playing big shots, the viewing public has watched big shots playing Bowling Green, Temple, UCF, UNLV, UAB and, we believe, the UAW. The ticket-buying public has been paying big dollars to see big shots play the Sun Belt, the bottom half of the Mid-American Conference and select I-AA teams.

Does anyone out there still want to play a marquee non-league game?

Not if it means going on the road to do so.

"More people are taking home games and not playing road games," said ESPN director of programming and acquisitions Dave Brown, the network's college football schedule master. "I don't have any statistics in front of me, so it would be impossible for me to tell you what the numbers are. But certainly, there are more financial pressures on schools these days. There are more people playing seven home games out of an 11-game schedule these days."

Actually, it only seems that way. Nine BCS-member schools have gone the seven-home-game route this year, led by the cash-craving SEC: Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Illinois, Kansas State and Virginia Tech. That's actually down from the last 11-game schedule in 2001, when 11 BCS-member schools played seven at home. In 2000 the number was 10.

(This excludes teams that play annual neutral-field, split-tickets games, like Florida-Georgia in Jacksonville and Texas-Oklahoma in Dallas.)

But here's the deal: We got a flashback taste of teams sticking their necks out in September with a 12-game schedule the two previous years. Florida played home-and-home with Miami. Oklahoma played home-and-home with Alabama. USC played home-and-home with Auburn.

Now we're back to 11 games, and the NCAA has steadily whittled away the number of "preseason classics" in late August. And when you go back to 11, with means three non-league games instead of four for five of the six BCS conferences, guess which matchups disappear?

The sexy ones.

Those are also the dangerous ones, of course. The games you can lose. And since serious football revenue also flows from bowl games, that has to be taken into consideration.

It takes six wins to be bowl-eligible. If home-game victories over Bottom Feeder U., Offsides Tech and Southwestern Assemblies of Transcript Fraud get you halfway there, hey, several schools are willing to go that route.

"Lots of people are seeing six as the magical number," Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich said. "They're going to try to buy three. I don't agree with that philosophy."

Others do. And even if they're not completely devoting the non-conference schedule to cupcake games, many big-shot schools are reticent to trade their steady cash flow and easy victory from a "guarantee game" for a difficult road game every other year.

"Why are we playing Eastern Michigan instead of Michigan?" asks Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley. "It's pretty simple. We don't have to return the game with Eastern Michigan, and we need six home games.

"When the NCAA allows us to play a 12th game, no question, we want to play a major opponent. We'll play Miami more often than not, but we'll work in some other opponents nationally. Some years we might opt for seven home games, if it would help pay for a special project or something."

Even Notre Dame, owner of a traditionally ambitious national schedule, is now exploring the possibility of softening it with some guarantee games.

"I think the motivation is to look at playing seven home games, for the financial reasons more than any," associate athletic director John Heisler said. "We probably don't have the faintest idea who those people would be to come to South Bend and not return the game."

Probably quite a few would apply for that duty.

Here's the thing about college football scheduling: There is no uniform formula. This isn't the NFL, which craves cookie-cutter parity and equity.

You can build a program with brave scheduling, using shock-the-world upsets to earn a reputation. (See: Fresno State, which would play Southern Cal in an L.A. parking lot at midnight if offered the chance.) Or you can build it on the backs of beaten small-timers, amassing victories and accruing confidence. (See: Kansas State, which has played one non-conference game on an opponent's home field in the last six years.)

"Everyone has a scheduling philosophy that works for them," ESPN's Brown said. "We certainly don't dictate that. We work with people to try to find something that works for them. Who am I to tell them how to schedule their program?"

The most common pattern out there today for BCS schools is to find two opponents from lesser leagues that are willing to come to your place, and one opponent with a higher profile.

In the past three 11-game seasons, including this one, about half of the 63 BCS-conference schools have played one non-conference game per year against a fellow BCS program, and two against non-BCS teams. About 25 percent of the BCS schools have had the nerve to schedule two BCS opponents. About 20 percent have scheduled zero from the BCS. Only about five percent have been crazy enough to schedule three BCS opponents -- usually Big East schools, which play fewer league games.

(Of course, sometimes scheduling non-BCS schools is the more risky proposition. North Carolina would probably trade its dates this year with Top 25 teams Louisville and Utah for the chance to play, say, Temple and Vanderbilt.)

Athletic directors would love to make the 12-game schedule permanent, if they can get the presidents to go along. It looks like that proposal is inching closer to reality in 2006. If it does happen, that would help balance the books while also offering at least a scenario for playing a tougher schedule.

But that could compete with another possible incentive -- or excuse -- for playing a lighter non-conference slate: The BCS has dropped strength of schedule as a separate component of its mathematical formula.

"It really makes you think about playing a softer schedule, with maybe one toughie in there to get ready for conference," said Colorado coach Gary Barnett.

One thing seems certain: the days of plotting your schedule a decade in advance appear to heading the way of the Wishbone. With shifting conference affiliations and easily broken contracts, what used to be set in stone is now much more fluid.

"We've got games eight years out, but in this day and age that's not the way to do it," Jurich said. "I think you're looking at three, four, five years out at most. Anything after that, you're probably just wasting paper."

Things can change even three, four, five months out. Look what Notre Dame did to get BYU moved to its opener this year, or the game Oklahoma and Oregon pulled together last spring.

"Our ability to move the BYU game four months out suggested there's more flexibility than anybody realized," Heisler said. "There can be adjustments and flexibility."

Just don't expect those adjustments to include an outbreak of big-time schools playing big-time road games for your early-season viewing pleasure. In September, home is where the cash is.

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