In this BCS era of college football, in which voters across the country nonsensically scrutinize every aspect of every game, effective scheduling has become paramount. Essentially, a good schedule, which includes a balanced distribution between formidable and weaker opponents, and a good team can forge a premiere postseason bowl game. Conversely, disaster may strike if a strong team picks up an inopportune loss and does not have the schedule strength to drive themselves out of a hole. Since a team cannot decide which conference it is in or which opponents it plays from its conference, non-conference scheduling has become pivotal. At the core of non-conference scheduling lies a paradox that all athletic directors and coaches must face: Should we sacrifice our strength of schedule to guarantee ourselves more wins? or Should we schedule a big-time opponent in hopes of a victory that will launch us up the rankings?
When looking at Missouri’s 2009 schedule, it is obvious that Gary Pinkel and Co. stuck to the conservative end of this paradoxical spectrum. This season, Missouri will take on Illinois, in their annual Arch Rivalry showdown, Bowling Green, Furman, and Nevada before beginning their Big 12 slate….. wait, did I just list Furman??!!! That’s right folks, Furman. The purple and white clad Furman Paladins of the Football Championship Subdivision’s Southern Conference will be making millions from the ignominy at Faurot.
While I am happy that the Tigers should be locking up three surefire wins following the Illinois game in St. Louis, I would be lying if I said I was not displeased with the weakness of Missouri’s non-conference schedule. After doing some research, it came to my attention that the soft-scheduling strategy has been accustom of Mizzou for years. Since 2002, Missouri has gone 23-3 in non-conference games. Meanwhile, their non-conference opponents have combined to go 130-183 over the past seven seasons. This number is already pitiful, but it’s made even worse if you consider how inflated the win totals are from the opponents playing in poor conferences. The only notable opponents from the era have been: Bowling Green, who defeated Missouri in 2002 en route to a 9-3 season under Urban Meyer; Ole Miss, who has the name-recognition, but went 4-8 & 3-9 in the two seasons that Mizzou faced them; and Illinois, who landed in the Rose Bowl in 2007 but failed to qualify for a bowl last season. If these are the only three teams that are remotely eye-catching (and they just barely caught my attention), then it can be confirmed from Mizzou’s scheduling pedigree that the Tiger coaching staff is risk-averse. There are a couple of reasons why athletic director Mike Alden and the rest of the Missouri staff may be timid when making phone calls to other BCS conference teams.
First, the Tigers play in a major conference and generally have a fairly tough schedule once Big 12 play begins. This season, Mizzou will play Texas and Nebraska at home and travel to Stillwater to play Oklahoma State. In addition to these momentous clashes, Mizzou will also play solid Baylor and Kansas squads. While the Tigers certainly have their share of key Big 12 games this year, they have not always had to play against top competition in the Big 12. I may offend some with these next remarks, but I’m gonna throw them out there anyway. The Big 12 North is simply not that good right now and has not been even close in comparison to the South for quite some time. Mizzou’s staff may feel a false sense of security because they play in the second best overall conference in the country. However, they need to realize that the computers do not care what conference you are in; they just care about the teams you play, and North foes are not too intimidating. Also, voters realize that the North is much weaker than the South so they may skew their votes away from teams in the Big 12’s “other division.” Therefore, since Mizzou cannot count on playing top-notch competition in the North every year, it seems necessary that they start scheduling a little bit tougher out of conference if they want to fully contend for a BCS birth.
A second reason why Mizzou has not been scheduling major out of conference games is because Tiger fans generally do not travel incredibly well. Sure, Mizzou fans make the trek to St. Louis for the Arch Rivalry and Kansas City for the KU game, but can the majority of Tiger fans honestly claim that they would travel to Tallahassee for a game with Florida State? Probably not.
This season, Georgia is playing a brutal non-conference schedule in addition to their SEC slate. The Bulldogs will be playing at Oklahoma State in their season opener, and mix in games with Arizona State and Georgia Tech during the season. The reason behind the madness? To give Georgia’s polished fan base a chance to travel to places they hadn’t been for decades and to get Georgia’s name out to places that aren’t as familiar with the silver britches. SEC commissioner Mike Slive is currently advocating for teams in his conference to schedule “quality” opponents for out of conference home-and-home series. “The fans love it and the fact is it also gives us a valuable TV game when we have the home side of that game,” Slive said. Right now, Mizzou is a program on the rise, so they could benefit largely from the TV ratings and recognition that come from big games. While Georgia may have gone too far with scheduling “quality” opponents this season, I like their approach and wish Mizzou would dive into something similar in the future. Ultimately, the fans can make a major impact on the scheduling process. If Mizzou fans prove that they are willing to make long journeys to see exciting games, then the Missouri staff may be more willing to bend their current philosophy.
While I understand that games against teams like Furman can be used as early season tune-ups, I think it is shameful that major BCS conference teams schedule I-AA opponents. There are other ways to pick up a fairly easy win that are not so disheartening for fans. I think Missouri had the right approach in 2006-2007 when they scheduled a home-and-home with Ole Miss. Although Mississippi was not a great team in the two years when the Tigers played them, they play in the nation’s best conference and certainly provide name-recognition. I will be satisfied when Missouri starts scheduling at least two teams from BCS conferences for their four non-conference games every year. I’m not saying that Mizzou needs to schedule the elite from these conferences, but at least teams that are competitive and have a chance at making a bowl game, like Vanderbilt or Minnesota, for example. Then, every few years schedule a game against an elite opponent that will really get fans in Columbia excited, like against Virginia Tech or Alabama. In addition to all previous remarks, games against more legitimate opponents will make your team’s intangibles stronger and more prepared to handle tight situations. Scrimmages with Furman will not.