This summer, the hottest topic has undoubtedly been scheduling.
As mentioned previously, I got in a bit of a tete-a-tete with Kyle over at Dawg Sports regarding scheduling, after he named Texas Tech one of his four "most overrated" teams heading into this season. We discussed and settled our misunderstandings, but I believe it's time for me to make my position fully known.
By way of additional background, others have been discussing scheduling this offseason, most notably The Wizard of Odds. In numerous posts, the Wizard wants you to know that you, Mr(s). College Football Fan, are being ripped off because your team is playing a bunch of patsies.
That is a proposition I question. In his most recent post on the subject, the Wizard examines each conferences' number of home/road non-conference games, as well as number of games against I-AA/FCS competition. Unsurprisingly, the Big 12 is at or near the top in most categories, including second in most home non-con games since 1998 and second in number of I-AA/FCS opponents since 1998. A different post from the Wizard more specifically finds that K-State has amassed the following statistics since 1998: less than 20 percent of non-con games have been against BCS conference schools, only four non-conference games on the road (second-fewest in the nation...behind Auburn), and nine games against I-AA/FCS teams (tied for most with that school down the river). Finally, Kyle noted that the rise to prominence of teams such as K-State and Texas Tech has been, in some ways, a chimera.
Where do I begin?
Let's start with whether we're being ripped off as football fans by our teams playing such weak schedules. I will admit first of all that my four years at K-State were 2002-2006, which encompassed some of the highest highs of Bill Snyder's tenure, followed by some of the lowest lows. The first two years, 2002 and 2003, saw two 11-win seasons, a Big 12 championship, and a BCS bowl appearance. The last two saw losing records and no bowl games. Here were the non-conference slates for 2002 and 2003:
2002: Western Kentucky, UL-Monroe, Eastern Illinois, Southern California
2003: Cal (at Arrowhead Stadium), Troy, McNeese State, Massachusetts
Looking back, I can truthfully state that the only two games of those mentioned above for which I stayed until the end were the Southern California and Cal games. The other six games were well in hand by halftime, and I (along with most of my friends) retired to the parking lot or our apartments for some other entertainment.
Based on that, I suppose the Wiz would say I wasn't getting my money's worth out of my tickets. However, I believe most K-State fans would argue quite the contrary. Both years, we had one good matchup that provided an entertaining game, while the other three games provided tuneups for our powerhouse Powercat machine to prepare for the cauldron that was Big 12 play. Snyder's teams were notoriously slow starters, and for the sake of having a good team ready for conference play, I was willing to watch a few big blowouts. They provided some entertaining highlight reel plays (watching Ell Roberson toy with those defenses was pretty damn fun) and they gave backups a chance to get some experience to prepare for the inevitable injuries that befall a team in conference play.
Further, the hard stats, at least as they relate to K-State, do not bear the Wiz out on this. Here is the average attendance at K-State home games since 1999, along with the non-conference home games (and opponents' records) played that year:
1999: 51,136 (Temple (2-9), UTEP (5-7), Utah State (4-7))
2000: 50,260 (Louisiana Tech (3-9), Ball State (5-6), North Texas (3-8))
2001: 48,541 (New Mexico State (5-7), Louisiana Tech (7-5))
2002: 48,082 (W. Kentucky (12-3 I-AA), UL-Monroe (3-9), E. Illinois (8-4 I-AA), Southern California (11-2))
2003: 47,110 (Troy (6-6), McNeese State (10-2 I-AA), Massachusetts (10-3 I-AA))
2004: 48,405 (W. Kentucky (9-3 I-AA), Fresno State (9-5), UL-Lafayette (4-7))
2005: 45,961 (Florida International (3-7), North Texas (2-9))
2006: 46,693 (Illinois State (9-4 I-AA), Florida Atlantic (2-9), Louisville (12-1), Marshall (5-7))
2007: 47,383 (San Jose State (5-7), Missouri State (6-5 I-AA/FCS))
As this information should make fairly clear, attendance at K-State seems to correlate much more strongly with what happened the year before and with the quality of that year's team than with who is on the non-conference schedule. Our highest average attendance was in 1999 (and we know all too well what happened in 1998). Our fourth-highest average attendance during that span came in 2004, when we played W. Kentucky, Fresno State and UL-Lafayette in the non-conference. The reason? We won the Big 12 title the year before. The average that year would have been much higher, except it became abundantly clear early in the season that we weren't very good.
Fans will turn out to watch a winner. We could have played Emporia State and Fort Hays State during 2002 and 2003 and we still would have drawn pretty much the same crowds. Why? Because the product on the field was entertaining. We had a fast, swarming, bone-crushing defense, and offensive skill players that ran the option to perfection. It was a beautiful sight.
Moving away from whether or not fans are getting ripped off by watching games against crappy opponents, we should next address whether it's good for college football to have elite teams playing weak schedules. I would argue the biggest scheduling problem facing college football is not elite teams playing weak schedules, but rather the non-uniformity of scheduling. Last year, KU was a perfect example of this. Nobody knew how good they really were, because they did not play a team with a pulse in the non-conference. The 'beaks were further cursed by playing a bunch of conference opponents who were flawed to varying degrees, not to mention they missed Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech. Not until the Border War did they have a chance to measure themselves against a truly quality opponent, and for most of the game, Missouri kicked them around the field like Quantrill's men kicked around Lawrence.
We also saw the problem of non-uniform schedules in the selection of Ohio State for the national title game. The Buckeyes played a non-conference schedule that was probably not much stronger than KU's, they beat a bunch of conference opponents who were flawed to varying degrees, and they somehow came out of the mess and faced LSU in New Orleans. We all know how that turned out.
I am not suggesting the NCAA should start making schedules, or that there should be rules governing the process. The last thing we need is another NCAA rule. But until we give schools an incentive to face stronger competition, there is absolutely no good reason for them to do so. I used to take great offense to the national media belittling Bill Snyder for playing weak schedules for two reasons. First, they often were not as weak as they appeared (games against BCS opponents such as Iowa, Cal, and USC pop readily to mind). Second, there was absolutely no good reason for a team like K-State to play a tough schedule. I suppose we could have been hurt had the selection of a national title opponent come down to a popularity contest between the Cats and some other one-loss team, but Snyder's justified demeanor toward the media ensured we wouldn't win such a contest anyway.
One more point should be made here. Criticism directed at schools scheduling weak is often directed their way by the upper crust of the college football world. It's pretty well-known around Manhattan that K-State tried to schedule the Dukes of Windsor of the college-football world, but those deals fell apart for one of two reasons. Either the other school wanted a 2-for-1 series, or the other school wanted to play a home-and-"home" with the K-State end of the "home" deal played at Arrowhead Stadium.
What's the big deal, you say? Look at Big 12 athletic department operating budgets. The numbers in that post are from a couple years ago, but they fairly reflect the relative spending power of each Big 12 school. I should also mention that Texas isn't even the richest athletic department in the nation. Ohio State outspends Texas, and I believe Florida may also outspend the Horns. Anyway, the point is this: there are schools in the country that can spend two or three times more money on sports than K-State. The point of all this is that K-State doesn't have a whole lot of money to begin with, and what we do have comes primarily from football. Home games are our lifeblood, and giving them up means a ton of foregone revenue. Put simply, if we want to have something resembling a full athletic department, we can't try to please the critics by playing a bunch of road games at Michigan, LSU and Florida. Financially, it's not worth it.
Finally, I must briefly address Kyle's "chimera" comment. During Bill Snyder's tenure at K-State, the Cats amassed 10 seasons of nine or more wins, three division titles, one Big 12 title, two BCS games, and 11 bowl appearances overall. In those 11 bowl appearances, the Cats went 6-5. Thus, while I will concede that, given more difficult non-conference schedules, the Cats likely would not have totalled as many nine-, 10-, and 11-win seasons, the other numbers speak for themselves. You don't win division titles, a conference title, and six bowl games based entirely on who you played in September, you win them primarily with the quality of the team you put on the field. Also, given the results from our infrequent forays into non-conference games with elite opponents, Cal and USC being the primary examples, I am somewhat reluctant to concede that we would have lost a whole lot of non-conference games even had we upgraded the schedules.