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Hartnett: Out-of-conference is out of fun (Sept. 12)

Brian Hartnett | Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Upon hearing that the wonder team of Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit (and hopefully for entertainment’s sake, Eminem) will be broadcasting ABC’s national game of the week from West Lafayette this weekend, my only response was, “Are this week’s slate of games that bad?”
And the answer: Although not as bad as they were in the last two weeks, this week’s matchups, outside of the potential game of the year in College Station, are still uninspiring.
For most people, this gripe probably carries no weight. After all, who’s really going to watch whatever game tries to challenge Texas A&M-Alabama? And to be fair, there are some good inter-conference showdowns – Tennessee-Oregon, UCLA-Nebraska and Wisconsin-Arizona State all could be a treat to watch.
But there are still too many contests like Kent State-LSU and Lamar-Oklahoma State that make it hard to care about non-conference matchups.
Which brings me to my main point – major college football teams need to beef up their non-conference schedules.
I understand the reasoning behind weak non-conference scheduling for most top programs. With the current system in place, the main objective is for teams to win their conference and punch a ticket to a BCS bowl. There are two at-large bids available, but there’s little incentive for a fringe BCS team to potentially go into their conference slate with a loss.
Winning the conference is more of a challenge when there are more conference games, which is precisely what the recent trend has been. The Big 12 and Pac-12 both have nine-game conference schedules, and the Big Ten is following suit in 2016.
Additionally, there’s the ever-present temptation for a major program to pay a low-level FBS or even FCS team to come into their house. This strategy has mutual benefits-it gives the major program a nearly guaranteed win and for a lot of schools, another sellout, and it gives the minor program an important source of funding, some major exposure and on some occasions, a victory (see: North Dakota State and Eastern Washington).
While all of the above factors make it most logical for college football powers to schedule [insert directional school/satellite campus of state university here], there are certainly advantages for a school that goes outside its comfort zone. These advantages might seem at odds with a school’s mission of competing for a national title, but they can do more for a team’s development and reputation than a slate of creampuffs ever could.
Prime non-conference matchups can provide the answers to the many questions fans and analysts love to ask. Can an Urban Meyer-led Ohio State compete with the SEC elite? Is Florida State really an elite program or the king of a weak conference? Is Stanford’s defense physical enough to stop Alabama? I don’t know, you don’t know and despite what they say, neither ESPN nor any of its employees know, but we could find out if these teams actually played each other.
Similarly, non-conference wins can play a major role in improving the national perception of certain programs. Clemson might not get much credit when it runs all over Virginia or Wake Forest, but it does gain plenty of legitimacy when it does the same to Georgia. There’s definitely a flip side to this – Oregon’s loss to LSU in its 2011 season opener didn’t help the perception that the Ducks couldn’t outrun a top SEC defense – but a major non-conference win can definitely help launch an otherwise borderline team into the top echelon of football powers.
Games outside a team’s geographical area can help open potentially fertile recruiting bases. This might not matter for schools in locales where high school football is king, but it could be a huge boon to schools in Rust Belt states, such as Pennsylvania and Michigan, or states that don’t have an abundance of football talent.
Although I’m generally one against gimmicks, I believe non-conference matchups could have a gimmicky element. I think it’s really cool that Wisconsin and LSU are opening the 2016 season in Lambeau Field. Similarly, I think games at iconic venues like Yankee Stadium, the Cotton Bowl and Soldier Field would spice up the start of the season.
I know there’s certainly an element of chance to non-conference scheduling-the powerhouse you scheduled now might be in a down period when the game is played. Nonetheless, it’s time for some teams to step up, schedule some real programs and stop giving their fans what is essentially the NCAA version of a preseason game.

Contact Brian Hartnett at bhartnet@nd.edu


The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.