September 21, 2007

Road to upsets begins with scheduling

Last Friday night, Oklahoma State football fans had to be asking how the Cowboys had gotten to this point.

A road trip to Georgia that resulted in a 35-14 loss is one thing. But why play Troy at Troy, in a game that ended in an embarrassing 41-23 loss for Oklahoma State?

The simple answer is Troy took Oklahoma State's bait.

"A lot of times it's kind of like fishing - you've got about 10 lines in the water at one time and you're just hoping to get a bite," said Dave Martin, the senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma State.

Sometimes, though, the fish can grab hold of the line and swim away with the rod and reel - and a little bit of the fisherman's dignity.

Two other BCS-league schools found that out last week in road games against non-BCS teams: Utah crushed UCLA 44-6 and Florida Atlantic defeated Minnesota 42-39.

Three top-10 teams have been luckier, surviving scares against non-BCS teams on the road: No. 6 California (34-28 over Colorado State), No. 7 Texas (35-32 over UCF) and No. 9 Wisconsin (20-13 over UNLV).

Usually, "lesser-conference" schools pack their bags, hop on a plane and lose by three or four - or more - touchdowns to programs such as Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio State and USC. In return, the rich programs open their wallets to the tune of $500,000 or so.

It's a rarity for a BCS program to go to a non-BCS campus or play a non-BCS program on a neutral field. If athletic directors start to look at the records, maybe they'll think twice about a weekend trip to the Sun Belt to woo recruits and pick up an easy win.

BCS teams are 55-5 when playing at home against I-A non-BCS teams this season. But when BCS teams travel to non-BCS campuses or to a neutral site, that record is 14-7.

So why do major-college programs make trips to Laramie, Wyo.; Movie Gallery Stadium in Troy, Ala.; Murfreesboro, Tenn.; or Sin City?

For some, it's simply because they want to be seen by recruits and/or on TV.

OUT ON THE ROAD
BCS conference teams playing at non-BCS conference opponnents or playing non-BCS opponents at a neutral site. Wins by non-BCS teams in BOLD
Week 1
Wyoming 23, Virginia 3
TCU 27, Baylor 0
Iowa 16, Northern Illinois 3 (Chicago)
Purdue 52, Toledo 24
BYU 20, Arizona 7
Ole Miss 23, Memphis 21
Texas Tech 49, SMU 9
Week 2
East Carolina 34, North Carolina 31
West Virginia 48, Marshall 23
Indiana 37, Western Michigan 27
Wisconsin 20, UNLV 13
Washington State 45, San Diego State 17 (Seattle)
Mississippi State 38, Tulane 17
Cal 34, Colorado State 28
Maryland 26, Florida International 10
Week 3
Troy 41, Oklahoma State 23
Florida Atlantic 42, Minnesota 39 (Miami)
Utah 44, UCLA 6
Texas 35, UCF 32
Cincinnati 47, Miami (Ohio) 10
Texas Tech 59, Rice 24
Week 4
Oklahoma at Tulsa
Duke at Navy
Iowa State at Toledo
Baylor at Buffalo
Week 5
Syracuse at Miami (Ohio)
Cincinnati at San Diego State
LSU at Tulane
Week 6
Virginia at Middle Tennessee
South Florida at Florida Atlantic
Week 8
Northwestern vs. Eastern Michigan (Detroit)
NC State at East Carolina
Wake Forest at Navy
Week 11
Rutgers at Army
Penn State at Temple
Week 14
Washington at Hawaii
Texas, Minnesota and Maryland made road trips to Florida to make an appearance in front of the Sunshine State's stockpile of football prospects. But only the Terrapins, with a 26-10 win over Florida International, left the state with a victory decided by more than a field goal.

Minnesota may have done more damage than good on the recruiting trail by losing to FAU.

"We have a benefit for the teams that come down here in South Florida as opposed to other places," FAU coach Howard Schnellenberger said. "They like to be down here recruiting during the offseason. They like to be here during football season. They like showing the wares in this area because there's going to be 370 (high school) seniors (in Florida) who are going to play on scholarship somewhere."

Road trips aren't only for recruiting purposes, either. This season, Texas Tech plays non-conference road games in Dallas (vs. SMU) and in Houston (vs. Rice) because those cities are two of Tech's biggest alumni bases. Penn State plays at Temple on Nov. 10 and Oklahoma plays at Tulsa on Friday for the same reason (and also because the game will be televised on ESPN2).

There are other reasons, too.

A feel-good story for Wisconsin nearly turned sour when the Badgers needed a 29-yard touchdown run from quarterback Tyler Donovan in the final two minutes to avoid an upset at UNLV.

Wisconsin was playing in Vegas because of Tom Wiesner, who played for the Badgers from 1958-60 before becoming a politician and businessman in Las Vegas. He was a booster for both programs before his death in 2002 and helped set up a home-and-home series between the schools. The schools have met eight times since 1985 and are scheduled to meet again in 2010 in Madison and 2011 in Las Vegas.

After the addition of the 12th game to schedules, Virginia was left scrambling for opponents in 2006 and '07. Wyoming and Virginia had a previous connection as well. Former Wyoming athletic director Lee Moon, who was the AD when the series was scheduled, is originally from Roanoke, Va., and a former Virginia graduate assistant. The result was a home-and-home with Wyoming, which has turned out better for Wyoming than the Cavaliers. Virginia needed overtime for a 13-12 win at home last season, and Wyoming won 23-3 in Laramie on Sept. 1 this season.

Virginia isn't done visiting non-BCS schools, either. The Cavs face the Sun Belt's Middle Tennessee State on the road on Oct. 6 in a game that was scheduled in part because of the fallout of ACC expansion. The road trip to Murfreesboro, Tenn., isn't ideal, but in return, Virginia will receive four home games against MAC schools in the future.

All Al Groh has to do to convince his team that Sun Belt teams are worthy is point at the Oklahoma State-Troy and the Minnesota-FAU scores from last week.

Oklahoma State ended up in Troy as part of a "two-for-one." Oklahoma State played at Troy in return for games against Troy in Stillwater in 2008 and 2010.

"It's impossible for us to pay the amount of money that a school that has 80,000-90,000 seats can for what you would call a 'buy-in game,' " said Martin, who plays a major role in scheduling Cowboys football games.

Construction on Oklahoma State's stadium, cutting its capacity from around 50,000 to 40,000, limits the Cowboys' ability to lure teams for buy-in games. Oklahoma State has adjusted by scheduling more two-for-ones. That likely will change when the stadium expansion (to about 60,000 seats) is done in 2009.

Troy appreciated the opportunity to face another Big 12 team at Movie Gallery Stadium. The Trojans beat a Big 12 team there once before - 24-14 over No. 17 Missouri in 2004. The flipside of the victory over Oklahoma State: Will BCS-league teams want to risk playing at Troy anymore?

"You'd like to think competition is something we ought to relish," Troy coach Larry Blakeney said. "I think home and home is fair. We'll wind up going back to Oklahoma State twice to pay this game back, and I respect them for coming here first."

Blakeney's respect is nice, but one major-conference team - one that has been "major" for only three seasons - is wary of regular appearances on the road against a MAC school.

Cincinnati and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, have played each other 112 times in one of the oldest I-A rivalries in the nation. The schools have alternated home fields since 1996. But before Cincinnati won 47-10 at Miami last week, first-year Bearcats coach Brian Kelly said that while he wanted to continue the rivalry, he questioned the value of playing it away from home. Miami is 14-7-2 at home against Cincinnati.

"We're in a BCS conference," Kelly told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "We have to look at our schedule and find out is it in our best interest to travel to a non-BCS school. We have to think about that. I could live with it being at a neutral field."

Schnellenberger has been on both sides. In his first year at Miami (1979), the Hurricanes lost at I-AA Florida A&M. Twenty-eight years later, Schnellenberger returned the favor at home against Minnesota.

Still, he says if he were coach of a BCS program, he wouldn't shy away from a road trip to face a lower-profile program.

"I wouldn't hesitate at all," he said. "It's vital that we look at this game of football as a national treasure. It's important that we as coaches give others the chance to get where we are."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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