January 14, 2009

In BCS, its all about the company you keep

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. Mother always warned about getting in with the wrong crowd. It would just bring you down, she said.

Whether it was choosing high school friends or college football non-conference opponents, mother always knew best.

For example, Texas endured much angst and anxiety in November when it dropped behind Oklahoma in the BCS standings even though the Longhorns had beaten the Sooners and on a neutral field. One of the primary reasons Oklahoma climbed ahead in the BCS standings, and thus won the Big 12 championship and played for the national crown, was the difference in non-conference scheduling. The Sooners had victories over TCU and Cincinnati, both of whom were in the BCS top 15 at the end of the season; Texas' most impressive non-conference victory was either Rice or Arkansas.

Although strength of schedule isn't an official factor in compiling the BCS rankings, voters in human polls certainly pay attention and each of the six computers used in the standings has a SOS component.

So, should programs with national championship aspirations schedule with BCS ramifications in mind? That question was posed to several coaches at the American Football Coaches Association convention on Tuesday.

Some who responded acknowledged there is a need to schedule better opponents to enhance BCS possibilities; others said they follow a philosophy they've used in previous seasons.

California coach Jeff Tedford, whose Bears have opened the past two seasons against Tennessee and Michigan State and also played Maryland this season, said the BCS is taken into account when the schedule is being compiled.

"It enters into our philosophy," he said. "We like to have A-, B- and C-level opponents as we go through our non-conference schedule. We've been playing a lot of A-list teams. Next year we're going to play Maryland and Minnesota."

There can be debate over what qualifies as an A-list opponent, but "Big Six" conference teams coming off bowl appearances such as Maryland and Minnesota certainly should be considered.

As a member of the Pac-10, Cal plays nine conference games, so facing Maryland and Minnesota ensures the Bears will play at least 11 of its games against teams from the "power conferences" (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC).

A double-digit victory total against that kind of schedule would seem to be sufficient to guarantee a high place in the BCS standings. That's the approach Arizona State coach Dennis Erickson takes.

"Our philosophy is our league is so hard because we play everybody in our league," he said. "We play nine games like that, and then try to play somebody [from a power conference] out of our league."

This season, the Sun Devils played Georgia. They play Georgia again next season and are scheduled to meet Illinois and Wisconsin in future seasons.

In recent season, Ohio State which played in the BCS national championship game in 2006 and '07 and has appeared in four consecutive BCS bowls has played regular-season games against USC and Texas.

Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said the BCS system does influence Ohio State's scheduling. The Buckeyes have Miami on the schedule in 2010 and 2011, and they are scheduled to play California, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia Tech later in that decade.

"Every team has a little different philosophy," Tressel said. "Ours is we like to play a game of national interest in the early part of the year for our players, fans and alumni. We have alumni all over the country. But we have 36 sports and we need home games [to fund them]. We give in-state, mid-level teams a chance to play in Ohio Stadium. That doesn't have anything to do with the BCS. That's an institutional thing."

This season, Ohio State faced Youngstown State, a Football Championship Subdivision member, and Ohio University. Next season, the Buckeyes will play Toledo.

Obviously, playing and defeating national powers or at least teams from powerful conferences can enhance a team's chances of getting into the national championship game. But some programs aren't as likely to take that into account when making schedules.

"It's in our best interest to play schools that are academically similar to us," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Those games give us the opportunity to compete. And we want to have as many home games as possible."

That's reasonable. But soft non-conference schedules could cost the Wildcats, or any other team with a similar approach to scheduling, to miss a shot at the national championship.

"At the end of the day, if you have a Big Ten championship I believe you'll be in a great game," Fitzgerald said.

But you won't necessarily be in the big game just ask Texas.

Of course, a little luck is needed, too.

Schedules usually are made several years in advance, so when Texas signed to play Arkansas, it likely expected a tough game against a solid SEC team. But who knew Arkansas would falter in 2008?

Running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones left for the NFL draft after the '07 season. Coach Houston Nutt left for Ole Miss and was replaced by Bobby Petrino, who operates a much different offensive system. If Arkansas has a better record in '08, Texas would've appeared to have been running with a better crowd of opponents.

And that might have been enough to keep Texas ahead of Oklahoma in the BCS standings.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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