Easy Scheduling Critical for Top 25 Contention

Arizona, a once proud Pac-10 team, has the most difficult schedule in the nation right now. They are also 0-6. Utah, ranked No. 9 in the AP poll last week and No. 6 in the BCS poll, just happened to be dead last in strength of schedule last week. That's right; Utah was 117 out of 117 Div. 1 teams in strength of schedule (SOS).

BYU's first five games ranked as the second most difficult schedule in the nation this year.

If you look at the top 10 most difficult schedules in Div. 1 football right now, their combined record is an astounding 6-43. Not one of them has a winning record. In fact, none are even close to a winning record. And these are not pushover teams. Five of the top 10 are BCS teams.

BYU was ranked No. 30 last week in strength of schedule. A quick review of the top 30 revealed none of them have a winning record. BYU is one of only two teams with a top 30 SOS with an even record; the other 28 teams all have losing records.

Interestingly, there are also no teams with a top 30 strength of schedule that are in the Top 25 national rankings.

Expanded to include the top 50 most difficult schedules, only six teams have winning records.

How about a look at the teams with "bottom 30" strength of schedules? Of last week's top 25 ranked teams last week, 11 – nearly half the top 25 teams – boast "bottom 30" schedules out of 117 Div. 1 teams.

The list includes No. 2 Oklahoma (ranked 113); No. 3 Auburn (ranked 116); and No. 9 Utah (ranked 117). Other top 25 teams included Michigan, Purdue, Minnesota, Southern Mississippi, Virginia, Wisconsin, West Virginia and Boise State.

What conclusion can we draw from these revealing snippets of information? The most obvious conclusion is a top 25 strength of schedule virtually assure its members a losing season.

But could this conclusion be an aberration for this year alone? Not likely. This data points to an uncomfortable and controversial conclusion: BYU's best chance for being included as a top 25 team requires a relatively soft non-conference schedule.

The controversy arises when the Cougars' fan base is strides both sides of the issue between BYU playing great teams – even if they lose – or playing substantially weaker teams that ensure a much higher chance of a winning record. A recent Internet message board post from a fan stated, "I'd rather see BYU lose to a top 10 team than see them win against Podunk State."

Another source of the controversy comes from BYU's athletic administration. Former athletic director Val Hale recently praised his predecessors Rondo Fehlberg and Glen Tuckett for their scheduling of major league opponents for the Cougars the last couple of years. He commented they ought to be sent a box of chocolates and a thank you note for their efforts in the 2004 schedule. Why? Because they saved the budget, according to Hale.

That is a matter of opinion.

This was an acceptable attitude or notion when BYU was dominating the WAC or MWC; was 8-0, perennially listed in the top 25 rankings; and knocking on the BCS door. With team muscles flexed, fans and administrators relished the idea of going up against USC, LSU and Notre Dame all in one year.

In retrospect, was BYU's plight through the first four games of the season worth it? BYU coach Gary Crowton has always maintained he likes the idea of scheduling only one top BCS powerhouse per year.

To accentuate his point, what would BYU's record be IF they played a 2004-type schedule in 1984? Would the Cougars be celebrating its 20th anniversary of its only college football national championship?

Just for fun of it, let's revive our 2004 schedule and imagine the alternate possibilities:

Notre Dame
@ Baylor
Fresno State
@ New Mexico State
@Colorado State
Utah State
@Air Force
San Diego State
New Mexico

It's quite possible with this hypothetical schedule that the current BYU team might be ranked with a possible undefeated record.

More and more powerhouse teams realize a schedule like this gives your team many advantages. The advantages are factual and apparent. Nebraska, for instance, will not schedule top 25 teams for out of conference games and schedules to play seven home games each season.

The advantages are clear:

* Starting out with a weak schedule gives your team a chance to work out the kinks and mistakes against opponents you are less likely to lose to.
* The team will gain confidence and experience in executing against much weaker opposition.
* The team will emerge from a weaker non-conference schedule healthier and energized to play their tough games.
* The team has time to solidify its starters and provide valuable experience to its second and third stringers.

The Cougars' 14-1 season in 1996 gives us another good look at scheduling. BYU played Texas A&M early and win before they played Arkansas State. That gave them a good feel for their offense and defense. Then they played and lost to their second BCS opponent, Washington – a Pac-10 top dweller in those days. The loss probably cost them a deserving BCS bowl bid.

But back to the scheduling challenges; it's impossible to know if Oklahoma in 2008 will still be a top 25 contender? The upside for BCS conference teams is playing weak non-conference schedules have no bearing on their standings; if f they win their conference, they automatically receive coveted BCS bowl bids.

So where do BYU fans stand now two and a half years of unaccustomed mediocrity staring them in the mirror?

I'm all for saving the budget, but isn't it safe to assume BYU would be selling out LaVell Edwards Stadium most games with the above-listed hypothetical schedule? More than 55,000 fans saw the Cougars narrowly defeat Wyoming game. Raise your hand if you think more than 63,000 fans would be howling and screaming if BYU had been 7-0 playing its hypothetical schedule?

The big football payoff for most teams is the bowl games. Not only does it add a chunk to the money pot if you win the conference and play in a bowl game, but it also helps recruiting and gives the team additional practice time.

Here is my bottom line: After two years of eating sour-tasting humble pie, I'm still in Crowton's corner. BYU needs one good BCS win each season under its belt; schedule soft after that, and then make a definitive statement in the MWC conference race and bowl game.

Emerging unscathed from a mediocre schedule will put the pressure on the BCS and the national polls to reward the Cougars accordingly – as a nationally respected big mid-major fish in a smaller pond.

Scheduling is everything. (Data From: http://teamrankings.com/ncf/27powerratings.php3)

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