It's hard to ignore the giant elephant in the room when breaking down Ole Miss' chances to contend for a national championship in 2009.
When the Rebels take the field for their first non-conference game with Memphis in September, it could be against the most difficult opponent the team faces outside of the regular SEC slate. But if you look a bit closer, Ole Miss mirrors the norm rather than the exception when considering strength of schedule in-conference.
Florida, who will be vying for its third BCS championship in four seasons, welcomes Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International to Gainesville this season. To their credit, however, the Gators do close out the season with Florida State.
Alabama opens the season with Virginia Tech, but follows with two Sun Belt schools (FIU and North Texas), and FCS opponent Chattanooga at home. Winless a year ago, Washington plays host to LSU in the Tigers' season opener. The Bayou Bengals then meet the entire state of Louisiana in Baton Rouge, with Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulane and Louisiana Tech.
But with every preseason publication released, an underlying theme resurfaces. Fair or not, Ole Miss' schedule has been deemed the weakest of them all.
"I don't worry about that at all," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said of the schedule before spring practice in March. "Those are the cards we've been dealt, so worrying about it is wasted energy. I'm not worried about it. We are in the toughest conference in America. Get ready and go play."
After the Sunday road trip to Memphis, who Ole Miss has beaten four-straight times, the Rebels host Southeastern Louisiana, UAB and Northern Arizona in Oxford.
Two of those opponents (The Lions and NAU) are FCS schools. Against their last 10 FCS opponents, Ole Miss has won by a combined average of 29 points per game.
"Our intent was to have one 'name' team like a TCU, who was close, but it didn't work out," Nutt said. "In the future, we have Texas, Georgia Tech and Clemson, so we'll have our chances. I'm not concerned about next year. We'll have plenty of big non-conference games in the future."
In the grand scheme, however, the reasoning behind such scheduling seems perfectly logical.
Since the landscape of college football has changed, teams are required to schedule 12 games each season, with monetary compensation seeing exponential growth with each passing year. While this may not be an issue with institutions blossoming with ever-increasing revenue streams, smaller markets are feeling the effects.
"We didn't intend to schedule two I-AA teams nor do we anticipate scheduling two I-AA teams in the same year again," AD Pete Boone said upon the schedule's release.
The bigger question is whether the 2009 non-conference schedule can hurt Ole Miss' chances to contend, as was thought to be the case for Clemson last year with two FCS opponents on its schedule.
Clemson was viewed as an early player for a championship, but saw its season derailed by Alabama in the first game of the season. While the team finished 7-5, Tommy Bowden was given his walking papers mid-season, with the team suffering three-straight losses to Maryland, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
So in reality, Ole Miss' apparent concern with non-conference scheduling will only be an issue if the team were to be in the title race come November with one SEC loss. Under those circumstances, however, the odds of playing for a national championship seem small anyway.
It could be argued that preseason rankings could mean more. Having Texas, USC and others picked ahead of the Rebels could prevent the team from pushing ahead in the polls if those powerhouses were undefeated at the end of the season.
In 2003, Auburn went a perfect 13-0 with a conference title, but was denied a chance for a national championship. The Tigers' non-conference schedule consisted of ULM, The Citadel and Louisiana Tech, but final ruling stood with the selection committee.
However, if that were the case with Ole Miss this season, only one of the FCS contests would count toward bowl eligibility and strength of schedule, so a conference championship would weigh in the Rebels' favor.
Instead, focus should be placed on what can be controlled. If Ole Miss is to compete for its first SEC title since 1963, defeating the best of the SEC West and topping South Carolina in a difficult road contest in Columbia are a large part of what really matters most.
What's in a Schedule?
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