Is it worth the risk and/or reward to play a tough non-conference schedule in the Pac-10?
I smell cupcakes. The kickoff of non-conference play lately has brought the same thing: A low-level whine about the steady lack of big-time football programs on the schedule for Oregon State prior to Pac 10 play. Some of it comes from OSU fans who are eager for the Beavers to take their "rightful" place as a dominant national program. Some of it comes from Oregon State fans who feel that the current slate is simply beneath the program at it's current level. Some of it comes from sportswriters, likening OSU to Kansas State. But most of it comes from fans of other Pac 10 schools, which will remain nameless...for the sake of argument we'll call them USC, UW, UCLA, and Oregon. Then again, maybe they won't remain nameless, maybe I'll just call them out.
These holier-than-thou fans decry Oregon State's OOC schedule as "cowardly" or similarly hollow insults...sometimes thinly veiled, sometimes not.
"If you want to earn respect, you have to schedule REAL non-conference
opponents, not the Sisters of the Poor. Not 1AA teams," say the
Pot, Kettle, and Black, whose collective schedules may or may not
include a 1AA team as well. "Temple? They're HORRIBLE. UNLV? They're
terrible too. Come on. Fresno State.. what's that? We play Fresno
State this year? Oh, well they're good. Great, as a matter of fact.
But your OOC still stinks. You should schedule tougher competition
and earn our respect."
To these fans, these critics, these sportswriters, I would like to respectfully suggest that they pardon me if I ask them to kiss my pucker.
Mitch Barnhardt said it best, when considering a so-called pre-season game in Corvallis last year : "We need a tougher non-conference schedule like we need a hole in the head."
Amen, Mitch. I sure am going to miss you.
College football is a business these days, and that's a fact. In business you take calculated risks, always evaluating the risk vs. reward. And quite simply, there's very little reward associated with playing a tough non-con slate, but there is a LOT of risk.
Risk? You want me to spell it out? How much time do you have? Loss of momentum. Loss of confidence. INJURIES, which means loss of key players. Loss of games to be played at home due to the reluctance of big-name programs agreeing to a home and home with Oregon State. And let's not forget about loss of a game, which means elimination from a bowl game or even bowl contention. For what?
Rewards: Bragging rights. A very marginal increase in strength of schedule. Again, I would like to direct you to my posterior.
I don't have to go very far to find ample material to bolster my argument. All I have to do is look back to the 2000 season, when Oregon State played and fairly narrowly defeated a 1AA team in Eastern Washington at home, and two lowly regarded OOC opponents in San Diego State at home and New Mexico in Albequerque. Things were rolling along alright for San Diego State, but had we played Wisconsin on the road as the ducks did, it would have undoubtedly ended in a loss.
And let's talk about Oregon. A three way tie in the Pac 10 for the conference title, 2 BCS slots hanging in the balance and they're the odd man out when it was all said and done, relegated to a lower-tier bowl in San Diego in December while the Beavers and Huskies frolicked on New Year's Day. Tougher schedule did them a lot of good.
What about Washington? One of four teams to have finshed 11-1, the Huskies had as much claim to belong in the Orange Bowl as anyone not called Oklahoma. They had defeated Miami, who in turn had handed Florida State their lone loss. What good did playing a quality opponent in non-conference do the Huskies in 2000? Come on...I know you can get this one. Say it with me:
But you know what? Soft schedule didn't seem to hurt OSU much in getting to the Fiesta Bowl for a merciless pounding of Notre Dame. It's risk vs. reward, folks. Simple as that. And in a day where the amount of W's matters so much, you garner all you can. It doesn't even matter if you have a conference winning record or not, and it doesn't even matter if the wins come against D1A opponents.
Imagine for a moment that a team plays four wicked opponents in OOC. All top 25 teams. Let's call them...oh, USC. They escape from the gauntlet with 4 losses out of conference, not a single win and then proceed to improve and USC fleshes out a respectable 5-3 record in Pac 10 play...easily in the top half of the conference.
They're 5-7. They're not even bowl eligible.
Then imagine that a team plays 4 cupcakes. Let's call them...oh, how about OSU. OSU fields a young team that uses 4 non-conference opponents to build confidence and experience without attrition to the depth chart from injuries that come from close games played against better competition. They enter conference play undefeated and lose a couple heartbreakers to the mistakes of youth from a sophomore QB and TB and wind up 4-4 in conference play. They lose to USC.
They're 8-4. They're going to a bowl game. Now tell me, which team would you rather be, the team sitting at home with the pride of having played an admirable non-conference schedule, or the one at the Las Vegas Bowl.
Will the Beavers' "weak" non-conference schedule hurt or help the them come bowl season?
Yeah. Me too.
Bowl games bring money, exposure, and momentum for the program. Momentum means recruiting. Recruiting means talent. Talent means wins.
Dennis Erickson says every year, "Our goal every year is to compete for the Pac 10 title and go to a bowl game." Is it just me, or does it say anywhere in there anything about playing tough opponents and getting respect in OOC play?
Psst...the answer is no.
Ok, I can already hear the argument about how you can't get to a national championship game with a weak strength of schedule. Hey, do me a favor: Call up the AD at Miami, or Larry Coker, and ask him to explain to you how the Canes' mauling of D1AA McNeese State last year hurt their bid to play in the Rose Bowl for the national championship.
Bottom line is, you take care of business in the Pac 10 and emerge undefeated, the rest will take care of itself. RESPECT will take care of itself. The only time you'll hear me calling for a tougher non-conference slate is right after we go undefeated for the second year in a row and get snubbed for the title shot again.
Until then, I'll be right here with my 5 gallon tub of frosting. Bring on the cupcakes.