On Sept. 5, while Florida feasted on Charleston Southern and Texas opened with Louisiana-Monroe, the Oklahoma Sooners played a strong BYU team on a neutral field.
That’s when Sam Bradford sprained his shoulder while being sacked, an injury that derailed OU’s title hopes.
A week later, while Florida annihilated Troy and Texas blew out Wyoming, Southern California played at Ohio State.
That’s when freshman Matt Barkley was himself sacked and hurt. He was forced to sit out the next game, which the Trojans lost. Now they’re behind the national title 8-ball.
That’s two tough games, two season-changing injuries and two more examples why as long as the Bowl Championship Series exists, there is no good reason any power team should risk playing a rugged non-conference schedule.
Check out the BCS standings. Florida and Texas are ranked No. 1 and 3 respectively, despite playing weak non-conference teams. Both know if they win out, they’ll play for the title anyway.
This isn’t scheduling cowardice, it’s, in fact, what passes for BCS intelligence.
If you’re a big-name program, it’s foolish to prove yourself outside of the mandated league games. A monster showdown might be fun to play in, but it isn’t proportionately rewarded by either the voters or the computers. All it does is open you up to a loss, an injury or an emotional letdown.
You’re best served staying home and playing patsies.
This column isn’t about who should or shouldn’t be No. 1 or whether this team could win the games on that team’s schedule. There’s plenty of places and time for those debates.
It’s about how despite the BCS’ claim that it, unlike a playoff, protects the “sanctity of the regular season,” it has actually cut down on the exciting games the sport was built on.
And as coaches increasingly figure out how to rig this silly system, the trend toward the dull has only just begun.
“Is the goal to find the team with the best record or the best team?” USC’s Pete Carroll asked reporters after the first BCS standings found his 5-1 Trojans in seventh place, hurt by computers that left the Trojans in the teens.
Carroll should know the answer by now. Sometimes they are one in the same. The one certainty in this uncertain system is that the most likely road to the title game for a big-name team is an undefeated record. Auburn, in 2004, is the lone exception.
“We’ve told our kids that we need to win them all,” said Texas coach Mack Brown of the blueprint for winding up in the BCS title game.
What is the easiest way to “win them all?” Play the weakest competition imaginable; and do it on your campus.
The Longhorns’ non-conference schedule features UL-Monroe, Wyoming, UTEP and Central Florida. It’s an embarrassing slate for a team of its stature, but it’s also one reason UT walked into the Oklahoma game Saturday in excellent health, high confidence and with backups having gained valuable experience.
All of that was enough to leave with a 16-13 victory over the battered Sooners.
Both Brown and Florida coach Urban Meyer are staunchly anti-BCS, but as long as they are stuck with this system, they’re going to try to figure out how to beat it.
While Bradford and Barkley were getting injured against physical non-conference opponents, quarterbacks for Florida and Texas, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy, were watching long stretches of blowouts from the safety of the sideline.
Last offseason Brown brought in a bunch of BCS gurus to Austin to break down how the system works. He didn’t lack for familiar examples. In his own Big 12 he’s watched both Kansas (2007) and Texas Tech (2008) rise to No. 2 in late-season BCS standings, despite playing laughable non-conference schedules, essentially turning the season into two or three serious games.
If you can “win them all” the BCS doesn’t care about the “all.”
Brown, and just about everyone else, is scheduling with this in mind. The Horns’ future opponents are only modestly more challenging than this season. UT will play three weaker teams and add a single major conference opponent per season, none of them true heavyweights – UCLA, Mississippi and Cal.
Meyer, meanwhile, knows that as long as his Gators win the Southeastern Conference, even with one loss, he’s probably in the BCS title game. The non-conference is meaningless to the Gators’ title hopes … unless they lose. So why risk it?
UF hasn’t played a non-conference game outside the state of Florida since the BCS was created and had only two outside Gainesville in the past five seasons. The only major non-conference team on the long-term schedule is fading Florida State. The Gators will play South Florida in 2010 and 2015, but other than that, it’s straight sisters of the poor.
“I don’t plan on changing the way we schedule,” Meyer said last summer.
Why would he? Why would anyone? This isn’t just what the BCS rewards, it’s what it demands.
In the 1980s, pre-BCS, there were annually between 15-20 non-conference games featuring two preseason ranked teams. This year there were just four.
There was a time when scheduling a Football Championship Subdivision team (formerly I-AA) was unheard of; now teams regularly play two of them.
All this despite the expanding of the season that offered more opportunity for real games.
Carroll, for one, tries to schedule only major conference opponents and doesn’t want to hear that retreating is the smartest policy. He believes the thrill is still in the challenge. USC is one of just four schools to have never played a FCS team.
He joins Stoops as part of a small group of coaches who still seeks out two or three powerful non-league opponents each season, fallout be damned.
OU is set up with dates with Ohio State, LSU, Cincinnati, Notre Dame, TCU and Tennessee over the next eight years. Carroll, whose team took two long trips to the Midwest this season, has future series with Notre Dame, Virginia, Boston College, Texas A&M, Syracuse and Hawaii and is looking for more.
It means every year those two national challengers are voluntarily walking a gauntlet, making chasing a championship exponentially more difficult.
They’d be best served joining Texas, Florida and the rest of the crowd that are playing by the rules the BCS has created – line up the weaklings as their fans’ eyes glaze over in boredom (while still charging full price for tickets, of course).
Apparently Pete Carroll and Bob Stoops still believe in the sanctity of the regular season.
It’s the BCS that doesn’t.