I have a standing debate with a co-worker that started last football season, and picked up again this week when Minnesota announced some of the new non-conference opponents that they will play over the next 13 years. The debate goes something like this:
It doesn't make sense for a program like Minnesota to ever schedule the USC's & Texas' of the world on their non-conference schedules. Those are games they cannot expect to win.
If you are trying to build a program that matters, and you see yourself building into that kind of program in the future, then you are doing yourself a disservice if you DON'T schedule those types of games.
The debate is complicated, and it's not a new one. It happens to be a debate that hits very close to home me and most Gopher fans, because it's something we've dealt with for many years. I'll attempt to break down the debate and I think that it will be obvious which side of the debate I reside on.
Schedule the cupcakes
Small schools look to schedule major conference opponents for one major reason: dolla-billz. Small schools stand to make a lot of money on these kind of games. Gaining exposure for their program is another benefit to these kind of games, but mostly, it's the money. It also is a bit of a win for the major conference program because they can generally negotiate to have these games on their home turf. This allows the program to have more home games than away games. In the Big10, for example, it's not uncommon for a program to have 7 home games, and only 5 away. This means more money.
Additionally, scheduling these types of games means wins for a college program, and wins are important because wins lead to bowl games and bowl games lead to... you guessed it, more money. If you schedule 3, or even 4, cupcake non-conference games every season, then you only need to win 2 or 3 conference games to become bowl eligible. If you happen to go .500 in your conference schedule, suddenly you are an 8 win team and you have the chance to go to a better bowl game.
If you are a mid-tier program in a major college football conference, it doesn't make sense for you to try to schedule USC or Texas because those are games that you will have difficulty getting at home, are not likely to win, are not likely to make as much money off of, and end up hurting your bowl eligibility. The only way it makes sense to schedule games like this is if you are already a powerhouse in your conference and you need to bolster your ranking by playing other powerhouses from major conferences.
Schedule a tougher non-conference schedule
A cupcake non-conference schedule does nothing to improve your exposure on a national level. Going 4-0 in a poor non-conference schedule, and then going 2-6 in your conference makes you bowl eligible, but it does not make you a good football team.
Scheduling a tougher non-conference schedule benefits your program in ways beyond money. It increases your opportunity to play in nationally televised games. It increases your program and university's exposure to other areas of the country. It helps recruiting. It also increases your local exposure because the casual fan will be more excited about your program playing a school that they have heard of.
So where do I stand on this debate? Squarely in the camp that believes you should schedule a tougher non-conference schedule.
You have to understand that my perspective comes from that of a die-hard fan. I want to see what is best for the program to build itself into something relevant. My co-worker is generally coming from a different perspective. He's a guy who loves college football but tends to love the smaller schools and conferences more than anything. He isn't a Boise State fan, but absolutely loves the fact that the Broncos beat Oregon State. He probably doesn't read The Rivalry, esq, but I wouldn't be surprised if he followed a Mountain West or Big Sky Conference message board. I love the guy, but we come from different places on this.
And that is the problem with our debate: we come from the extremes. When we discuss this my co-worker is coming from the perspective that a team like Minnesota should never schedule USC and Texas, and for the sake of the arguement, I almost have to come from the perspective that the Gophers should play USC, Texas, Florida and Oklahoma every year.
The reality is that I actually fall somewhere in the middle.
I clearly do not believe that the above 4 opponents should be scheduled every year for the Gophers. This schedule would not benefit them, or any team. I do, however, think that the Gophers should be scheduling one such opponent every year, in as much as it's possible, and one or two mid-tier major conference foes, along with one or two smaller schools.
My point, as I said is from a fan perspective. Minnesota is a perfect example (and one that I clearly know well). If you are trying to bring a program out of the cellar of a major football conference, and make them at least relevant in that conference, then you have to (to steal a line from "Boiler Room") ACT AS IF. Act as if you are a serioius contender. Act as if you belong. Act as if you are the big swinging... sorry, got away from myself there.
The point is this: if you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got. For a decade prior to Tim Brewster the Gophers were the same team every year: 6 or 7 wins, 4 of which were patsy non-conference foes, they finished in the bottom half of the Big10, went to a less-than-stellar-to-crappy bowl game against a mediocre opponent who they sometimes beat, and sometimes got embarrassed by, and then the next season they did it all over again.
My co-worker believes that Minnesota didn't schedule major non-conference opponents in the past because they didn't have the money to do so. My belief is that they didn't schedule those opponents in the past because the coach didn't believe they could win them. I'm not saying money wasn't an issue, maybe it was, but the fact that Minnesota is scheduling those games for the future now, I believe, speaks volumes about the fact that preference, more than money, dictated the Gophers non-conference schedule in the past.
The bottom-line is this: as a fan, I want to see my favorite program schedule a tougher non-conference schedule and I could care less about how the dollars fall. I want to see our coach go after those types of opponents because I believe it speaks to what kind of program he is trying to build. If we see ourselves being relevant in the Big10 conference championship conversation in 2011 then we should WANT to play at USC that season.
If you don't see yourself in that conversation in the future then you probably aren't a real fan of the program.