Season Preview: The Scheduling Game

EA Sports
Football Preview Schedule
(July 11-August 30)

July 12, 2005

By Bryan Armen Graham

Assistant Editor,


"It's hard to schedule a game."


For David Horning, associate athletics director at North Carolina State, that's a somewhat understated punctuation to a 15-minute walk through the college football scheduling process in today's high-stakes climate.


"If you're not playing in December, nobody's happy," Horning says. "It doesn't matter if you've played well and you're 5-7. Coaches lose their jobs [with that record]. We build our schedule around what we can do to help our chances for the postseason."


Satisfying television contracts and title-hungry alumni with an exciting, competitive schedule can be as hard as winning the games themselves, but it's all made possible with communication between the athletics director's office and the head coach.


A First Look


Since in-conference home and away dates are determined years ahead of time, the AD starts the blanks-filling process by looking at non-conference opportunities throughout Division I.


If a team is looking at a league slate filled with ranked programs, it will be less inclined to schedule ranked non-conference opponents. Conversely, if a team is given a less-intimidating conference schedule, it may take a few chances with marquee opponents on its open dates.


"You've got to construct a non-conference schedule that's compatible with your conference schedule," Horning says. "For example, if you're playing [conference opponents] Miami and Florida State in one year, that adds more to the equation than if you were just playing FSU."


Once it's determined what caliber opponents are needed, the associate AD can go ahead and make initial contact with his counterpart at potential opponent schools, looking at specific years and, then, specific weekends. But since many contracts are made years in advance, it's important for football officials to do their best to mind the future. North Carolina's situation provides a vivid example of the pitfalls of advance scheduling.


"We scheduled Utah and Louisville [several years ago] when they were probably .500 teams, and certainly not in the Top 10," says Steve Kirschner, assistant athletics director at Chapel Hill. "We scheduled them because they were attractive non-conference opponents for us. Now, we probably have the most difficult schedule in the country for two years running. And the ACC wasn't as tough a league then as it is today.


"It's all about finding the right balance. You want your fans to be excited about who you're playing and you want TV to be interested in the matchups, but you don't want to overschedule. You can have the most attractive schedule to everybody in the world, except your coach."


Putting Their Heads Together


The athletics director and staff members coordinate with the football coach, who can provide information on potential opponent strategies and advance scouting.


"You look to see who the head coach of another school is, and what kind of offense and defense they run," Horning says. "For example, we scheduled Texas Tech, who obviously poses a different type of offense than, say, a Big Ten team would. They're more pass oriented and it forces to you come up with different defensive schemes, more nickel and dime packages. It's something we need to consider."


Adds Kirschner; "You look for teams that are similar to yours in recruiting philosophy. Maybe a team in a conference that's able to take academic risks that you're not able to take wouldn't make for the fairest matchup."


The AD and the coach bring varied experience to the table during these discussions, Kirschner says. The AD is well-versed with logistical considerations -- they know that it may be tough to fly into a certain airport, or that the cost for hotels is 30 percent more in a certain city. They also understand the ins and outs of the television contracts to which BCS schools are firmly held.


Kirschner says that the head coach helps with any football-oriented implications for a given potential matchup.


"We may have a coach that was on their staff," says Kirschner. "What's it look like in the next two or three years? Will they be strong, do they have a young quarterback coming up, what type of defense do they run? You look at the stats from the last five years and find a trend. It's not a science, it's not an art; it's just a matter of piecing everything together."


Fringe Benefits


Programs also like to travel to areas where they can establish or further recruiting inroads. Or, in some cases, they go to a location where they have a specific recruit targeted.


"One of the reasons we like to go into Florida is because we like to recruit there," Horning says. "We also like to go into New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Television is important, whether it's a Texas Tech or a Pitt or a Temple; because if you can find an extra opportunity to be on television, that can only help you with exposure."


But many teams -- especially those from football hotbeds like Carolina -- enjoy the opportunity to keep the rewards of the big-time college football within their region.


"If you have the opportunity to play a North Carolina game against a team that's in your school system, why not do that and keep the revenue within the system?" Horning says. "You look nationally if you need to, then you look locally. Give a team like Appalachian State or Western Carolina or East Carolina a chance, before you go and play Ohio University."


Mass Appeal


But Horning realizes that, practical considerations notwithstanding, Appalachian State isn't going to get you on SportsCenter.


"We need to consider: Does our non-conference schedule our schedule look appealing?" Horning says. "We had Syracuse a few years ago. We had Texas Tech and Indiana. You try to add some appeal to your schedule."


Often, programs make concessions to get bigger names -- and the exposure that comes with it -- onto their schedule.


"Ideally, you play [non-conference opponents] in back-to-back years because the rosters are most similar -- nobody has a real competitive advantage or disadvantage," Kirschner says. "But sometimes that doesn't work, and then you try to pair them up as closest as possible. For example, we play Notre Dame in '06 and '08. To get a team like Notre Dame on your schedule, you try to do what works.


The `R' Word


For an organization like the NCAA that professes and enforces the amateur ideal, the idea of revenue is, at once, taboo and unavoidable. Many saw the organization's addition of a 12th regular season football game as a shameless money grab, as many BCS schools are simply playing another home game to collect millions in revenue.


"I can't imagine it was anything but revenue," Kirshchner says. "I don't think it was a bad thing. To play a 12th weekend, when you see the revenue and the balance against that, [ACC] expansion was done for revenue. So if we're in the business of trying to get teams to be competitive and economically viable, a 12th game is certainly a way to do that."


As the associate commissioner of the Pac-10 Conference, Jim Muldoon welcomes the extra game, as it allows his 10-team league to adjust to a true round-robin. But Muldoon believes the game isn't as hard on the players as detractors would have you believe."


"We did an exit survey of our senior football players, most were players who said they preferred the 12-game schedule -- they'd rather play a game than practice," Muldoon says.


He notes that teams are just playing another game within the same time frame, saying that the permissible dates have not been extended. While big-time schools clearly stand to gain the most, the trickle-down effect will ultimately benefit all of college football."


"Everyone's got to have someone to play," Muldoon says. "This will give an opportunity to the teams from non-automatic-bid conferences to get games that could help their exposure and development."


It also provides programs with a new wealth of scheduling options.


"[With 12 games], it's mathematically impossible for everybody to play everybody. That's where the I-AA comes into play," Horning says. "Sometimes you play a two-for-one, sometimes you play a "bye" game [against a I-AA school that doesn't require a return trip]. You ask yourself, does it make sense to go into that area? Sometimes you have no choice."


A Hard Look In The Mirror


In the end, with the options laid out, a program has to go with its gut feeling on whether a certain game against a big-name opponent is right -- or whether it's best to wait a year or two.


"Do you have a Philip Rivers, a kid that can go up to Ohio State and win a game in their stadium?" Horning says. "Well, we tried [in 2003], and we went to triple overtime and lost."


When it comes to scheduling, most athletics directors agree that healthy lines of communication help a nerve-racking process become a manageable endeavor. 


"As long as you keep your AD and coach involved," insists Horning, "you're going to be okay."



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