This week’s college football schedule stinks. There is no other way to say it. With teams either taking byes or scheduling byes (hello, Western Carolina-Alabama, Charleston Southern-Georgia, South Alabama-South Carolina and Georgia State-Clemson) ahead of rivalry games next weekend, the sport’s current calendar provides the world’s worst appetizer heading into Thanksgiving.
And if there is one person who would like to see great games on television as much (or more) than the rest of us, it’s Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions. Ben-Hanan is in charge of the giant Jenga game that is ESPN’s college football schedule, and his job is to make sure his network always has quality games to air. We often joke that ESPN runs the sport, but this might be the one instance in which things would be better if ESPN or some other network actually did. “Television loves the same thing fans love, which is big-time teams playing big-time games,” Ben-Hanan said this week. “We want the season to start with a bang in Week 1 with all the great games that have come together in recent years. As you go through the season, you want to build every week. The more of these kind of big-time games you can get, the better it is for the sport and for fans. And as a byproduct, of course it also is better for television.”
Ben-Hanan believes we might see better games in coming years because of the College Football Playoff. Because of a stated emphasis on strength of schedule -- and because, in practice, the committee hasn't shied away from putting a one-loss team with a tougher schedule ahead of an undefeated team with a weaker one -- Ben-Hanan is hearing more from schools that want to schedule better games. This also could be a byproduct of consumer behavior, as fans revolt against cupcake games no matter when they fall on the schedule. “It feels like fans have become more and more discerning and desirous of those kinds of games,” Ben-Hanan said. “They’re not necessarily willing to pay top dollar and spend their day tailgating and going to see a game between two teams that they don’t feel are very evenly matched. That’s something that has been happening that has only been accelerated by the College Football Playoff.”
Hopefully he’s correct. But one athletic director whose team is in the thick of the playoff race and out-of-conference debate doesn’t believe changing scheduling philosophies will benefit his program. Mississippi State’s Scott Stricklin said that other than adding one Power Five foe a season as required by the conference, he doesn’t foresee making any more changes. He believes a trip through the SEC West is difficult enough. “How many teams around the country would trade schedules with Mississippi State?” asked Stricklin, who has added home-and-home series with Kansas State, Arizona and NC State to future schedules.
Mississippi State’s current schedule was created years ago when the Bulldogs were fighting for bowl eligibility. Schools schedule so far in advance for budgetary reasons. Every Power Five school wants to play seven home games, and athletic directors consider anything less to be leaving money on the table. Meanwhile, locking down payday opponents earlier is also better for the balance sheet. “The further out you can schedule them, the better financial deals you get,” Stricklin said. “The closer to the season you schedule them, the more money it costs you.”
That’s why football teams don’t schedule like their basketball counterparts. If Mike Krzyzewski thinks he’ll have a loaded team taking the floor in November, he’ll call around 9-18 months before the season and load up a slate that will challenge his players and simulate what they’ll see in March. If he thinks he’ll have a young team that needs to build confidence before ACC play, he can sprinkle a few more likely wins into the schedule. This is obviously easier to do when a team plays 12-15 nonconference games and can play games on pretty much any night of the week.
It isn’t so easy in football, for all of the reasons above. “It’s kind of the beauty of the sport, right? Your team one year might not be so good and then the next year could be in the thick of the national title race,” Ben-Hanan said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get your schedule to coincide with where you’re at on the field.”
But is there a way to make that happen? Conferences could get together as they do in basketball and match up similar teams. Basically, teams would leave dates open and the league offices would then set the matchups closer to the season. The Big Ten and Pac-12 had planned to do this in football, but ultimately scuttled the proposed pact in 2012 after some Pac-12 schools expressed reservations about mandatory scheduling. This will be the problem with any such agreement: It’s difficult to create an ACC-SEC challenge because it’s difficult to get all 28 teams in those leagues to agree to hand over any scheduling power to conference offices.
In September, a Power Five athletic director told me that several ADs had gotten together and discussed a scheduling consortium. Essentially, four or six schools would agree to keep some future schedule week open. Then, prior to the season in which those games would be played, the ADs would work together to set the best matchups for those teams. If two fancied themselves national title contenders, they would face off. If two were in rebuilding mode, they would play. That idea has promise, but it also relies on the fact that those ADs will be working at those schools when the given year arrives. That’s no guarantee in a volatile business.
On Wednesday, Ole Miss and Florida State announced they would play in Orlando to open the 2016 season. That’s great, and more opening-weekend showcase games are always welcome. But how can we get better games during this weekend? It didn’t used to be so bad, but when the ACC and SEC (wisely) realized that moving some league games to the first few weeks of the season jazzed up September schedules -- the Big 12 and Pac-12 have followed suit -- some ACC and SEC teams also realized a byproduct of this move was a chance to schedule an easy win prior to rivalry week.
So, here’s an idea that could turn this weekend from the worst of the season into the best. It came while discussing scheduling with Ben-Hanan, who made a great point. “In a lot of ways, a team’s schedule can actually act as a branding tool for the team in terms of what it is trying to be and who they think they are and what they’re hoping to achieve,” he said. Ben-Hanan added that a conference could do the same thing. He pointed to the Big East scheduling two of its best games on consecutive Thursdays in November 2006. West Virginia-Louisville and Louisville-Rutgers would have been swallowed on Saturday by name-brand programs. Instead, they got an exclusive ESPN window through which the entire nation watched teams playing for their lives. It helped those programs, and it helped the league’s profile that season.
Knowing the weekend before Thanksgiving is now a dumping ground for terrible games, why shouldn’t teams and leagues in need of a higher profile take advantage? Why not stage BracketBusters for college football? Mark Cuban floated a similar idea relative to the BCS, but this one fits better within the playoff format. ESPN used to do this with mid-major basketball teams, which agreed to hold a February schedule date open in exchange for a nationally televised game against another good team with the matchup determined by the teams’ place with regard to the NCAA tournament bubble. In football, teams would tell ESPN or Fox or CBS they are willing to hold the Saturday (or Thursday) before Thanksgiving in a certain year open to play a neutral-site game against a similar team, with the actual matchup slotted after the first playoff rankings are released in late October.
It would have to be at a neutral site, because the ADs will never go for giving up a home game. Television networks would probably be thrilled to throw money at schools for this, and that money would allow the schools to budget a multi-million dollar guarantee for that week. Also, the neutral-site concept would be great for the playoff committee. It won’t have to imagine how two teams might fare against one another on a neutral field. It can simply watch the game. No team would be required to compete, but if four or six or eight were willing to take the chance to improve their playoff standing, the concept would be viable.
Just imagine if Ohio State faced Baylor and Mississippi State faced TCU this week. The winners might play their way off the bubble and into the bracket. We’d be glued to the television, and we’d forget all about Western Carolina-Alabama.
• Kansas State at West Virginia: The Wildcats still aren’t out of the Big 12 title hunt, so they should have plenty of motivation in this one. With TCU playing a rapidly improving Texas team in Austin on Thanksgiving, the Wildcats (5-1 in Big 12 play) have a chance. But those chances would probably end with a loss to West Virginia. Baylor would love that result, because it would keep its loss at West Virginia from looking any worse and remove some potential motivation for the Wildcats when they visit Waco for the regular-season finale on Dec. 6.
• North Carolina at Duke: With Georgia Tech in the barn with a 6-2 ACC record and a head-to-head loss to Duke, the Blue Devils must win their final two regular-season games to win the ACC Coastal Division for the second consecutive year. With Wake Forest up last, the Tar Heels represent the biggest stumbling block.
• Indiana at Ohio State: Buckeyes redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett should continue his assault on the school record book against the Hoosiers. Barrett needs to produce 184 yards of total offense to break the single-season school record of 3,310, set by Braxton Miller in 2012. Barrett also needs two touchdown passes to break the single-season school record of 30, set by Troy Smith in his Heisman Trophy season in ’06. Can Barrett win the Heisman like Smith did? He’s earning more consideration with each passing week, though Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin tailback Melvin Gordon will be tough to catch.
• Minnesota at Nebraska: Can the Cornhuskers’ defense recover from getting epically clowned by Gordon last week in Madison? After allowing Gordon to break the FBS single-game rushing record with 408 yards in three quarters, Nebraska returns home to face Golden Gophers tailback David Cobb, who ran for 145 yards on 27 carries against Ohio State last week. If the run defense doesn’t improve, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini could face as much heat as he did after last year’s 34-23 loss to Minnesota.
• Kansas at Oklahoma: Jayhawks interim coach Clint Bowen is making a pretty strong case that he deserves a shot to run the team on a permanent basis. The near-upset of TCU last week opened a lot of eyes. An actual upset of Oklahoma would further Bowen’s cause. But Sooners freshman tailback Samaje Perine -- who ran for 213 yards with three touchdowns last week at Texas Tech -- will probably make that difficult. Quarterback Trevor Knight remains out for Oklahoma following a scary hit in a loss to Baylor on Nov. 8. Cody Thomas will make his second consecutive start in Knight’s place.
• Boston College at Florida State: The Eagles gave the Seminoles their biggest challenge of the regular season last year, racing out to a 17-3 lead and hanging tight until midway through the third quarter. That was as close as anyone got to Florida State until the BCS title game. But these teams are very different this fall. Florida State likes to make things much more exciting, and the Eagles rely on the legs of quarterback Tyler Murphy rather than the legs of Andre Williams. Though Murphy played most of his career at Florida, the 'Noles never saw him. He was banged up at the end of last season, and the Gators started Skyler Mornhinweg.
• Ole Miss at Arkansas: The Rebels remain the two-loss team with the best shot at reaching the playoff, while the Razorbacks remain the nation’s best five-loss team. After shutting out LSU, Arkansas hopes to earn bowl eligibility against the Rebels. Meanwhile, Ole Miss can set up an epic Egg Bowl by beating the Hogs.
• Arizona at Utah: Both of these teams remain mathematically alive in the Pac-12 South race, but both have fairly convoluted paths to the title. Arizona would have to beat Utah and Arizona State and then hope UCLA beats USC and Stanford beats UCLA. Utah would need to beat Arizona and Colorado and then hope UCLA beats USC, Stanford beats UCLA and Arizona beats Arizona State. Gone cross-eyed? Sorry about that. Just know Saturday’s loser is out. That will make things easier.
• Louisville at Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish had three gut-wrenching fumbles that cost them a win against Northwestern last week. They turned over the ball five times in the previous week’s loss at Arizona State. That’s how a team goes from a playoff contender to a squad desperately trying to avoid its third straight loss against an opponent more than capable of handing Notre Dame that loss. “I think college football is such that it comes down to a couple of plays and a fine line,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “And that's why it's so critical that when you turn the ball over like we do, and when we turn it over. I mean it’s catastrophic turnovers. We’re turning it over on the five-yard line, on the goal line. We're throwing it off our kid’s helmet, it’s bouncing up in the air and they’re returning it. They are absolutely critical turnovers.”
• Wisconsin at Iowa: As late as June 2010, recruit Melvin Gordon was calling Iowa his leader among prospective schools. Obviously, Gordon stayed home in Wisconsin and began destroying records. But this week Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz was asked about the one who got away. “It’s like ancient history,” Ferentz said. “He was we thought a great young man, outstanding prospect. It didn’t take Einstein to figure that out. He was good in high school, and he’s even better now. So, you know, we dated for a while, he picked the home state school, which is usually not a big news headline. That’s kind of the way it went.” Expect the Hawkeyes to provide a little more resistance for Gordon than Nebraska did.
• Maryland at Michigan: With a matchup at Ohio State next week, this is probably Michigan’s best chance to earn bowl eligibility. What that might mean for Brady Hoke’s future remains unclear. Chances are the Wolverines will hire a new athletic director, who will probably fire Hoke and search for a new coach. But until the AD is hired, Hoke will likely remain in limbo. Michigan’s secondary should avoid facing Maryland receiver Stefon Diggs this week. The Baltimore Sun reported on Wednesday that Diggs (lacerated kidney) will likely miss the game.
• USC at UCLA: Finally, this game gets to mean something for both teams. They’re both good. Neither has an NCAA postseason ban. The winner remains alive in the Pac-12 South title race. UCLA made a pretty emphatic statement in the Coliseum last year, but the Trojans can take the city right back with a win.
Vintage video of the week
Before he was enraging Tiger Woods with (gentle) parody, Dan Jenkins wrote glittering prose for SI. In 1967 Jenkins wrote this in advance of a game between USC and UCLA with titanic stakes:
It is so garishly theatrical that it really should have started at a soda fountain in a Hollywood drugstore. Like this: there are these two young college guys named Gary Beban and O.J. Simpson, see, and they are sitting there hoping to get this idea for a football show discovered by somebody big. Howard Cosell, maybe. Or Jack Whitaker. But they keep being ignored because it is such a tough town. There is all this competition around from Dodgers and Rams, Angels and Lakers, Kings, Amigos and Toros, who are among the 12,000 professional sports teams in the area. And then there are all of these other diversions that Los Angeles just naturally offers: surfing, sky diving, topless motorcycling, translucent miniskirting and teen-age protesting for the individual's inalienable right to smoke his front lawn. Anyhow, these two college kids, Beban and Simpson (see cover), are a little despondent. They don't even want their taco-flavored malteds.
Suddenly one of them has an inspiration. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, they could put on their own show. Beban knows where there is this old coliseum they could use. Simpson says their schools would probably print up the tickets. Dad and Mom could be the cheerleaders. Dig out the old outfits. Heck, why not? Throw in a few of the old Morley Drury routines. Perhaps a Paul Cameron dance step. Or the Grenny Landsdell shuffle. Terrific. And look, Gary Beban has already written the title tune on a napkin: Buckle Down, John Heisman.
Yes, it is too Hollywood for belief. That UCLA's glamorous quarterback, Gary Beban, and USC's splendid halfback, O.J. Simpson, could emerge in the same city, in the same conference, as two of the best players of 1967, is improbable enough. That they could also wind up quite possibly battling for the national championship, the Pacific Eight championship, the Rose Bowl bid and the Heisman Trophy, all on one unbearable Saturday afternoon, is strictly from the studio lots.
But there it comes this Saturday, the Trojans against the Bruins before 93,000 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and millions more on ABC-TV's national telecast—a game that may well be for more trophies, titles and prestige than any single college contest in years.
The game didn’t disappoint. Trailing by one, UCLA got the ball back with a minute remaining following a fumbled snap by USC. But the Trojans’ defense held, and USC escaped with a 21-20 win.
On the menu
If you’re headed to Fayetteville for Ole Miss-Arkansas, and the Birmingham grilled cheese shop I profiled in this week’s Punt, Pass and Pork piqued your taste buds, then try Hammontree’s Grilled Cheese. Order the Ozark Monte Cristo (pit ham, baby Swiss and Havarti on thick-cut jalapeno corn bread) and save some room for the Blueberry Grilled Cheese dessert (Marscapone, blueberries and cream cheese grilled between two slices of pound cake and drizzled with honey).