Zeiger: Let’s see more elite nonconference games - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Zeiger: Let’s see more elite nonconference games

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Posted: Friday, September 12, 2008 9:19 pm | Updated: 9:46 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

After two weeks of college football’s power schools feasting on the likes of Youngstown State, Chattanooga and Southeast Missouri State, a little meat has been finally added to the Saturday menu.

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The next two weeks bring the kind of intersectional matchups that should be an early-season staple, as Ohio State visits Southern California today and Georgia travels to Arizona State on Sept. 20. These mega-pairings make one clamor for all schools to schedule more aggressively.

There is the belief that the addition of a 12th regular-season game is resulting in powers being more willing to play one another, but — with a few exceptions — it is not showing up on the schedule.

Yes, Ohio State is traveling to USC, but the Buckeyes’ remaining nonconference slate consists of Youngstown State, Ohio and Troy. That is more courageous than defending national champion Louisiana State, which warms up with Appalachian State, Troy, North Texas and Tulane.

Sadly, Florida State, a program that once took on all comers, has two championship subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) schools on its slate.

“If you don’t schedule big and you win, you’re hoping for everyone else to lose,” Fresno State coach Pat Hill said. “So, you control your destiny or let someone else do it for you. It’s good to finally see someone else reap the benefits of a tough schedule. It’s not easy. But you know what? I like it.”

Hill’s comment was in response to a question about East Carolina, which signed to play Virginia Tech and West Virginia and was elevated to 14th in the rankings after defeating both.

Programs walk a fine line when putting together a nonconference schedule. They want to win while filling the stadium and fattening the budget, but not at the expense of a national championship pursuit.

“(Tough games are) definitely a little bit of a risk,” said Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, whose squad lost a neutral-site game against Alabama on Aug. 30. “It’s a great barometer that lets you know right up front where your team stands. It’s early in the season, so you have time to recover if you lose. And it’s also not a conference game, so it doesn’t impact the primary goal of winning your league.”

Perception suggests that lining up the cupcakes is the best path to Bowl Championship Series riches, and that approach has paid off for some, most recently Kansas in 2007. However, to finish No. 1, it is to a team’s benefit to play a nonleague toughie or two, recent history suggests.

According to research by Jon Solomon of the Birmingham (Ala.) News, the BCS champion defeated a nonconference opponent that finished in the top 10 in four of the last six and seven of the last 10 years.

“More often than not, the BCS title game is going to involve at least one team with a loss,” said USC coach Pete Carroll, whose team also has Virginia and Notre Dame on its schedule. “The stronger your schedule, the better you are going to look as a potential one-loss team to pollsters and computers. That’s been our philosophy. It’s good for recruiting, since you have a more attractive schedule to offer guys.”

While courageous scheduling is to be respected, it can be taken to an extreme. For example, Washington (Brigham Young, Oklahoma and Notre Dame) might have scheduled coach Tyrone Willingham out of a job. Oregon State booked a trip to Penn State in addition to games against Hawaii and Utah. Last week, the Beavers were routed 45-14 by the Nittany Lions.

"It doesn’t seem very smart right now,” Oregon State coach Mike Riley said. “I really like those games. We were excited about the trip and going to play Penn State. I’m just really disappointed we didn’t play better.”

What is the right balance? It would be nice if schools adopted the A-B-C scheduling format, meaning A) an elite-level opponent; B) a middle-of-the-road foe, perhaps as part of a home-and-home series and C) a cupcake.

Ohio State-USC and Georgia-ASU are wonderful examples of 'A’ games. There just needs to be more of them.

“The biggest winners would be the fans,” Carroll said, “because it makes what is already the most meaningful regular season in sports even more exciting.”

BIG GAINER

Who deserves this honor more than East Carolina, which vaulted to 14th in The Associated Press poll and earned status as a potential BCS crasher with victories against top 25 foes Virginia Tech and West Virginia?

Coach Skip Holtz has the Pirates’ ship on waters unsailed since 1991, when quarterback Jeff Blake led them to an 11-1 record and No. 9 final ranking.

“I embrace it. It’s a great experience for our players,” Holtz said. “Welcome to big-time college football.”

If ECU is still unbeaten after playing at Virginia on Oct. 11, it has a chance to go 12-0. If that happens, a win in the Conference USA championship game would likely be all that separates the Pirates from a BCS berth.

Getting a little ahead of ourselves, you say? Well, Holtz is not.

This week, he disclosed that he recently picked the brains of three coaches who took a mid-major to the BCS stage: Urban Meyer (Utah, now at Florida), Chris Petersen (Boise State) and June Jones (Hawaii, now at Southern Methodist).

“I wanted to know what they would do differently, what they learned from it,” Holtz said. “I’m trying to learn from their success, get different ideas.”

THREE AND OUT

• Put me in the camp that believes you can argue with the rule that got Washington quarterback Jake Locker penalized in the final minute against Brigham Young but not the call. The part of the excessive celebration rule that applies to Locker’s toss is clear — and yes, it should be revised — and I have seen players flagged for less.

• So Rich Brooks is indignant that his Kentucky team is not in the top 25. There are good times to express such sentiments. When your team has just played a championship subdivision team (in Kentucky’s case, Norfolk State) is not one of them.

• For the third straight year, Texas leads the nation in merchandise sales. That is according to figures from the Collegiate Licensing Company, which represents about 180 schools but not all of the big hitters, most notably Ohio State.

The rest of the top five: Michigan, Florida, Louisiana State and Notre Dame.

LESSONS FROM LAST WEEK

• The re-emergence of the Big East was college football’s feel-good story two years ago, but there is not much to trumpet these days. The conference is a combined 8-7, with five wins against championship subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) teams. The record against BCS opposition: 0-3.

• Is Notre Dame back? Not if it has to rally to beat a San Diego State squad that was coming off a loss to championship subdivision Cal Poly.

• Under-the-radar team: Arkansas State, which stunned Texas A&M in its opener, then hung 83 points (31 in the first quarter) against championship subdivision opponent Texas Southern. The Red Wolves — the school has changed its nickname from the Indians — should make noise in the Sun Belt.

PENALTY FLAG

A 24-7 victory against championship subdivision squad Furman has not brought rest to the natives at Virginia Tech, where venerable coach Frank Beamer has been challenged by fans on his radio show.

For example, a caller who identified himself as “Jason from Arlington” said that offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring is “out of whack” and should be fired.

Beamer, who is 168-86-2 in 22 seasons at Virginia Tech, said: “If anybody can come in and convince me that they know more than Bryan, I’m going to listen to them. Until then, I’m going to listen to Bryan. We’ll set aside an hour, I’m going to tell them in about the first 10 minutes whether they are smarter than Bryan or not, or smarter than our offensive staff.”

There is no word yet on if any Sunday morning quarterbacks or NCAA ’09 video game masters have taken Beamer up on the offer.

BCS BAROMETER

Ohio State: All or nothing? A win at Southern California would remove the only imposing impediment to the national title game, but a loss could end the Buckeyes’ hopes, barring an unlikely repeat of the upset madness that took place late last season.

South Florida: Opportunity knocks. The Bulls could be playing for the Big East title against West Virginia on Dec. 6, but they had a chance to make a major nonconference statement against Kansas on Friday, in a game played after this section went to press.

California: Proceeding with caution. The Golden Bears have looked good so far, but they have teased us before.

HEISMAN WATCH

Chase Daniel: The Missouri quarterback, the closest thing to a front-runner at this early juncture, was more accurate than a caliper (16-of-17) in limited work last week against Southeast Missouri State.

Patrick Pinkney: If you play efficiently in leading your mid-major team to two upsets of ranked BCS opponents, you deserve some Heisman love, and the East Carolina quarterback (80.4 completion percentage, no turnovers) has done just that.

Knowshon Moreno: The Georgia running back has been productive (227 yards, six touchdowns) despite not getting full-time work against two cupcake opponents.

Dez Bryant: The Oklahoma State receiver was last week’s star, with nine catches for 236 yards and three TDs and a punt return for a score in the Cowboys’ victory against Houston.

Rudy Carpenter: Why not the Arizona State QB? Sam Keller was on this list after his eye-popping numbers after the first two games of 2005, and Carpenter has outdone him (733 yards passing to Keller’s 669).

This report includes information from other news sources.

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