July 24, 2009

Speaking of bad scheduling: Penn State

It's no secret that EVERYONE is taking shots at ND's football schedule this year. Every magazine or preseason ranking I have read on the Irish this year has hammered on this point with the general refrain that ND will be taking advantage of a paper thin schedule to put together a 10-11 win season and a BCS bowl bid.

While I don't disagree that our schedule is unusually soft this year due to some teams being down and some poor scheduling decisions, I do think there's a little bit of a double standard out there when it comes to assessing football schedules. For whatever reason, ND becomes an immediate target for playing a "weak schedule" when there are far worse offenders out there in the scheduling department.

Exhibit A for this double standard would be the Penn State Nittany Lions. I haven't heard much criticism of them from the national pundits, but check out their schedule for 2009:

09/05/09 vs. Akron University Park, Pa. 12:00 p.m. ET
09/12/09 vs. Syracuse University Park, Pa. 12:00 p.m. ET
09/19/09 vs. Temple University Park, Pa. 12:00 p.m. ET
09/26/09 vs. Iowa University Park, Pa. 8:05 p.m. ET
10/03/09 at Illinois * Champaign, Ill. TBA
10/10/09 vs. Eastern Illinois University Park, Pa. TBA
10/17/09 vs. Minnesota * University Park, Pa. 3:30 p.m. ET
10/24/09 at Michigan * Ann Arbor, Mich. TBA
10/31/09 at Northwestern * Evanston, Ill. 4:30 p.m. ET
11/07/09 vs. Ohio State * University Park, Pa. TBA
11/14/09 vs. Indiana * University Park, Pa. TBA
11/21/09 at Michigan State East Lansing, Mich. TBA

Apparently Joe Pa has become an alum of the Bill Snyder school of scheduling. You would think that Penn State would be aggressively seeking some better competition after that horrific loss in the Rose Bowl against USC last year. Maybe a big nonconference game or two to get your team prepared for what they will face in a big bowl game. I guess that option wasn't as attractive as guaranteeing yourself 9-10 wins without even breaking a sweat.

For starters, let's look at their nonconference schedule:

Akron (home)
Syracuse (home)
Temple (home)
Eastern Illinois (home)

Wow, bold scheduling there Joe Pa! Four home games against two MAC schools (Akron and Temple), a DI-AA school (Eastern Illinois), and a Big East team coming off its worst stretch in school history (Syracuse). The combined record of those schools will probably be something like 15-33. It's one thing to line up a couple MAC schools, but to add a I-AA team in there five weeks in the season?? What is the point?? Is the whole purpose of Penn State football just to sell tickets?? Isn't there something to be said for the competition??

If you were a Penn State fan, wouldn't you be ashamed of that type of schedule?? Don't you owe it to your fans to try to get better games than that??

More importantly, don't you owe it to your players to get better games than that?? When you recruited them, you would think there is some responsibility to get them the best competition possible. How does lining up four tomato cans to start the season do anything for your players?? What does that prove??

And it's not like they play in the SEC or even the Big 12. At least the SEC teams can point to their conference schedule and say "hey, maybe we're playing the Florida Atlantics of the world, but we're also playing LSU/Georgia/Bama/Tennessee/Florida in conference play." SEC teams have a built-in reason for playing a bad nonconference. They have enough competition in the league. Penn State is a Big 10 team! You got OSU and Michigan and a bunch of mediocrity all over the place.

When I read this article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the Penn State players and their reaction to the schedule, I actually felt bad for these guys. They're put in a position where they have to defend that lousy schedule. This quote is from quarterback Darryl Clark:

"Everyone is looking ahead to the Big Ten opener," Clark said of the Sept. 29 home game against Iowa. "And I am the first to say, [in] the first three [weeks], we are going against two good MAC teams [Akron and Temple]. . . . And we play Syracuse as well, a good team coming up."

Clark points out that Penn State struggled a bit before eventually beating Temple, 45-3, last season.

"So we are not going to take any of those teams lightly," he said, "because it is a big-time spoiler if we are not able to take care of the job before we get to Iowa."

He's forced to defend the indefensible there. Why not give him a big home and home series that he can get excited about and point to as a big reason why he came to play for Penn State?? If PSU has Texas on the schedule (or even Texas Tech), at least he can say defend the nonconference schedule with a straight face. Making him put a positive spin on a Temple team that they beat 45-3 last year is silly.

Just for fun, I went back and looked through the Penn State media guide at some of their schedules from the 80s and 90s. Check these out:

1988 - at UVA, BC, at Bama, at WVU, at ND, Pitt, Maryland
1989 - Virginia, BC, at Texas, Bama, WVU, at Maryland, ND, at Pitt
1990 - Texas, at USC, at BC, at Alabama, at West Virginia, at Notre Dame, Pitt
1991 - Georgia Tech, at USC, BC, at Miami (FL), West Virginia, at Maryland, ND, at Pitt

That's incredible! Even when Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, they played a nonconference slate of USC, Rutgers, and Maryland. And that was in the days of 11 games, so Penn State was playing 11 BCS schools that year.

What has happened to those days in college football?? Back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, there was no "scheduling your way to the BCS." Everyone played everyone. Teams like PSU and Notre Dame regularly played 3-4 (sometimes five) heavyweights a year. Look at that 1990 schedule that Penn State played. They played Texas and USC to start the year, and then later played Bama and Notre Dame on the road. How great is that?? Isn't that what fans want?? Fans want to see these behemoths colliding on the field. As recently as 15-20 years ago, that happened on almost a weekly basis.

And you know what?? They went 9-2 that year. Doesn't that pretty much kill the straw man that the White/Swarbrick types want to trot out that it's impossible to play that type of schedule and do well?? Wouldn't you rather go 9-2 against that schedule than against the crappy schedule I just listed above for 2009 where you beat no one and end up 9-3/10-2?? I sure as heck would. At least you can look back on the season and remember some great victories against big name powers. These days, I look back on the schedule and can't really think of big wins anymore.

Penn State fans, if you're reading this, wouldn't you rather go back to your old scheduling ways?? Is it really worth it to "schedule your way into the BCS" when you don't play anyone and don't beat anyone?? How much satisfaction do you get out of beating Akron and Eastern Illinois?? Wouldn't you rather play Bama and USC like the old days and see how you stack up??

The same applies to Notre Dame. In the 80s and 90s, it was routine for ND to play Miami, Michigan, Penn State, USC, and Bama/Tennessee just about every year. How cool would that be?? If you were a fan, you got to see ND play a huge game every week. If you're an alum looking to get tickets, you knew there were a boatload of great games to try to apply for. Now, you take a look at the schedule and try to talk yourself into UConn and Tulsa and TCU.

College football is the greatest sport on earth, but the sport has a serious problem these days. Everyone is so determined to schedule their way to 10-11 wins that everyone just avoids everyone else in the regular season. You don't know who is better between Penn State and Texas because they don't play each other or even anyone similar. Fifteen years ago, they were playing EACH OTHER to find out who was better. What a novel concept!

No other sport has this problem because every other sport has a legitimate postseason. You don't get to choose your schedule in the NFL, and college basketball has such a long regular season and postseason that it's impossible to schedule your way into anything. Maybe you can fake your way into a little bit better seed by playing a weak schedule, but that will probably catch up to you in the NCAA Tournament in a hurry.

If I was the NCAA, I'd be worried about the competitiveness of the sport. The standard major college schedule nowadays involves 8 home games and 3-4 cupcakes in the nonconference. In other words, most programs are down to 2-3 big games a year on the high end and some are down to one. Twenty years ago, you played 6 home games and 5 road games or vice versa, and you played nonconference games against actual BCS schools and not "buy games."

One solution would be for the NCAA to create a rotation of nonconference games. Of your four nonconference games, you play two of them against schools from other BCS leagues. You could set up a little rotation. Maybe the Big Ten gets the Big 12 and ACC one year. The SEC gets the ACC and the Pac 10. And so on. With that in place, you have your league commissioners get together and create interesting matchups like they do in those basketball "ACC-Big 10 Challenge" type events.

If you're Penn State fan, wouldn't you rather play Oklahoma State and North Carolina instead of Temple and Akron?? If you're an Ohio State fan, wouldn't you rather play Missouri and Florida State instead of Youngstown State and Bowling Green?? If you're a Texas fan, wouldn't you rather play Michigan and West Virginia than Florida Atlantic and UTEP?? You can schedule cupcakes with your other two nonconference games, but you have to play at least two meaty nonconference opponents.

Would it solve every problem with college football regular season schedules?? Not necessarily, but it would be a heckuva a lot better than what we have now. What we have these days is not a sport. It's a Harlem Globetrotters travelling exhibition tour.

This idea would be a no-brainer to me. College football has reached the breaking point with scheduling, and it's time to turn the tide in the other direction.


Anonymous said...

As a Penn State alum, I am the first to say that I wish we had more big time out of conference opponents. However, the home and home we have with Alabama starting next year was supposed to begin this year. I hope in future years we can start to schedule some tougher opponents for our out of conference schedule. Maybe the service academies, for example.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. There is a double standard when it comes to ND and other teams' schedules. Penn State wants the easy games at the start of the year so they'll be ranked in the top 10 -- as usual -- despite playing inferior opponents. How about starting your season with a team the calibre of USC -- or play JoePa's rival for all-time wins, Florida State?
As an ND fan living in the midst of lions' country, the Rose Bowl was a joy to watch! And the Psu alum's remark on the "service academies" . . . they're sure as hell better than Akron and Temple. Why doesn't Psu put Pitt back on their schedule? That was always such a great game to watch here in PA.
Regardless, go Irish; have a great 2009 season!