To FCS or Not to FCS – Is that the Question for Colorado?

This past week, the University of Arizona announced that it had put into place a pair of home-and-home series for future non-conference games. The Wildcats will take on Mississippi State in 2022 and 2023, and San Diego State in 2021 and 2022.

While the Wildcats’ matchup with the Bulldogs from Starksville doesn’t make much sense from a geographic or recruiting standpoint, it does demonstrate how FBS schools are changing their approach to non-conference scheduling. The college football playoffs will be played for the first time this year, with the selection committee given the mandate to look at scheduling as one of the primary components when determining the top four teams in the nation.

There was much discussion this spring when first the SEC, then the ACC, opted to stick with eight-game conference schedules (stories on the decisions made by the SEC and the ACC can be found here, here and here), instead of adopting a nine-game conference schedule as are played in the Big Ten and Pac-12. All of the teams from the five power conferences “should run the race on the same course”, cried Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, but to no avail. The SEC and ACC were fully cognizant of the benefits of staying with eight games in conference play: “You have the nine games, there’s going to be nine more losses,” Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said, noting that the playoff angle had a “lot to do” with the ACC staying with an eight-game conference schedule.

The luxury of having four non-conference games each season instead of three, works in “giving teams flexibility to do what they need to do in a given year,” Radakovich said. Translation: every team in the SEC and ACC will have a minimum of seven home games every year, and will be able to play an extra cupcake to pad the resume while teams in the Big Ten and Pac-12 are beating each other up playing conference games.

To be fair, some SEC and ACC schools already have an extra tough game on their calendars. Non-conference matchups between Florida and Florida State, Georgia and Georgia Tech, and Clemson and South Carolina makes it more difficult for those teams to schedule easy wins (although they will receive little sympathy from schools like USC and Stanford, who have to schedule nine conference games plus games against Notre Dame every season).

The SEC and ACC did make one concession to the other conferences, however, mandating that, starting in 2017, their league schools must schedule at least one game against a Power-Five conference opponent every season.

Which leads us back to Arizona playing Mississippi State … a marriage of convenience.

My first reaction to the story of the Wildcats facing the Bulldogs was to give kudos to Arizona for picking up an SEC opponent for future non-conference play. That reaction lasted, however, about as long as it took me to check out the rest of Arizona’s future non-conference slate.

Arizona’s non-conference schedule this fall is about as easy as it gets, with the Wildcats taking on UNLV, Texas-San Antonio, and Nevada. In 2015, Arizona has “rematches” scheduled with UTSA and Nevada. The remainder of the decade sees nary a single game against a Power-Five conference opponent in non-conference play, but does have tilts scheduled against Grambling, Hawai’i, Houston and UTEP.

Compare Arizona’s scheduling with its neighbor, Arizona State. The Sun Devils are finishing up a two game series against Notre Dame this fall, and play Texas A&M in Houston in 2015. Other future non-conference matchups for Arizona State include Michigan State, Texas Tech, and LSU.

So which Arizona school has it right?

If you are looking to build a resume which might qualify you for the national championship playoffs, you have to go with Arizona State’s approach.

But if you are looking to build a consistent bowl participant, with a 3-0 record to open each season, you are more likely to would choose the Arizona model.

Which model is right for Colorado?

Before we get to that, let’s look at a few other schools, and how they are approaching the new realities in non-conference scheduling.

First, there is the Bill McCartney – “To be the best, you have to beat the best” – approach. Most Buff fans will recall (with some measure of pride) that when Colorado won its national championship in 1990, it did so against the toughest schedule in the country. The Buffs’ non-conference schedule in 1990: No. 8 Tennessee; Stanford; No. 21 Illinois; No. 22 Texas; and No. 12 Washington. Colorado ran the gauntlet with a 3-1-1 record, with enough national credibility to take it to the national title game as the No. 1 team despite the two blemishes on its record.

Say what you will about Oregon (and I have said a great deal), but the Ducks are planning their non-conference schedule with eyes on competing for a national championship each season. Oregon begins a home-and-home with Michigan State this season, then trades the Spartans for a home-and-home against Nebraska in 2016 and ’17, followed by home-and-homes against Texas A&M (2018 & ’19) and then Ohio State (2020 & ’21). While Oregon is padding its other non-conference games with “gimme” wins – South Dakota, Wyoming, Eastern Washington and Georgia State the next two seasons – the plan is straight-forward: Build a national resume with an early non-conference win against a quality Power-5 school, take down to patsies, then run the table in the Pac-12.

Running contrary to the Bill McCartney model is the Bill Snyder model at Kansas State. Snyder’s method of building a program had nothing to do with titles or championships, it was all about building a winning team.

When Bill Snyder took over Kansas State for the first time in 1989, it was without question the worst program in Division 1-A. From 1937 to 1990, the Wildcats had only four winning seasons …. let that one sink in for a moment …. and lost at least eight games in 27 of those 44 seasons, including a 30-game winless streak from 1986-89.

Snyder took over a program which had been to one bowl game in its entire history, and turned it into a top ten power in less than a decade.

How? By starting small.

Real small.

Kansas State scheduled non-conference games which sent many college football fans looking for an atlas. In the early 1990’s, the Wildcats took on anyone looking for a paycheck: Northern Illinois; North Texas; Western Kentucky; Temple; Louisiana-Lafayette; Rice; New Mexico State; Indiana State; Northern Iowa; Western Illinois; Idaho State; UNLV and Akron all found their way to Manhattan as Snyder built a program. Snyder went 1-10 his first season in 1989, but had a bowl team by 1993, with the Wildcats (remember this is a team with one bowl game in its history) going to the post-season every year between 1993 and 2004.

So … Back to Colorado … What should the Buffs do?

Well, we know Colorado is locked into a tenth game every year for the remainder of the decade. The series with Colorado State runs through 2020, giving the Buffs few options when it comes to non-conference scheduling.

The biggest problem is the lack of home games. While the SEC and ACC teams are planning on seven (and often eight) home games per season, Colorado is hard-pressed to find six. In seasons with only four home games against Pac-12 opponents (which is every odd year), and a game in Denver, the Buffs have to play two home non-conference games in those seasons in order to get to six games in Folsom Field. In 2015, that issue is not a concern, as Colorado will play a 13-game schedule (with Hawai’i on the road giving the Buffs an NCAA pass to schedule an extra game). In 2017 and 2019, however, Colorado may be looking at only five home games in Folsom.

As a result, the Buffs have to be creative in scheduling. The unpopular “one-and-done” with Ohio State in 2011 will be repeated in 2016, when Colorado travels to Ann Arbor to face Michigan with no return date in Boulder. The Buffs do have home-and-homes with Nebraska in 2018 & ’19 and 2023 & ’24, as well as a home-and-home with Minnesota in 2021 & ’22, but scheduling other home-and-homes with Power-Five conference schools will be difficult under CU’s current restraints.

This being the case, it may be just as well that Colorado is not in the mix for national playoff arguments just yet. From now until the end of the decade, when the current CSU contract in Denver comes to an end, the Buffs will be hamstrung when it comes to scheduling. Colorado will have to schedule teams willing to come to Boulder for a “one-and-done”, a la Central Arkansas last year and Nicholls State next year, in order to fill its home schedule.

Buff fans may scoff at the Bill Snyder method of non-conference scheduling, but, at least for the next few years, don’t look for Colorado to be playing any SEC teams in non-conference play. Instead, look for more directional schools playing in Folsom in Septembers to come.

We can only hope to duplicate Snyder’s success in replicating his strategy …



2 Replies to “To FCS or Not to FCS?”

  1. Hey Neil,
    Good comments. I don’t know why CU agreed to such a long term contract with CSU, as CSU was the only school with a vested interest in keeping the series going. I’m guessing CU got some of its concessions (more “home” games = better television money; better split on ticket sales) in exchange for the long term deal.

    There are some “outs” in the contract, dealing with attendance and sponsorships. If attendance continues to hover in the high 50,000’s, and television contracts are hard to find, CU might try to get out. But … then Cu would be branded by the Denver media as being “too scared” to play little brother, something CU administrators would hate to see happen.

    The Power-5 vs. Group of Five won’t change the CU/CSU dynamic. Even if there is a split in the conference and revenue makeup, Power-5 teams will still have to play Group of Five teams in non-conference play.

  2. Hi, Stuart.
    good piece. a couple of observations. the big12 and pac12 currently play 9-game conference games, the big10 doesn’t start until 2016, I believe. second, the csu series is a joke and it helps prevent cu from scheduling one good non-conference game, say a series with NU, that would give us a real rivalry. perhaps such a game could be played later or late in the season, as Stanford and usc do with ND. do you have any insight why Bohn signed up for 10 years or if there any plausible out-clauses in that contract? what is the effect, if any, of the possible power 5 vs. ‘group of 5’ split on the cu/csu series?

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