Thoughts on scheduling ...
Writing about future scheduling can be a difficult situation because a reporter doing his job in some ways inhibits an athletic director doing his. Mention a school that USF is in discussions with, and the Bulls get calls from other schools they're talking to: "Hey, I thought you had us penciled in that week," or that kind of thing, and the same on the other end of the discussions. Sometimes the very fact that a potential series is discussed publicly can be trouble, even if it was only learned of through public records requests. Even a guarantee game, such as the new one announced Monday with Elon, can be tricky: good reporting means detailing how much the visiting school will get paid -- $300,000 in this case -- but it also hurts USF because the next school they sign a similar deal with knows to use that figure as a starting point. Still, it's something we write because we think it's newsworthy -- I think the schedule is a great window into showing how USF's program has changed, even in the last few years.
Because USF is a public university, a reporter -- heck, anybody -- can make public records requests, asking for nearly any document that doesn't violate student confidentiality. We can't get grades, obviously, and can't get documents that would verify a positive drug test, but when it comes to phone logs or anything written down about the finances of the athletic department, it's generally open season. On a regular basis, I'll file a request for "any or all proposed or signed contracts sent to or from USF concerning future football games" (how's that for amateur legalese) and it's generated breaking news in the past.
The Tampa Tribune filed a more comprehensive request recently, one that produced a draft of proposed schedules for future years as far off as 2015. I've seen an entire stack of these drafts, which are nearly constantly revised and updated, with notes in the margins and teams literally penciled in to printed templates with openings in certain weeks. Many of the teams listed on these proposed drafts are simply hypotheticals, literally placeholders. If it says "Buffalo" in 2013, the Bulls could very well end up playing the Bulls, but at this point, it's more accurate to interpret as USF playing a school like Buffalo in 2013 -- a non-BCS, Division I-A team.
Take Western Kentucky. At first glance, it's a wholly unattractive opponent on a schedule, a "directional school" that does little to inspire a large turnout. The Bulls played WKU in their first four seasons, with some strangely big crowds. Both WKU games in Tampa (in 1998 and 2000) drew more than 30,000 fans, making their games two of the four largest crowds in the first three seasons at Raymond James Stadium. WKU's athletic director and USF associate AD Steve Horton have known each other since they were at Virginia and Virginia Tech, respectively, and the two schools have had a good working relationship in the past.
The two schedulers have had one discussion about playing, just a "how are you doing, we should play again" chat, without discussing dates or even the nature of the series. WKU finds out in November if it's been approved to move to Division I-A football, most likely in 2009. They'd most likely become football members of the Sun Belt, and in the past year, USF has signed 2-for-1 deals with two other Sun Belt schools, Florida International and Florida Atlantic. Those schools have the benefit of a road game less than four hours from Tampa, and all they could get was a 2-for-1, so why would USF sign a home-and-home with a less known, more geographically distant program? All that would do is upset FIU and FAU. If the two schools play, it'll be a 2-for-1, for certain.
Another school that's been brought up is Buffalo, a program new to I-A football, much like USF. Buffalo, whose mascot is also the Bulls, went to I-A in 1999, and if the Bulls were to sign a home-and-home with them, they'd hardly be the first Big East team to do so. Buffalo has played at least one current Big East team on its home schedule in each of the past six years, with home-and-homes against Rutgers and Connecticut. It's not just a patsy either -- the Bulls have beaten both the Knights and Huskies in the past five years. Syracuse was able to land a 3-for-1 with Buffalo in the late-90s as the Bulls went I-A, but that was more a case of wanting a marquee local game to boost interest in the program. Buffalo is excited about the possibility of playing USF, having a "Battle of the Bulls" -- the two schools actually have a licensing agreement, basically saying they won't sue each other because their logos are, well, both Bulls.
These schedules are very fluid things. I learned for the first time last week that USF had at one point intended to open its 2006 season with Liberty (and not McNeese State), but Liberty's new coach pulled out when he didn't like the idea of two of his first three games being USF and Rutgers. Until a contract is signed, it's a lot of possiblilities, which can be newsworthy by themselves at times.
We wrote about scheduling in today's weekly notebook, mentioning some of the bigger schools USF has had talks with -- Georgia, Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech, among others. And yes, it's worth noting that none of those big names are far enough along in discussions that they're appearing as place-holders in the drafts. I'd say Oklahoma is the most likely of the group, with strong ties between coaches Bob Stoops and Jim Leavitt and a good relationship between Doug Woolard and Joe Castiglione. We also tried to lay out the basic formula for what to expect from a USF nonconference schedule -- two BCS opponents, two non-BCS I-A opponents and a I-AA game at home. It's a schedule that helps put USF on a more national map while also giving the Bulls reasonable expectations of enough wins to land a decent bowl on a yearly basis.
Again, I'll point to Cincinnati as an example of how aggressive overscheduling can hurt a program. I like the Bearcats as a team that should win three or four conference games, but I don't think they'll be bowl eligible because of a ridiculously difficult schedule -- they were at Ohio State last week, go to Virginia Tech next and then have two tough teams in Miami (Ohio) and Akron. They'll probably be a better-than-their-record 5-6 team, but I think the momentum of a bowl appearance would do more to help their recruiting and players' confidence.
The Big East shows the opposite end of the scheduling spectrum as well. Here's my theory on West Virginia, which has been dominant in the first month of the season. I think the Mountaineers will run the table, finish 12-0 ... and still be on the outside of the national championship game looking in because they really didn't schedule anybody. Louisville's win against Miami makes them a more compelling win, should WVU be able to beat the Cardinals in Louisville, which has been very tough lately, but seems more realistic with Michael Bush out and Brian Brohm missing a month with a thumb injury. Because of a weak schedule, West Virginia is already in the position of having to hope other teams ahead of them lose. If two of the USC, Ohio State, Auburn, Florida crew finish undefeated, I think it's trouble for West Virginia.
Thoughts? Comments? Send 'em to email@example.com. And keep those restaurant recommendations coming for Kansas City this weekend ...