TAMPA — Mark Harlan had a football scheduling crisis at USF nearly before he had a parking decal.
Harlan had been employed as Bulls athletic director only a few days in the spring of 2014 when an executive assistant — rummaging through a stack of mail — found a letter from Indiana University, requesting cancellation of the schools' home-and-home series in 2015 and '16.
Roughly a week later, a similar letter arrived from Michigan State, wishing to exercise its buyout option ($250,000) of a 2018 contest at Raymond James Stadium.
Without warning, USF's foreseeable non-conference slate had been butchered, with some of its beefiest portions trimmed away. Insomnia ensued.
At least Harlan had numerous bedfellows. From Boise to Boca Raton, few things set off an administrator's stress-o-meter like a glitch or gaping hole in the non-conference part of a football schedule.
"It's just a lot harder to find games than you would think," said Harlan's successor, Michael Kelly.
Hence the reason many ADs (especially those in the Group of Five) chuckled when College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock recently offered an elementary formula for reaching the four-team field.
"For the College Football Playoff, things are simple," he said. "Play a good schedule, win your games, and you're going to be in the hunt."
As daunting as the second part of the equation sounds, the first isn't far behind.
"Well, first, define a good schedule," said UCF executive associate AD David Hansen, who has coordinated the Knights' football slate the past half-decade. "That's something he didn't define, right? So we have to define it ourselves."
After the definition comes the execution, which requires strategy and savvy, creativity and compromise. Even then, one may struggle to pull it off.
"Scheduling is an art form …" Northern Illinois AD Sean T. Frazier said. "And you've got to embrace all the different variables, and it's very difficult."
A complex puzzle
To illustrate the difficulty of putting together a marketable schedule at any level, one first must shatter some misperceptions.
Among them: Schools have a full autumn (September, October, November) in which to fit in a game against an appealing non-conference foe.
Actually, that window's about two months tighter. For many schools, non-conference play ends when league play commences. The Big 12, which plays nine conference games annually, has no non-conference contests involving any of its schools after Week 4 (Sept. 22).
The Big Ten, which also plays a nine-game league schedule, has one non-conference game after September (Northwestern-Notre Dame, Nov. 3). Similarly, the Pac 12 has two non-league games (BYU-Utah, Notre Dame-USC) after September.
So within a confined space of dates each year, schools must find opponents who A) fit their scheduling philosophy, B) appeal to their fan base, C) make sense economically and D) are willing to play them.
"I think people underestimate just how hard it is to get games," Kelly said, "just because you've got a whole lot of conflicting philosophies about what people will and won't do."
Those philosophies vary by school and by year.
Florida State likes to open with blockbuster neutral-site games that include a big paycheck ($3.5 million and up) and a marquee opponent (Alabama last year, West Virginia in 2020). Because Florida faces the tough grind of the SEC plus an annual series with ACC heavyweight FSU, the Gators don't need to boost their strength of schedule much.
"We try to be strategic with our other games," UF athletic director Scott Stricklin said.
That usually means adding two softer opponents (Charleston Southern and Idaho this year) to ensure a seven-game home slate.
Compare that philosophy to Group of Five schools.
Ideally, Northern Illinois would play two Power Five opponents (one home-and-home series, one "paycheck" game), a Division I-AA foe and a good Group of Five comrade like USF (whom it played in '16). But a budget crunch forced the Huskies to add a $1.6 million payday at FSU.
USF and UCF both regularly play two Power Five opponents a year; the Knights face Pitt and North Carolina this year, while the Bulls have played a pair of such games in five of the past six seasons. But how they balance those matchups differs.
Like the Gators, UCF tries to schedule seven home games annually to continue building a young university and engage the fanbase. That objective means the Knights don't have any two-for-one contracts — deals that would require UCF to make two road trips in exchange for one return visit from a Power Five team.
"Mathematically, you can't do it," said David Hansen, UCF's chief operating officer and primary scheduling coordinator.
"If you're gonna commit to seven home games in most years, you can't play three-game series with teams. What it kind of forces you to do is go get bought by somebody, which again, for us working to build a fanbase, getting bought by teams isn't a way to do that in our minds."
USF's mind-set differs.
To get the Gators to come to Raymond James Stadium in 2023, USF had to agree to play twice in Gainesville (2022 and '25). The Bulls also have upcoming two-for-one dates with Texas and Louisville. USF is also assured of a lucrative gate for the '23 game against the Gators (even after it pays UF a $250,000 guarantee for the trip).
"And that's what's so nice about Coach (Charlie) Strong, he understands that and likes to play the (marquee) games," Kelly said.
"We want to play games that make sense, but he's not afraid to play any amount of quality because he knows he wants to play 'em, he knows his players want to play 'em, and looking at the big picture, he knows it helps us business-wise. So it makes sense on every level."
It also makes sense for the Gators, in terms of geography, finances and risk vs. reward.
UF coach Dan Mullen wants to schedule close opponents so players' families can watch them play easily. With the cost for opponents like New Mexico State hitting seven figures, the $750,000 the Gators will pay to USF for two trips to Gainesville looks like a bargain.
If the Bulls — 21-4 over the past two seasons — continue on their current trajectory, UF bolsters its strength-of-schedule ranking by defeating USF.
And the risk?
"Any time you kick off, there's a risk," Stricklin said. "You balance it … by positioning our program to be as successful as we can be."
That risk for Power Five programs is heightened when it lines up against a dangerous Group of Five foe (such as UCF, USF or Boise State). Not surprisingly, Hansen said scheduling has gotten more difficult since the Knights went 12-0 last season.
"I haven't gotten any phone calls, I'll admit to you," he said.
Earlier this year, Harlan — now the AD at Utah — also alluded to the difficulty of finding teams willing to play USF since its recent resurgence.
"We want to play the best, at all times, whenever and wherever we can. That's what we are attempting to do," he said. "And the very best have to want to play you.
"It's a two-way street, and then you have to contractually come to an agreement."
Even then, you need some luck to create a schedule that warrants CFP consideration. USF can try to boost its resume by playing Georgia Tech and Illinois, but it won't help if the Yellow Jackets and Illini both struggle.
Arkansas State was set to get its first visit from an ACC school (Miami) last year as part of a home-and-home … until Hurricane Irma came. The teams couldn't agree on a makeup date later in the season or another year, prompting the Red Wolves to sue (the case that remains open).
At least schools are gaining more protection through steeper buyouts when scheduling snafus occur.
The per-game buyout for the UF-USF series is $2.5 million, 10 times more than Michigan State paid to get out of its '18 contest at Raymond James Stadium (to make way for a home-and-home series with Arizona State). The USF-Louisville three-game series comes with a $1 million per-game buyout.
"If you get left at the altar, it's very hard to find another game, and certainly one of quality," Kelly said.
In the end, though, everyone manages to fill their schedule. College administrators have software with every school's foreseeable slate and tools allowing them to see common open dates.
Hansen likens it to a puzzle. The key, he and other administrators say, is to work on it daily, meticulously, with the knowledge it could take years to fit one crucial piece into place.
Eventually, the picture comes together. The secret — or the art — is making it attractive.
"It's very strategic, and obviously it's an important part of what we do here," Hansen said. "Our fan base is very interested in the subject, so we'd better be interested in it and pay good time to it."