Gameday: The great scheduling debate

Colin Becht and Colin Becht

As Northwestern prepares to take on Minnesota this Saturday, the Wildcats enter the contest with a flawless 4-0 record, while the Golden Gophers sit with an unimpressive 1-3.

However, the performances of the two teams are not as cut and dry as their records would indicate.

While the Cats have beat up – or at least tried to beat up – on three non-BCS opponents and last year’s SEC cellar-dweller Vanderbilt, Minnesota challenged itself against perennial national title contender Southern Cal.

Until the start of conference play neutralizes the strength of opposing teams, not all schedules are created equal.

If the performance of their Big Ten peers is any indication, the Cats may have been wise in dodging marquee nonconference matchups. In four games against ranked opponents this season, the Big Ten has gone 1-3 with only No. 2 Ohio State defeating then-No. 12 Miami.

“You want to have a competitive nonconference schedule, but certainly don’t want to fall a deaf ear to your student-athletes and them getting ready for the Big Ten season,” athletic director Jim Phillips said. “So it has to be balanced.”

Junior quarterback Dan Persa said that he believes the nonconference schedule Phillips made found that balance.

“Vandy was a tough team,” Persa said. “Central Michigan is a (Mid-American Conference) championship-level team, so I think they definitely prepared us well for the Big Ten season.”

No respect, none deserved for the Wildcats?

Still, despite the undefeated start, the quality of NU’s opponents has kept it from turning heads nationally, especially those of Associated Press Top 25 voters. The Cats received just four votes in the latest AP poll, even though six teams in the Top 25 already have losses.

In its preseason analysis of nonconference schedules, Sporting News ranked NU’s the second easiest in the Big Ten, behind only Indiana.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said he didn’t place much stock in that ranking. He instead looked at the Cats’ strength of schedule in USA Today’s computer rankings.

“After four games, it’s the fourth toughest,” he said. “So I’d tell (Sporting News) to take their ratings and do a little better research.”

While it’s true that this system says that NU played the Big Ten’s fourth strongest nonconference schedule, that high rating is more a sign of its peers’ easy schedules than any praise of the difficulty of the Cats’.

Under those ratings, NU’s nonconference schedule was the 96th toughest in the nation out of 245 teams, with some Football Championship Subdivision teams ranked above the Cats.

Phillips said it is harder than it seems to build a competitive nonconference schedule when games are arranged as many as six years in advance.

“You don’t know how teams are going to be,” Phillips said. “Two years ago, Rice was 10-2, Vanderbilt the same thing. What looks on paper to be a good schedule or a really competitive schedule may turn out to be even tougher than you thought, or on the flipside may turn out to be less difficult.”

Cal and Stanford will enter the Cats’ nonconference schedule in 2013 and 2014 respectively, and both opponents would seem to present challenging matchups. But Phillips warns that it’s impossible to know what they will bring three or four years from now.

Taking on the best

Scheduling a team like USC or Alabama, as Minnesota and Penn State did, would seem like a decent guarantee of a quality opponent. However, such guarantees can backfire as the Gophers fell 32-21 and Penn State got dominated 24-3 by the defending national champions.

Still, Penn State running back Evan Royster said he’s glad the Nittany Lions took on such a challenging matchup as it gave them “an idea of what it’s like to play in big games before we get into conference play.”

“I think it will give us the best chance of winning a conference championship,” he said.

Minnesota, much like NU, is stuck with the label of an also-ran in the Big Ten, rarely the subject of national coverage.

“You’ve got to play nationally-televised games,” Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. “You’ve got to play marquee opponents. Because that’s going to help you recruit, and recruiting is what’s going to help you elevate the status of your program.”

Though playing big name opponents like USC this year and Cal last year may have tainted the Gophers’ record, Brewster said the exposure of those games makes the win percentage hit worthwhile.

“Kids want to play nationally televised, big-time games,” he said. “It’s really helped us in recruiting while we’ve upgraded our schedule.”

However, with only one nonconference win, the Golden Gophers are now in need of five conference wins to reach bowl eligibility, while the Cats need just two.

Brewster said he doesn’t set his sights on winning just six games.

“I want to build something special knowing that the goal is not to go to bowl game, but it’s to compete for a championship,” he said. “I think the way you do that, to compete for a championship, is that you build a long-term program. Playing good teams certainly helps us do that.”

Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber has bought into his coach’s philosophy, even if the senior won’t be there to enjoy the program’s long-term progress.

“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to play the best,” he said. “You’ve got to fight the best.”

Putting it together

Though Minnesota got an unfortunate answer on how it matches up against elite national programs, NU lacks an answer entirely. Persa said he is fine with not knowing how the Cats will fare against top-tier programs for now.

“We will see that when we play in the Big Ten,” he said. “The Big Ten is probably one of the best conferences, if not the best in the country, so going against them is just fine for me.”

And while strength of schedule may get the most attention, Phillips said that he considers far more than that when arranging nonconference games, such as the identity of the school.

NU purposefully schedules other top academic institutions because “they just have similar values and similar missions,” Phillips said. Location of schools also plays a big part when the Cats have to play a road game, both for recruiting purposes and for connecting with graduates.

“You try to schedule where your alumni bases are,” Phillips said.

Over the next three years, NU’s nonconference schedule will take the Cats to Texas, New York and California, all major hotspots for recruiting.

While games against FCS opponents may not stimulate the fan base, such games are important, Phillips said, because they allow NU to play a home game without having to promise a return trip another year.

“That’s what’s challenging about all of this. Teams want you to go home-and-home,” he said. “That’s not necessarily the best thing for Northwestern. There’s home-and-home series we want to do, but there’s certain times where we just want to play teams here at Ryan Field and not have to return a game.”

Both Central Michigan and Illinois State agreed to travel to Evanston without asking for return trips.

“We’d like to play seven home games if we could,” Fitzgerald said. “With that being said, you’re going to have to play a Football Championship Subdivision team.”Phillips said NU will play one FCS opponent each year.

When the Cats agree to a home-and-home, Phillips said each school pays the expenses for the other school to visit their campus. Illinois State and Central Michigan accepted a fee from NU to play a road game without a corresponding home game.

The future of scheduling?

With the addition of Nebraska to the Big Ten next year, the conference is considering playing nine conference games as early as 2015. Such a decision would leave only three nonconference games and further reduce the incentive to play a big-name school in nonconference play.

“We have to be really,
really careful not to overschedule our student-athletes,” Phillips said. “I can’t do that, and I’m not going to do that regardless of what anybody says about the schedule.”

NU will play Boston College and Army next year, with Syracuse, Vanderbilt and Boston College on the schedule for 2012. Cal, Syracuse and Vanderbilt will play the Cats in 2013, and Stanford will join Cal on the 2014 nonconference schedule.

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