NCAA Teams turn to easy nonconference road

Friday, August 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The biggest news during Kansas State's preseason football workouts this summer was about a game next season. The Wildcats, criticized for years for playing soft nonconference games, actually will play a nonconference foe that isn't a stranger to the Top 25 (USC).

Of course, Kansas State, coming off three straight 11-win seasons, this year is facing Iowa, Louisiana Tech, Ball State and North Texas before starting Big 12 Conference play. But it's a start.

"It doesn't change my philosophy. I still want to do what's in the best interests of our program," Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. "I've never been where everybody's made such a big deal about scheduling a ballgame."

Scheduling has become a big deal these days. The top NCAA Division I-A programs no longer look for strong intersectional matchups as they did in the past. Instead, assuring sellouts and an unbeaten nonconference schedule have taken on greater importance.

With the power conferences having created six and seven guaranteed bowl bids, even mid-range programs have shied away from scheduling possible losses. Six victories can makes a team bowl eligible, and a team that goes 3-0 in nonconference can go 3-5 in league play and still go to a bowl.

"It's a concern," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "You see people dropping games across the country because they feel like it's unfair to their teams. A lot of people say if you don't play a great schedule, you can't fill the house. But if you look at the top five teams in the country, they can play I-AA teams and still have a full house."

Kansas State has been a top-10 college program during the last three seasons playing a "Bottom 10" nonconference schedule.

These are the Wildcats' nonconference foes since 1997: Northern Illinois (twice), Ohio, Bowling Green, Indiana State, Northeast Louisiana, Temple, UT-El Paso and Utah State. They won all nine games, with an average score of 50-5.

When Snyder took over at Kansas State in 1989, it was one of the worst major college programs in the country. Under-scheduling built confidence. But now that Kansas State is one of the top programs, the Wildcats face few challenges in nonconference.

An unapologetic Snyder says the Big 12 schedule is difficult enough.

"When I look at our schedule and see that each year the conference has grown closer in terms of parity, I don't feel that it's in our best interests to make our schedule any more complex than it already is," Snyder said.

Colorado is at the opposite end of the scheduling spectrum from Kansas State. The Buffaloes open the season with a six-game survival course of Colorado State, No. 15 USC, No. 13 Washington, No. 8 Kansas State, Texas A&M and No. 7 Texas.

A challenging nonconference slate has become the norm at Colorado, which won a national title in 1990 playing what the NCAA rated afterward the nation's toughest Division I-A schedule.

However, Colorado coach Gary Barnett is considering a change in philosophy because the Big 12 schedule pits the Buffaloes against so many league contenders so early.

"If the conference wants us to play better people in nonconference, then they need to be sensitive to those things," Barnett said. "Philosophically, I believe in playing that type of nonconference schedule [Colorado State, USC and Washington] to be fair to the players and fans."

Texas dropped a game for the coming season at Hawaii against a program that last season put together the best turnaround in NCAA Division I-A history. Brown said the move had to do with not having an open date or enough preparation time for the next game. Hawaii coach June Jones said Texas wanted to make its schedule easier.

With future games against Arkansas and Ohio, Brown hasn't shifted to the Kansas State philosophy, but he says it's tempting.

"It seems to me that people have griped about K-State's schedule the past two or three years and they always end up in the top 10," Brown said. "Two years ago, if they had beaten Texas A&M in the conference championship game, they would have played for the national championship. So looks like to me, all of us should schedule that way. Very honestly. I think it's a smart thing on their part.''

Under-scheduling can backfire, however, if you're not already a top-10 program. TCU has a Heisman Trophy contender in running back LaDainian Tomlinson, and the Horned Frogs are expected to have one of their strongest teams in years. Yet there is concern among Frog fans that TCU won't get the attention it deserves because of a low-rated Western Athletic Conference and a nonconference slate that includes Northwestern, Arkansas State and Navy.

Ironically, TCU was supposed to play Nebraska this season. The Horned Frogs bowed out two years ago when coach Dennis Franchione inherited a team that had gone 1-10 the season before.

"When you take over a 1-10 team, in year three you don't want to run into a buzzsaw," Franchione said. "Basically, what we wanted to do was move it [Nebraska] back. If we knew what we know today, we wouldn't have done that."

Now, Franchione is trying to upgrade his schedule. He's had talks with UCLA, Pittsburgh and Marshall, among others. But it's tough in an era in which some schools are trying to schedule three nonconference victories to get halfway to bowl eligibility.

"Right now," Franchione said, "we're trying to play anybody that's interested in playing us."

With full houses guaranteed and Bowl Championship Series rankings at stake, the top programs are scheduling weaker opponents. A look at the Associated Press' preseason Top 10 and their nonconference schedules plus a comment on each:

Nonconference scheduleComment

1. Nebraska
San Jose State; at Notre Dame; IowaThe Irish may put up a fight

2. Florida State
BYU; Louisville; at MiamiBowden's not afraid of anyone

3. Alabama
at UCLA; Southern Miss; Central FloridaTraveling to UCLA a brave move

4. Wisconsin
Western Michigan; Oregon; Cincinnati; at HawaiiSeason-ender at Hawaii looks tougher now

5. Miami
McNeese State; at Washington; Florida State; Louisiana TechTwo toughies, two not-so-tough

6. Michigan
Bowling Green; Rice; at UCLASesame Street song: "One of these teams is not like the others..."

7. Texas
Louisiana-Lafayette; at Stanford; HoustonStanford went to Rose Bowl last year

8. Kansas State
Iowa; Louisiana Tech; Ball State; North TexasWell, at least Iowa is in the Big Ten

9. Florida
Ball State; Middle Tennessee; Florida StateBall State a popular opponent

10. Georgia
Georgia Southern; New Mexico State; Georgia TechQuincy Carter can roll up some big numbers