- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

Saturday’s marquee matchup between No. 1 Southern California and No. 5 Ohio State is emblematic of an exciting new trend in college football. Thanks to a pair of relatively recent developments on the elite landscape, the nation’s top programs are scheduling more aggressively than ever. The result is an unparalleled slate of early season games featuring ranked teams and interconference clashes between nontraditional rivals.

“Obviously, this weekend’s game between the Buckeyes and Trojans is getting a ton of attention because it’s like a Rose Bowl in September,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said. “But this season is loaded with impressive nonconference games. We’ve already seen Alabama-Clemson and Illinois-Missouri, and next week we get Georgia-Arizona State. That’s four huge interconference matchups between ranked teams from the BCS big boys, and we won’t even be out of September.”

As recently as five seasons ago, such a smorgasbord of compelling collisions would have been unthinkable. The prevailing nonconference scheduling philosophy among the superpowers was simple: line up the cupcakes for a series of easy wins and home-stadium paydays, fattening up the bank account and the record before the beginning of conference play.

Two primary factors changed that approach in the span of three years: the addition of a 12th regular-season game in 2006 and the cautionary tale from 2004 otherwise known as the Auburn Effect.

In 2004, Auburn finished the regular season unbeaten and beat Tennessee in the SEC title game but was shut out of the BCS championship game because of a pair of extreme circumstances. The oddity beyond the Tigers’ control that season was the fact that both USC and Oklahoma, the squads that began and ended the season ranked Nos. 1 and 2, also had perfect regular seasons. The circumstance Auburn could have controlled - and the reason those on the Plains could offer only muted objection to the way things played out - was a nonconference schedule that included walkovers against Louisiana-Monroe, The Citadel and Louisiana Tech.

“What happened to Auburn was very unlucky because going undefeated in the regular season in the SEC is almost always a sure ticket to the title game,” said Kenneth Massey, who developed and oversees one of the six computer rankings used in the BCS formula. “But their soft scheduling backfired on them, and it seems athletic directors everywhere took note.”

When the NCAA allowed a 12th regular-season game two seasons later, most major-conference schools decided to use the extra game to improve their strength-of-schedule profiles. All six of the computer rankings that make up a third of the BCS formula factor in strength of schedule.

“I think you saw a lot of these games spring up when we added the 12th game a few years back,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose No. 2 Bulldogs travel to No. 15 Arizona State next week. “All of a sudden, everybody’s looking for that extra game, so you had some real flexibility in who you could schedule. Our philosophy was to add a BCS conference team outside of the Southeast region, so we’ve played Oklahoma State, Colorado and now Arizona State. We wanted to give our players and fans the opportunity to see the other side of the country. We thought it would be good for recruiting. And we think it’s good for college football.”

There are obvious risks inherent in more aggressive scheduling. Just ask Clemson, which began the season ranked No. 9 and favored to win the ACC but opened with a 34-10 loss to then No. 24 Alabama in the season’s first marquee matchup.

“It’s definitely a little bit of a risk. But I think the positives outweigh the negatives,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said before the loss. “It’s a great barometer that lets you know right up front where your football team stands. It’s early in the season, so you have plenty of time to recover if you lose. And it’s also not a conference game, so a loss doesn’t impact your primary goal of winning your league.”

In fact, a loss in one of these mega-matchups doesn’t even cripple a team’s chances of winning the national title.

“More often than not, the BCS title game is going to involve at least one team with a loss,” said USC’s Pete Carroll, whose team’s nonconference games are at Virginia and home against Ohio State and Notre Dame. “The stronger your schedule, the better you’re going to look as a potential one-loss team to the pollsters and computers. That’s been our philosophy. It’s good for recruiting because you have a more attractive schedule to offer guys. But the biggest winners are the fans because it makes what was already the most meaningful regular season in sports even more exciting.”

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