Athletic directors striking delicate balance with schedules
Ask athletic directors what they are trying to accomplish when they build a nonconference football schedule and the objectives are mostly the same: Come up with a slate of games that allows the school to meet its competitive and financial goals.
What are those goals? The answers vary widely.
There is no national standardization in college football scheduling, which means there have been debates, complaints and ridicule for as long as marching bands have been performing at halftime.
One thing is sure: In the College Football Playoff era, the emphasis on strength of schedule is greater than ever. But while fans clamor for more matchups between top teams, much of what goes into scheduling is only tangentially related to the potential quality of the game.
"I always tell people there are no rules in the scheduling business," said Dave Brown, the former ESPN executive and brains behind the popular scheduling software Gridiron. "For some guys, certainly the finances are an important component. For some schools, it's about, hey, do we recruit that area? Is it a good donor trip? Does it competitively balance our schedule? Does it allow us not to play three games in a row at home or three games in a row on the road? All those things come into it."
The Associated Press spoke with five ADs about what goes into their scheduling:
Scott Stricklin, Florida (2016-present) and Mississippi State (2010-16)
As members of the Southeastern Conference, the Gators and Bulldogs each play eight league games. What they want out of their four nonconference games is very different.
"Our priorities at MSU were, No. 1, we wanted as often as possible to play seven home games," Stricklin said. "So that meant we had to get three of our four nonconference games at home. We wanted to economically acquire those three homes games as inexpensively as we could."
Seven homes games is the typical target for the 65 schools in Power Five conferences that need ticket revenue for athletic department expenditures that average more than $100 million per school every year. Forty-six of those teams (71 percent) will play seven homes this season. Of the 19 that will play six, 11 will play at least one neutral site game and six of those 11 will play that neutral site game in their home state.
Trying to get to seven affordable home games has its own challenges. The going rate to get an FBS opponent to play a road game with no reciprocal visit has been soaring. Alabama is paying Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette nearly $3 million combined to play games in Tuscaloosa this season. Florida is paying Colorado State $2 million to play in Gainesville, though that deal was part of the buyout for the Gators hiring coach Jim McElwain away from the Rams in 2015.
Instead of dropping that kind of cash, Stricklin said, he would instead book two-for-one series with regional Group of Five opponents such as South Alabama, Troy or Southern Mississippi. Mississippi State does buy games against FCS teams, which generally run about $300,000-$500,000, depending how far a team has to travel.
During Stricklin's time at Mississippi State, the Bulldogs rarely played nonconference games against Power Five opponents. His thinking was the SEC West provided enough of a challenge for a program that has historically struggled to get out of the bottom half of the division. Now that the SEC mandates its schools play at least one Power Five nonconference opponent, Mississippi State has home-and-homes with Kansas State, North Carolina State and Arizona in coming seasons.
At Florida, the scheduling challenge includes a neutral site game every season against conference rival Georgia and a locked in state rivalry with Florida State that alternates between Gainesville and Tallahassee.
"It's just a different animal," Stricklin said.
Many of the top revenue-generating schools, including most SEC schools, are buying at least one FBS and one FCS game per season. That is generally going to run around $2 million, but for programs that routinely fill 80,000-plus seats — as Florida does — a home game can generate upward of $4 million just in ticket sales.
"Some of the costs of these guarantee games are shooting up so much that's why these neutral site games have become so popular with these nice pay days," Stricklin said.
Stricklin's predecessor at Florida made deals for the Gators to play in neutral site games last year against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, and next season against Miami in Orlando, Florida. The Michigan game came with a $6 million payout. But next year's game in Orlando means only six games will be played at the Swamp.
Stricklin's first big scheduling move since taking over at Florida? The Gators have agreed to a three-game series with South Florida, with the Bulls playing twice in Gainesville.
Chris Del Conte, Texas (2018-present) and TCU (2009-18)
Big 12 teams play nine conference games, same as the Big Ten and Pac-12. For most teams in those leagues, that means five road conference games every other season. For Texas, though, the rivalry game against Oklahoma is always played in Dallas, giving the Longhorns an even split between home and road in conference.
Del Conte wants the three-game nonconference slate to include a home-and-home series against what he calls a "historical power." The Longhorns complete a series against Southern California this season and have future deals with LSU, Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State.
Texas will buy one guarantee game against a Group of Five opponent; Del Conte said prefers Texas not playing FCS teams. That third game, Del Conte said, would ideally provide fans with an appealing home contest in years when that "historical power" opponent is played on the road.
In 2020, for example, Texas opens at home against USF before going to LSU the next week.
"You're whole nonconference schedule is weighted with trying to give your team the ability to go to the CFP and two also balancing the fact you want to have a great home schedule that you're asking your fans to spend their discretionary income on," Del Conte said.
At TCU, the Horned Frogs played crosstown rival SMU every season and would bring an FCS team to Amon Carter Stadium. Del Conte would use TCU's home-and-home series against another Power Five schools as a way to raise the private school's profile.
TCU has home-and-homes scheduled California, Colorado and Stanford.
"We picked up North Carolina and Duke on the East Coast," Del Conte said. "The games accentuate your brand for coast-to-coast."
Troy Dannen, Tulane (2016-present)
Six home games are enough for the Green Wave. Tulane can't afford guarantee games nor does Dannen want the Green Wave to be a buy-game opponent — at least not anymore. Tulane will make $1.5 million to play at Ohio State this year and $1.9 million to open the season at Auburn next season.
"From a financial standpoint it allowed us to make some investment in the program to try to get it off its back," said Dannen, who has been at Tulane since 2016.
The Green Wave, who play eight conference games in the American Athletic Conference, aren't scheduling to be in the playoff conversation. Tulane has only played in a bowl game once since 2003. Dannen said his model is to play an FCS team, preferably from Louisiana.
For home-and-home, Dannen wants at least one with a Power Five school, maybe two. The AAC is pushing its members to schedule Power Five, in part to help boost the league's value in upcoming TV rights negotiations.
Being located in New Orleans helps Tulane make that happen.
"Every FBS school in the country is recruiting in this area," he said. "To convince and cajole people that this is a good place to come and play has not been real hard."
Sean Frazier, Northern Illinois (2013-present)
Northern Illinois has been a Mid-American Conference power and of the strongest Group of Five programs since 2010.
Power Five teams will pay top dollar to bring the Huskies to their stadium because they can sell it as a competitive game to their fans. NIU is 4-1 against Big Ten teams in recent years, including a victory at Nebraska last year that cost the Huskers $820,000, too.
Frazier's ideal nonconference schedule to go along with eight MAC games includes one payday from a Power Five school, a home game against an in-state FCS opponent, a Power Five home-and-home and a Group of Five home-and-home. Six home games is ideal but NIU has just five this season. Frazier said a lack of state funding led to him adding a payday game. The Huskies open at home against Iowa ($1 million) and go to Florida State ($1.6 million) on Sept. 22.
"Quite frankly, it saves jobs at our institution," Frazier said.
The Huskies also start home-and-home series with BYU and Utah, giving them maybe the toughest nonconference schedule in the country.
Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame (2008-present)
No school schedules like Notre Dame.
"Competitively we want to build a 12-game schedule that compares favorably with anybody else's 13-game schedule," Swarbrick said.
The Fighting Irish are famously independent, but a scheduling deal with the Atlantic Coast Conference provides some certainty. The Irish play five ACC opponents each season, alternating between three at home and two. They also play USC, Stanford and Navy every season.
That leaves four games for Swarbrick to book. Notre Dame will usually buy one Group of Five opponent. Swarbrick wants seven home games, but Notre Dame also likes to play neutral site games it controls. The Shamrock Series has taken Notre Dame to San Antonio, Chicago, New York and Boston. All that moving around can lead to seasons like this one, where Notre Dame plays in South Bend only six times.
Swarbrick said Notre Dame always aims to have at least two home games against traditional powers. One is usually USC or Stanford. Season-ticket holders will also get Michigan and Florida State this year.
"A high priority for us is having competitive markers against the other conferences," Swarbrick said. Ideally, the Irish will face teams from at least four Power Five conferences each season.
Swarbrick also likes to secure games against teams that have rarely played at Notre Dame. It's a bucket-list trip for many college football fans, and the whole South Bend area benefits when thousands of opposing fans make the pilgrimage to see Touchdown Jesus the way Georgia supporters did last year.
"I'd like a few less seats available to them," Swarbrick said. "But the campus dynamic when those schools visit is really great."
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