The most repeated question I heard, following the 2012 Michigan football season opener, held here in Arlington, Texas, was “In the end, was it a game worth scheduling?”
Yes, the Blue got its butt handed to it by a much more talented Alabama team, and the UM coaching staff discovered it had even MORE work to do with its relatively young charges than first realized.
Before I answer the questions, let’s look back on this past weekend and discuss, for a moment, why certain games are scheduled at this time of the season.
With one exception (Michigan State-Notre Dame), the majority of college NON-conference games saw patsies play powerhouses. The best matchups (with that singular exception) came in the start of conference play (in the SEC and Pac 12), producing the biggest upset of the night, Stanford knocking off no. 2-ranked USC (again).
Otherwise, it was, all too often, a case of the Michigans of the BCS, whipping the Massachusettses of the landscape, as was the case Saturday … in the Big House … 63-13.
Despite surrendering 13 points, the outcome was never really in doubt; the Wolverines ran for almost 300 yards and were nine yards short of 300 yards passing. But if you review what happened elsewhere, among the top 25, a similar scenario was played out; it was the week to schedule “soft” opponents in preparation for upcoming conference action.
OK, so why DID Michigan play a team like UMass on this Saturday in 2012? Because of the money, honey, and as Willie Nelson sang (decades ago), “If you got the money, honey, I got the time.” In order to supplement their athletic budgets, many so-called mid-major schools (in mid-major conferences such as the Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Mid-American) will gladly serve as fodder for the big dogs.
A visit to the Big House is infinitely more rewarding (financially) to a school like Massachusetts than playing a home game (or five home games) in Amherst, Mass. Its split of the revenue from 109,000 makes it appealing, so the UMass administration trades an on-field loss for a financial win. The same is true with schools with huge stadiums (Penn State, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, Ohio State); they seldom ink home-and-home contracts with teams with lesser seating capacity.
Texas’ visit to Ole Miss last Saturday WAS a rarity, as was A&M’s journey to Dallas to play SMU. The latter game was made as a favor for Dallas alumni because SMU’s Gerald J. Ford Stadium barely holds 36,000 people, while Kyle Field in College Station can occupy more than 88,000. The finances don’t work in Dallas.
Scheduling is not the area tasked for the head coach; those duties are strictly placed in the athletic director’s office. The coach plans for the schedule presented to him by his boss. And the boss is always looking at the bottom line, including Michigan’s Dave Brandon.
Non-conference schedules are constructed years in advance and normally remain rock solid, barring any seismic conference realignment activity. When schools decide to switch allegiances, it can truly scramble your omelet.
Just ask Notre Dame, who announced this past week, its jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference from the Big East, in all sports MINUS football. The Irish wish to retain their independent status as much as possible, although the ACC people did tag a caveat to the entire procession (ND must play at least five ACC opponents per season).
There will be difficult decisions to be be made in South Bend in the coming months – who to retain and who to eject; and which five will be an Irish Derby lottery, of sorts.
The ACC (not a hotbed of football as it is in basketball) does offer some quality opponents – Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech. But the conference has a few Dukes, Wake Forests, Marylands and Virginias that won’t make the Irish sweat a bit.
And just who gets dropped from the current (and future) schedule will be interesting. Michigan and Notre Dame will be taking a break after 2016, but that was meant to be when the schedules were made more than a few months ago. Will the break be permanent? And what will that say for college football when one decision leads to another that financially makes no sense (dropping Michigan for a school like Duke is bad for business).
The break will come in 2018 and 2019 and the UM press release stated this: ““Both schools intend to resume the rivalry in the years following.” Kinda cryptic if you ask me…
Who else comes and goes? Michigan State? Southern Cal? The in-state rival, Purdue? The service academies? Fellow Jesuit schools like Boston College? I wouldn’t want to be in South Bend making those critical (financial) choices.
Michigan’s future non-conference schedules make plans for teams with unknown qualities; no one can states with certainty what those opponents will offer in the future.
Example: Colorado used to be a challenger in the Big 12 when it was in its Northern Division. In its attempt to escape the “evil” clutches of Texas and Oklahoma, the Buffs chose to land in the Pac-12 last season (along with Utah) and promptly stunk up the joint.
But too many Wolverine fans have nightmares about Kordell Stewart and Michael Westbrook and last-second 64-yard touchdown passes to be UM on national TV. So which Colorado team will show up in Ann Arbor in 2016? Nobody in 2012 can tell you that.
In 2014, Michigan will play Utah in a rare home-and-home series (home in 2014, on the road in 2015). And, for some odd reason, the 2015 game will be the lidlifter on the collegiate season … on a Thursday night.
Utah is now in the Pac-12 conference but not CURRENTLY among the upper echelon (Oregon, Stanford, USC). In three years, who knows what kind of squad will be there?
Still, there are plenty of soft opponents through 2016 – the likes of Miami of Ohio and UNLV. They’re coming for the money, NOT the experience of playing in the Big House.
So to finally answer the initial question, YES, it was worth it because hindsight is a luxury no athletic director can afford. The atmosphere resembled any major bowl game, the accommodations were great, and the buildup in the prior days was unprecedented for a Michigan game.
It just would have been nice for the Wolverines to have played better and for Denard Robinson to have been … well, Denard Robinson. But Alabama had more to do with that than Dave Brandon. Otherwise, it was a great collegiate experience!