Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

July 24, 2012

Tougher schedules point of emphasis


DALLAS — Since accepting the invitation to join the Big 12 Conference last October, West Virginia's football program has been forced to tailor its schedule to fit the demands that come with playing nine conference games.

The Mountaineers exited home-and-home series with Florida State and Michigan State that were to be played in succession the next four seasons, mostly because the non-conference chances they could be taking were too risky in front of a Big 12 schedule likely to feature a handful of ranked opponents every season.

Those moves aren't necessarily in line with what new Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby wants to see his teams doing.

Bowlsby issued something of an edict at the first day of the Big 12 media days Monday, saying the 10-member conference will be as aggressive in scheduling as it will be in all other endeavors.

He believes strength of schedule should and will be a significant factor in the process that selects the four teams to participate in the national championship series that begins in 2014.

"The second two-thirds of the season are terrific, but the first month of the season is not always terrific," Bowlsby said.

"And as we shape what will become the new postseason, one of the things that we have to build into the system is we have to make sure that it's fair, it's transparent, it's understandable, but we also have to do things in terms of how we structure the selection process to make sure that we encourage high-level matchups in the month of September."

WVU's reluctance to overschedule, especially as it gets to know its new opponents and visit all of the campuses in the next two seasons, is understandable. Perhaps the biggest culture shock that comes with being the Big 12's first member with watches set for the Eastern Time Zone and no foe within an 850-mile radius comes from the competition.

In the previous four seasons, WVU played three ranked Big East Conference teams in 28 games - and that accounted for just two schools. There's a chance the Mountaineers will play three ranked teams in a row when they play host to TCU on Nov. 10, visit Oklahoma State on Nov. 17 and host Oklahoma on Nov. 24.

The WVU season may be defined by that stretch, and the Mountaineers certainly will be evaluated at the end by what they do in Big 12 play. Those games will matter more than what happens in the first three games against Marshall on Sept. 1, James Madison on Sept. 15 and Maryland Sept. 22 - unless WVU would lose one of those. That is why teams across the country are softening their non-conference games in anticipation of the playoff.

"Don't mistake what I'm saying," Bowlsby said. "I think September is a part of the season that we use to get teams ready to play the rest of the season, and so playing a steady diet of top-25 teams is not necessarily what any coach wants to do and in most cases is not what's required to get a team ready to play in the conference schedule.

"So that isn't what's going to be encouraged in the context of the postseason playoff. Having said that, putting together a schedule that never takes you off your campus, that doesn't play against intersectional opponents, that doesn't create matchups that are significant for the media and significant in terms of comparison of the best teams around the country, the complete absence of that will also likely be penalized."

Bowlsby believes the playoff selection process will incentivize non-conference scheduling and in WVU's defense, it hasn't completely wilted. The Mountaineers will play Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta to start the 2014 season. WVU plays BYU at FedEx Field in 2016.

Coach Dana Holgorsen told the Daily Mail last month he believes his team will play a Football Championship Subdivision team every season. He said the other two games could include a special occasion, like the Alabama and BYU games, or two regional teams with a history with the Mountaineers. Holgorsen wants either short road trips for his fans or opponents the fans know.

Those teams figure to be from the Big East, Atlantic Coast Conference or Big Ten, as well as Conference USA or the Mid-American Conference, which would satisfy Bowlsby's initiative. He trusts the selection process will not unfairly punish a team for losing a difficult non-conference game.

"It is not satisfactory to lose a game in September and be taken out of the national championship dialogue," he said. "I think if the University of Oregon had to do it over again, they might not have played that game against LSU last year, because they fought back from behind for the entire season as a result of it.

"We need to encourage those games, we need to relish those games, and we need to make the month of September as good as the months of October and November are."

The Big 12 can make scheduling easier for its members when it finalizes its television contract. That's been agreed to for a while now, and the league's presidents have pledged to eventually sign the critical 13-year grant of media rights as a part of it. The television deal, also for 13 years, is with the ABC/ESPN networks, as well as Fox, and could include a number of cable and broadcast channels for games.

The Big 12 schools would then be better armed with nationally televised opportunities for non-conference opponents.

"It's going to be unprecedented national exposure for our conference, and it will be remarkable the breadth and depth of the reach that we will have during the course of the coming decade," Bowlsby said.

When it happens, though, remains a mystery. Believed to be worth $2.6 billion overall and $20 million annually to each member, the contract has been loosely defined since May. It has not been signed and Bowlsby admitted the league is behind where it wants to be regarding the selection of televised games and the announcement of kickoff times for 2012.

"I would suggest to you that having two media companies and 10 presidents and 10 general counsels and 10 athletic directors, all, generally speaking, have editorial veto authority over the preparation of the documents, is a complex environment that may very well the understatement of the year," said Bowlsby, who also repeated the league's happiness with 10 teams and lack of desire to expand, which at this stage would only further complicate the television contract.

"It's a lot of work and it's a lot of pushing and shoving," Bowlsby said. "And as much as we're all trying to hold hands and go forward together, we don't all agree on everything all the time. And so we still have some work to do. I don't have any question that we will end up with a completed media document before long. But it is long, it is dense, and it has lots of details. And it's still going to take us a while to get it all put together."

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