College football mismatches are no longer immoral because everyone schedules that way

College football mismatches are no longer immoral because everyone schedules that way

OU’s 73-0 rout of Arkansas State reminds us how college football scheduling has changed for the worse.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Sep 3, 2023, 9:31pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Sep 3, 2023, 9:31pm CDT

I guess the only time that OU athletic director Joe Castiglione was truly mad at me came 23 years ago this week. On September 9, 2000, the Sooners hosted Arkansas State in the second game of Bob Stoops’ second season.

The then-Indians were 14-31 in their previous four seasons, three in the Big West Conference and one as an independent.

Scheduling such mismatches were not yet a part of OU’s DNA. The Sooners of the 1970s played four of 40 non-conference games against teams we would now consider outside the power structure of college football. The Sooners of the 1980s played just five. But encroachment was coming.

The Sooners of the 1990s played 15 teams outside the power conferences, 1.5 per year. And after OU opened the 2000 season against Texas-El Paso, with Arkansas State and Rice upcoming, I wrote that such games were “immoral.”

Man, was Castiglione mad. When I saw him later that week, he wouldn’t even look at me. Fortunately, his anger cooled, and we’ve worked together swimmingly over the quarter century since.

I know that OU didn’t pioneer easy scheduling, didn’t exacerbate the problem and frankly has pushed back against the practice for much of the 21st century.

But I stand by what I said. College football is not on the side of the angels when it comes to scheduling. The opening week of the 2023 season reminded us of that.

Three Arkansas teams crossed the state line to help our state kick off college football’s Week 1. Sounds promising. Surely one of them would have been the Razorbacks, don’t you think?

But no.

Arkansas State played at OU. Central Arkansas played at OSU. Arkansas-Pine Bluff played at Tulsa.

No University of Arkansas. The Razorbacks were busy hosting Western Carolina on Saturday.

That succinctly describes college football’s scheduling madness. The commitment of schools to avoid games they might possibly lose. Games that don’t even pretend to be worth the price of admission.

In Week 1, which concludes Monday night with Clemson and Duke, 58 games were scheduled involving teams from Power Five conferences. Of those 58, only 11 matched two Power Five teams. Twenty matched Power Five teams against Division I-AA opponents.

Think about that the next time someone talks about the majesty of the sport.

OU’s 73-0 whitewash of Arkansas State was as one-sided as it sounds. OSU’s 27-13 survival of Central Arkansas was as discouraging as it sounds. Tulsa’s 42-7 rout of UAPB was about as expected.

The Week 2 games are better. OU hosts Southern Methodist, which now is in the American Conference but next season will be in the Atlantic Coast Conference. OSU plays at Arizona State, which now is in the Pac-12 but next season will be in the Big 12. Tulsa plays at Washington, which now is in the Pac-12 but next season will be in the Big Ten.

Conference realignment doesn’t always make geographic – or common – sense. But scheduled mismatches, and guaranteed victories, and games played only for financial reasons are the plague of college football.

Coaches try to paint such exhibitions as normal, even though we know they’re not.

“Just guys staying focused and hungry and finishing and not getting sloppy,” Brent Venables said when I asked what he can get from such a one-sided game. “Compete to a standard – positioning, getting a call, the process during pre-snap on both sides of the ball, not having a bunch of penalties, staying relatively healthy and imposing your will.

“Winning the lines of scrimmage, protecting the football, tackling well, there’s a lot that you take from it. You keep the right perspective. Teams in the future will have more depth and maybe more explosive playmakers on both sides of the ball – but I don’t want to take anything from our guys and their preparation either. There’s a delicate balance there. But it’s a good strong start.”

I don’t know how you compete to a standard when there’s no resistance. Arkansas State was one of the most outmanned teams to hit Owen Field since college football went sissified and started playing these kinds of games.

The Red Wolves weren’t necessarily guaranteed to be a pushover. OU and Arkansas State agreed in December 2020 to schedule this game for 2023. In September 2020, the Red Wolves won at Kansas State in a season opener. Heck, last season, Arkansas State played at Ohio State and trailed just 17-9 with five minutes left in the second quarter, though the Buckeyes eventually pulled away for a 45-12 victory.

But that’s the problem with scheduling lower-level programs. If a Big 12 or Big Ten or a Southeastern Conference program takes a dip, there’s still a floor. If a Sun Belt Conference team finds dark times, it gets ugly fast. And it got ugly fast in Norman. At halftime, with OU leading 45-0, at least 75 percent of the crowd departed. Fans love blowouts when their team is on the right side, but they also speak with their feet.

“We play who’s on our schedule,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof, a decades-long defense that didn’t hold water in 1982 and doesn’t hold water today.

“It happened to work out today where we could play a lot of guys (44 on defense, Roof said) and that’s a wonderful thing for us. Like I said, it helps the locker room, it helps the practice field, it helps the program down the road. A lot of good came out of it.”

OSU didn’t play 44 defenders. The Cowboys were in a battle royale against Central Arkansas, which can offer just 65 scholarships to OSU’s 85. Such discrepancies are why we should never listen to coaches talk about always competing. A Big 12 (or SEC, or Big Ten, or ACC, or Pac-12) team against a Division I-AA team is not a fair fight. 

Such games are payouts for the lower-level school and an exhibition game for the power-league coach who can see his team under game conditions, without threat of defeat.

Except OSU toyed with losing Saturday night, leading just 13-7 until Gunnar Gundy led two long touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.

Good win for us,” Mike Gundy said, meaning that at least the Cowboys didn’t lose. “We found out a little bit about our team.”

Yes, what he found out was the Cowboys weren’t very good. Doesn’t mean they’re sentenced to such a date for the entire 2023 season. But going toe to toe with a I-AA opponent is a major warning sign.

“I told the team, each week the talent level will get better and better,” Gundy said.

It better get better, when you open against a Division I-AA team.

The good news is, the marquee school in Arkansas, the Razorbacks, indeed crosses the state line; the Hogs are scheduled to play at OSU on September 7, 2024. But the Cowboys also open 2024 against another I-AA opponent, South Dakota State.

And while OU’s 2024 schedule will be historic – the Sooners join the SEC, with Alabama and Tennessee coming to Norman, and OU playing at Louisiana State, Auburn and Ole Miss – it also will include Division I-AA Maine.

I won’t like it. But I won’t call it immoral. Immorality is “conflicting with generally or traditionally held moral principles.” There is no conflict. Scheduling mismatches now is part of college football’s tradition.

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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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