Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is a shoot-from-the-lip kind of guy. So when the subject of nonconference schedules was raised at last month's Southeastern Conference Media Days gathering in Birmingham, Ala., Nutt was painfully honest.
"I have four children, and I want to be at the University of Arkansas for a long time," said Nutt, who is in his second year as head coach of the Razorbacks. "We have eight bowl games on our schedule. Every so often, you have to schedule the Sisters of the Poor.
"Ask an Arkansas fan who they'd rather see us play and they'd say Texas. I remember when we had a great rivalry with Texas. That would be a lot of fun. But we have four children in our house who believe in Santa Claus. And we want Santa Claus to come every year."
So do most of Nutt's coaching brethren in the Division I-A ranks. First-year Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says, only half in jest, that he hears more readily from his colleagues in the business when he gets his contract extended or receives a hefty raise than when his team wins a big game.
But those coaches looking to do more than just find job security -- say, win a national championship -- now must comply to the formula that was established last year by the Bowl Championship Series. A warning should be attached to that formula: Under-scheduling might be detrimental to finishing No. 1.
That's why you might see a new trend in college football, and why some early-season matchups this year have major implications in determining this year's national championship. The road to New Orleans for a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 4 has already seen its first casualties.
It started Saturday in University Park, Pa., where Penn State beat Arizona in the Pigskin Classic and continued the next day in East Rutherford, N.J., where Miami defeated Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic. Though neither "preseason" game is supposed to count in the recently tweaked BCS formula, it will affect the rankings.
"We'll be out of the Top 10 and out of the picture," said a dejected O. J. Jenkins, one of two Arizona quarterbacks to play against the Nittany Lions.
What happened last season to Kansas State, which was nudged out of the national picture by a weak nonconference schedule and then out of the BCS games (Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar) by its loss to Texas A&M; in the Big 12 championship game, could happen to some other team this year.
As they say in Manhattan, Kan., "Remember the Alamo Bowl!"
"You've got to play a reasonably competitive schedule," said Roy Kramer, the SEC commissioner, whose office oversees the BCS process. "If you play one or two games like that, it might not hurt you. But if you play three or four games like that, you might get caught. We are trying to send a message. Obviously, it has people's attention."
Those signals have already been picked up. Notre Dame, for instance, dropped Hawaii and added a home-and-home series with Tennessee beginning with a Nov. 6 trip to Knoxville. While most of the current schedules have been made as much as a decade in advance, the BCS formula will affect when games could be played in the future.
Take, for instance, the annual end-of-season matchup between state rivals Florida and Florida State. While the Gators proved in 1995 that they could still win the national championship after tying the Seminoles two days after Thanksgiving, a loss would have put them out of contention.
"It hurts us and Florida State," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier. "Whoever loses that game is basically out of it."
Spurrier is one of several high-profile coaches who favor an eight- or 16-team playoff system rather than the traditional bowl system.
Asked about his philosophy on scheduling nonconference games, Spurrier said, "I don't put it together, don't you know that? If you were an AD, would you want to schedule Penn State or bring in teams where you don't have to go to their place and you can still make a million dollars on a home game?"
But Spurrier is resigned to the fact that the current BCS formula, which added two new polls to include in its data and made games such as the Pigskin Classic and Kickoff Classic not count in the number of wins or losses a team might have, will be around for awhile.
"I don't see anything changing the next three or four years," said Spurrier. It all doesn't seem to matter to those with the most importance in determining a national champion -- the players.
Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin, who led the Volunteers to a 13-0 record and a national championship last season, said, "You have to be mentally prepared no matter who you're playing. I wake up every Saturday morning jumping out of my bed. I can't wait for the game whether it's Florida or some other team."
Said Penn State center Jason Cole, "This is really the bottom line. As long as we win, things take care of themselves."
With one high-profile victory on the books, the Nittany Lions will now have another one Sept. 18 when they play at Miami. Among the other marquee nonconference games this month will be UCLA's visit to Ohio State, and Colorado's trip to Washington to face former coach Rick Nueheisel.
The road to New Orleans definitely goes through Gainesville, Fla. That is where the Florida Gators will host SEC rival Tennessee in two weeks -- the Vols have not won at "The Swamp" since 1971 -- and where the Gators will meet state rival Florida State on Nov. 20. Should Penn State best the Hurricanes, its path will be cleared of one major obstacle, with Big Ten foes Michigan and Ohio State traveling to Beaver Stadium later in the season.
Of the teams considered legitimate threats to win a national championship, only Tennessee doesn't play a Top 10 team outside its league. Volunteers coach Phillip Fulmer won't apologize for a nonconference schedule that includes home games against Wyoming, Notre Dame and Memphis.
"I think our nonconference schedule is more competitive than a lot of teams," he said.
Then there's Arkansas. After going 9-3 in Nutt's inaugural season in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks will open at Southern Methodist on Saturday, play Northeast Louisiana in Little Rock in two weeks and play host to Middle Tennessee next month.
And the Nutt family, in particular the four children, will host the white-bearded guy in the red suit sometime in late December.
In this case, BCS might stand for Boring Christmas (Without) Santa.
Pub Date: 9/02/99