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Downgrading is Upgrading, Eventually

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The Wizard of Odds is a little misleading about the direction of this story from Sunday's Boulder Daily Camera, which does not exactly ask, "Why doesn't Colorado schedule top-notch opponents like it used to, when Bill McCartney was winning conference championships?" in the way the question implies out of context. Actually, Neill Woelk thinks CU opting out of a home-and-home with LSU in favor of Fresno State in a few years is the smart move:

...times have changed. While this corner has never been a proponent of lining up four non-conference sacrificial lambs, the altered landscape of college football is such that a brutal early schedule does more damage than good.
[...]
The move makes sense for a variety of reasons, beginning from a financial standpoint.
[...]
Colorado's future schedules already have plenty of BCS schools in the non-conference portion. West Virginia, Georgia, Cal, Oregon and Minnesota are already on tap over the next six years.

Some of CU's Big 12 peers won't play that half that many BCS-conference schools over the same span.

But unlike the days when Mac roamed CU's sidelines, Colorado can no longer afford to overload its early season schedule.

Why?

The Big 12 is by leaps and bounds a tougher overall conference than the old Big Eight.
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In extolling the brutality of the bygone McCartney era, Woelk seems a little hazy on its first decade, which was not extraordinary; the only really remarkable non-conference schedules under McCartney were toward the end of that run, in 1990, 1993 and 1994, when CU took on three ranked teams in September all three years, not including unranked Texas (then in the SWC) to open 1993. The 1990 co-mythical championship was possible despite a loss and a tie (and a dubious win over mediocre Missouri) because that team actually endured four ranked non-conference opponents in its first five games.

Prior to that, though, even though there were often some "big name" opponents on the slate, the only season in the eighties Colorado ever played two ranked teams outside the Big Eight was 1989. It's done that regularly since the start of this decade, in 2000 (USC and Washington), 2002 (USC and UCLA), 2003 (Colorado State and Florida State), 2006 (Arizona State and Georgia) and last year (Arizona State and Florida State), despite having one more conference game to play than it did in its old league.


What? This could happen against Eastern Washington.
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Woelk also seems a little off about the competitiveness of the Big 12 as opposed to the Big Eight – the extra teams adds quality overall, yes, but the rotating inter-division schedule means Colorado never has to play Oklahoma and Texas in the same year, and the state of affairs at Baylor post-SWC has turned the Bears into a bi-annual cupcake (though they did beat Colorado in 2006). Kansas State has been exponentially better in the Big 12 era than in the Big Eight, and as soon as the Wildcats (and Nebraska) fell back to the pack, Missouri and Kansas have moved to replace them. Basically, Colorado can count on seeing three ranked teams per year in Big 12 play, same as it faced annually in the Big Eight.

But in the big picture, Woelk is probably right: throttling down is in Colorado's interest. Any lamentations about the softening of CU's schedule are certainly on hold for a few years – as I pointed out last week, the Buffaloes are likely an improved team without much chance to improve to its record against West Virginia, Kansas and Missouri, all top ten teams last year, and Florida State, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and certain-to-improve Nebraska on top of that. Even if you assume wins over Kansas State and Iowa State, two teams that beat Colorado last year, CU has to take three of that last five to be better than .500. I think it's just short of the personnel to do that – the Big 12 is one thing, but West Virginia and Florida State outside of that make this a killer, killer schedule with no margin of error.

That's a noble effort – I wish every BCS conference team tried to line up multiple throwdowns every year with comparable or stronger programs, for the virtue and entertainment value of the strain – but as it stands there is no incentive to play a tougher schedule if you're not an elite program. Which Colorado was in the early nineties but has not been – with the exception of 2001, the only year in the last decade it's finished in the AP top 20 – since. Once national championships are off the table, tough-but-not-too-tough games like Fresno State in place of heavy hitters like LSU makes complete sense, as Kansas State proved for a decade before upgrading its non-conference slate (and subsequently hitting the skids) and Kansas proved well last year: short of the very top one percent, bowls and voters care about the ends, not the means. Colorado is one of a few beacons of consistently serious, low-fluff scheduling, but when all it takes to get into a bowl game is 6-6, and all it takes to challenge for the BCS is an upset or two when the conference schedule falls favorably (Kansas' Cinderella run included no significant upsets prior to the Orange Bowl), there is no reason in the current setup to make things any tougher in September when an automatic 3-1 or 4-0 is a few phone calls away.

The gradual decay of high-end non-conference scheduling will always make sense until bowls and voters make strength of schedule a priority, beyond the simple filter of conference affiliation; Colorado can't keep playing two ranked teams every year if Kansas and Kansas State are getting ahead by playing tomato cans. Good luck with that, and in the meantime, extend that deal with Colorado State and bring on the WAC. Who wouldn't?