There are two not entirely compatible mission statements for programs such as LSU when it comes to football scheduling:
You have to win, and you have to play games, particularly nonconference games, against interesting competition.
Last year, LSU successfully navigated a shark-infested nonconference schedule, beating Oregon and West Virginia away from Tiger Stadium. It was those wins that helped propel LSU to the No. 1 ranking in the national polls, a spot the Tigers held all the way to the BCS national championship game.
This year, the slate outside the Southeastern Conference hasn’t looked nearly as daunting.
Washington, a rebuilding former Pac-12 power, was supposed to provide LSU with its biggest non-SEC test. But the No. 3-ranked Tigers pummeled the Huskies 41-3 last Saturday, limiting Washington to 183 yards total offense.
LSU, 2-0 after opening the season with a 41-14 romp over North Texas, goes into Saturday’s 7 p.m. game in Tiger Stadium as a prohibitive six-touchdown favorite against the visiting Idaho Vandals (0-2). After a trip to Auburn to open SEC play next week, LSU returns home to wrap up the nonconference slate against Towson, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
There is a growing debate within college athletics whether teams like Idaho, Towson and North Texas still have a place on the schedules of BCS-level programs like LSU.
The pressures of trying to fill enormous stadiums (tickets still remained for both the Idaho and Towson games Friday) and the soon-to-be-added pressure of having a strong strength of schedule when the BCS begins its playoff system in 2014 are inexorable pulls on schedule makers and administrators across the country.
“I think there will still be a place for these kinds of games, just not as many of them,” LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva said. “You can still play one a year, but not more than that. I think strength of schedule will become an important factor when the new format cranks up in 2014.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban has called for BCS schools to restrict their nonconference scheduling to other BCS schools.
“If someone is playing a schedule that’s not as tough as yours and you lose a game, certainly two, and they go undefeated, then they’re going to be playing for the national championship,” Saban said.
LSU coach Les Miles disagreed on the basis of how unpredictable schedule making is.
“I don’t think you should restrict scheduling,” Miles said. “It depends on the year. A year ago, we played West Virginia and Oregon, and it seemed to fit the schedule. Other years, we can’t find someone to fill a date and someone enters our schedule. Year in and year out, these games fit. I don’t think there should be a restriction.”
Still, there is a broad and growing mandate to keep the stands filled.
On the SEC’s opening weekend only one school, Mississippi State, announced a paid sellout out of the eight playing home games, though reportedly there were empty seats at Scott Field as well.
For that reason, Washington Athletic Director Scott Woodward said he believes Saban has the right idea about nonconference scheduling.
“You don’t know where it will evolve, but I think it’s heading that way,” said Woodward, a Baton Rouge native and LSU graduate.
“People are wanting to see quality games, especially with the advent of big leather couches and high-definition TVs. That’s who we’re competing with at our gate. We have to give them a product that they want to come see and enjoy in a live venue.”
Idaho Athletic Director Rob Spear acknowledges that as conferences grow, pushing their schedules to nine games which already exist in leagues like the Pac-12 and Big 12, opportunities for schools like his to play guarantee games will decrease. But he insists BCS schools still want home games they believe they can win.
“If a school goes 4-0 in nonconference play and 2-6 in conference, they still get to 6-6 and are bowl eligible,” said Spear, whose school is looking to leave the Western Athletic Conference after this season and become a football independent. “If the BCS schools just played other BCS schools, the number of bowl eligible teams would decline.”
To try to make coming to the stadium more fan-friendly even when the game isn’t expected to be much of a contest, LSU set about upgrading Tiger Stadium this past offseason with new lighting, entrance gates and a resurfacing of the north stadium façade.
Two new large video scoreboards will be part of the south stadium expansion set for 2014.
Alleva said LSU is considering making free Internet access available at Tiger Stadium so fans can watch replays and other games on their personal electronic devices.
“Anything we can do to improve the quality of the fan experience — like with restrooms and concessions — is important,” Alleva said.
While LSU is awaiting conference schedules from the SEC office, associate athletic director Verge Ausberry is pressing ahead with nonconference scheduling.
LSU’s 2013 nonconference slate may provide a template for the coming years. LSU will play TCU, Southern Miss and Furman at home, with one nonconference game pending.
Though such a game may not happen next year, Alleva and Ausberry said LSU is looking to schedule more neutral site games like the 2011 Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas, against Oregon. Potential sites include Arlington, Atlanta, New Orleans and Houston’s Reliant Stadium.
LSU paid guarantees to Idaho, North Texas and Towson for them to play in Tiger Stadium. Of the three, Idaho received the largest guarantee at $925,000, followed by North Texas at $900,000 and Towson at $510,000.
Washington received no guarantee because it was returning a game LSU played in Seattle in 2009. In that case, both teams keep the revenues from their respective home games.