N.C. State began the college football season in the Georgia Dome, in a raucous environment against Tennessee. Duke last week traveled to Stanford.
And now it’s North Carolina’s turn to play its most difficult nonconference game, which comes Saturday at No. 19 Louisville. The Tar Heels’ schedule was already set when first-year coach Larry Fedora arrived in January, and the Heels’ first significant non-conference test comes perhaps a bit earlier than Fedora would prefer.
“(You would like) to get your program established, but it is what it is,” Fedora said of playing the Cardinals, who are the favorites to win the Big East. “But the great opportunity is it gives you an opportunity for the football team to play a ranked opponent to find out where you are, and how you measure up and what you need to do to get better.”
That’s what the game against Tennessee provided for N.C. State. And what the game against Stanford provided for Duke.
Saturday’s schedule is expected to challenge the Tar Heels but bring some relief to the Wolfpack and Blue Devils. It also represents three available scheduling options. The Heels face a BCS opponent, while N.C. State hosts South Alabama, an FBS team from the Sun Belt Conference. Duke, meanwhile, hosts N.C. Central of the FCS.
As teams schedule opponents with an eye toward qualifying for a bowl, the key, coaches say, is mixing winnable games with those that provide a stiffer test. In the past three-plus seasons, the three Triangle schools are 22-4 against teams not in a BCS conference, including 12-2 against FCS teams.
Last season, three of N.C. State’s seven regular-season victories were against non-BCS teams. UNC had two such victories as part of its seven-win season. Those victories helped both reach bowl games.
Among the three local ACC schools, N.C. State follows the most common nonconference scheduling format in the ACC this season. The Wolfpack’s schedule includes two teams from BCS conferences, one lower-level FBS team and one FCS team. Five other ACC schools, including Wake Forest, follow that format.
Duke and UNC, meanwhile, are two of three conference teams – Georgia Tech is the other – that play just one nonconference game against a BCS opponent. The Tar Heels beat Elon and will play ECU and Idaho.
“It’s pretty popular and reasonable to have a I-AA opponent,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said, referring to FCS teams. “I love this game (against N.C. Central). If we’re going to pay someone as a I-AA opponent to come to our stadium, I think it should be someone that matters. That’s an important part of this classic.”
Building the puzzle
In some ways, constructing a nonconference schedule is like putting puzzle pieces together – and that puzzle is likely to become more difficult next season for ACC teams, which for the first time will play nine conference games.
That will leave just three nonconference games, and some – such as Florida State’s annual meeting with Florida, and Clemson’s annual game against South Carolina – are spoken for.
“You’re talking three games ... and now, evidently, one out of every three years you’re going to have Notre Dame on your schedule,” Fedora said while explaining his scheduling philosophy. “So to me, you’re looking at one of those three games needs to be a good FBS opponent …
“So if you go with a home-and-home with an FBS opponent, a good strong opponent, then you’re going to be restricted on the other two games.”
Fewer games could mean fewer home games, which is less than ideal.
“I think the first thing that you want to do is make sure you have enough home games,” N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien. “… It’s still better if you can be seven [home games] and five [away]. I think one year we had eight home games. If you can do that – you know, those days are getting more difficult to do.”
As Cutcliffe said earlier this week, nonconference scheduling philosophies are “different everywhere for different reasons.”
In some ways, Duke this season might be playing an ideal version of Cutcliffe’s preferred non-conference schedule. The Blue Devils opened with FIU, a bowl-caliber team from a lower-tier FBS conference, and then tested themselves at Stanford last week. N.C. Central and Memphis, a program trying to build a foundation, complete Duke’s schedule.
“People in similar circumstances to what we’re in, if you can find the right home-and-home series – we’ve got Memphis, that’s trying to build a program, we’ve had Tulane that’s trying to build a program – I think that’s reasonable right now,” Cutcliffe said.
Fedora also endorses the idea of playing local FCS teams. The Tar Heels hosted Elon to begin the season.
Despite the relative short distance between the schools, about 40 miles, UNC and Elon had never played.
“If you’re going to play an FCS team a year, then I would much rather prefer a local FCS team,” Fedora said. “That would be my idea – somebody that’s in the area, preferably in the state.”
When is key, too
In addition to preferences for the location of nonconference teams, some coaches have preferences for timing.
O’Brien prefers that N.C. State complete its nonconference schedule before playing a conference game, which is what the Wolfpack will do this season.
“I like the way we worked out this year,” O’Brien said, “when you play all of your non-conference games in September, kind of the way the Big Ten has always done. And then you get into your conference play.”
Things will change next season, and beyond, when the nonconference schedule shrinks – and then grows even smaller in some years with the addition of Notre Dame. Some ACC teams will play five home conference games, and some will play four – another wrinkle that could make nonconference scheduling more difficult.
“The nine-game (conference schedule), we were an odd game when I was at Boston College in the Big East,” O’Brien said. “It creates, I think, scheduling hardships, trying to make sure that you can keep the home rotation – so you can keep six and don’t get caught some years with five home games.”
Staff writer Laura Keeley contributed to this story.