John Blanchette: Future WSU football schedules built for wins
Fri., Sept. 4, 2015
The gesture by Washington State to make complimentary – just the right word – tickets to the Cougars’ football opener Saturday available to area firefighters is dialed in, generous and noble. And, yes, the obvious fact that a surplus of tickets remain unsold made the opportunity possible. Hey, it’s still Labor Day weekend in lake country. The opponent is still Portland State. College football is still an outing in Pullman and not a religion as in Columbus or College Station. And until any rebuttal testimony can be mounted as the season evolves, these are still the Cougars who have been armpit deep in mediocrity for a decade. Familiar stuff, yes. The Cougars can remake themselves with a top-dollar coach and a top-drawer operations plant but some challenges won’t go away. Schedule appeal, for instance. As long as the Pac-12 remains the unforgiving competitive hang it has always imagined itself to be, September should be the least interesting part of a WSU schedule. And the presence of an FCS team on the lineup card is something the Cougar constituency long ago accepted – besides, everyone does it now. What may have sent the devotees into a collective “Huh?” the other day was word that athletic director Bill Moos had arranged a two-game series with Central Michigan that begins in 2019 with the Cougars playing in Mount Pleasant. At Central Michigan? Really. The head scratching may have lasted all the way until the TV flickered on Thursday night to reveal Oklahoma State playing at CMU. And then a click of the remote showed Michigan State opening its season at Western Michigan. What in the name of Amos Alonzo Powerfive is going on here? Well, rationales and mileage will vary from school to school, but Moos allows that some new realities have bent his approach to scheduling. His old ideal: the A-B-C model. A Power 5 opponent for prestige or pay, a Mountain West or old WAC opponent (“maybe a 2-for-1, or maybe even buying that game,” he said) for a decent test and a purchased win over an FCS school. But after Rutgers next week, there’s not a Power 5 out-of-conference opponent on the WSU schedule until a home-and-home with Wisconsin starts in 2022 – though, no, Boise State and BYU in upcoming years aren’t stiffs. There are, instead, a lot of Idahos, San Jose States and Wyomings, and more to come. “I’ll tell you why – we want to have as many home games as we can,” said Moos, who has seven lined up in 2016-18. “And anymore, to pay for an opponent to come play here is anywhere from $500,000 to $800,000 – and that includes Idaho eight miles away wanting $800,000. Which I can understand, when they’re getting seven figures to go to Auburn and USC.” “If we have to pay that, we could lose money in a home game.” Better, he said, to schedule home-and-home with a Central Michigan, swap expense checks and figure the odds are still with you to win both games. And it’s not just the Cougs with their 33,000-seat stadium finessing such dates, as has been pointed out. Wyoming has managed to finagle return series with Oregon, Missouri and Texas, Moos said. “When did you and I in all of our starry-eyed years think Texas would be playing in Laramie?” he laughed. Not that Cougar fans were getting a Texas or Missouri in Pullman. The great promise of the Seattle game was a chance to get big-name opponents at least inside state lines, and a couple Big 12 teams did bite. But when Moos had to resort to playing Pac-12 games at CenturyLink Field, the promise had petered out. Moos did manage a minor coup in salvaging the Wisconsin series by pushing it ahead when the Badgers “were going to pull the plug” – and getting the buyout upped from $300,000 to $1 million. But in the end, getting the prestige home game season ticket holders might have coveted for decades isn’t much of a priority, beyond the possibility. “What I want is getting to that six-win figure and getting into the post-season – that’s where we need to be,” said Moos. “When you put a pencil to it, if you’re in a bowl game every year, a fifth-year senior will have an entire extra season of practice, and that’s what develops your program.” And strength of schedule helps not a whit. For a primer, just check out Cougar coach Mike Leach’s history. He got Texas Tech into the Big 12 and even the national conversation, yet more than half the time his teams didn’t finish above .500 in league. But he was 31-6 out-of-conference on a diet of soft food – and sometimes two FCS opponents in a year. “Mike likes that Kansas State approach,” Moos said, “where you’ve got a chance going through the early part of the schedule to get three wins, and you’re halfway to a bowl.” Which is not to say Leach and Moos think going 3-6 in the Pac-12 is good enough. But sometimes, good enough is good enough.
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