FSU grapples with scheduling dilemmas

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Jimbo Fisher used all the obvious cliches to sell the game to his players. He rattled off the stats about FCS teams pulling upsets over more prestigious competition and waxed poetic about the underrated skills of this week's competition. Players did their due diligence, too, insisting they prepare for every game like a national championship -- never mind that they're favored by nearly six touchdowns.

It's the usual early season dance in which the participants refuse to offer a hint of confidence, choosing instead to make the case for the infinitesimal possibility that Bethune-Cookman might upset mighty Florida State.

"We better be ready boy, or we'll get embarrassed," said Fisher, whose team just pummeled Nevada 62-7.

The stark reality of Florida State's schedule this season is that, in spite of Fisher's warnings, there's little box office cache for likely landslides, and selling tickets is the backbone of the athletics department's revenue stream.

That's one of the challenges for new athletics director Stan Wilcox. On the job for only a month, his philosophy on filling out future schedules is hardly written in stone, but the potential pitfalls are a prime topic of discussion.

"I am new to Florida State but I’m not new to the challenges of scheduling that each FBS school faces these days," Wilcox said. "I do know that we have been actively engaging in discussions with major programs for games that will be very appealing to the fans, but the reality is that until everything is adjusted and final, it is not appropriate to provide specific discussions."

FSU understands the messy formula of future scheduling well. Last year, West Virginia welched on a home-and-home deal at the last minute, leaving the Seminoles scrambling for a replacement. The result was back-to-back games against FCS foes to open the season with FSU winning by a combined score of 124-3.

The fallout from that decision trickled into 2013, too. It's a convoluted storyline that involved Nevada pushing for an exit strategy of its own, Idaho stepping in at the last minute, and a quirk in the scheduling that left FSU with a date that needed to be filled and a paycheck Bethune-Cookman was happy to cash in exchange for a potentially ugly loss in Tallahassee.

The future schedule remains in flux, too. Florida State has contacts in place for a handful of nonconference dates in future years, including home-and-homes with USF and Boise State, along with Notre Dame as part of the ACC's new agreement with the Fighting Irish. Wilcox said few items are set in stone.

"Signed contracts don’t assure that games are going to be played any more," he said.

Notre Dame will make its first trip to Tallahassee since 2002 next year, when Florida State's schedule promises to be one of the most difficult in the nation. The Seminoles open with a neutral-site game against Oklahoma State, while facing Notre Dame and Florida in nonconference play, along with marquee ACC games against Miami, Louisville and Clemson.

That slate has already piqued interest among fans, many of whom have purchased season tickets for this year as a means of assuring access to those big games in 2014. Big nonconference games drive ticket sales and donations, which makes scheduling a key piece of the revenue puzzle.

"Being thought leaders in how to fill a stadium and how to schedule to where it's an attractive schedule for the customer, that's really important," said Jerry Kutz, vice president of marketing and communications for Seminole Boosters, during Florida State's AD search this summer.

Even the emergence of freshman phenom Jameis Winston wasn't enough to sell out Doak Campbell Stadium for his home debut. Fisher penned a letter to fans urging them to eschew their high-definition TVs in favor of the game day experience, but it's tough to convince fans to shell out hundreds of dollars for a seat in the stands when their couch is both more comfortable and less expensive. The school has hyped the return of Bobby Bowden for two games later this season -- NC State and Syracuse -- as both an opportunity to honor the former coach and a way of putting fans in the seats for games in which Florida State figures to be heavily favored.

So Wilcox will begin laying out a plan to address those concerns after meeting with the Florida State board of trustees next month, but practical limitations mean any large-scale changes to the current philosophy will be difficult.

Florida State needs the added revenue of a seventh home game, and with a regularly scheduled home-and-home series against Florida, one nonconference road date is already accounted for every other season. Add in a continuously shifting conference landscape, and the options get even trickier.

"Like most schools, we at FSU don’t have the luxury of having a sequence of back-to-back years or even every other year openings in our schedule, which makes finding a home-and-home series extremely difficult in the near future," Wilcox said. "Given that, you must schedule teams that are willing to make trips to Tallahassee without a return game or vice versa."

One potential workaround for Florida State is neutral-site kickoff games, like the one they'll play against Oklahoma State in Dallas next season. Typically those games attract large crowds, and unlike a normal road date, the revenue is split evenly between the two schools.

Former AD Randy Spetman suggested a kickoff game in Atlanta against Georgia was in the works before he was reassigned this summer, and while that game now seems less likely to happen, Wilcox said the school continues to explore other neutral-site contests.

"We are actively engaged in talks with several neutral site venues and the conference office to schedule some games in the near future with FBS schools, but nothing that I can comment on at this time," Wilcox said. "We explored very thoroughly the possibility of a neutral-site game in Atlanta in the very near future, but it did not come together."

Fisher said he hasn't discussed scheduling with Wilcox yet, but anticipates it will be a point of emphasis in the near future. Fisher said he'd like to see FSU continue to schedule one "significant game" every year out of conference, in addition to Florida.

But even if Florida State wants to play other marquee games, finding willing partners is increasingly difficult as conferences adjust their priorities, too. The SEC is considering a move to a nine-game conference slate. The Big Ten announced it will no longer play FCS foes. Notre Dame's partial membership in the ACC adds a new wrinkle, and the new playoff system, in which four teams will have a shot at the national title, could make scheduling more competitive or, perhaps, increase the rewards for teams that avoid a loss by skipping out on particularly daunting challenges.

While the future schedules remain a mystery, Fisher said he anticipates a push toward better competition.

"I think strength of schedule is going to be very important in what you do," Fisher said.