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Scheduling early conference games makes sense for Big 12

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Big 12 fans will enjoy a rare treat this weekend when Texas and Texas Tech meet.

The conference’s schedule makers have delivered an appealing conference game early in the season for a change. It’s an extreme rarity as Saturday’s game in Austin will be the earliest conference game in more than six years. You have to go back to the Nebraska-Oklahoma State season opener on Aug. 30, 2003, to see when a Big 12 conference game was played earlier in the season.

There are two different schools of thought as to the benefits of this scheduling idea.

Proponents say that playing a game early guarantees attention. And the television networks obviously are interested as the Texas-Texas Tech will be broadcast to a national television audience in prime time, along with a Game Day visit earlier in the day.

But others -- including most coaches -- wonder if pushing the conference race up several weeks will cause injuries and hurt teams by forcing them into a tougher game earlier in the schedule with lessened preparation time.

“There’s so much to be said for starting fast and keeping guys healthy and keeping your attitude going,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said. “When you have a setback, you’ve got to recover.”

Texas coach Mack Brown isn’t sure if he likes the idea of playing the Red Raiders early in the season or not.

“I’ll tell you at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday,” he said.

But even if the Longhorns should face challenges in the game, other benefits far outweigh the concerns.

“Most high-school players are watching this game and anytime you can get Game Day to come, it’s important. Those national television windows are hard to come by,” Brown said. “Everybody who likes football across the country will be watching this game.”

For a conference still scrambling to build national awareness, it sometimes takes some out-of-the-box thinking to help boost that appeal.

Playing early conference games is done in other conferences. Look at the attention that the Atlantic Coast Conference received when the Florida State-Miami was played in prime-time last Monday night. The Southeastern Conference benefited from a pulsating Georgia-South Carolina game on Saturday night.

The Big 12 used to think that way in the formative stages of the league. Who can forget that the conference started with national television broadcasts its first week of play in 1996 when Kansas State faced Texas Tech and Missouri traveled to Texas.

We did see some misguided scheduling ideas that didn’t work early in the conference’s history, namely like seeing Missouri and Kansas play in September. But that was before the athletic departments at both schools saw the value of moving that game to Kansas City and moving it late in the season for fan appeal.

But sprinkling in some early nonconference games is a good idea. It doesn’t have to be anything too widespread. I’m in favor of one conference game each week after the season opener.

By doing that, it will hopefully alleviate the logjam of several good conference games being played on the same day in October and November.

And with more conference teams appearing less-than-willing to play strong nonconference games, it would be a way to put some meat in all weeks of the Big 12’s playing schedule.

Because looking games that were played last week and will be played on Sept. 26, the Big 12 could use all the help it can get for some watchable matchups on those dates.

Here’s a look at when the Big 12 kicked off conference play each season in the league’s history:

2009: Sept. 19

2008: Oct. 4

2007: Sept. 22

2006: Sept. 23

2005: Oct. 1

2004: Sept. 25

2003: Aug. 30

2002: Aug. 31

2001: Sept. 22

2000: Sept. 30

1999: Sept. 18

1998: Sept. 12

1997: Aug. 30

1996: Aug. 31