College football, in this first season of the playoff era, has never been more split down the middle.
On one side stands the Power 5: SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Notre Dame. On the other, the Group of 5: AAC, MAC, Conference-USA, Sun Belt, Mountain West and other independents.
With autonomy upon us, the chasm promises to grow. And in coming years, undoubtedly, you’ll see fewer Power 5 teams go on the road to play Group of 5 schools.
This season, there are 27 such contests. Already, of the 13 played in Weeks 1 and 2, seven were decided by eight points or fewer – close shaves like Arizona 26, UTSA 23 and Colorado 41, UMass 38, which leave you to wonder why major-conference schools consider such scheduling tactics.
On Saturday, Nebraska visits Fresno State in what rates as maybe the most difficult of all to justify. Yes, it was planned back in 2008, and the Huskers got two home games from Fresno in return.
But little upside exists for Bo Pelini’s team, and the potential for trouble is high.
Most of the 27 games fit into one of two categories -- sometimes both -- to explain their inclusion on the schedule:
Regional significance. Oklahoma’s visit to Tulsa last week generated goodwill within the state and drew a sizeable fan following for the visitor. Other games like this include Arizona State at New Mexico, Indiana at Bowling Green, North Carolina at East Carolina, Texas A&M at SMU, TCU at SMU and Texas Tech at UTEP.
Recruiting. Power 5-at-Group of 5 games are often scheduled to strengthen pipelines or establish connections in talent-rich areas. This explains Louisville and Pittsburgh at Florida International, Maryland and NC State at South Florida, Mississippi State at South Alabama, Georgia Tech at Tulane, Rutgers at Navy and, to perhaps a lesser extent, Missouri at Toledo.
Washington and Oregon State both squeaked past Hawaii this month. No further details required.
That leaves 10 games: Wake Forest, a football lightweight amid the ACC, lost at Louisiana-Monroe and plays at Utah State; Virginia plays at BYU, a heavyweight amid the independents. For no good reason, Washington State went to Nevada and lost. Similarly, you’ve got Duke at Troy, Syracuse at Central Michigan, Baylor at Buffalo and the aforementioned Arizona-UTSA and Colorado-UMass perplexities.
So why does Nebraska-Fresno State stand out? Because it’s Nebraska, which outranks all of the above Power 5 schools -- aside from Oklahoma, A&M and Washington -- by a solid margin in financial resources and history.
It’s like Texas playing at Wyoming, which happened five years ago as part of another two-for-one.
Moreover, these Bulldogs, after an 0-2 start on the road, are some kind of a different animal at home. Fresno State has won 13 straight games at Bulldog Stadium, the second-longest home streak nationally.
It is 13-0 in night games over the past two years. Saturday’s kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. in California -- 9:30 on Nebraska clocks. And these trends are nothing new. From 1998 to 2013, Fresno hosted 11 BCS conference teams and won eight times.
But it’s California, I’ve heard, where Nebraska invests in recruiting. Recent visits to USC and UCLA offered great exposure. Look at a map; Fresno doesn’t register to prospects in the state’s heavily populated areas.
Pelini says the Huskers will be prepared for the trap environment, that they’ve given great consideration to the challenges of this trip. They’re practicing in Lincoln on Friday and arriving later than usual out West to stay on schedule in hopes that the odd circumstances don’t mess with the routine.
Nebraska's future schedule features home-and-home series with Miami, starting next week, Oregon, Colorado, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Credit the Huskers for their willingness to venture off course in scheduling. But if it gets hairy on Saturday night, they should have known what to expect.