"And now, people start to get interested," says Walden. "All they notice is that you're winning seven, eight games a year. The bowl people start to bring you along, your players start to get better, recruiting gets better. No one looks back and says, 'Who did you beat in 1984?' No one person can tell you who was on my schedule in '81 when we went 8-2-1. Not a soul."
Of course, the only loser is college football itself. The games stink.
Exactly how much rivalry simmers in a clash between Auburn and Western Carolina? How many thrills does an Auburn fan get by watching his heroes beat Western Carolina 55-6, as they did last month? An Auburn fan will watch the Tigers play the Coast Guard Academy if he has to, but when he also has to sit through UT-Chattanooga (42-14), Cincinnati (52-7) and (you guessed it) East Carolina (45-0) in one season, he starts bringing a good book. You think Auburn fans were a little disappointed to hear that their beloveds were supposed to play Penn State this year before the Nittany Lions dropped them?
Some coaches don't cotton to bake-sale scheduling. "I don't believe in teams playing one or two easier teams early to try to build up a record and get a bowl bid," says Colorado's Bill McCartney. McCartney put his schedule where his mouth was this year and paid for it. Had the Buffaloes not lost nonconference games to Ohio State and Arizona (both by three points), they would be 7-3 instead of 5-5. Compare Colorado's season, which includes wins over Nebraska and Oklahoma State, with 8-2 Auburn's. Which school do you think will get the better bowl bid?
Texas A & M coach Jackie Sherrill says that if the quality of games is going to get any better, the poll voters will have to start paying attention. "As a voter [in the UPI poll], I give a lot of consideration to a team's opponents," he says. "I also take note when teams have not played anybody. So far, Miami has made its entire season on one game."
Ouch. That's not going to sit well with Hurricane coach Jimmy Johnson. "Anybody that's an independent is going to be accused of having an easy schedule," Johnson says. "Everybody complained about us playing Texas Tech, which we beat 61-11. But nobody complains about Texas A & M playing Texas Tech, because it's a conference game."
Johnson's point is that conference members have even easier schedules than he does. Take Michigan, he says: "They start with Notre Dame, which is down. Then Oregon State. Puhleeeze. O.K., Florida State, good team. Wisconsin, they had just come off losses to Las Vegas and Hawaii. Michigan State, O.K. Iowa, having a good year. Then you've got Indiana, perennial Big Ten power. Illinois, having a great year, and Purdue's another one having a fantastic, bang-up year. Minnesota's another perennial power, then you go to Ohio State, who's down. Then you finish up with Hawaii, for crying out loud." Johnson's handicapping may not be so hot—the Wolverines couldn't get by Minnesota on Saturday (page 59) and Ohio State may not be so far down after all—but you see what he's trying to say.
In Miami's defense, getting a schedule together is not so easy these days. Nobody wants the Hurricanes anymore, because they're too bloody good. Moreover, unlike other powerhouses, Miami usually doesn't sell out (Oklahoma couldn't even fill the Orange Bowl), which means that you're not even going to get paid well for getting the bejesus knocked out of you. Florida is Miami's oldest enemy. The two teams have played every year since 1938 except for 1943. Forget all that. After next season the Gators will play the Hurricanes only twice every six years. Florida president Marshall Criser explains that playing Miami, Florida State, Auburn and Georgia every year is an honor that "we don't need bestowed upon us." With its '87 menu, Miami doesn't have a lot of room to gripe.
As long as there are East Carolinas out there willing to go anywhere at anytime to get their faces refitted for a big paycheck, bake-sale scheduling will continue to spread. The have-nots, with small stadiums and nobody in them, need the big one-time payday from the haves to keep their athletic departments breathing. "The Washington States of this world go to Michigan, go to Tennessee, go to Ohio State as sacrificial lambs," says Walden. "We're being paid to come in and get our brains knocked out. And that's what it takes to balance a budget. There are 40 schools in this country who don't understand what we're saying. They've never been a have-not. All they know is, when they say, 'Give me a plane,' somebody starts an engine."
The people getting abused in these mercenary missions aren't athletic directors. They're players. "A kid goes down and plays two big powers in a row," says ESPN's Beano Cook. "Then, when it's time for the kid to come home and play somebody on his own level, he's too beat-up to play well, and he loses. It's unfair to the kid."