Biting off more than U can chew

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

The U football team’s weak schedule in 2004 was one of the major arguments used by BCS purists for why Utah didn’t belong in a big-money bowl.

They had a point. The Utes steamrolled everybody that year, but because the Utes’ schedule featured several so-called cupcakes and no ranked teams, their schedule was considered weak.

And it came back to bite them when the Utes weren’t deemed worthy of taking on one of the top teams in the country in the Fiesta Bowl and instead had to settle for a less formidable opponent in Pittsburgh.

This year, strength of schedule won’t be a problem. In fact, with potential top-25 teams such as Louisville, Oregon State, UCLA and TCU looming, the Utes may be in over their heads.

“We may have overscheduled a bit this year,” head coach Kyle Whittingham said.

According to Whittingham, there are two schools of thought that coaches use when deciding which opponents to schedule.

On one hand, there are coaches who theorize that playing a difficult non-conference lineup will better prepare a team for the crucial league schedule more so than, say, a game against Northern Arizona.

On the other hand, there are coaches who’d rather play it safe and schedule wins. While a victory over Utah State is practically a sure thing, it still earns teams the same notch in the win column that a victory over Ohio State would, and enables teams to inch a little closer to the crucial six-win mark — the minimum needed for a bowl-game invitation.

Whittingham’s own stance falls somewhere in the middle, although he doesn’t believe that strength of schedule is the all-important factor that many believe it is, especially for a team in the Mountain West Conference.

“If you’re in a smaller conference, you have to run the table to go to a BCS bowl — or at the most, lose one game,” Whittingham said.

In other words, if the Utes go undefeated, they’re headed back to the BCS spotlight regardless of their schedule. But even one loss would almost certainly keep Utah out of one of the five coveted bowls. With three tough non-conference teams on the itinerary, the feat becomes immensely difficult.

But scheduling isn’t an exact science. Games are often arranged five to seven years in advance.

“It’s tough to predict how good or bad these teams will be once we finally get around to playing them,” Whittingham said.

While the Utes had no clue what kind of an opponent they would be facing when they scheduled UCLA and Oregon State, they had a pretty good idea what they were up against when they made a deal to play two games over the next two years against Louisville.

Louisville was scheduled on short notice after the NCAA added a twelfth game to the Division I-A college football season starting in 2005.

Despite what your opinion is — whether you’ll take wins in whatever form presents itself or you wouldn’t mind seeing the Utes go up against the Denver Broncos for the sake of experience — it’s undeniable that Utah has signed up for a heavy course load this fall.

There is, however, one non-conference game that hasn’t yet been mentioned — and it might offer worried fans a bit of relief.

On Sept. 29, Utah State will pay a visit to Rice-Eccles Stadium for the annual “Battle of the Brothers.” The CBS SportsLine 119, which ranks every Division I-A team in the nation, has listed the Aggies at No. 116.

Maybe the Utes should find out if they can play them twice.

[email protected]