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October 6, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU schedule could get tougher

MORGANTOWN — It was midday Tuesday, a football Tuesday, and that meant that Bill Stewart put away his sweat-soaked coaching shirt and traded it in for a neatly pressed dress shirt that would make it look more like he was a TV game show host than a football coach as he held his weekly televised press gathering.

On this week, the final non-conference week of the season with UNLV listed as the opponent, one fact about the Runnin’ Rebels was reoccurring and that was that this was a team that had already played three top 25 opponents and in West Virginia would be facing a fourth which had lived in that high-rent district this year.

Even the idea that they had lost all of those games could not take away from the fact that this team under new coach Bobby Hauck had played an ambitious schedule. It was almost like having money in the bank, if not victories, for at least they were testing themselves against the best they could get.

If only West Virginia could say the same thing.

For whatever reason, top line college football teams like WVU tend not to challenge themselves too often, operating under the belief that their fans want not the best, most competitive football they can see but want only victories.

If it happens to be a victory against Miss Fifi’s School for Girls instead of against Missouri or Kansas, so be it, for schools now have come to the conclusion that their alumni and fans want to guarantee enough victories to qualify for a bowl.

You see it every week, major colleges selling their souls to schedule for success.

In truth, if TV didn’t demand challenging inter-conference matchups such as WVU and LSU or Pitt and Utah, you would almost certainly see teams playing a succession of Florida International’s and Coastal Carolinas, building up gaudy statistics, winning records and landing lucrative bowl bids without so much as being tested outside their own league.

To West Virginia’s credit, it did schedule LSU and has played Auburn over the past few years, having also a home-and-home series with Colorado while Maryland went off played some western teams for a couple of years.

But it is highly possible the Mountaineers could go this entire season — considering the performance by the Big East to date — without facing a Top 25 team other than LSU.

West Virginia Coach Bill Stewart believes the Big East will rebound once it gets into conference play and land some teams in the Top 25.

“If we take care of business … Pitt, UConn, Cincinnati are getting better,” Stewart said.

If, however, they go and beat up on each other without anyone stringing victories together and emerging as a power, the Big East could conceivably have only one, or even no Top 25 teams.

Part of this is scheduling, for the way they schedule in college ball today is the equivalent of the New York Yankees playing maybe a third of its games against International League competition or the NFL teams playing four games against college teams.

What makes a sporting event interesting is the idea of competition, that both teams have a chance to win. That is what the NFL built its entire premise on, equal competition. It shared revenues, used a draft to spread talent throughout and tried to build in a situation where almost everyone was a .500 team.

If you happened to become one of the better teams in the league, you would find your schedule the next year to be tougher than that of the other teams in your division.

In college, it works almost the opposite way … and it isn’t always the fault of the good team.

West Virginia, for example, would love to upgrade its schedule and probably will under Oliver Luck, who already has arranged a matchup in Washington, D.C., with BYU, once a national champion. It is a big money game and a game that could draw national interest if WVU holds its own over the years and BYU returns to prominence.

Ideally West Virginia would like to be playing such teams as Maryland, Virginia and Virginia Tech, to be facing a Kentucky or, on occasion, an Ohio State, teams that are easy for their fans to get to, that figure to be tough, competitive matches and that can help in the area where the Mountaineers recruit.

Games against North Carolina or N.C. State are far more attractive than playing Coastal Carolina and offer so much more when you win them, even though you won’t win them every season.

The problem is many of these teams won’t play West Virginia because they would rather play a patsy at home and pad their record rather than take a chance on a tough game unless national television is offering a bigger payday.

So, WVU winds up playing a rebuilding UNLV team, a team that can’t afford to turn the game down but knows that it really isn’t even in its best interest to play.

“When you’re trying to build things, it’s difficult to play the type of schedule we’ve played. It’s physically hard on our team, that’s for sure,” Hauck said.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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