“It is what it is.”
The phrase that helped define the end of the Mack Brown era is now at least a little bit en vogue again as head coach Tom Herman discusses the non-conference scheduling for the Texas Longhorns.
Another application? The best-case description of how many in the fan base feel after the Horns suffer yet another debilitating non-conference loss.
On Saturday, Texas traveled to the East Coast and lost a second straight season opener against Maryland, highlighting a consistent issue over the last few seasons.
It also marked the first game of 11 this season against Power Five opponents. Only one other school in the country will finish this season having played such a rigorous schedule over the last two seasons.
“So it is what it is,” Herman said last Monday of noting that reality. “I’m not complaining, certainly. We can’t change it, so we might as well figure out a way to do it.”
Even if Herman claims that he isn’t complaining, he seems to be expressing an antipathy towards the type of scheduling that has defined the Texas non-conference schedule for years.
Opening game issues
As Mack Brown once said, “Opening games are hard. They scare you to death.”
While most college head coaches don’t subscribe to that level of public anxiety, there are legitimate reasons to schedule opening games carefully.
Preparation is especially difficult when facing programs that changed the head coach or coordinators during the offseason. Texas dealt with that on Saturday — the staff had to put together a potential Maryland offensive game plan based on Terrapins film under a previous offensive coordinator, vanilla spring game footage, and Canada’s schemes at various previous stops.
Had Texas scheduled a “guarantee” game to start the season, it’s likely that no circumstances, whether a change in head coach, a change in coordinators, or a horrific tragedy like that suffered by Maryland would be enough to put give that opponent a large enough edge to win.
There’s also the reality that players and coaches who waited an entire offseason to debut the new and improved versions of themselves have a tendency to press, an issue that Herman believes impacted the Longhorns on Saturday.
”I’m trying so hard to be perfect because they wanted this so bad and we have to find a way to relax our guys coming out of the tunnel and make sure we can play loose and not play so tight,” he said after the game. “We have to find a way to do that.”
The demise of the original Big 12
No small part of the desire to schedule at least one marquee non-conference opponent every season came about as a result of the conference dissolving around the Longhorns in the early part of this decade.
The program’s biggest in-state rival, Texas A&M, ended the annual conference grudge match by moving to the SEC for the 2012 season. A strong out-of-state rival created by the Big 12’s formation, Nebraska, departed for the Big Ten. The Horns and Huskers only played two out of every four years due to the division format at the time, but Texas was consistently able to beat Nebraska in key moments to bolster the program’s profile.
Even Missouri provided a handful of quality victories for Texas when Gary Pinkel’s program was at its apex.
With the Red River Showdown between Texas and Oklahoma played in the Cotton Bowl every season and the late November match up against Texas A&M gone, the calculation was that the home schedule needed a boost.
Another side effect of a conference with only ten teams? A round-robin conference schedule featuring nine games compared to the eight conference games in the SEC, for instance. And while Kansas has been good for wins in, ahem, nearly every season, there’s still a difference between a conference game and a “guarantee” game against a program like Northwestern State.
So not only did the move from 12 teams to 10 teams take away a non-conference game, it led to Texas adopting a more difficult non-conference schedule overall.
The fracturing of the original Big 12 also coincided with the downward turn of the Mack Brown era and the tenure of DeLoss Dodds as athletic director.
In 2013, the non-conference struggles began in earnest.
Even in relatively down seasons like the stretch from 2010 to 2012, Texas still swept the non-conference slate. The 2010 schedule, for instance, included Rice, Wyoming, and Florida Atlantic, all relatively easy anticipated wins when scheduled and a group of opponents that stands in stark contrast to more recent non-conference opponents.
Then things started to fall apart in 2013 — a rain-delayed game at BYU resulted in a disastrous 40-21 loss that ended the tenure of Manny Diaz as the defensive coordinator. The following week, Ole Miss came to Austin and put a 44-23 beatdown on Texas that accelerated the end of Brown’s time as the head coach.
The first year of the Charlie Strong era also featured two non-conference losses, as the Cougars demolished the Horns 41-7 before UCLA squeaked out a 20-17 victory that featured Texas deferring in the first and second half.
A trip to South Bend the following season resulted in yet another blowout and the end of Shawn Watson’s time as whatever it was exactly that he did for the offense. The botched game-tying extra point by Nick Rose against Cal two weeks later resulted in a different type of heartbreak.
The 2016 edition of Longhorns football under Strong made it 13 days of being back following the season-opening win over the Fighting Irish before a trip to Berkeley eroded all those hopes and dreams. Instead of demoting defensive coordinator Vance Bedford following that game, Strong stuck with his longtime assistant, only to do the deed following the season’s only bye week when the defense struggled against Oklahoma State.
And, of course, the start of Herman’s tenure also featured two non-conference losses — the devastating home loss to Maryland and the double-overtime defeat in Los Angeles against USC.
Add it all up and Texas hasn’t swept the non-conference slate since 2012, featuring a 6-10 record over that span.
All three non-conference opponents are set for the next two seasons. Next season features home games against Louisiana Tech, LSU, Rice, while 2020 features USF at home, LSU in Baton Rouge, and UTEP at home.
Two more home games against the Owls grace schedules further into the future, along with a road trip to Tampa to play the Bulls, plus a second home game against USF in 2024.
So there is still some room for athletics director Chris Del Conte and Herman to discuss opponents from 2021 onward.
Based on the recent results, the Longhorns should seriously consider adding a guarantee game to start each of those seasons until the point at which the program has proved that it’s stable enough a Power Five opponent for the opener.
Guarantee games are expensive
Other than wanting to provide fans with quality non-conference opponents, one potential consideration for the athletic department is the cost of securing easy victories every season.
According to USA Today Sports, the total income for the cannon fodder programs this season will top $175 million.
“More than 15 games this season will give the visiting team at least $1.4 million,” USA Today Sports found.
Those games keep on getting more expensive, too.
“The market just continues to go up,” Iowa athletics director Gary Barta said. “I’m hearing stories of other schools paying $2 million for games (in the future). You continue to wonder where the market is going to stop.”
So it’s not cheap to land those games.
However, the cost of losing multiple non-conference games over the course of is perhaps even more substantial — it depresses single-game ticket sales, makes fans with season tickets less likely to show up to games, reduces merchandise sales, and generally casts a pall over the program.
To adapt the phrase that started this column, the Texas program is what it is right now — incapable of consistently winning non-conference games against Power Five programs.
Until that changes, the scheduling philosophy should adapt to limit the exposure to early-season losses that derail entire seasons and make bowl eligibility much more difficult.