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The Art Of College Football Scheduling (And How Cal Ended Up With Presbyterian)

(For more on the economics of college football scheduling, check out this impressive research by Dr. Robert Zullo.)

Let me tell you a story about the California Golden Bears and the Presbyterian Blue Hose, and the long and winding trip they took to setup their now legendary matchup this September 17th.

So Cal football head coach Jeff Tedford, and Athletic Director Sandy Barbour knew around 2009 that they would be spending the 2011 season away from Memorial Stadium while the whole place got torn apart. That leaves them with about a year and a half window to fill in two non-conference slots, which sounds a lot harder than it looks.

And it's about to get harder, because they can't fill them in yet. Why?

Well, for starters, they don't know where they're playing! It will be one of three places: AT&T Park, Candlestick, or the Coliseum. Each place has its own set of pros and cons, but the biggest problem is that both house pro football and baseball teams. So they can't schedule opponents because they're not certain whether it'll conflict with the home team's schedules. Another year passes and the window grows narrower.

We find out it's AT&T Park in the spring of 2010. Hurray! But wait, that means we have to wait for the Giants to announce their home schedule before we can figure out who and when to schedule. So now we have to wait until the WINTER to set up our two remaining non-conference games, eliminating another set of potential lower FBS/West Coast FCS opponents.

A month or two later..

WHAAAAA? Larry Scott created the Pac-12? Right now? But that means we have a road date with Colorado that's up in the air! So now Colorado is getting cold feet about playing a non-conference game with us in Boulder, meaning we have to deal with this flare-up and get this settled down or get stuck with yet ANOTHER last minute scheduling frenzy. That still hasn't been fully settled, although it's been widely speculated this is our road OOC game next season.

So Cal doesn't have many FBS opportunities left. We're left with a school like Fresno State, and since no Cal fan ever wants to travel to Fresno for a road game ever again in our lifetimes, we get a neutral site game in Candlestick. But it has to be the first week because of the possibility of the NFL season kicking off the week after that. Now we're down to two weeks to fix up.

THEN we have to deal with the Pac-12 championship game, which eliminates one extra bye week and gives us even LESS flexibility in scheduling. At this point our options are narrowing to a handful of teams, none of them at all appealing.

There is the option of TCU, although it's not much of an option, since it pretty much means we lose another home game to play a neutral site game since the Horned Frogs want the game to be in Dallas a la Oregon State-TCU last year. And even if TCU wanted to come to AT&T, do we really want to sacrifice a solid home date with an upper tier opponent when we can instead invite them into the new and always intimidating Memorial?

Plus we don't know about all the good teams that turned down a home game with us because at this point, beating Cal isn't as prestigious as it once was and losing to them would be embarrassing for our program, or the teams Cal turned down because they didn't want to waste a home date with a strong opponent in a ballpark known for the Freak and the Machine rather than Beast Mode and Pain Train. More importantly, if it was a big road opponent, you'd almost certainly want to play them in Memorial and maximize ticket sales rather than waste it on a stadium half its size.

The Bears also know that they're boxed into September 17th as the home date with the Giants playing at home the week before and the Candlestick matchup already locked in for September 3rd. With the schedules of all the potential lowly Western opponents already filled up, there aren't many places left to turn...

Long story short, this is how Cal ends up scheduling Presbyterian. A little bit more complex than you thought it would be, huh?

Cal did not want to schedule Presbyterian. They had to schedule Presbyterian because there was barely anyone left thanks to this incredible series of unfortunate events. Do you really think Jeff Tedford and Sandy Barbour have suddenly become cowards, with Ohio State and Texas looming for grueling home-and-homes and with previous matchups with Tennessee and Michigan State already hanging under our belt? The game is way more complex than you think it is.

So laugh at us, Nelson Muntzes.  But if you're going to laugh at Cal, you might as well laugh at Oregon, who scheduled the lovely 5-6 Missouri State. Why are the Ducks wasting their time with paltry opponent X when they have the best home field advantage in the entire Pac-12 and have attracted plenty of high-profile teams in the past? Anyone checked Florida's schedule lately and their high-stakes November matchup with Furman? Or the national champions dialing up 4-7 Samford for an Iron Bowl tuneup as their eighth home game of the season?

(Quick tangent, trivia question: Want to know the last non-conference opponent the Gators scheduled that WASN'T in the state of Florida? Answer: Syracuse. IN 1991. They lost 38-21.)

So get off your high horse. This is the first time in a long time the Bears have had to go outside the West Coast for one of these type of contests. It's not embarrassing, it's unfortunate. If you really feel this disenchanted about this type of contest, then burn your Cal gear and go grab your Niner/Raider gear and suit up and take a long wait for the NFL season to kickoff. Cal playing Presbyterian isn't any worse than previous contests against UC Davis or Sacramento State.

Besides, we have bigger fish to fry. Like how our football team will rebound from their most disappointing season in over a decade. Winning cures all.

Stringer Bell: Yo, get it straight, your territory ain't going to mean shit if your product is weak.

So let's focus on the things that matter, like how Cal's offense is going to function without Shane Vereen and how the defense is going to manage a good pass rush. Stop worrying that people are going to think we'll look like "some punk-ass bitches" on 9/17, because you're afraid people you've never heard of on the radio or on the Internet are going to call our school bad names and fill you with "shame".

Because if things go according to plan, no one's going to remember anything about Presbyterian if Cal has a successful football season. Accept this season as the perfect storm and let's see if we can ride it out.