Take A Cue From Tennessee

By Adam Caparell - April 01, 2008

While some schools avoid those early season non-conference showcase matchups like the plague - think 80 percent of the Big Ten - give Tennessee credit. The Vols have a built in excuse to play a soft non-conference schedule before their SEC slate kicks in, but they'd rather not take it easy.

While we all knew Tennessee was traveling out west to face UCLA early this season, the Vols announced Tuesday that they're switching the dates and times of their season opener and now will face UCLA in the Rose Bowl for a nationally televised game on Labor Day night.

Another year, another early season showdown for the Vols. Over the past few seasons we've seen Tennessee take on Cal (2006, 2007), Syracuse (2001, 1998) and Fresno State (2003) - also should note the two mid-season meetings with Notre Dame in 2004 and 2005. And in the future the Vols will be playing what figures to be some very intriguing - and equally difficult - home-and-home series with Oregon (2010, 2013), North Carolina (2011, 2012), Oklahoma (2014, 2015), Nebraska (2016, 2017) and Ohio State (2018, 2019).

Thinking about those prospective matchups gets you excited. But of course Tennessee isn't the only school playing some tough non-conference slates this year or over the coming years. USC and Fresno State are two teams that historically have played a number of difficult early season games along with Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Nebraska to name just a few. For the most part, a good majority of teams from the BCS conferences plays at least one difficult early season non-conference game. But there are certainly exceptions to the rule.

Aside from the top few teams in the Big Ten - and don't automatically put Ohio State in that group for the sake of this discussion - the conference generally plays a soft early season schedule along with some SEC teams who will tell you the SEC schedule is so difficult that there's no reason why they should go out and schedule those headlining matchups.

There are plenty of Big East and Big 12 culprits as well. Rutgers has been one of the worst offenders recently, but the Scarlet Knights just made a deal that significantly upgrades their early season schedule in 2008. Rutgers will welcome in Fresno State to Rutgers Stadium on Labor Day in a nationally televised game that will kickoff before UCLA-Tennessee. That previously scheduled season opener with football-power Howard is now a thing of the past. Scheduling a good Fresno State team is a significant step up for the Scarlet Knights when you consider their non-conference slate last year consisted of Norfolk State, Navy, Buffalo and Maryland.

No, Fresno State-Rutgers isn't UCLA-Tennessee, but it's a hell of lot more intriguing than Rutgers-Howard. And people will be tuned when it kickoffs that afternoon, just like they'll be tuned into Clemson-Alabama that first Saturday night of the season and USC-Ohio State Sept. 13 and the other top non-conference games that first few weeks of the season offers us this fall.

So here's hoping more teams follow the Vols lead. Sure there are extenuating circumstances as to why schools don't play those tough, early non-conference games, like traditional rivalries that always crop up later in the season - think FSU-Florida, Georgia-Georgia Tech, etc.. But those early season showcase games are great for the sport. And don't give me the argument that playing such a difficult early season game is counter-productive if you have national title aspirations. It's ridiculous. An early season loss is not going to end your title run and you stand to gain more from playing a game against the nation's best than you do against some bottom feeding I-A team, or even worse, a I-AAer.

And if nothing else, at least you'll earn a little respect. Just ask Fresno.

Posted by Adam Caparell at 02:52 PM on April 01, 2008

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