Playing in the non-BCS leaves a lot of teams looking for statement games. Games that will define a season and hoist a program toward the top of college football. For Utah in 2004 it was Texas A&M, a game that was broadcast live on ESPN and one they subsequently dominated. That bolstered their case for being an elite team that year, even though Utah didn't play an extremely tough schedule. The end result for Utah was a chance to play in the Fiesta Bowl, the first ever non-BCS team playing in a BCS Bowl game, and doing so with the much more difficult rules that were abandoned prior to last season. But as much as scheduling difficult opponents can help, it also can hinder a program's growth.
Fresno State has routinely been known for their tough schedules. The last few years they've played LSU, USC, Oklahoma among other tougher non-BCS teams. And what do they have to show for it? A rather impressive loss to USC and pretty much nothing else. Oh sure they upset Washington and Kansas State in 2004, defeated Oregon State, Wisconsin and Colorado in 2001, but each year failed to make substantial noise because they couldn't win a conference championship. That has ultimately dogged their program and left many feeling that Pat Hill isn't the coach capable of winning a conference championship.
Of course the other side of the debate rests within the belief that conference championships don't mean squat, unless it guarantees you a spot in a BCS bowl game. These Pat Hill appeasers and their like figure that playing tough against top BCS teams is far greater than beating conference foes. Those games, even if they come at the extent of a conference championship, are far better in the eyes of the media. Or at least that's what they believe. And maybe to an extent it's true, because Fresno State losing to USC the way they did turned a lot of heads. The Trojans were coming off a national championship and destined for another appearance in the title game. However they couldn't put the Bulldogs away until late and Fresno State left Los Angeles with about as close as you can get to a moral victory. The only problem is that Fresno State finished the season on a four game losing streak and went from almost assured at least a share of the conference championship, to yet another year without that reward.
That seems to be the real problem with the near impossible scheduling Fresno State has put out under Pat Hill. The program seems to thrive on beating up BCS teams, but when it's faced with opponents from their own conference, they're almost always assured a let down and that leads to an inexcusable loss. At the other end of the WAC though Boise State seems to be going a different route than Fresno State. Instead of scheduling the Big Boys, they've decided to schedule mediocre regional BCS teams (mostly, anyway) and non-BCS ones as well. What this does, coupled with the weak WAC schedule, is nearly guarantees the Broncos at least 8 wins a season. If they are really good, they finish with no more than 2 losses and if they're great, like last year, they go undefeated and play in the BCS.
So which option is better? Frankly, I think both are poor and feel the Utes can find the middle ground between Fresno and Boise State, which appears to be what they've done over the past few years. They shouldn't be forced to schedule extremely tough opponents, like this season, but they also can't focus on scheduling just cupcakes (like next season). The best schedule, in my mind, would consist of a game (home or away) against a really good BCS team, another game against a so-so BCS team, the Utah State game and finally a game against either a really poor BCS team, or a decent non-BCS one. It's not too tough that it might send your season into a tailspin if you lose, and it's not so easy that you can't prepare correctly for the toughness of conference play.
This year Utah has a schedule that I hate. Ok, it would be the perfect schedule if Utah somehow could go 3-1 or maybe even 2-2, but that will be extremely difficult. It's very possible that if Utah struggles in conference against traditionally tough opponents (UNM recently, CSU, BYU and TCU), they could be looking at a losing record. In fact, if they had this schedule last year, they probably would have finished 5-7. No 8-wins, no Armed Forces Bowl and no 4th straight winning season. That's why it's important that Utah schedules not to just play the Big Boys, but to beat them as well. A game against Texas is great, but if it were also mixed in with a game against Oklahoma and maybe USC, it might not be as great, especially if Utah isn't capable of winning those games.
Frankly, I think TCU has the right idea when it comes to scheduling. The past three years they've scheduled worthy BCS opponents and have made a lot of noise because of it. In 2005 they stunned Oklahoma in Norman, beat Texas Tech last year and now have a chance to shock Texas this season. They also have games against Baylor and Stanford, as well as their Metroplex rival SMU. That's 3 games against BCS opponents, with one being against a possible top-10 team. If TCU upsets Texas to open the season, it won't matter that they play Baylor or Stanford, unless they lose. They win all those games and a perfect season falls into place. Just like it did for Utah in 2004.