The downside of both ends of the food chain in college football are represented in the September schedules of the University of Arkansas and the University of Central Arkansas.
The Razorbacks played a soft, rent-a-win schedule that did not prepare them sufficiently for what they ran into at Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday. The Bears were on the opposite end of the "money game" spectrum, paid the price physically — and now face six straight weeks of conference games (seven straight weeks overall) with a wounded team.
The Hogs helped immensely the athletic budgets of Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy. The Bears’ budget received a needed combined payment of $430,000 to get emotionally and physically beat up by Louisiana Tech and Arkansas State, sandwiched by a Southland Conference game against Sam Houston, which appears to be one of the strongest teams in the league in the early going.
That’s the lay of the land in college football. The Hogs, as other SEC teams, have to be careful with their early scheduling because SEC play is brutal enough, but there has to be a balance between too easy and just right. The Bears, like every other NCAA Football Championship Subdivision team, have to have at last one "money game" against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent to help make budget.
Southeastern Louisiana, another member of the SLC, has had a parallel opening schedule to the Bears. The Lions had a respectable outing against Tulane, then played Southern Miss the next week and lost four starters to injury. Those starters missed the conference opener against McNeese State, a perennial power and year-in, year-out one of the most physical teams in the league. Southeastern Louisiana was beaten decisively and heads into October just like the Bears 1-3, 0-1, staggering and bandaged.
"The biggest thing about a schedule like that is you get so beat up," Southeastern Louisiana coach Mike Lucas said. "It’s tough for anybody, particularly without an open date. But that’s the hand we have been dealt, so you just go with it."
"The last three weeks (road games at Louisiana Tech, Sam Houston State and Arkansas State) have probably been the most challenging three weeks, physically and emotionally, since we have moved to Division I," UCA coach Clint Conque said.
That challenge probably got amped a bit when the last three teams the Bears have played appear better than possibly advertised at the beginning of the season. Louisiana Tech took Mississippi State to overtime Saturday, while Sam Houston lost a big lead in the fourth quarter but came back to defeat New Mexico in overtime to spoil what the Lobos hoped would be a rent-a-win situation. Arkansas State was projected to be pretty good and seems to have survived nicely a schedule that included early games at Illinois and Virginia Tech, up-the-food-chain money ventures for the Red Wolves.
"We lost a few pieces in the Louisiana Tech game and lost a few more while we were down there at Sam Houston," Conque said. "We played a very difficult, very physical, very emotional schedule the last three weeks. Our team right now is a little down. We are physically beat up. We are absolutely beat up. That’s not an excuse; it’s a fact. I took two players to the conference Media Day, Frank Newsome (all-conference linebacker) and Nathan Dick (all-conference quarterback) and I haven’t seen them practice or play in two weeks. Frank Newsome (high ankle sprain) hasn’t played since the first half of the Louisiana Tech game."
One key is having an open date somewhere in the mix, where some injuries have more time to heal, players can get on the practice field with less urgency and nagging injuries don’t turn into longterm problems. In 2009, the Bears also played two FBS teams, Hawaii and Western Kentucky. The difference was the Bears played at Hawaii on a Friday, had an open date the next week and had a 15-day break between the Rainbows and Western Kentucky, which was one of the weakest NCAA Division I FBS teams in the country and was more the level of an FCS team.
The open date for UCA this season comes after Week 11, when pretty much everything has been settled. That’s the quirk of the schedule. And when the window opened for UCA to play Arkansas State, UCA officials had no real choice but to play on the available date that ASU had.
"We really don’t want to play two FBS schools in the same year ever again," Conque said. "I don’t think that’s fair to our kids. We’ll play a big one, next year it’s Ole Miss. That’s fantastic. They give us everything we want financially in one shot. If we play well, get lucky, boom, we win the game. If not, we’ve met our (financial) obligation, we’ve met our exposure and we go on to play 10 schools relative to us.
"We’ll do whatever we’re charged to do, but I’ve got to look those kids in the face in the training room, some of them who will require surgeries and things like that and it’s very difficult. We went through a bit of that at Louisiana Tech my first couple of years there. We opened up at Tennessee, at Alabama, at South Carolina. It’s tough on those players, then you get to games that you think you can be pretty competitive in and win — and you look up and see some of your better players aren’t playing. But we’re not gonna use those things as excuses. We are going to embrace expectations and expect to play well, whoever is on the football field."
Conque realizes his team, particularly defensively, complicated the issue by not playing well and making some basic mistakes the first game. There are lingering issues about defending the run.
So now, with a game looming against SFA that the Bears have to win to stay reasonably in the conference race, it’s a slippery slope concerning preparation.
"Right now, this is where leadership needs to come in; this is where teaching needs to come in," Conque said. "The worse thing we can do as a coaching staff right now is to start getting in our kids’ heads hard when you want to go out and do two hours of tackling drills and blocking and keep them out on the practice field for three hours. But right now is the time to simplify things, to teach, to coach and in some cases, to pull back a little bit. We need to use the moments we’ve had here to learn."
This UCA team still could develop into a pretty good football team and can still accomplish a lot with the bulk of the SLC schedule ahead.
It’s just brutal that a team with great promise in August had to face a buzzsaw schedule in September.
Halloween came early.
On to Thanksgiving?
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)