USC football exceptionalism at stake in FCS scheduling debate

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

Is USC football gearing up to schedule FCS schools? The Trojans are giving indications that the long-held scheduling policy is about to change.

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USC football has always prided itself on tough scheduling. But the Trojans may not be able to hold up their record as one of just three FBS schools to have never played FCS opposition much longer.

In a recent interview with Antonio Morales of The Athletic, senior athletic director Steve Lopes dropped a sobering statement about the direction of USC’s future scheduling philosophy:

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“We’re looking at schools that might not even be FBS, which I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. We may get criticized if and when we do it, but everybody does it. … Are you going to die on that sword? You can play very good FCS schools that are better than some of the FBS schools you’ll play, the directional schools you’ll play,” he said.

Exploring FCS options for future schedules may be a necessity for several reasons.

For one, the Trojans don’t have very many options to add to the schedule. There are open dates in 2021, 2023 and beyond that need filling, but few opponents available to link up with.

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That could mean dipping into the FCS to fill a date.

But there are other considerations in play, according to Lopes.

USC is now prioritizing home games with an eye on seven contests played at the Coliseum in three out of every four years. That fourth year would sacrifice a home date for a neutral site non-conference tilt, like the one against Alabama at AT&T Stadium in 2020.

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That home game mandate will make it increasingly difficult to offer home-and-home series to other programs. An FCS filler would be the easiest solution to that problem.

But would it be for the best?

On one hand, USC is getting smart about scheduling advantages.

The imbalance of USC’s home schedule compared to other similarly-place teams has been a source of frustration for years. So it makes sense to make home field advantage a priority when putting together the annual slate.

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Moreover, the SEC has made the most of extra home games against lesser opposition, ensuring extra wins thanks to their eight-game conference schedule and cupcake scheduling.

The Trojans won’t have the added bonus of a fourth out of conference game, but an “easier” home game each season would be a plus for the win-loss column.

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Still, it’s interesting USC has come to this conclusion just as their elite college football peers seem to be upping the ante on their scheduling. The likes of Oklahoma, Alabama, Clemson and others have put together marquee matchups across the coming decades.

At the very least, USC has a built-in advantage. The Notre Dame rivalry series means the Trojans don’t have the same incentive to go out and schedule other big-time programs aggressively. They have a marquee matchup on the slate year in and year out thanks to the Irish.

On the other hand, the Trojans have consistently been one of the nation’s toughest schedulers, taking pride in taking on all-comers. During the Pete Carroll era, that was the staple of the Trojan mindset.

Eventually, USC fans will have to move on from seeing everything through the lens of the Carroll era, but on this point it seems worth highlighting.

Carroll’s teams played tough schedules and were stronger for it. Is lowering the standard of USC’s excellence something to be cheered?

It’s not about stacking the schedule so that USC can sneak into the playoff each year, just happy to be there. It’s about building a team which can truly compete at that level, one whose mettle has been tested and proven.

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Savvy scheduling could help get the Trojans in the conversation each year, but USC’s ambitions have to extend well beyond that.

An artificially inflated win total won’t mean much if the Trojans aren’t completely invested in competing for the biggest prize.

Is the ease and advantage of FCS scheduling worth forsaking the idea of USC exceptionalism? We’re about to find out.