Early conference games are not ideal

It always used to go something like this: USC would play two or three nonconference games and then shift over to conference play, not facing an opponent outside of the Pac-10 for the rest of the season, save for Notre Dame.

It had a sort of fluidity to it. Though those nonconference games counted in terms of rankings and history, they were a preseason of sorts, allowing teams to get clicking before starting conference play.

But then, something happened in 2011.

USC opened the season against Minnesota, then hosted new Pac-12 school Utah before another nonconference game against Syracuse.

Last year offered a return to normalcy, as the Trojans took on Hawai’i and Syracuse before turning their attention to conference play.

Yet this year we are back to the random conference game in the middle of the nonconference slate, this time in the form of Washington State.

The Cougars are usually terrible — USC head coach Lane Kiffin actually referred to USC’s 2010 matchup against WSU as a “preseason” game — but they are a conference team nonetheless, and in the standings, a win over them counts — just as much as one over Stanford.

People, this is wrong.

Coaches always used to refer to their first few games, the nonconference games, as the “preseason.” I always thought that this was a poor choice of words, as the games absolutely counted.

But I knew what they meant: Ultimately, it’s conference games that matter most, and the nonconference schedule was used to prepare for conference play. It was, in fact, a preseason of sorts.

Thanks to myriad reasons, such as TV, money and TV money, that is no longer the case.

Think USC’s schedule is funky? Try those of SEC teams Mississippi and Vanderbilt, who opened their seasons against each other last Saturday. The same goes for ACC squads Florida State and Pittsburgh.

“It’s all mixed up,” USC redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler said. “You think you get two or three quote-unquote preseason games before you get to the conference games. But our schedule’s just different this year.”

Last year Miami and Boston College started ACC play in week one, as did Vanderbilt and South Carolina in the SEC.

Again, this is wrong.

Conference games aren’t meant to be contested in the August and September heat. They’re meant for the dead of fall in October.

The early-season schedule is for nonconference matchups such as Georgia and Clemson this year, Michigan and Alabama a year ago, and Oregon and LSU in 2011. Those are constantly some of the most fun games of the year to watch.

But it’s about more than fun. Watching Oregon run all over an FCS team for the fourth year in a row is decidedly not entertaining.

Yet somehow it feels more right than watching a conference game in week one. Plus, there’s always that slim chance that someone pulls an Appalachian State-over-Michigan type stunner that makes it all worth it.

The Ducks played Nicholls State this past Saturday. They won by 63 points. It was stupid. It was a terrible game in every respect. In many ways, it was a crime against football.

And yet it still wasn’t as heinous as the matchup between Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, which was actually a very good game, decided on a touchdown with just 67 seconds remaining.

I watched that game, and yes, it was exciting — much more exciting than watching Oregon bludgeon Nicholls State. But there was something intrinsically wrong about watching two in-conference teams go at it in the opening week of the season.

And this Saturday at the Coliseum will be no different, watching the Trojans play Washington State, and knowing that it’s not Cal or Arizona or even Colorado that comes up next, but rather Boston College and Utah State.

Aside from great nonconference rivalries, such as USC and Notre Dame or Florida and Florida State, conference games should only come after all nonconference games have been played.

Yet next year it looks like the Trojans will have the same setup. The Pac-12 schedule for the 2014 season hasn’t been made, but USC is set to host Fresno State in the opener and then travel to Boston College in week three, meaning week two could be a conference game.

Let’s hope it ends up being a bye week.


“Any Given Saturday” runs on Thursdays, ironically. To explain to Nick how this makes no sense, or comment on this column, email him at burtonn@usc.edu or visit dailytrojan.com.

Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMBurton