When the Bears signed up to play Utah in 2023 and 2024, I sensed the program’s love of nonconference schedules about as fearsome and ferocious as a bassinet full of golden retriever puppies was disintegrating.
Still, after the past few years, it was hard to believe what I was hearing from Ian McCaw on Thursday. The Bears are actively looking to upgrade their schedule as early as 2016, and are interested in playing a neutral site game on the season’s opening weekend sometime between then an 2020. He also said they’re currently engaged in "two or three discussions" about future games.
"As we’ve won back to back Big 12 championships and our program’s in the national stage and we’re recruiting at an extremely high level and have McLane Stadium in place, we’re able to take on a higher level of competition and that’s what we’re looking to do," McCaw said. "We’re certainly open to playing a Power 5 game in addition to the nine we’re playing. … Probably not every year, but a good number of years."
Most importantly, he said he and Art Briles are in "lockstep" with one another on the decision to upgrade future schedules.
Bob Bowlsby didn’t rush inside the room and high five him after he was done talking, but he should have. Gary Patterson, Bob Stoops, Charlie Strong and Mike Gundy could have slapped hands, too.
The Big 12 will benefit from this almost as much as Baylor.
"The better schedules we can play in the nonconference, generally speaking, the better off we are," Bowlsby said. "Our top teams, we want to make sure we’re matching up against the best in the country, because that’s the way you demonstrate that you deserve to be in the playoff."
This year, the Big 12 will play, at most, two nonconference games against teams ranked in the preseason top 25. Oklahoma could be favored on the road against Tennessee, but with Texas opening its season in South Bend against a top 15 Notre Dame squad, a second win seems unlikely.
Last year, the league’s best nonconference win came against Minnesota, who finished 8-5 and also lost to a 6-7 Illinois team.
In 2013, the conference had two losses to FCS teams and one nonconference win over a team that finished in the final AP top 25. That excludes bowl games, which obviously can’t help the league’s national chances.
In a two-year span in which Baylor was clearly the Big 12’s best program, it beat the following teams outside of Big 12 play: Wofford, Buffalo, Louisiana-Monroe, SMU and Northwestern State.
With Texas down and Oklahoma in a lesser swoon, the Big 12 had fewer opportunities for reputation-defining wins and Baylor declined to put up for the conference it was dominating. Instead, it concerned itself with racking up 40-point halves and 70-point games in unwatchable exhibitions.
"I think everyone of our institutions has a contributions to make," Bowlsby said. "Those are local decisions, but we’re naive if we think they don’t impact the rest of the people in the league."
With Oklahoma–and Texas especially–playing like shells of their selves from the 2000s, the Big 12 has battled a perception problem that came to a head with TCU and Baylor’s playoff exclusion in December.
The Bears could have assuaded some of those perception problems by challenging themselves in nonconference play. No Big 12 program was more likely to bag a trophy buck before league play began, but for some odd reason, the selection committee did not seem impressed by the Bears’ road win at Buffalo last September.
Perhaps Baylor hoped the committee would be confused and assume they had logged a win over the Buffalo in the AFC East and not the Buffalo that called the MAC home.
McCaw’s insistence that upgrades are coming is one thing. Managing to iron out actual agreements is another. We’ll see if Baylor can find a game between now and 2020 that somebody outside Waco actually cares to watch.
For all of Baylor’s previous complaints that it couldn’t find anyone to play, I’ve got a good spot for the Bears to start. There’s a big hole in a big name schedule for 2018 and 2019.
"Anybody in the Power 5 that wants to play Auburn, we’re in," Tigers AD Jay Jacobs told reporters last week. "We’re a prospect for them."