Opinion: Cupcake games are beneficial for IU football



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It doesn’t take a genius to say that IU is probably going to blow out the University of Connecticut on Saturday. The Huskies are coming off a 1-11 season and have started the 2019 season by barely knocking off the Football Championship Subdivision bottom dweller Wagner College 24-21 followed by a competitive showing in a loss to a very bad University of Illinois team.

As a result, the Hoosiers are favored to win the game by 27 points. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rating system, college football’s top analytical system for predicting games, projects IU to win 40-8, a 32-point margin.

Most fans hate games like Saturday's — an early afternoon kickoff against a subpar opponent where the outcome of the contest should be clear by midway through the second quarter. 

Fans are right to despise these easy wins over inferior opponents, otherwise known as cupcake games. The early kick limits tailgate time before kickoff. The expectation of an easy victory leads to an uninterested atmosphere,and if all goes to plan, spectators have no reason to stay at the game past halftime.

But while these games suck for fans, they are a necessity for a school like IU. Because of a nine-game Big Ten conference schedule, the Hoosiers only play three out-of-league games every season. Three nonconference games instead of four hurts the Hoosiers on two levels: it means that to make a bowl game, the Hoosiers must win at least three Big Ten games instead of two, and it takes away scheduling flexibility in non-league games.

To make matters worse, IU plays in the Big Ten East, which — sorry SEC fans — has usually been the top division in college football over the last five years. IU has to play four of the most consistent programs of the past decade in Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State on an annual basis. 

The result? Since 2013, IU owns a 2-24 record against “The Big Four” and a 31-21 record versus all other opponents. Due to playing arguably the toughest conference slate of any team in college football on a yearly basis, both in terms of quality and quantity, IU has no choice but to schedule winnable games in its non-league slate just to have a chance to play a game 13.

IU hasn’t always played cupcakes only in its nonconference schedule. There has been occasions where tougher scheduling has worked in IU’s favor, such as sweeping Virginia in a home and home series the last two seasons, or upsetting a ranked Missouri team in 2014. However, scheduling tough out-of-conference opponents have also burned the Hoosiers numerous times this decade.

In 2013, the Hoosiers finished a disappointing 5-7. But, if former head coach Kevin Wilson scheduled Eastern Illinois and an opponent from the Sun Belt conference, rather than losing to both Missouri and Navy in Bloomington, IU goes bowling.

In 2012, a loss to Navy and an upset at the hands of what was a better Ball State program at the time turned a bowl bid into a 4-8 campaign. 

While a loss to Wake Forest at home in 2016 did not cost IU a bowl season, it did mean that IU had to be shipped out to Santa Clara, California, instead of playing somewhere closer to home.

Other schools have the luxury IU does not. Even with a nine-game Big Ten slate, Purdue can afford to schedule tough out-of-conference foes. Just last season, the Boilermakers made a bowl game despite dropping two of their three non-league games. One was an embarrassing loss to Eastern Michigan, while the other was to Missouri. Purdue actually beat a ranked Boston College team, which sparked its season into a bowl bid.

Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm also challenged his squad this season, putting the University of Nevada, Vanderbilt University and Texas Christian University on the schedule. And while Purdue lost two of the three games, it still has a path to a bowl game as a result of playing in the less-competitive Big Ten West.

Because of conference divisions, Purdue can afford to schedule a rigorous non-league schedule. But if IU were to go 1-2 before opening Big Ten East play, anything more than three or four wins would be unrealistic to expect.

So the Hoosiers are left with their hands tied, being forced to mainly play bottom feeders so they can have a shot at having a successful season.

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