Piecing together a nonconference schedule for a major college football program such as Penn State can be a tricky business.
Those in charge of doing it must be clairvoyant, with the ability to see eight to 10 years ahead. They must be fiscally responsible, making sure they can pack a facility like Beaver Stadium as many times as possible. They must consider the competition, finding worthy opponents but ones that won't burn out their team for the important conference games.
Which brings us to the Nittany Lions' 2009 four-game nonconference schedule, which has been called weak, awful, and any variation of those descriptions.
Depending on which ranking of college teams you read, the Lions don't play anyone ranked higher than 80 (Temple, Sports Illustrated) or 97 (Syracuse, Sagarin Ratings). Add Akron, tomorrow's opponent, and Eastern Illinois of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), considered a middle-of-the-pack squad in the Ohio Valley Conference, and it's an underwhelming diversion from Big Ten tilts for much of the Nittany Nation.
Penn State athletic director Tim Curley has heard the criticism. While he won't apologize for the schedule, he does acknowledge that not every year is going to be a 99-yard touchdown pass.
"Some years are better than others," he said yesterday. "You never know how the schedule is going to play out. Sometimes you hit it, sometimes you don't do so well."
Joe Paterno also has heard the scheduling questions, and the coach's answers have gotten shorter and shorter, such as in Tuesday's Big Ten conference call, when he said tersely, "I don't pay any attention to it."
Curley said a major consideration in putting together a schedule is financial.
"Since we're a self-supporting financial entity of the university, we have to generate our own money with no support from the state or the university in 29 sports programs," he said. "Our budget is built on seven home football games."
Curley said the opportunity to add an eighth home game this season was an outgrowth of the NCAA's expanding the regular-season schedule from 11 to 12 games starting in 2006. With many teams scrambling to find an extra opponent, the Lions added Eastern Illinois in a guarantee game.
Curley said he did not know the exact amount the Panthers would make for their visit, but he estimated it as "something in the $300,000-$400,000 range."
Fran Ganter, associate athletic director for football administration, has day-to-day responsibilities for adopting a schedule, with Curley and Paterno involved. They're working on schedules for 2019 and 2020.
"We want to meet the financial needs of the department and put together a competitive schedule for the team," Curley said, "but not make it so difficult that we don't allow for success. If you lose a couple of games, your chances of making a [Bowl Championship Series] game are difficult. So it's a balancing act.
"It's a long season for the players. You can't play a schedule with top teams week in and week out. In the Big Ten, every week is a physically demanding game."
Nonconference schedules for Big Ten members are similarly thin. All but two teams are playing an FCS opponent this season.
The Nittany Lions last played a nationally ranked nonconference opponent in the regular season in 2006, when they lost to No. 4 Notre Dame. They defeated unranked Oregon State last year on Sept. 6, but the Beavers eventually entered the top 25 in November.
Penn State will begin a home-and-home series next year with Alabama, currently ranked No. 5.
At Big Ten media day in July, Paterno explained he wanted to schedule Syracuse and Temple because coaches Paul Pasqualoni and Al Golden played for him, although Pasqualoni is no longer with the Orange. But he added a word of caution.
"Look at what's happened the last couple years with people in their opening games," Paterno said, "that they've gotten licked because somebody thought that the team they were playing wasn't very good. I don't know how good anybody else is. I don't know how good we are."