NORMAN — Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione knew crunch time was closing in when looking for a 2019 nonconference opponent to fill out OU’s football schedule.
The options were limited as the calendar neared 2017. An unnamed FBS school offered a one-time visit, but the cost would have exceeded the largest payout this season.
On Jan. 23, 2017, South Dakota locked in the road game scheduled for Saturday. The FCS school will receive $575,000 for playing in Norman.
There are a lot of dynamics in nonconference scheduling, Castiglione said. OU now has to consider the Big 12 championship game, which guarantees another tough game in addition to nine conference games.
Plus, there’s the cost. A contract with a Group of Five opponent is pricey; Florida Atlantic was paid $1.2 million to come to Norman for the opener last year. That extra cost could rotate back to season-ticket prices, Castiglione said.
Scheduling can be a puzzle and this was a difficult year to find a home opponent, he said.
“In this particular case, we elected to play an FCS game because we really didn’t have many other choices,” Castiglione said, “unless we wanted to pay the highest guarantee paid to anybody in college this year. And it’s extraordinary.”
A recent report in USA Today stated that Auburn will pay Tulane and Kent State $1.9 million each this season for nonconference games, which is the largest 2019 payout.
“We’re trying to keep ticket prices down. And I know the demands are for certain games,” Castiglione said. “Quite candidly, the choice of paying an unheard of type of guarantee for the school which had the opportunity to travel and the school we have put on the schedule, I don’t think that our fans would have seen that kind of significant difference in terms of the attractiveness of the opponent.
“It’s part science, it’s part art, it’s part using experience, knowledge and understanding in trying to achieve what we want overall. Let’s remember and keep in mind that we have had a long history ... where Oklahoma plays a challenging nonconference schedule.”
Castiglione said OU has made a commitment to play a marquee team every year with home-and-home series. Upcoming seasons include home games against Tennessee (2020), Nebraska (2021), Georgia (2023), Michigan (2025), Nebraska (2029), Alabama (2032) and Clemson (2036).
“The year that we have that marquee game at home, everybody loves it,” Castiglione said. “Then the year where we have to return the marquee game (like at UCLA on Sept. 14), people have a different perception. Let’s just face it. That’s the way it is.
“We listen to our fans. We hear them. We can’t please every one of them, but we’re thinking about them and the program when we make the decisions about nonconference scheduling.”
South Dakota, a Missouri Valley Conference school, brings an 0-1 record after a 31-17 loss to visiting Montana. In 2020, the Sooners will host Missouri State, another MVC school.
OU hasn’t faced an FCS opponent since taking on Florida A&M in 2012. Third-year head coach Lincoln Riley said it doesn’t change his team’s motivation.
He said the season is a journey toward continued improvement on a weekly basis.
“It may sound boring to the outside, but it’s the recipe for winning. That’s how you do it. If you have weeks that you don’t do that, maybe it doesn’t show up that week, maybe it does. But it’s gonna show up at some point,” Riley said. “That’s our fight, to continue to improve, and if we want to continue to be the team that we think we have a chance to be, then, regardless of who we’re playing, we’ve got to take steps and we’ve got to continue to be ready to play each and every time we hit the field.
“We’re not baseball. We don’t get 50-something games. We’re not basketball. We don’t get 40-something games. I mean, we only get a couple of these, so we’re gonna make the most of every one we get.”
There are still some openings on future schedules. A two-for-one series with Tulsa continues to be discussed by the schools, and Castiglione said there are other games that he continues to work on.
“We’re also leaving ourselves a little wiggle room to see what happens in the future of scheduling,” Castiglione said. “We are making sure that we’re doing the right thing for our program. We are giving it the best chance to play for the conference title and, if we’re successful in that realm, to be a team that’s in the discussion for a spot in a playoff.”