Oklahoma football: A look at future, past non-conference schedules

Oklahoma's Trey Morrison (6), Josh Ellison (90) nd DaShaun White (23) bring down UTEP's Ronald Awatt (22) during a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Oklahoma won 45-13.Ou Vs Utep
Oklahoma's Trey Morrison (6), Josh Ellison (90) nd DaShaun White (23) bring down UTEP's Ronald Awatt (22) during a college football game between the University of Oklahoma Sooners (OU) and the UTEP Miners at Gaylord Family - Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. Oklahoma won 45-13.Ou Vs Utep /

Oklahoma football has employed a clear scheduling philosophy.

Since Athletics Director Joe Castiglione arrived on campus in 1998, the Sooners have typically played three non-conference games, including one “marquee name” program, plus one or two mid-tier schools or a mid-tier team coupled with a small-conference or even FCS-level opponent.

It is a tactic the Sooners have used to provide fans with memorable road trips to coveted college football destinations and the opportunity to welcome those schools on a return trip to Owen Field. In just the past decade, Oklahoma has played a “home-and-home” series with Notre Dame, Tennessee, Ohio State, UCLA, and Nebraska. In the decade before that, it was Florida State, Miami (Fla.), Washington, Oregon, UCLA (again), and Alabama. This year, the Sooners visit Lincoln, Neb., on Sep. 17 after entertaining the Huskers in Norman last season.

“Having worked here for 13 years, I have a very clear vision for what Joe Castiglione’s philosophy is in regards to playing a marquee non-conference, and then again, something that also is going to put people in the stands from a non-conference standpoint,” first-year Oklahoma Coach Brent Venables said at his Aug. 30 press conference.

“Whatever his philosophy is, I am in full support. I try to control the controllable, and our job is to get our team ready to play. And to me, I want to be inside-out as a program, so whoever it is, it is still about us. We need to play the best version of us every week. It is what it is all about. Not play to an opponent.”

Over the next 15 years, Oklahoma has agreements with Georgia, Tennessee, Michigan, LSU, Nebraska, Alabama, and Clemson. However, some of those could become conference games when the Sooners join the Southeastern Conference no later than 2025. These matchups are difficult to orchestrate. Big-name opponents – provided you can get one to agree to home-and-home on-campus stadiums – have to be scheduled years in advance.

“That’s the reason we go ahead and put these games 10 or 15 years down the road because we want to be able to make sure that we can have this marquee matchup,” Castiglione told Sooner Sports Network host Toby Rowland in 2019. “So we did Alabama, did the Clemson. We added another home-and-home with Nebraska a few years ago and talked about LSU. It took me ten years just to get Michigan to say yes to playing a home-and-home series. I mean, they didn’t have any need or interest because, for the longer period of time, they opened the season with Notre Dame or played Notre Dame early in the season. It didn’t offer a chance for them to play another tough non-conference game. You remember Notre Dame and Michigan decided to play for several years. I was right there making that call, ‘Hey, remember this,’ and trying to get them interested in playing Oklahoma, and we were able to work out a series.”

The addition of “mid-tier” programs to the schedule, such as a defending Mid-American Conference champion like Kent State, which visits Norman on Saturday, has effectively bolstered the Sooners’ schedule strength. In the days of the Bowl Championship Series, where schedule strength played a significant role in the computer rankings, Oklahoma was rarely on the outside looking in when all else was similar or equal, thanks to sneaky-good opponents such as Fresno State, Bowling Green, Houston, Cincinnati, and pre-Big 12 TCU.

In recent years, programs like UTEP, Tulane, Houston, Florida Atlantic, Army, Louisiana Tech, and Akron have made up this mid-tier portion of the non-conference slate.

Agreements are already in place for future games with schools like Temple and New Mexico, with additional meetings with Tulsa, Tulane, and UTEP on the docket. Even the “guarantee games,” in which a small conference or FCS-level program (Missouri State, Western Carolina in recent years) agrees to play in exchange for a dollar amount that could exceed $1 million, are becoming increasingly pricey.

It all makes one appreciate the schedule employed by Oklahoma during the Coach Barry Switzer era (1973-88).

In 16 years, Oklahoma played just ten opponents that would not be a “Power-5” program today, meaning membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, or Southeastern Conference. Of those 10, three games (Rice twice, Southern Methodist) were members of a major conference at the time (Southwest Conference). Three more games were against in-state foe Tulsa, while teams like Utah State, Wyoming, and Hawaii would be considered no worse than mid-tier today. That leaves only the 1987 North Texas game as the lone small conference/independent opponent, and even it had a geographical tie.

Keeping in mind that teams like Texas and West Virginia were not conference mates with Oklahoma at the time, Switzer’s non-conference schedule presented a lot of attractive games for the fan base, both home and away:

1973 – at Baylor, at No. 1 Southern California, NO. 17 MIAMI (FLA.), No. 13 Texas (at Dallas)
1974 – BAYLOR, UTAH STATE, WAKE FOREST, No. 17 Texas (at Dallas)
1975 – OREGON, NO. 15 PITTSBURGH, at Miami (Fla.), No. 5 Texas (at Dallas)
1976 – at Vanderbilt, CALIFORNIA, FLORIDA STATE, No. 16 Texas (at Dallas)
1977 – VANDERBILT, UTAH, at No. 4 Ohio State, No. 5 Texas (at Dallas)
1978 – at Stanford, WEST VIRGINIA, RICE, No. 6 Texas (at Dallas)
1979 – IOWA, TULSA, at Rice, No. 4 Texas (at Dallas)
1980 – KENTUCKY, STANFORD, No. 3 Texas (at Dallas), NO. 6 NORTH CAROLINA
1981 – WYOMING, at No. 1 Southern California, No. 3 Texas (at Dallas), OREGON STATE
1982 – WEST VIRGINIA, at Kentucky, NO. 18 SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, No. 13 Texas (at Dallas)
1983 – at Stanford, NO. 6 OHIO STATE, TULSA, No. 2 Texas (at Dallas), at Hawaii
1984 – STANFORD, at No. 17 Pittsburgh, BAYLOR, No. 1 Texas (at Dallas)
1985 – at Minnesota, No. 17 Texas (at Dallas), MIAMI (FLA.), SOUTHERN METHODIST
1986 – NO. 4 UCLA, MINNESOTA, at No. 2 Miami (Fla.), Texas (at Dallas)
1987 – NORTH TEXAS, NORTH CAROLINA, at Tulsa, Texas (at Dallas)
1988 – at North Carolina, ARIZONA, at No. 5 Southern California, Texas (at Dallas)

“Our non-conference schedule is so much tougher now than it was in the Seventies,” Switzer told The Oklahoman before a 1983 season in which there were five non-conference games on the schedule. “It used to be that we knew we’d hang half-a-hundred on three non-conference opponents, and Texas was down at the time, and with the league games, we’d finish 11-1 or 12-0. But you look at our non-conference schedules of the Eighties, and you see an entirely different picture.”

With fan engagement and early exits from the stadium in the news after many students filed out in the second quarter of Oklahoma’s 45-13 win over UTEP last Saturday, it remains to be seen whether Oklahoma’s move to the Southeastern Conference and a bevy of fresh, new, exciting home opponents year after year will be enough to keep everyone in the stadium. Will the Bedlam series with Oklahoma State become a non-conference game? And if it continues as such, will it be considered the “marquee” non-conference game, thereby making Castiglione hesitant to schedule schools from the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, or the new Big 12?

While it is clear that non-conference games like UTEP and Kent State are here to stay, fans of the Sooners can take solace in the fact that they have an AD that is still willing to schedule the best of the best while keeping names that would be detrimental to the overall schedule strength to a minimum.

How that all looks after Oklahoma’s move to the SEC will be interesting to see.