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Scheduling a key factor in how teams break from starting gate

The early weeks of any season are critical in college football, where limited practice time and the absence of pre-season games make breaking in replacements difficult. Scheduling, therefore, can play a significant role in getting a team off on the right or wrong foot.

Winless UCLA is perhaps the best present example of a team suffering from an overloaded circuit. Everyone knew the Bruins would be regrouping to some extent after losing a host of starters from last year's 10-1-1 Rose Bowl squad. But even without quarterback Tom Ramsey, UCLA didn't figured to fall on hard times.

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But UCLA has hit the skids, losing to a trio of Top 20 teams - Georgia, Nebraska, and Brigham Young - and tying a fourth, Arizona State. Under Terry Donahue, their highly regarded coach, the young Bruins may yet recover from this demoralizing start. The main source of encouragement is that the Pacific 10 Conference race lies largely before them, with the tie to Arizona State their only league result thus far.

At the opposite end of this scheduling spectrum is Southern Methodist, which has extended its unbeaten streak to 20 straight games with four victories this season. The Mustangs are obviously easing into things, using games against Louisville, Grambling, Texas Christian, and Texas-Arlington to get their bearings.

Some observers, of course, might argue that Louisville and Grambling, both 3- 1, are no cream puffs, but the point is SMU stood a good chance of beating each of its first four opponents. And even the departures of star running backs Eric Dicker-son and Craig James from last season's Southwest Conference champions didn't change that.

This fact was surely reflected in the latest coaches' poll. Voters weren't all that impressed, placing No. 12 SMU behind six teams that have a tie or loss.

The Mustangs' soft non-conference slate is in some ways an anachronism in today's game. For economic reasons, the trend seems to be toward throwing caution to the wind by beefing up the early-season schedule. Playing a big-name opponent either on the road or at home generally translates into more gate receipts. And if the matchup is really attractive, there's a good chance somebody will televise it, which means additional revenue.

Given the need to operate in the black, athletic directors must generally go this route, even if the coach bemoans the disappearance of breathers in the schedule.

One must remember, however, that most schedules are drawn up years in advance. The quality of an opponent can change radically - for better or worse - from the time a playing commitment is made.

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In the case of SMU, however, teams like North Texas State and Texas-Arlington were scheduled with an almost certain knowledge that these schools would not spring into overnight national powers.

To some degree, SMU moved toward playing ''backyard'' opponents out of necessity. With home attendance sagging in the 1970s, the Mustangs found it hard to lure name, non-conference teams to Dallas. And playing a steady diet of road games against teams like Ohio State and Penn State was not the best way to rebuild confidence in a struggling program. So SMU went to an early schedule with a strong local flavor that had the added benefit of improving the school's record.

More and more colleges are looking to find games close to home, mainly to cut rising travel costs. A year ago, Florida State dropped out of a scheduled matchup with the University of Washington rather than pay the heavy tab of flying to the West Coast. The Huskies played Texas-El Paso instead.

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