Disgraceful scheduling by NCAA football powers...

By Bruce Jenkins

Updated 11:40 pm, Tuesday, August 12, 2014

College football is suddenly about bold, life-changing strides into the future. The Ed O'Bannon case has set the stage for student-athletes being paid, and there's no telling where the "Power Five" conferences may be headed in the wake of their recently granted autonomy.

Some things never change, though, like the outright cowardice in big-time scheduling. Once again we find major colleges setting themselves up against apparent pushovers, and it's a disgrace to the game's integrity.

Cal and Stanford actually rank among the least offensive violators. The Bears' awkward moment - hosting Sacramento State on Sept. 6 - is offset by nonconference games against Northwestern (classic opener, on the road) and BYU. Stanford gets a real yawner in UC Davis but will also face Army and Notre Dame.

This isn't to demean every lower-division school in the country, for a stunning upset is always possible. Nor do we assume that such teams as Army, Purdue or Kansas loom as dangerous opponents like years ago.

It's just plain wrong, though, for major-college schools to run up an impressive won-lost record at the expense of virtually anonymous have-nots. On that front, this looms as one of the most ridiculous seasons ever.

For example (last year's records in parentheses):

Alabama (11-2): If it isn't embarrassing enough to be playing Florida Atlantic and Southern Mississippi in September, the Crimson Tide play their next-to-last game against Western Carolina. That's just inexcusable. Start over while you have the chance.

Auburn (12-2): Nonconference games against San Jose State (apologies, Spartan fans), Louisiana Tech and - again, with just two weeks left in the season - Samford, a 4,800-student private school in Alabama. It's almost like somebody's playing a practical joke of some kind.

(While we're on the subject, check out these other games scheduled for Nov. 22, such a crucial late stage of the season: Clemson-Georgia State, Florida-Eastern Kentucky and Georgia-Charleston Southern. Nothing like a tidy 66-0 win to carry into Thanksgiving week.)

LSU (10-3): Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State (2-10). That isn't "nonconference," that's "noncompetitive." Try USC, Oklahoma and Florida State next time.

Michigan State (13-1): Jacksonville State, Eastern Michigan and Wyoming. That's just a complete absence of pride.

Missouri (12-2): South Dakota State, Toledo and Central Florida, first three games of the season. Once finished with the comedy portion of the show, the Tigers open for real on Sept. 20 against Indiana.

Nebraska (9-4): Right out of the gate, Florida Atlantic, McNeese State and Fresno State. Amid all this nonsense, that last matchup actually sounds decent.

Northwestern (5-7), right after the Cal game: Northern Illinois and Western Illinois. On a somber note, Eastern Illinois wasn't available.

Arizona (8-5): UNLV, Texas-San Antonio and Nevada. Really? At least rival Arizona State lined up a legitimate nonconference opponent in Notre Dame.

Now take a look from the other side of the fence. San Jose State will play on the road at Auburn, Minnesota and Navy. Arkansas State has lined up Tennessee and Miami. Central Michigan gets Purdue, Syracuse and Kansas. Central Florida opens with Penn State and Missouri, and Florida Atlantic plays Nebraska and Alabama. Every one of those schools has a more legitimate first month of the season - by a long shot - than powerhouses in the SEC and other elite conferences.

The most impressive schedule in college football? No surprise there. It's Notre Dame - as usual. Every school on the Irish schedule carries the legitimacy of major-college standing, and even the relatively lesser lights look good, such as 12-1 Louisville and 10-4 Rice.

Years from now, if the smaller programs are crushed by "progress" and the big schools exclusively play each other, perhaps we'll be nostalgic for the days when the little guys got a shot. Here in real time, sorry - it just doesn't fly.

Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. E-mail: bjenkins@sfchronicle.com

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