There are two ways to approach non-conference scheduling in major college football. Some programs challenge themselves in non-conference play, while others avoid challenges like Indiana Jones fleeing an oncoming bolder. LSU is in that first group.
The Tigers have been fixtures in college football's kickoff game era, opening their 2010 season against North Carolina in Atlanta, facing Oregon to open the 2011 season in Dallas, returning to Dallas to face TCU to open last season, and they'll open this coming season against Wisconsin in Houston. LSU is 3-0 in kickoff games.
One of the few SEC schools willing to leave the South, the Bayou Bengals have also completed recent home-and-homes with Washington and West Virginia. LSU is 4-0 in those games. This may have something to do with why Les Miles' club isn't afraid to schedule major opponents outside of SEC play.
The man behind LSU's non-conference scheduling strategy is associate athletics director Verge Ausberry. He's handled the Tigers' scheduling since 2007.
it's not a coincidence that LSU has sought neutral site games in major recruiting hotbeds like Atlanta, Dallas and Houston, and would like to play a neutral site game in New Orleans. In addition to filling a schedule, Ausberry has to expand LSU's brand.
“The world has changed,” Ausberry said. “Everybody says LSU’s brand is already big. I say, ‘Yeah, but you can’t ever stop growing.’ You either get better or worse every day. You’ve got to keep working on that brand.”
With the College Football Playoff oncoming, Ausberry says he hasn't seen a reason to change LSU's strategy for filling its four non-SEC games. (In addition to Wisconsin, LSU will host Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State in non-conference play.)
“They’re going to (look) at a lot of statistics on games, how much you won by, who you played,” Ausberry told the Baton Rouge Advocate of the CFP committee. “There are some things the SEC has sent out to all of us to take a look at (about) how the new process is going to work. … We’re all kind of like, ‘Let’s just see how this plays out.’ I think our schedules strength wise looks pretty good from here on out.”
In addition to this season's Wisconsin game, LSU has another neutral site date with the Badgers at Lambeau Field in 2016, and contracts with Arizona State, N.C. State and Oklahoma.
It's an interesting tightrope Ausberry walks. You don't want to submarine your own team's chances with a schedule that's too challenging, but then again, the ultimate nightmare scenario in Ausberry's world is an 11-1 LSU team that's left out of the College Football Playoff due to a schedule that the selection committee deems too soft. It sounds ridiculous today, an SEC team playing an inferior schedule, but no one knows what to expect in age where 13 voters have the fate of the college football world in their hands.
Adding to the uncertainty that makes Ausberry's job a challenge is the SEC's current 6-1-1 scheduling model. With a round-robin against six SEC West foes, an annual game against SEC rival Florida and one rotating SEC East opponent, LSU's in-conference schedule could swing wildly from year to year. It's a wild swing from year to year when you're saddled with, say, 2012 Florida and South Carolina versus 2013 Florida and Kentucky as your crossover opponents. In the end, LSU's East division draw could prove the difference between receiving a golden ticket to the College Football Playoff and not, and, of course, that's the one aspect of LSU's schedule of which Ausberry has no control.
Still, though, Ausberry builds every schedule with one thing in mind. “Our ultimate goal is to hold the crystal ball over our head,” Ausberry said.