Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006 | One more win and the University of San Diego football team may be forced to put the remainder of its 2006 schedule through the shredder. Essentially, the Toreros have become too good for the schedule that was drawn up before the season started.
If USD, which improved to a school record 9-0 with last week’s 38-21 win over Jacksonville University, beats Dayton Saturday night at Torero Stadium, this could be one of the more unique stories you’ll come across in college athletics. Usually when a team is too good for its schedule, it’s stuck playing it out and naysayers discredit them by claiming they didn’t play anybody.
But the Pioneer Football League, USD’s conference, and Northeast Conference have already agreed to one schedule change to accommodate USD’s success. The PFL and NEC champions were originally scheduled meet Nov. 18 in the Gridiron Classic, a bowl game arranged by the two conferences to cap off the 2006 season.
But when USD moved into the Top 25 rankings for all Division I-AA schools – scholarship and non-scholarship – the two conferences agreed to move the Gridiron to Dec. 2. Additionally, they agreed to accept the PFL runner-up if USD didn’t want to play in the game.
Why would USD turn down such a reward? Simple, they have a chance to make the leap into the Division I-AA playoffs. The 16-team bracket, with eight automatic berths and eight at-large entries, will be seeded on Nov. 19.
If USD earns a berth into a bracket controlled by I-AA schools that can offer 63 scholarships – it’s believed to be unprecedented for a non-scholarship school like USD to advance – the Toreros will confront their second schedule change. USD will have to request UC Davis cancel its game with the Toreros’ Nov. 25 at Davis. That’s the date for the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs.
“We’ve been communicating with the athletic director, and they’ve been very understanding about it,” USD athletic director Ky Snyder said. “We talked about this when we signed the contract. It’s a long shot for us, but we’ll continue to talk with them if we can take care of business. The first thing is we have to win our game Saturday.”
USD’s bid for a playoff berth is similar to the Bowl Championship Series. With the exception of Utah in 2004, the mid-major conferences have been shut out of the BCS bowl game bids considered reserved for major conferences.
The Toreros’ chances of earning an at-large berth became realistic in the past six weeks while climbing from their first appearance at No. 25 in The Sports Network poll to No. 15 in the latest poll (the Toreros continue to be ranked No. 1 among mid-major, non-scholarship schools).
“We have to play a good game this week and then give the selection committee as much information as we can,” Snyder said. “It’s similar to the other NCAA bids we’ve been involved in with basketball and other sports. I’m sure the committee will take into consideration strength of schedule and those types of things.”
USD coach Jim Harbaugh, in his third year at the school, has assembled a collection of talent that isn’t your typical non-scholarship school.
At quarterback is Josh Johnson, a 6-foot-3, 195-pound junior who may be playing on Sundays in the future. But Division I-A schools missed on him because in the spring and summer before his senior year, when athletes are attending recruiting combines, he stood only 5-11, 145-pounds. His growth spurt kicked in the next couple of years.
Johnson is a candidate for the Walter Payton Award, the Heisman Trophy equivalent for Division I-AA. I don’t know when I’ve seen a smarter quarterback who isn’t already playing in the NFL. You could say puts on a clinic on how to play that position, except what makes him special isn’t something that can be taught.
“He has that intangible thing of knowing when the pressure is coming,” Snyder said. “He’s always taking little side steps to the left or the right. He has that quick release that gives him an extra half-second. He can tuck and run and that makes him always a threat. He’s fun to watch.”
But USD lines up other players who could play at the next level.
The starting free safety, Chase McBride of Santa Fe Christian, is a former USC defensive back who transferred home to play for the Toreros. Linebacker Kyson Hawkins, a Fallbrook High alumnus, turned down offers to walk-on at San Diego State or Colorado State. Defensive end Eric Bakhtiari may be in an NFL camp next summer as a free agent.
Imagine USD earning a berth and then playing a team such as No. 9 Cal Poly, which beat San Diego State on Oct. 28 at Qualcomm Stadium. If the Toreros upset Cal Poly, that would be a bitter pill to swallow for the Aztecs.
That’s certainly getting ahead of things, but just the idea of USD challenging for an at-large playoff berth is reason enough to warm up the shredder.