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UConn football’s 2020 schedule is a good start for making independence work

Scheduling and getting the games on TV will require creativity and willingness to negotiate. Judging by the 2020 schedule, David Benedict is up for the task.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

On Thursday, UConn football released the lion’s share of its 2020 football schedule. Just three months after it was announced that UConn would be leaving the American Athletic Conference and heading to the Big East, next year’s schedule is set. Athletic director David Benedict also hinted that a game with an ACC opponent is close, as are the contracts for all remaining games.

The dates with UMass, Indiana, Illinois and Maine were already on the docket, originally to serve as the Huskies’ non-conference schedule. Adding Army, Virginia, Ole Miss, Liberty and San Jose State took a lot of creativity, which is a refreshing breath of fresh air and exactly what this athletic department needs to make FBS independence a viable long-term option.

When I looked at who UConn might play back in June, I kept it to teams that were currently looking for games in the 2020 season, according to FBSchedules.com. The thinking was that schools with openings would be most valid and then schools with existing relationships might move stuff around, but it wouldn’t be a key part of the strategy.

It turned out to be the opposite. Benedict broke up three games, so instead of Liberty playing Virginia, San Jose facing Army, and Ole Miss hosting Middle Tennessee State, UConn will be playing five of those teams and will play Middle Tennessee State in the future, potentially as soon as 2020. Benedict convinced all six of those schools to break their arrangements and in the case of at least five, play the Huskies this year.

Ole Miss was going to pay Middle Tennessee State $1.5 million to come to Oxford. Instead, the Huskies will go and Middle Tennessee State will get the money, while in the future, UConn will play against the Blue Raiders.

The games with Liberty, Virginia, Army and San Jose State came in similar fashions, as did the final three games that are to be announced.

Is Middle Tennessee State, a 2-5 team from Conference USA, going to move the needle for Huskies fans? Or San Jose State of the Mountain West? Probably not. But for this to be the starting point of what an independent schedule can look like is promising. Future schedules will hopefully have a few more opponents that do move the needle, and that certainly does seem like it will be the case. Per Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant:

“UConn’s guarantee games in the future will come mostly against top teams from the SEC and Big Ten. It will be balanced with home-and-home series with mid-level Power 5 teams and regionalized with expected annual games against Boston College, UMass, Syracuse and Army. BYU is expected to be a regular opponent.

What is being worked on for 2021 looks better than 2020. And further into the future, what actually becomes the increasingly easy part is scheduling attractive games.”

The 2020 slate, if the contract with the unnamed ACC opponent comes to fruition, will have five games against Power 5 teams. So the level of competition will stay on par with what was a challenging AAC slate, but down the road there will be more opponents fans and recruits care about.

Putting this schedule together on short notice could not have been easy, but it was necessary for UConn to stay confident in its new, uncharted direction for any athletic department.

If the willingness to not take the $1.5 million for the buy game because it means that two games come of it is there, then Benedict can be relied upon to bring big names into Rentschler Field and put together a solid slate when he has more than three months to work it out. We are also expecting a “big name” to “visit” UConn with a game in New York City down the road. Will we get ‘Bama? Or is that long dormant Notre Dame series coming back?

UConn already has at least two Power 5 schools on the schedule each year until 2024 and except for 2024, one of those games will be in East Hartford. Schools like Duke, NC State and Purdue will be combined with regional opponents like Boston College, UMass and Army and create a schedule that might not be objectively stronger than one that includes eight opponents from The American, but definitely more relevant to fans, players, and alumni.

Independence is going to be a challenge, between finding 12 games instead of four and securing a television deal to support football in this state, save for the occasional game that gets picked up by ESPN or CBS. However, with the 2020 schedule, Benedict has proved that the creative thinking that is required to keep the UConn football program afloat is there.

Finally, lest we forget, the rest of the school’s sports are moving into a league that makes way more sense, and will ignite the basketball programs. Football was always the question mark, with independence striking fear in the eyes of many. This latest news shows it could work out just fine.