When UConn made the decision to return back to the Big East to support its basketball programs, that meant the football team would face the uncertain life of an independent — one of just seven in the entire 130-team FBS. Immediately, the biggest question became the schedule.
As a member of the AAC, the Huskies only needed to line up four non-conference games each season. Leaving meant eight more games needed to be filled in a little more than a calendar year — a tall task considering most college football scheduling is done years in advance.
The early returns weren’t expected to be great considering the timeframe, but the hope was that eventually UConn could land series with opponents that fans actually cared about. David Benedict pulled together a strong slate for the first year in 2020 — featuring five Power Five programs, a handful of local opponents and more home games (7) than road trips (5).
The future schedules are looking good as well with the next three years already fleshed-out with a strong mix of quality opponents and winnable games. While building an entire 12-game schedule from scratch may be daunting, Benedict didn’t look at it that way.
“I think the biggest opportunity of being independent is the fact that we have flexibility... It’s the fact that we have 12 games that we can work with as opposed to four,” he said. “When you have that, I think one of the things that is very clear is there are a lot of individual schools around the country that have challenges and needs with their scheduling — and everyone has different philosophies with their scheduling — but we could identify those situations and provide flexibility enough to get things done that helped us as well as helped them.”
But while Benedict has gotten much of the credit for the scheduling — which is well-deserved — Randy Edsall played a key role as well. As soon as the move was announced in June 2019, Benedict asked the coach which schools he wanted to face.
For Edsall, this wasn’t his first taste of independence as the head coach at UConn. When the school transitioned to the FBS level (then Division 1A), the Huskies existed as independents for their first four years before joining the Big East in 2004. That experience helped Edsall decide which direction to point Benedict in.
“When we decided to do this (independence), I went back to 2002 and 2003 and looked at the schedules that we played then and I think in 2002, we would’ve played four (modern) Power Five teams and in 2003 we would’ve played six. We played a few more MAC teams but again, the schedules and the teams are really kind of similar to what we played back in 2002 and 2003 as we were an independent.”
With UConn located in a region of the country that isn’t exactly known for producing football talent, where it plays is a crucial piece of the recruiting process. With USF and UCF on the schedule every year, Edsall could guarantee to Florida prospects that they’d play in front of friends and family every year.
So when Edsall responded to Benedict with a list of schools he wanted to play, recruiting was one on the forefront of his mind.
“We were able to really stick to those guidelines and craft schedules that will aid us from a recruiting standpoint because that’s really what it’s all about is recruiting and having the kids here and their families seeing them and also playing places where they can get to,” he said.
One of the more unconsidered benefits of independence isn’t just who the Huskies will play, but when. With the new TV deal with CBS, almost all the team’s home games will kick off in at noon or 3:30. Though UConn football serves as a model for social distancing at sporting events, it’s crucial to get fans back to Rentschler Field down the road. While success on the field is the most important factor in that regard, those afternoon start times certainly won’t hurt if fan interest starts to return.
While it initially looked to be one of the biggest challenges facing UConn football in the age of independence, scheduling has quickly turned into a strength for the program. While strong schedules won’t guarantee the Huskies return to a competitive team, it gives Edsall and his staff a good base to build off as the program begins a new era.