STILLWATER — Riding on an Arkansas-bound bus with the Oklahoma State cross country team last fall, Dave Martin had football on the brain.
It wasn't the historic season that the Cowboys were in the midst of that he was thinking about but rather the season that was still a year away. The man who makes OSU's football schedule usually has contracts for nonconference games signed, sealed, delivered at least five years ahead of time, but last fall, he still needed one more nonconference game for a season that was less than a year away.
The situation was dire.
Calls to dozens of schools hadn't panned out, but Martin had a promising lead on a program that might be more desperate to schedule a game than he was.
It was on that bus ride that Martin first called Savannah State.
“Did we plan that?” he said of the scheduling scramble. “No.”
Want to know why in the world OSU, fresh off its best season ever, is opening with Savannah State, its worst nonconference opponent ever?
Then you need to know what led up to Martin placing that phone call on that bus.
It starts with conference realignment. There was time when Martin had four nonconference games scheduled for the Cowboys this season, but then the conferences started swapping schools. Multiple leagues decided to play nine conference games instead of eight, forcing teams to reduce their nonconference slates from four games to three.
Deals that had been done for years were suddenly being altered or voided entirely.
“One move causes another move, and another move causes another move,” Martin said, “and pretty soon you're moving all kinds of things.”
The domino effect was enormous, and when it hit OSU, the Cowboys were left with only two opponents, Arizona and Louisiana-Lafayette, for three nonconference games.
The search was on.
“Listen to this,” Martin said, pulling a sheet of paper out of his files. “I called Stony Brook, Gardner-Webb, Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Jackson State, Southern University, Mississippi Valley, Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado, Southern Utah, Sam Houston State, Tennessee Tech, Portland State, McNeese State, University of Tennessee-Martin, Tennessee State, Idaho State.
“Um, that's just the front page.”
Some of those schools didn't have any open dates. Others wanted too much money to travel to Stillwater for a game. Still others wanted no part of the Cowboys.
“Some of those people had games available,” Martin said. “They just didn't want to play us.”
And since OSU is working with a 60,000-seat stadium instead of an 80,000- or 100,000-seat one, it can't afford the payouts that some schools can. There are lower-tier FBS schools, also known as Division I-A, demanding well over $1 million for nonconference games and FCS schools, once known as Division I-AA, asking for as much as $750,000.
The more desperate those schools know a big-time program is, the higher the cost they'll demand.
So, why in the world is OSU playing Savannah State?
Because all the pieces of the puzzle finally fit.
When Martin made that phone call on the track bus, Savannah State was in dire straits. It needed not one but three nonconference games and didn't demand a payout that was beyond OSU's budget.
Savannah State is receiving $385,000 from OSU, according to a Savannah State official.
Martin knows there's criticism that the defending Big 12 champ is playing an FCS team that won just once each of the past two seasons. But he also knows the reality — widespread conference realignment left OSU and many other schools scrambling to find nonconference opponents.
Sometimes, they found good ones.
Sometimes, not so much.
“That was the landscape that we were living in the past couple years,” Martin said. “It'll smooth out now as the conferences get settled. I don't think it's a sign of the times. I think it's a sign of the time we went through with conference realignment.
“If it was going to be like that every year, you'd be worried about it, but the landscape changed and everybody had to adapt.”
Best nonconference matchups this season
The five best nonconference matchups in college football this season:
1. Michigan vs. Alabama, Cowboys Stadium (Arlington, Texas), Saturday: This matchup of top-10 teams and perennial national powerhouses should be fantastic.
2. Boise State at Michigan State, Friday: Boise State never shies away from big-time non-conference matchups. Michigan State will be raucous.
3. Clemson vs. Auburn, Georgia Dome (Atlanta), Saturday: Another top-25 showdown. Another neutral site game. Another opening week masterpiece.
4. Notre Dame at Oklahoma, Oct. 27: Simply seeing the names of these two programs side by side is cool. Getting them on the same field will be special.
5. Miami at Kansas State, Sept 8: The Wildcats traditionally schedule softies, but this series with The U already produced an instant classic. How ‘bout another?
Five worst nonconference games
The five worst nonconference matchups in college football this season:
1. Western Carolina at Alabama, Nov. 17: The defending national champs are playing a FCS team that won once last season. That victory came against Mars Hill. Mars who?
2. Savannah State at Florida State, Sept. 8: Savannah State won one game a year ago. By three points. Against North Carolina Central.
3. Savannah State at OSU, Saturday: Since the turn of the century, Savannah State has won only 20 games. OSU won 23 the past two years.
4. Murray State at Florida State, Saturday: Florida State had to scramble after West Virginia dropped it. The result? Two FCS opponents.
5. Florida A&M at OU, Sept. 8: Florida A&M played one major-college team last season, losing to South Florida 70-17.