In a perfect world, Joe Castiglione would have a blank canvas.
Castiglione, now in his 21st year as OU’s athletic director, would be able to choose any team he wants for a nonconference schedule he thinks would propel Oklahoma into tough conference play, a College Football Playoff appearance and, ultimately, a national championship.
But Castiglione can’t control these outcomes, and in the world of college football, where nonconference foes are decided years in advance — the Sooners have a home-and-away series with Clemson set for 2035 and 2036 — picking from a clean slate is usually not the case. And it wasn’t in 2017, either, when Castiglione decided to pay $575,000 to South Dakota, a rare FCS foe, to play in Norman on Saturday.
Castiglione and the university were in talks with “a couple” of programs interested in a 2019 match for a single game in Norman. Those teams eventually chose to play other programs, and when the talks fell through, Castiglione was left to fill an opening he thought for sure would be filled. Scheduling a game three years in advance may seem like a good amount of time, but teams aren’t necessarily lining up to come and play just one game in Norman.
“It happens,” Castiglione told The Daily. “It’s not the first time it happens, and certainly it happens periodically with everybody. That’s just the nature of one of the crazy dynamics of scheduling.”
So, Castiglione and the Sooners went back to the marketplace and expanded their search to FCS teams as well, a move seldom made by OU when faced with similar scheduling changes.
After evaluating his limitations, Castiglione decided his best option was a home game against the Coyotes, Oklahoma’s first FCS opponent since 2012 — when Florida A&M left Norman with a staggering 69-13 loss — and the program’s fourth since Castiglione became athletic director in 1998. Finding an FCS opponent willing to play the Sooners at Owen Field is a rare occasion.
It’s a small school going up against a blue-blood Power Five program that is considered one of the greatest in college football. The Coyotes are coming to Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, a venue that seated 84,534-plus fans in OU’s season-opening win against Houston Sunday night, from the DakotaDome, which seats up to 10,000.
ESPN gives the Sooners a 99.2 percent chance of winning. Sports betting outlets have Oklahoma winning by 40 or more points.
“I think that’s in the expectation of the FBS teams that we play,” said David Herbster, South Dakota athletic director, to The Daily. “And frankly, why shouldn’t it be? You’re an FBS team and you’re playing an FCS team. Our expectation is to go and play our game and see what happens.”
The game is the least flashy on OU’s schedule, and due to TV rights holder agreements with OU and the Big 12, the match is basically a designated pay-per-view broadcast.
But nevertheless, Castiglione scheduled the game, and he only schedules games with one destination in mind: the College Football Playoff National Championship.
“For the University of Oklahoma, the goal is always to prepare ourselves for a tough conference schedule,” Castiglione said. “It puts us in the best position to play for a conference championship at the end of the season, and hopefully winning that conference championship propels us to the College Football Playoff with a path to the national championship.
“That is our goal every single year.”
‘You have to keep an open mind.’
For most FCS teams, playing a Power Five team means program exposure on national television they’re not accustomed to. But a few weeks before the game, the Sooners announced their match against South Dakota was going to be available on pay-per-view.
The Sooners have one game every season not picked up by major networks, where they have to decide how to showcase the match, and broadcast networks picked all of OU’s regular season games except the Coyotes, who are used to having games that require payment.
“Frankly, I was indifferent,” Herbster said of the decision to make the game pay-per-view. “It would’ve been nice if it was televised and easier to get, but there’s a lot of places that we’ve played (where) it might be streamed or behind a paywall — it might only be on Dish Network or one station or another that somebody doesn’t get. Frankly, it really doesn’t faze us at all.”
Oklahoma’s game against South Dakota is the only pay-per-view game of an AP Top 25 program in its nonconference schedule this season. With the other 24 teams, their games are either in their respective conference cable network — excluding OU and Iowa State, because the Big 12 doesn’t have its own network — or are picked up by ESPN, ABC, NBC, CBS or FOX.
Texas is unique in the Big 12 because it has the Longhorn Network to pick up games not selected by the above five networks. Iowa State’s match on Sept. 21 against UL Monroe hasn’t had any network pick it up yet. Without a native network to belong to, OU, Iowa State and the rest of the Big 12 teams’ broadcasting options aren’t always obvious.
In 2018, that one game not chosen was Oklahoma’s 28-21 overtime win against Army. In 2017, it was the Sooners’ 56-14 win over Tulane. It’s common for the Sooners — but not so common for the programs in the other four Power Five conferences.
The launch of the ACC Network in 2019 leaves the Big 12 as the only Power Five conference without its own cable network. With Texas having the Longhorn Network and the Big 12 having TV rights contracts with ABC, ESPN and Fox that span into the next decade, Big 12 sports fans — except for Texas’ — will rely on alternative viewing methods of watching their team for that one game of the year.
To watch the Sooners play a team who finished 3-5 in the Missouri Valley Conference in 2018, it costs $575,000. Given the Sooners are without a conference network for cable, Castiglione sees opportunity in the pay-per-view route.
“There’s still a market for it,” Castiglione said. “It’s all part of the process of working through the media rights agreements.”
The Big 12’s latest sports broadcasting venture is Big 12 Now, a partnership with ESPN+ where over 800 Big 12 sporting events will be broadcast. Only eight of the 10 Big 12 programs are part of it — OU and Texas are the exceptions. The conference also has the Big 12 Digital Network, where fans can stream highlights, press conferences and more.
It’s not cable TV, but to Castiglione it is a step closer to what the other Power Five conferences have.
“The launch of the Big 12 Digital Network, in many ways, is that move,” Castiglione said. “It’s going to operate similarly in the digital sphere as any of the other conference networks. … But you’ve got to keep your eye on the way technology is evolving. You have to keep an open mind, the way things are continually changing. People can’t necessarily predict the future. In its entirety, this is definitely going to be a key distribution method for programming in the future.”