This is the first of a three-part series about Cal Poly’s 2008 football schedule, the school’s on-hiatus rivalry with Sacramento State and the increasingly dwindling landscape of college football within California.

“It’s not that Cal Poly is bad,” Mike Huguenin opened with. He wouldn’t stay so kind, however.

“The timing of this one is weak,” continued the college sports editor for Rivals.com who on April 15 ranked the Cal Poly football team’s Nov. 22 visit to Wisconsin the 10th-most embarrassing game in the entire country this upcoming season.

“This will be the final game of the regular season for Wisconsin,” he went on. “Yeah, a I-AA game on the last big weekend of the season will fire up the fans. The fine establishments on State Street will be filled by the middle of the third quarter by fans who have left Camp Randall Stadium.”

But “embarrassing” may not be the most fitting adjective.

That – according to the teams’ rosters the week of the Feb. 22 announcement of the game – Wisconsin’s offensive linemen outweighed Cal Poly’s defensive linemen by an average of 60 pounds each? Disconcerting, perhaps.

That Wisconsin, a three-time Rose Bowl champion drew 81,746 fans per game last season, compared to Cal Poly’s 9,644? Alarming, maybe.

That the arrangement entails a $500,000 payout to Cal Poly, including a $750,000 buyout clause? Alluring, from a certain viewpoint.

All of it making hardly any sense, yet at the same time representing the craziness of finding dance partners that college football scheduling has become? Absolutely.

Nine of the Mustangs’ 10 other opponents are from their own Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA).

And apparently, of the 115 remaining FCS members, no one else wanted to dance.

“(The Badgers) were willing to play us and I-AA teams weren’t,” explains Cal Poly athletics director Alison Cone, who says she reached out to every FCS team, sometimes more than once. “I tried. It should be so easy, but it’s not.”

Lack of feasible, convenient travel to and from San Luis Obispo is often cited as precluding most teams from taking a chance on Cal Poly, but the deciding factor may be more simple.

“We’re pretty good,” Mustangs head coach Rich Ellerson points out.

After all, the Mustangs were voted as the nation’s “team most on the rise” in the Any Given Saturday preseason poll released May 26.

Not another team in the FCS has produced three Buck Buchanan Award winners, much less three in a row, as Cal Poly did from 2004-06 – a recent-enough string to scare away would-be challengers remembering the NFL-bound, backfield-terrorizing trio.

Nor can any claim returning 10 starters from an offense that averaged 487.1 yards per game last season. (Three-time defending national champion Appalachian State, the only team with a more high-octane output, returns five.)

“We have an offense that’s difficult to prepare for and a defense that’s difficult to prepare for,” Ellerson says. “If you’re a coach and you have the option of playing us or not playing us, generally you’ll choose not to play us.”

What’s resulted is a schedule Ellerson admits “doesn’t make a lot of sense if you have a map,” exemplified by staying in Louisiana for back-to-back weeks in September.

It’s also led to a murderers’-row slate out of the gate, opening Aug. 30 at Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) foe San Diego State – which, as Ellerson says, “hates (the Mustangs’) guts” after being shown up within Qualcomm Stadium in 2006 – before Sept. 6 and Sept. 13 dates hosting Montana and at McNeese State, both 11-1 and conference champions in 2007.

“Nobody wants to go play McNeese State or Montana because those guys are really good,” Ellerson says. “But they’ll play us, so we all kind of seek each other out.”

The daunting first few weeks could jeopardize the postseason chances of the Mustangs, who can’t earn an automatic bid to the playoffs due to playing in the five-deep Great West Football Conference.

If they stumble to an 0-3 start, they could sustain only one more loss to earn at-large consideration – no easy task, with an Oct. 18 stop at South Dakota State, which beat them 48-35 last year and is slotted 18th in the AGS rankings.

Odds of adding a coveted 12th outing to increase the likelihood of a necessary seven-win campaign appear negligible.

“(Other) people that aren’t playing 12 games right now don’t want to play 12 games,” Ellerson says.

Even if the program finds itself having bitten off more than it can chew, however, it will have more lunch money in the future.

Though Cone says Cal Poly is paying Idaho State a “little bit” for its Nov. 1 drop-in to Alex G. Spanos Stadium, and North Carolina Central more than $100,000 for its Nov. 8 look-in, those expenditures figure to be offset by the check written by San Diego State that Cone placed at about $180,000.

While Cal Poly will receive payments following the season, when they’ll be used to upgrade facilities, Cone says, the football program has already accounted for technical improvements, such as financing the added travel, replacing helmets, shoulder pads, cleats and gloves, and implementing an advanced sideline communication system.

“It’s great for us as players,” says Mustangs senior-to-be running back Ryan Mole. “We’ll have better equipment and accessories – I think it’s a great investment.”

The Wisconsin venture is slightly less hefty than others recently involving the Big Ten Conference, from which Iowa reportedly paid Montana $650,000 for a 2006 trip.

Even that exchange pales in comparison to the $900,000 Wyoming announced it will be anted by Texas for a 2012 excursion.

Of course, as Michigan – and most of the FBS, it would stand to reason – learned last season after wiring Appalachian State $400,000 only to implode in disastrous, Sports Illustrated-cover fashion, the money is only for showing up, not what follows.

“When you can beat a team like that, you feel like you can compete with them in all sports, and you carry the effects of it for a long time,” says Mike Robles, an assistant athletics director at UC Davis.

He would know. Robles, a 1988 Cal Poly graduate, was with the Aggies in 2005 when they pocketed $200,000 to head to Stanford, which lost for the first time ever to a non-Division I-A squad, 20-17.

“It helped put us on the map nationally,” Robles says. “The Monday after, when I came into my office, it was crazy. There were camera crews showing up on campus and I was getting phone calls from all over the country. Jim Rome was talking about it. It’s something this campus has latched on to as a major source of pride.”

Then again, the spectacle may not have been without a cost. Naturally, the success story made would-be suitors more antsy about future partnerships.

“It’s a challenge,” Robles says. “It’s just hard to find teams who want to give you a game when you’re pretty good, like Cal Poly is.”

Donovan Aird is a journalism senior and a Mustang Daily sports editor and columnist.

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