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Here’s why WSU football seems to always play on the road first in home-and-home series

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It’s actually not a very complicated answer.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Boise State Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve paid close attention to Washington State football’s upcoming non-conference schedules, you might have noticed a little oddity: In home-and-home situations, the Cougars almost always make the road trip first.

When WSU hosts Boise State in September, it will come after the Cougs made the initial trip to Boise last fall. In recently announced series, they’re going to travel to Houston, San Diego State, Utah State and Kansas State first, while the Wisconsin series that has been on the books for a while will involve two trips to Madison before the Badgers come to Pullman. Additionally, WSU has already been to BYU and are still waiting for the return trip from the other Cougars.

About the only exception currently on the books is WSU’s return trip to Wyoming.

WSU Future Non-Conference Schedules

Year Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Pac-12 Home Games Total Home Games
Year Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Pac-12 Home Games Total Home Games
2019 vs. New Mexico State (8/31) vs. Northern Colorado (9/7) at Houston (9/14) 4 6
2020 at Utah State (9/5) vs. Houston (9/12) vs. Idaho (9/19) 5 7
2021 vs. Utah State (9/4) vs. Portland State (9/11) vs. BYU (10/23) 4 7
2022 Open at Wisconsin (9/10) vs. Colorado State (9/17) 5 --
2023 at Colorado State (9/2) vs. Wisconsin (9/9) Open 4 --
2024 vs. Portland State (8/31) at San Diego State (9/7) Open 5 --
2025 vs. Idaho (8/30) vs. San Diego State (9/6) Open 4 --
2026 Open at Kansas State (9/12) vs. Boise State (9/19) 5 --
2027 Open vs. Kansas (9/11) at Boise State (9/18) 4 --
2028 Open at Kansas (9/9) Open 5 --
2029 Open vs. Kansas State (9/8) Open 4 --

Which led us to wonder: Is there a strategic reason the series are structured this way? Like, does WSU end up coming out ahead financially if the other team backs out of its return trip to Pullman?

According to WSU spokesperson Bill Stevens, there’s actually no strategy behind it, other than it just working out that way as WSU pursues its scheduling goals.

As The Seattle Times’ Stefanie Loh explored a couple of years ago, putting together non-conference games isn’t the easiest task in the world for an athletic department, and WSU has two primary goals these days: seven home games in Pullman while attempting an attractive “A-B-C” model of scheduling opponents each year.

The former is fairly easy in years when WSU hosts five Pac-12 games — two non-conference games at home in 2018 and 2020 mean the Cougs hit their mark. However, in years when WSU hosts only four, it means trying to land three home non-conference games in the same year. That’s what you see in 2017 and 2021, leaving 2019 — with just two non-conference home games — as the only year in the next five in which the Cougs will have just six contests at Martin Stadium.

Thus, it made sense to go to both Utah State and Houston first, and if you look into the future where WSU just has one opponent scheduled so far, you’ll notice that the road trips come in years when WSU has those five Pac-12 home games. WSU likely will fill in those two open slots with a pair of lightweights to get to seven.

As for the A-B-C scheduling? That seems to be more of an ideal than reality; in practice, WSU has embraced more of a “B-C-D” model, which isn’t much of a surprise, given how hard it appears to be to convince Power 5 teams to trek to Pullman when they aren’t forced to. Not that Mike Leach is complaining, given that light non-conference scheduling has long been a key part of his strategy in getting his teams to bowl games every season, even if it hasn’t yet worked out that way for him at WSU.

So there you go. If you hate the Extreme Scheduling Anxiety that comes with wondering if opponents will bail on their return trips to Pullman and you want someone to blame, blame the Pac-12 and its nine conference games that result in an alternating unbalanced home-road schedule each year.