You need a cupcake game.
It’s an idea I first remember hearing espoused by Hollywood funnyman Adam Sandler in the 2005 remake of “The Longest Yard,” though it’s certainly been around for much longer than that.
The movie sees a former NFL quarterback, played by Sandler, kicked out of the game for point shaving and then arrested and sent to prison after he steals and wrecks his ex-girlfriend’s car in a drunken rampage. While in prison, he’s approached by the warden to help improve the prison’s football team, which plays in a fictitious semipro prison guards league.
Sandler’s suggestion is that the guards play a cupcake game, or what some might call a tune-up game. Of course, the warden’s idea is then to use his own inmates to field the team his guards are supposed to trounce.
The concept of a tune-up game is still put to use by college football teams across the nation in which teams from larger conferences schedule what is theoretically a much-lesser program to come play them in Week 1.
This allows teams to see live action and congeal as a unit while also building confidence with a low risk of anything going wrong. It’s what the Mizzou Tigers are doing this weekend when they open the season against the University of Tennessee – Martin.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Unlike teams in the National Football League, college teams don’t have a preseason in which to iron out the kinks that might rise up against a live opponent, as opposed to the scout team. This gives teams that chance while they theoretically should be able to overpower that first opponent even if they aren’t at their best to start the season.
However, most teams that are hopeful of a berth in the College Football Playoff have eschewed the practice of scheduling a cupcake opponent in favor of a higher-rated team that if they can beat will give them a leg up in the polls and with the playoff selection committee.
For example, while Missouri is playing UT Martin in Week 1, across the Southeastern Conference, No. 9 Auburn is starting the season against No. 6 Washington, Tennesee is playing No. 17 West Virginia, No. 1 Alabama is playing Louisville and No. 25 LSU is playing No. 8 Miami.
Others are still putting the cupcake schedule to good use, like No. 3 Georgia, which opens the season Saturday against Austin Peay and No. 18 Mississippi State, which plays Stephen F. Austin.
However, even against the sweetest of cupcake opponents, a win is not assured. Just ask Michigan, which famously entered the 2007 season at No. 5 in the polls and lost in Week 1 at home against Appalachian State. Appalachian State was a great Division I-AA team and had won two-straight National Championships at that level, but the idea that they could contend with the Division I Wolverines was ludicrous.
But then it happened.
That 34-32 loss absolutely derailed Michigan’s season. The Wolverines still wound up 9-4 and finished the season nationally ranked, but they wound up playing in the Citrus Bowl rather than the then BCS Bowl game they were considered a virtual lock for at the start of the season (the current playoff system hadn’t been instituted yet).
Cupcakes aren’t a sure thing and when they go wrong they can end up being particularly embarrassing. Mizzou used to start off the season with not just one cupcake opponent, but sometimes two or three leading into their conference schedule. That led to the Tigers wearing egg on their faces in 2004 as after handing Arkansas State in the first week, the Tigers went to Troy, formerly Troy State, and lost on national television, 24-14.
Mizzou had been ranked No. 17 in the nation coming into the game, but fell from the rankings and ended up 5-6 and didn’t even earn the right to play in a bowl game. This was a team quarterbacked by Mizzou icon Brad Smith in his junior season and still they were not immune to such a debilitating loss.
Week 1 last season didn’t result in a loss, but Mizzou’s season opener with Missouri State was far from a walk in the park. The Tigers won, 72-43, but Missouri State made the Mizzou defense look laughable and it took a record-breaking day from quarterback Drew Lock to ensure the Tigers escaped with a win.
Mizzou followed that game with five consecutive losses before finally righting the ship and battling back to bowl eligibility.
So, when you’re watching the Tigers host the UT Martin Skyhawks this Saturday at Faurot Field, remember that sometimes, like in “The Longest Yard,” the cupcakes bite back.