LOGAN — So, how much is too much to ask of a football team to field a successful program? Is the financial gain of big payouts worth the risk of dismantling a program?

Those are questions Utah State athletic director Randy Spetman has asked himself in the 2 1/2 months he has been with the Aggies. It's not a question unique to USU, however. Many smaller football programs throughout the country sacrifice the success of their teams on the field for the money.

"I think you need to play some marquee programs, and you don't need to play a marquee program every year or two or three of them," he said. "We shouldn't be playing Alabama, Clemson and Utah this year. It's just too much. We have a chance to win but not a great chance."

Since 1999, the Utah State University football team has played 10 teams ranked in the Top 25 (seven on the road), and it is, not surprisingly, 0-10.

It's no secret the Aggies did it for the money. Last year alone, with games at Nebraska and Arizona State, the Aggies earned close to $1 million — nearly 1/8 of the budget for the entire athletic department.

It's a trend that will continue for the next six years with games scheduled at Alabama (2005); at Oregon and at Arkansas (2006); at Oklahoma (2007); at Oregon and at Arkansas (2008) and at Oklahoma (2010).

In 2006 it will play Wyoming five consecutive years with four of the games scheduled in Laramie.

Also, with their entrance into the Western Athletic Conference in 2005, the Aggies have games with Boise State and Fresno State, and both are currently ranked in the Top 25.

The Aggies also have home-and-home dates with Utah through 2010, and should Utah, Boise State and Fresno State remain among the nation's elite, Utah State could play as many as five ranked teams in the same season.

Saturday's 8 p.m. (MDT) contest with UNLV isn't a payout game because the Aggies will play UNLV in Logan in 2005 and 2007 and before returning to Las Vegas in 2008.

"To me, I never look more than two or three years out because of just what happened this year with all the BCS and conference shuffles," he said.

Spetman, who joined the Aggie staff in July, inherits the difficult situation, but he will try to make some favorable changes in the near future. With contracts already in place, he said it could be hard to do.

"The thing that makes me nervous is we have some contracts, and how do I get out of them?" he said. "The buyout would destroy my whole year. I'm going to have to work with some athletic directors and try to figure out how they can help me help our program be successful in the long term."

He agrees the quick money is nice, but three, for or five near-automatic losses a year don't look good on any schedule.

In a three-season stretch from 2000-2002, the Aggies earned $3,373,344 in guaranteed money, and in those three years, the majority of the money came from road games at Texas Tech, Arizona State, LSU, Fresno State, Nebraska, Iowa, BYU (twice) and Boise State. They also had road games with teams from smaller conferences where, if there was a guarantee, it wouldn't have been much.

Oregon, ranked No. 6, was the only ranked team to play in Logan in that three-year span.

In the four years (and three games into 2004) Utah State coach Mick Dennehy has been with the Aggies, his teams have played eight ranked schools (four in 2001) and are 0-8. In all games, Dennehy is 17-31.

Spetman said he's willing to accept a smaller payout for a better chance for a win. And if his budget and fund-raising plans go as expected he'll be able to do that.

"I think we can make it without doing that (scheduling too many big payout games)," he said. " . . . There's other programs our there close that maybe isn't a huge payout but maybe it's still a successful payout."

Since 1970, the Aggies have played 37 teams ranked in the Top 25 (six in the Top 5 including two No. 1's and two No. 2's), and they are 1-36. Their only win over a ranked team during that time came against No. 25 Fresno State, 20-19, on Nov. 2, 1991.

E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com