There’s been a lot of talk about scheduling lately, with the College Football Playoff coming up in the near future and strength of schedule figuring to be a prominent component by the selection committee in choosing the four teams.
What you’re seeing is a lot of teams beefing up their non-conference schedules. Now, this can’t all be because of the playoff. Most of the teams upgrading their schedules won’t sniff the playoff, so the tougher — and more attractive — games could be more in an effort to spur on fan interest and ticket sales.
Whatever the reason, I always like to see which teams are challenging themselves in the non-conference portion of the schedule, so I do this little exercise on an annual basis.
It’s admittedly a very crude scale, but I judge each game from 0 to 5 and see whose schedule adds up to the toughest. There will obviously be debate about which teams get which numerical value, but here’s a rough outline:
- 5: Top 10-caliber teams or thereabout
- 4: Teams that could wind up in the Top 25
- 3: BCS teams outside the Top 25 or upper-tiered non-BCS teams
- 2: Lower-level BCS teams or mediocre non-BCS teams
- 1: FBS teams that probably won’t contend for a bowl
- 0: FCS teams or bottom-of-the-barrel FBS teams. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
Here’s what I came up with for the ACC. Feel free to critique at will:
Virginia — vs. BYU (3), vs. Oregon (5), vs. VMI (0), vs. Ball State (2): Give the Cavaliers credit: they’re taking aim at some big schools. Oregon shouldn’t miss too much of a beat with Mark Helfrich taking over for Chip Kelly. All the players are the same. Other than Alabama, there might not be a tougher non-conference matchup in the country than the Ducks. BYU’s defense could be one of the better ones UVa plays this year. And don’t sleep on Ball State. The Cardinals went 9-3 last year and return quarterback Keith Wenning and several skill players on a terrific offense.
Clemson — vs. Georgia (5), vs. South Carolina State (0), vs. The Citadel (0), at South Carolina (5): When you schedule two top-10 SEC foes in your non-conference schedule, you’re allowed to play two patsies in the other two games. If we were measuring the schedules a different way — as in how likely teams are to win all of their non-conference games — then the Tigers’ slate would be by far the toughest, with two elite teams on it. Fortunately for them, the Georgia game is the opener and the South Carolina game is the finale, so the games won’t pile up on them.
Virginia Tech — vs. Alabama (5), vs. Western Carolina (0), at East Carolina (2), vs. Marshall (2): People can dog the final three games of the Hokies’ schedule all they want, but nobody can deny that Tech faces a monumental task in the opener. Not just because of how many national titles Alabama has won in recent years, but because of how difficult it is to do well against Nick Saban in an neutral site opener. Just ask Michigan or, at the start of Saban’s incredible run in Tuscaloosa, Clemson. East Carolina and Marshall aren’t sexy names, but they both have pretty prolific offenses and should challenge for the Conference USA East title.
Georgia Tech — vs. Elon (0), at BYU (3), vs. Alabama A&M (0), vs. Georgia (5): Last year, you wouldn’t have considered Middle Tennessee a formidable non-conference foe. Naturally, the Blue Raiders beat the Yellow Jackets 49-28 in Atlanta, all but assuring defensive coordinator Al Groh‘s eventual dismissal. So these rankings can be deceiving. But Georgia is a legit game (aka “Clean, Old Fashioned Hate,” a game the Jackets have won only once in the last 12 years) and BYU, as mentioned before, should provide a tough defensive test.
North Carolina — at South Carolina (5), vs. Middle Tennessee (1), vs. East Carolina (2), vs. Old Dominion (0): As openers go, matching up against the Gamecocks and star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney should be a treat (even for us beat writers, since it’s a Thursday night game). East Carolina is OK and Middle Tennessee gets a token point, mostly for last year’s upset of Georgia Tech. I list all FCS teams (or in ODU’s case, a team transitioning from FCS to FBS) as zero points, so Old Dominion gets a goose egg, even though the Monarchs have an offense that could be tricky to prepare for. The bottom line is: no fully-motivated FBS team should ever lose to an FCS team. (Which is where the danger lies in those games.)
Syracuse — vs. Penn State (3), at Northwestern (4), vs. Wagner (0), vs. Tulane (0): A couple of Big Ten tilts highlight the Orange’s schedule. Between Penn State and Northwestern, you’d expect the former to be ranked higher. But I honestly think Northwestern, fresh off a 10-win season, has the better chance to be ranked higher. Plus, I think Penn State (a team I correctly picked to be decent last year, despite many naysayers), will start to feel the weight of those NCAA sanctions a bit more this year. Maybe neither is quite a “4″ in terms of points, but combined, I could see them both amounting to about 7 points in this little exercise.
Pittsburgh — vs. New Mexico (0), vs. Old Dominion (0), at Navy (2), vs. Notre Dame (5): There’s not a lot early on for Pitt, although having Notre Dame on the schedule is a big boost. This probably isn’t going to be the same type of Fighting Irish team as last year, at least not one that’s going to run the table during the regular season, but considering how well Notre Dame did last season, expecting a top-10 caliber team this year isn’t too ridiculous. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Pitt should have won that game last year. Now the Panthers get the Irish at home.
Florida State — vs. Nevada (2), vs. Bethune-Cookman (0), vs. Idaho (0), at Florida (5): That’s a pretty weak early-season schedule for FSU, although, like Georgia Tech and Clemson, when you have an automatic top-tier SEC foe late in the year, you don’t want to overschedule early. The timing of that game worked out well. The ‘Noles don’t play the Gators until the last game of the regular season. If all goes to plan, quarterback Jameis Winston will have 11 starts under his belt by then.
Miami — vs. Florida Atlantic (0), vs. Florida (5), vs. Savannah State (0), at South Florida (2): The ‘Canes won’t leave the state for this year’s non-conference slate and loses a few points since South Florida isn’t expected to be quite the opponent it has been in past years. The game against the Gators saves Miami’s schedule. The teams have met only once since 2005, a 26-3 Florida romp in 2008. Sadly, it doesn’t look like this will be a regular matchup in upcoming years. The teams don’t have any future games set up.
Wake Forest — vs. Presbyterian (0), vs. Louisiana-Monroe (2), at Army (1), at Vanderbilt (4): It’s hard to blame Wake, a team that’s going to be on that line of bowl eligibility/non-eligibility on a yearly basis, for scheduling this many lightweights. Louisiana-Monroe gave some BCS-level schools fits last year, beating Arkansas and giving Auburn and Baylor a run for their money. It should be a Sun Belt contender this year, although that’s still far from a heavyweight opponent. Vanderbilt is a hard team to peg. The ‘Dores finished last year on a seven-game winning streak, although they beat two bowl teams in that streak, and ones that barely qualified at that. I’ll give Vandy the benefit of being a 4-point team here, but I’d like to see James Franklin win a big game before I feel comfortable with that assessment.
N.C. State — vs. Louisiana Tech (2), vs. Richmond (0), vs. Central Michigan (1), vs. East Carolina (2): This might be the best thing for Dave Doeren, an easy introduction to his first gig as a head coach at a BCS school. Louisiana Tech would have had a higher ranking last year, although with Sonny Dykes out at Cal now, you wonder if the Bulldogs can come close to matching last year’s 9-3 record. East Carolina, as I’ve mentioned before, could challenge for the Conference USA title in its final year in the league. Central Michigan is on the lower-tier of MAC teams.
Boston College — vs. Villanova (0), at USC (4), Army (1), at New Mexico State (0): There’s not very much redeeming in this schedule other than a trip out West to play Southern California, an historically strong team that might be in some rocky times with Lane Kiffin as coach, especially now that he’ll have to replace Matt Barkley. Still, the Trojans are historically at least a Top 25 team, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt here. Army’s not a strong foe, but it did beat Boston College last season.
Maryland — vs. FIU (0), vs. Old Dominion (0), at Connecticut (2), vs. West Virginia (3): The Terps’ non-conference schedule was really going to be based on however West Virginia was pegged. After a fast start last year, the Mountaineers quickly fell off the map. That team will score points (even with Geno Smith gone), but it could do that before. It didn’t stop WVU from losing six of eight to finish last year. UConn, despite its status in one of the Big 6 conferences (at least for another year), is on the lower end of the scale for BCS-level opponents.
Duke — vs. N.C. Central (0), at Memphis (0), vs. Troy (1), vs. Navy (2): Don’t blame Duke for scheduling light. When you’ve made one bowl game in the last 20 years, you do what you can to get to the requisite six wins for bowl eligibility. The Blue Devils broke through to make a bowl last year. They’ve never done so in back-to-back years. This season’s non-conference slate is a boost. Navy is probably the hardest game of the bunch, if for nothing else its option offense. Still, the Midshipmen aren’t world beaters. Troy might have been a solid matchup in the past, but the Trojans have been down for a few years now.