Which of the Top 25 college football teams created the easiest non-conference schedules for themselves?
In Division I college football, teams are permitted to schedule their own nonconference opponents. This occasionally results in marquee matchups (such as Michigan v. Alabama, Saturday, 8 EST), provided the monetary compensation is right for each team. More often than not, college football powerhouses take the opportunity to line up against far, far inferior opponents and smack them around like rag dolls for three hours.
Most schools play four non-conference games every season, and some play three. The strategy for picking their opponents goes something like this:
Good programs find a member of one of the other “power conferences” (also called the “Automatic Qualifiers”, or AQ for short – the ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, and the SEC) who is weak and schedule one game with them. That’s supposed to count as their “tough” game. Then, they might play a couple of schools that are non-automatic qualifiers (meaning they aren’t guaranteed a spot in a BCS bowl), which is sort of like a subdivision of Division I football. Technically, Florida Atlantic (0-8 in the Sun Belt Conference, 1-11 overall) is on the same playing field as LSU (8-0 in the SEC, 13-1 overall)… but for all intents and purposes, one plays major college football and the other is a minor league team.
Finally, almost every team in college football plays one FCS (formerly 1-AA) team during their non-conference schedule… unless you’re Florida State, in which case, you play TWO of them! This phenomena is so patently absurd, I don’t know where to begin. Imagine if MLB teams got to schedule ten games in April against class-A clubs, and that the results of these games counted in the standings. Or what if NBA teams opened the year with six games against NBADL or ABA squads? It’s absurd to consider this practice in any other sport, but in college football it’s accepted as the status quo.
Not every team engages in this farce, however. Some schools challenge themselves with their non-conference schedules, for a variety of reasons: money (the aforementioned Michigan v. Alabama game), prestigious rivalries (USC v. Notre Dame) or even a desperate attempt to gain some respect because their home conference is a joke (Boise State). But most of them are content to hold glorified scrimmages against weak teams. Which of this year’s Top 25 teams are eating cupcakes?
The nonconference slate the Badgers play in 2012 will be tougher than any of the last 5 seasons. It’s not that they challenged themselves this year; it’s just that from ’08-’11 they were one of the most shameless nonconference schedulers in football. (For instance, in 2006, 2008 and 2009 the Badgers didn’t schedule a single AQ school among their non-conference schedule.) This year, they host Northern Iowa of the FCS (10-3 in 2011) before they head to Corvallis to play the Oregon State Beavers (3-9 a year ago, but hey, they scheduled an AQ school – on the road, even!). Then, Bucky returns to form, hosting Utah State and UTEP – a combined 12-13 in the WAC and Conference USA, respectively. Yawn.
As mentioned above, the Seminoles play two FCS teams, one of whom (Savannah State) went 1-10 last season. The only “road” game they scheduled for themselves is against the University of South Florida, in Tampa, a four hour drive. Even their tough, rivalry game (against Florida) is at home, and the Gators were a disappointing 7-6 last season.
The game against Marshall is a traditional rivalry game, but the Thundering Herd is from the lowly Conference USA. James Madision went 8-5 last year… in the Colonial, an FCS conference. Even their scheduled “big time” opponent was one of the worst teams in any power conference last year: Maryland, who went 2-10 and wears uniforms which are uglier than sin. Did I mention all those games are at home?
No FCS teams for Texas, though if teams could be relegated (a la the English Premier League), the New Mexico Lobos might have been sent down a few years ago. They are 3-33 over their last 36. Wyoming was a feisty 8-5, 3rd place finisher in the Mountain West in 2011 but they feature the “poop brown” color on their uniforms. Texas also travels to Ole Miss, 2-10 last year, winless in the SEC – so while they get credit for playing an AQ on the road, they don’t get too much credit.
Arkansas State was 10-3 and won the Sun Belt in 2011, so they’re nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately, they’re traveling all the way to Eugene, OR, to play the Ducks. Sad thing is, it’s probably Oregon’s toughest test of the nonconference schedule: Fresno State was 4-9 a year ago and Tennessee Tech plays in the FCS.
Without a doubt, the team taking it the easiest on themselves is the Oklahoma State Cowboys. Poor, poor Savannah State, opening their season by traveling to Tallahassee (as mentioned above) to play the #7 team in the country before packing up and heading to Stillwater to face #19 OSU. The Cowboys travel to Arizona afterwards to play the subpar Wildcats (4-8 in 2011) before wrapping up their nonconference slate at home against Louisiana Lafayette.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!