Which of the top-25 college football teams voluntarily made life difficult for themselves with their nonconference schedules?
With the announcement coming earlier this summer that college football will finally utilize a playoff system (though the exact form remains to be seen), naysayers around the country finally had to ease up on the hatred. The most vexing element of collegiate athletics had now been addressed, its most ardent critics mollified: beginning with the 2014 season, championships will be decided on the playing field.
Four teams will make up the tournament, at least initially, and some say past controversies regarding the “odd man out” or the third team left out of the national title game will only be transposed onto the fifth place finisher. Granted, a simple four team playoff won’t be perfect, but it’s hard to argue that it’ll be worse than what we’ve had – a long list of “what-ifs” and “could’ve beens.”
Until the 2014 season, however, the old rules reign, and schools still have to worry about the familiar buzzwords: strength of schedule, quality wins, margin of victory, and so on. The Draconian measures used by Universities, shrewdly calculating the fiscal gains and losses of playing either Middle Tennessee State or the University of Tennessee, won’t be eliminated overnight. If teams want to cruise through non-conference games, they’ll still be able to. But it’s at least worth mentioning those who buck the trend and challenge their football teams before conference play (which can be grueling and unforgiving) even begin.
Yesterday, I explored the top-25 teams who clearly decided to take it easy on themselves; today, it’s time to look at the schools who lined up challenges in their nonconference schedules.
#8 Michigan (Alabama, Air Force, UMASS, @ Notre Dame) and #2 Alabama (Michigan, Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, Western Carolina)
These two teams play one another Saturday night in the most highly anticipated game on the nonconference slate. It’s being held at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX, closer to Alabama geographically, but should almost be a true neutral site game.
The cynic looks at the game as a money grab, but that might be missing the point. Alabama doesn’t really “need” the money; as successful and ubiquitous as they are, scheduling such a game almost goes against the program’s self-interest, superficially speaking. They seem to be certain that if they run the table in the SEC (or even lose a game) they’ll be right in the thick of things at the end of the year. But to schedule a game like this at the start of the season is a major challenge to the program, and shouldn’t be discounted… no matter how terrible the rest of their remaining nonconference schedule is.
The cynic also probably doesn’t view Michigan’s road date in South Bend as much of a challenge, either, but one shouldn’t be so dismissive of the Irish. To sign up to play at Notre Dame is to give yourself a stiff test that you didn’t have to volunteer for; throw in the fact that Air Force was no slouch last season (7-6) and that UMASS is at least a respectable FCS team (5-6) and you’ve got a tough road in place for the Wolverines.
#9 South Carolina (East Carolina, UAB, Wofford, @ Clemson)
Look, if it weren’t for the late season tilt in Memorial Stadium against the Clemson Tigers, the Gamecocks would’ve been a favorite for “cupcake” status. East Carolina and UAB were a combined 8-16 in 2011 and Wofford is the stock FCS team on the slate. But a nonconference road game in late November is all the difference; the Tigers were a 10 win team last year and possess one of the greatest home field advantages in the sport.
#16 Virginia Tech (Austin Peay, @ Pittsburgh, Bowling Green, Cincinnati)
They start the nonconference schedule with a cupcake (the FCS school Austin Peay) but then things get very interesting for Frank Beamer’s Hokies. They travel to Pitt, and though they were 6-7 last year, a road game versus a power conference school is always a challenge. Next, they play Bowling Green (5-7 a year ago) before wrapping things up at home against the Cincinnati Bearcats, a 10 game winner a season ago.
#23 Florida (Bowling Green, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State, @ Florida State)
Poor, poor Jacksonville State. The first game on their 2012 schedule is in Fayetteville against the Arkansas Razorbacks and the last one is in The Swamp (in Gainesville) against the Florida Gators. Will Muschamp’s bunch also tangle with Louisiana-Lafayette, who will already have experience playing a big school on the road (they go to Oklahoma State first). Bowling Green and a nonconference visit to Tallahassee make for an interesting nonconference season for the second-year head coach.
#24 Boise State (@Michigan State, Miami (OH), BYU, @Southern Miss)
The most masochistic team in the top-25 is Boise State, and it isn’t close. You might call it an attempt at overcompensation, since their home conference (the Mountain West) just isn’t very strong. But they begin on the road versus the Michigan State Spartans, an 11-game winner in 2011. After hosting a weak Miami of Ohio squad they welcome Brigham Young, 10-game victors a year ago, before heading on the road to play the defending Conference USA Champion Southern Miss Golden Eagles. All told, the combined record of their nonconference opponents last season was 37-16, and there’s not a single FCS team in the bunch.
In all likelihood, it’s a case of too little, too late; the best team Boise has put together in recent years was last year’s squad, and even then, the way voters evaluate a team is prejudiced heavily upon your home conference. Simply put, Boise is attempting to show everyone in college football they mean business by scheduling far and away the toughest nonconference slate in the country… but I’m doubtful it’ll pay off much.
Chin up, smurf-turf loving Broncos fans. Next season Boise State will be in the Big East, where a conference title will result in an automatic BCS bowl berth. The year after, the team could have a shot at a playoff berth, once-and-for-all affording them the opportunity that’s been denied to them in the past: the chance to play for all the marbles.
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!