Saturday, October 1, 2022

Toughest and weakest nonconference schedules entering the 2022 college football season

One of the most significant factors the College Football Playoff Selection Committee considers when putting together its rankings is strength of schedule. Some teams have gaudy nonconference records but build them against creampuffs. Others may suffer early losses against top-tier opponents.

There are numerous ways to measure a team’s strength of schedule, but it will always be based on some measure of the quality of its opponents. Teams do not have a choice what conference games are on their schedule, nor which nonconference opponents those conference opponents play, but the nonconference slates of your conference opponents are hardly unimportant.

If a league were going to try to game the system, it would have its best teams play at least one great opponent — to show the committee they are serious contenders — and have the noncontenders try to just schedule wins so they build quality records for their opponents.

That is an incredibly difficult thing to do in football because most games are scheduled many years in advance.

With that in mind, here is an evaluation of each league’s nonconference schedules as we prepare for the 2022 season. Listed below are the strongest and weakest in each conference along with a ranking of the toughest in the entire FBS this season.

SEC

The SEC is one of the two Power Five conferences still playing only eight league games. SEC teams also know exactly what to do with that extra nonconference game: Play an FCS opponent. Every team in the SEC has one on the schedule, which is true almost every season. Two of these games are scheduled on what I call “Sabbatical Saturday,” the weekend before Thanksgiving. There are six nonconference games in the league that day, many of which serve as a nice break before rivalry weekend.

The SEC is typically the king when it comes to playing home nonconference games and avoiding road trips. However, it has been dethroned this season. Still, it is one of only two leagues that plays more than half its nonconference games at home and fewer than 20% on the road.

There are certainly some noteworthy showdowns, not the least of which is Alabama at Texas on Sept. 10. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban will face former assistant Steve Sarkisian, who is looking for a signature win to indicate that the Longhorns are finally “back.”

Other highlights include Georgia playing a “neutral site” game against Oregon in Atlanta on Sept. 3 and Tennessee traveling to 2021 ACC champion Pittsburgh the following Saturday.

Toughest schedule — Florida: The Gators will open by hosting Utah, the reigning Pac-12 champions and the favorite to repeat atop the league. They will also host South Florida and travel to Florida State.

Weakest schedule — Kentucky: The Wildcats are one of three SEC schools playing all of their nonconference games at home. This year’s slate includes Miami (OH) and Northern Illinois from the MAC, Youngstown State and in-state rival Louisville.

Big Ten

When it comes to home cooking, the Big Ten is the new king. The league will play a whopping 62% of its nonconference games at home and just 17% on the road. That is the smallest percentage of road games for any league. Eight Big Ten teams are playing all three of their nonconference games at home.

The SEC still has the Big Ten beat, though, in smallest percentage of games against other Power Five opposition. The Big Ten is at 26.2% this season, while the SEC will only play 25% of its nonconference games against its peers. The Big Ten gets some credit though for scheduling the smallest percentage of games against FCS teams.

That is not to say that there aren’t some good games. Notre Dame visits Ohio State to kick off the season on Sept. 3 in a game that is likely to have College Football Playoff implications. Also, Penn State will travel to Auburn and Michigan State will visit Washington. We will also get another renewal of the Oklahoma-Nebraska rivalry on Sept. 17.

Toughest schedule — Nobody: It’s embarrassing for this league to not be able to look at any one schedule and say that it will really test that particular team. Ohio State deserves a mention because, besides Notre Dame, it hosts MAC favorite Toledo and Arkansas State.

Weakest schedule — Take your pick: Minnesota is my choice with home games against New Mexico State, Western Illinois and Colorado. Perhaps you prefer Michigan’s slate of Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn. It’s so bad that a reporter asked Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh about it earlier this summer. Northwestern also gets dishonorable mention for a Duke, Southern Illinois, Miami (OH) trifecta. There is nary a road game among any of those schedules.

ACC

Like the SEC, every team in the ACC will play four nonconference games and one of those games will be against an FCS opponent. Well, at least they all tried to play an FCS opponent. Louisville scheduled James Madison, but the Dukes moved up to FBS this season.

Still, the ACC again has the highest percentage of nonconference games against Power Five competition. That is true pretty much every season because there are four in-state rivalry games with SEC teams and five games against Notre Dame. Those games are a big reason why the ACC has the highest percentage of road games among the power conferences.

Clemson at Notre Dame and Miami at Texas A&M are the highlight games of the ACC nonconference slate. Both games could have an impact on the playoff, though I do not have any of those teams currently projected into the CFP.

Toughest schedule — Georgia Tech … for the second season in a row. This time, the Yellow Jackets get Georgia in Athens and Ole Miss at home. They will also face AAC contender UCF on the road.

Weakest schedule — Duke: Even with two road games against Power Five opponents, the Blue Devils have managed to put together the weakest nonconference slate in the ACC. Duke will travel to Northwestern and Kansas, and it will face Temple and North Carolina A&T at home.

Big 12

Because of the size of the league and the full round-robin conference schedule, the Big 12 has the fewest number of nonconference games at 30. That will change when realignment starts to kick in next season. Because the league plays so few nonconference games in total, it is in the odd position of playing the fewest games against FCS teams (eight) but also the second highest percentage of such games (26.7%).

The aforementioned Texas-Alabama game is far and away the highlight of the Big 12 nonconference slate. The biggest game for any of the other Big 12 teams that appear in the preseason polls is Baylor at BYU.

Toughest schedule — West Virginia: The Mountaineers have road games with reigning ACC champion Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech sandwiched around a home game with Towson.

Weakest schedule — Kansas State: The Wildcats will spend the nonconference portion of their schedule at home facing South Dakota, Missouri and Tulane.

Pac-12

By virtue of its relative isolation on the West Coast and the fact that each team plays only three nonconference games, scheduling can be cumbersome. So, it should come as no surprise that the league has eight games scheduled against Mountain West opposition and another two against BYU. That is a third of the league’s nonconference schedule. There are also annual games with Notre Dame for USC and Stanford.

It should also not be surprising to learn that the Pac-12 plays the highest percentage of games against FCS foes among the power conferences. All but two of those 10 games are against other Western teams.

The USC-Notre Dame game highlights the Pac-12 nonconference schedule as usual. The aforementioned Oregon-Georgia and Utah-Florida games should also be fun.

Toughest schedule — Colorado: The Buffaloes may need to get off to a good start to keep coach Karl Dorrell’s seat cool, but a schedule of home against TCU and trips to Air Force and Minnesota will make that a challenge.

Weakest schedule — UCLA: The Bruins should be able to do better than a slate of Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama at home.

AAC

The AAC is again leading the Group of Five in percentage of home nonconference games — and by a wide margin. The league will play 41% of its games at home. The next-closest conference is the Mountain West with 31%.

Cincinnati will look to repeat as champions of the league and make another run for the CFP, but this season’s nonconference schedule will preclude that. Unlike last season, where a win at Notre Dame created a floor for the Bearcats in the CFP Rankings, there is no such game this season unless Arkansas is much better than we expect. Cincy will also play Indiana again, this time at home.

Toughest schedule — Navy: The Midshipmen have three locked in nonconference opponents every year — Air Force, Army and Notre Dame. All three of those games are away from home this season.

Weakest schedule — Temple: You can hardly blame the Owls for trying to get some wins. They will face Duke on the road followed by home tilts against Louisiana, Rutgers and UMass.

Other Group of Five conferences

If you want to look for this season’s Group of Five gate crasher when it comes to the CFP, I can give you a couple of non-conference schedules that may do the trick – if the team involved can win all their games. That is much easier said than done.

Boise State is the favorite in the Mountain West, but one of the other contenders, Fresno State, has a road game at USC among its nonconference games. The Bulldogs would have to run the table and hope the Trojans do for them what Notre Dame did for Cincinnati last year.

Also, Appalachian State will host North Carolina and visit Texas A&M. Their other two games are against FCS teams, so that could be a problem for the CFP Selection Committee. Winning all their games will be a problem for the Mountaineers.

Five toughest nonconference schedules

  • Kent State — at Washington, at Oklahoma, Long Island, at Georgia
  • ULM — at Texas, Nicholls State, at Alabama, at Army West Point
  • Rice — at USC, McNeese State, Louisiana, at Houston
  • Navy — Delaware, at Air Force, Notre Dame, Army West Point
  • Central Michigan — at Oklahoma State, South Alabama, Bucknell, at Penn State

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