Nonconference schedules impact the strength of competition

If strength of schedule factors in on who qualifies for the four spots in the college football playoff, what teams have the toughest nonconference slates this fall?

The 64 teams in the five “power conferences” – Big 12, Big 10, Pac-12, SEC and ACC – play each other in mandatory conference games but there is a lot of leeway in scheduling nonconference games.

The Big 12 teams all play each other (nine games) with three nonconference opponents while other leagues play every team in their division and alternate with league teams in other divisions.

And determining the genuine strength of a nonconference schedule can’t really be determined until the end of the year. For example, Oklahoma was ranked in the Top 5 last season but fell out of the Top 25 after losing five games.

Here’s a look at some of the conference schedules.

Big 12

Oklahoma has Akron, Tennessee and Tulsa. The Sooners beat the Volunteers in Norman last year but Tennessee had a young team and should be much better. Tulsa has a new coach, former Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, and could give the rebuilding Sooners a game in Norman.

Oklahoma State plays Central Michigan, Central Arkansas and Texas-San Antonio (which is in the central part of Texas). Fortunately for the Cowboys, they have TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12 to make up ground in league play.

Baylor continues a trend with lightweights with SMU, Lamar and Rice. This may have hurt the Bears last season when they just missed getting into the playoff.

Texas is down but the Longhorns don’t back down from a challenge. They travel to Notre Dame and play Rice and California. Throw in Top 10 teams like TCU and Baylor from the Big 12  plus rival Oklahoma and an improving OSU, and Texas has a rugged road.

Texas Tech plays Arkansas in a tough Big 12 vs. SEC match. The Red Raiders also have Sam Houston State and Texas-El Paso.

Kansas, the lowest team in the Big 12, plays South Dakota State, Memphis and Rutgers. Memphis did win Conference USA last season.

If not for Minnesota (8-5 last year), TCU has a light nonconference slate with Stephen F. Austin and SMU.

West Virginia apparently is concentrating on the Big 12 matchups by scheduling Georgia Southern, Liberty and Maryland.

Iowa State plays Northern Iowa, Iowa and Toledo.

Kansas State has one of the weakest schedules with South Dakota, Texas-San Antonio and Louisiana Tech.

Atlantic Coast Conference

Virginia plays UCLA, Notre Dame, Boise State and William & Mary. That includes perhaps three of the top 10 teams in the country and only one cupcake. This could be the toughest nonconference schedule in the nation. Throw in Georgia Tech and the Cavaliers have a tough row to hoe.

Georgia Tech was really good last season but they face Notre Dame, Georgia, Tulane and Alcorn State. Add Clemson and Miami and that is another rough slate.

Virginia Tech is in the same division as Virginia and Georgia Tech and the Hokies take on Ohio State, East Carolina, Purdue and Furman. The Buckeyes may the be top team in the nation and East Carolina is a mid-major powerhouse.

Clemson has Notre Dame and travels to South Carolina but has two I-AA opponents in Appalachian State and Wofford.

Louisville has a tough nonconference slate with Auburn, Kentucky, Houston and Samford. Kentucky could be the sleeper of the SEC.

Pittsburgh has Notre Dame but also Youngstown State, Akron and Iowa. Again, Boston College has Notre Dame but also plays Maine, Howard and Northern Illinois (some I-AA teams).

Miami of Florida plays Nebraska, Bethune-Cookman,  Florida Atlantic and Cincinnati. The Hurricanes also play FSU in conference but no game with Florida.

Syracuse plays LSU and South Florida with games against Rhode Island and Central Michigan. North Carolina faces South Carolina in Charlotte, North Carolina A&T, Illinois and Delaware.

Wake Forest plays a weak schedule (except for Notre Dame) with Elon, Army and Indiana.

Except for Florida, Florida State has a weak nonconference schedule as it breaks in a new quarterback. The Seminoles play Texas State, South Florida and Chattanooga.

Duke is getting better and should upgrade its nonconference schedule beyond Tulane, North Carolina Central, Northwestern and Army.

North Carolina State won’t get much notice by beating Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama.

Pac-12

Stanford takes on Notre Dame, an improving Northwestern and a tough Central Florida team. No cupcakes for the Cardinal.

Utah faces an up-and-coming Michigan team plus two really good mid-majors in in-state rival Utah State plus Fresno State.

Oregon has to travel to Michigan State but will have no problems with Eastern Washington, and Georgia State. Oregon State takes on Michigan, Weber State and San Jose State. Actually, Oregon State plays Michigan on the same day as Michigan State plays Oregon.

Southern Cal has its traditional game with Notre Dame but has added Arkansas State and Idaho – two automatic victories.

Texas tops the nonconference list for California and even though has been down, that should be an exciting game. Add Grambling and San Diego State to the Bears’ schedule.

Arizona State has Texas A&M in Houston plus weak teams in Cal Poly and New Mexico.  Arizona counters with Texas-San Antonio, Nevada and Northern Arizona – an even weaker list.

Washington has Boise State, Sacramento State and Utah State. Washington State has a weak lineup with Portland State, Rutgers and Wyoming. UCLA plays Virginia, UNLV and BYU.

Colorado is so weak that they scheduled Hawaii, UMass, Colorado State and Nicholls State.

SEC

South Carolina may have the toughest SEC nonconference schedule with North Carolina, Central Florida, Clemson and the Citadel.

Florida has a really tough game every year outside the SEC with Florida State. The rebuilding Gators could have their hands full with East Carolina’s offense but no problems with New Mexico State and Florida Atlantic.

Georgia at Georgia Tech will be a good game. The Bulldogs also have Louisiana-Monroe, Southern University and Georgia Southern.

Alabama plays Wisconsin in Arlington, Texas, and that’s about it. The Tide cupcakes this year are Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Monroe and Charleston Southern.

Texas A&M will play Arizona State in Houston but after that it’s Ball State, Nevada and Western Carolina.

An improved Tennessee team hosts Oklahoma and then plays Bowling Green, Western Carolina and North Texas.

Auburn will have a tough game with Louisville but then has three easy wins with Jacksonville State, San Jose State and Idaho. Kentucky, coached by Bob Stoops’ brother Mark, also plays Louisville plus Louisiana-Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky and Charlotte.

Mississippi won’t get much credit for scheduling Tennessee-Martin, Fresno State, New Mexico State and Memphis.

If Connecticut had not dropped off, Missouri would have a good nonconference slate with BYU, Southeast Missouri State and Arkansas State. Don’t look for Kansas or K-State to take on the Tigers anytime soon.

The highlight of the nonconference schedule for Arkansas is Texas Tech, but even the Red Raiders have dropped off some. The Hogs have Texas-El Paso, Toledo in Little Rock plus Tennessee-Martin.

Vanderbilt has Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and Houston. LSU follows the SEC trend with a light schedule with McNeese State, Syracuse, Eastern Michigan and Western Kentucky.

Mississippi State was in the race for the national title last year but scheduling Southern Miss, Northwestern State of Louisiana, Troy and Louisiana Tech won’t score them any points this season.

Mississippi won’t get much credit for scheduling Tennessee-Martin, Fresno State, New Mexico State and Memphis.

Big 10

One of the reasons why the Big 10 doesn’t get too much respect these days is the weak nonconference scheduling.

Michigan has perhaps the toughest slate with BYU, Utah, Oregon State and UNLV.

Give Michigan State credit for scheduling Oregon but the Spartans should have no problems with Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Air Force.

Wisconsin plays Alabama in Arlington, Texas, but the other nonconference foes are Miami-Ohio, Troy –  Hawaii.

Minnesota steps out of the Big 10 to play TCU – probably a Top 5 team this season. Colorado State has a new coach but could be tough but Minnesota also plays Kent State and Ohio.

Nebraska has a moderate nonconference schedule with BYU, South Alabama, Miami and Southern Mississippi. It would have been more challenging with Alabama and Mississippi or Mississippi State.

Ohio State has a moderate nonconference schedule with Virginia Tech, Hawaii, Northern Illinois and Western Michigan.

Northwestern has a decent slate with Stanford, Eastern Illinois, Duke and Ball State.

Purdue takes on Virginia Tech but then Marshall, Indiana State and Bowling Green. Iowa plays in-state rival Iowa State, Pittsburgh and North Texas.

Maryland, now in the Big 10, will play West Virginia, Richmond, Bowling Green and South Florida.

Typically, Illinois has Kent State, Western Illinois, North Carolina and Middle Tennessee.

Rutgers, now part of the Big 10, has Kansas, Norfolk State, Washington State and Army.

Penn State plays a poor nonconference schedule with Temple, Buffalo, San Diego State and Army.

Indiana has Southern Illinois, Florida International, Western Kentucky and Wake Forest.

Some of the key nonconference matchups for the American Athletic Conference schedule are:

Baylor versus SMU

Penn State at Temple

East Carolina at Florida

South Florida at Florida State

Connecticut at Missouri

Tulsa at Oklahoma

SMU at TCU

South Florida at Maryland

Virginia Tech at East Carolina

Miami at Cincinnati

Connecticut at BYU

Mississippi at Memphis

 Notre Dame at Temple