Now that we have our 10 BCS participants, who's best prepared? Whose schedule rises to the top?
Strength of schedule is—supposedly—part of determining how the BCS ranks teams. There is plenty of room for argument about which one-loss team belongs ahead of another or what two-loss teams should be considered, but we're past that now. The bowl invites have been handed out, and it will be decided on the field. Good riddance to the computers!
The SEC boastfully points to its “murders' row” conference schedule in a vain attempt to prove its point of being the best conference around.
But is that really the case? Do Alabama and Florida really dominate the others when it comes to scheduling?
Ranking 124 FBS programs by strength of schedule is a difficult and grueling task. There's so much room for supposition and opinion. But what happens when we rank this season's 10 BCS participants' strength of schedule only against one another?
We get this list!
There should be no argument whatsoever that Northern Illinois far and away had the weakest schedule of the 10 BCS teams this season.
The MAC is generally—and probably correctly—viewed as a collection of low-level FBS programs that perpetually live in the shadow of the Big Ten. The MAC is to the Big Ten what essentially the Sun Belt is to the SEC these days.
Northern Illinois has become the first non-AQ program in history to earn a trip to the BCS without sporting an undefeated record. So there must be something special on that résumé, right?
NIU's marquee matchup came all the way back in Week 1 against Iowa. Yes, 5-7 Iowa. And this “major” game for the Huskies also happens to be NIU's lone blemish in 2012 (although we're not really punishing teams for losses or rewarding for wins—it's all about the schedules).
Looking down the rest of the schedule, we see teams like FCS Tennessee-Martin, Kansas, Buffalo, Eastern Michigan and Massachusetts.
A theme we'll try to honor in this power rankings list is not blaming a particular team for its conference competition. After all, NIU has about as much to do with scheduling Buffalo as Alabama does with scheduling Tennessee.
But still, we'd take Tennessee over Buffalo any day of the week. And twice on Saturday.
We can probably get away with placing Northern Illinois at the absolute bottom of this list without upsetting too many folks. Even the Massey Ratings have NIU at No. 119 when it comes to strength of schedule, so we're comfortable putting the Huskies at No. 10 out of 10.
Among the automatic qualifying conferences, there is none weaker than the Big East.
This isn't a secret, and Louisville fans shouldn't be surprised to see their Cardinals near the bottom of our list.
The Big East, with just seven conference games each season, should have the best opportunity to pad its strength of schedule with thrilling nonconference matchups.
For some reason, Louisville instead opted to play teams like Florida International, FCS Missouri State, Kentucky and Southern Mississippi.
In five nonconference games, Louisville didn't play a single game against a team appearing in a bowl (North Carolina finished 7-5, but is ineligible due to NCAA sanctions).
How bad was it really? The Cardinals' five nonconference opponents finished with a combined record of 15-44.
So, pretty bad.
Somewhat surprisingly, Northern Illinois is joined near the bottom of our list by Orange Bowl opponent Florida State.
In the aforementioned Massey Ratings, the Seminoles ranked a paltry 65 in strength of schedule. The Massey system has its advantages and disadvantages, but we won't argue too much with a middle-of-the-nation rank for FSU this season.
Florida State did start the 2012 season against a pair of FCS opponents, after all.
If ever a program had an excuse to schedule two programs from a lower division in one season, it is the 2012 Seminoles. Florida State was left holding the bag when West Virginia up and canceled a nonconference game after joining the Big 12 at the last possible moment. FSU was left scrambling for an opponent and could only find an FCS punching bag.
That clearly hurt Florida State's strength of schedule.
While we understand the reasoning, we still can't ignore the fact that it happened. Maybe an 11-game schedule wouldn't have been completely out of line.
Wisconsin may have finished as a lowly 7-5 team backing its way into the Big Ten Championship, but the Badgers were impressive in win No. 8 this year that earned them yet another trip to Pasadena.
Those five losses are pretty ugly, but like the BCS itself, we're not giving out style points.
Maybe there's a reason for those five losses. Maybe the Badgers played a killer schedule this season. Maybe the level of competition in the Big Ten was just that good.
Then again, maybe not.
The Badgers don't get much of a pass with their conference schedule. Besides 12-0 Ohio State and 8-4 Penn State (both Wisconsin losses), there wasn't a ton of meat on the conference schedule this season. The Big Ten as a whole is clearly suffering a prolonged hangover, and the Leaders Division is particularly weak.
Wisconsin also put on its “winter weight” early this season with a few nonconference cupcakes. At least they were supposed to be cupcakes.
Wisconsin narrowly escaped FCS Northern Iowa, 26-21, before losing to Oregon State.
The Badgers again relied on late heroics to slide past Utah State, 16-14, before finally getting a comfortable win against Texas-El Paso.
But Northern Iowa, Oregon State, Utah State and UTEP don't exactly scream danger, and a 3-1 record in those games was the worst any BCS bowling team could ever endure.
The Big 12 plays a nine-game conference schedule. Pay attention SEC fans.
Kansas State had enough strength in its looming Big 12 slate this season to take it easy in the nonconference part of the year, facing FCS Missouri State (3-8), Miami (7-5) and North Texas (4-8).
And while Miami (FL) did finish in a tie for the ACC Coastal Division title, that's about the only noteworthy accomplishment of any of K-State's noncon opponents this season.
That, combined with a sufficiently difficult conference schedule keeps the Wildcats ahead of teams like Wisconsin—but just barely.
With the exception of Kansas State and Oklahoma, the Big 12 wasn't terribly impressive this season. Texas won eight games with five other teams winning just seven. Iowa State barely earned a bowl berth at 6-6 while Kansas was predictably terrible at 1-11.
But keep in mind this intra-conference bloodbath when we get to some of the other teams on our list. If the Big 12 beats up on itself and K-State's ranking suffers, that same logic must extend to other conferences, right?
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned—or an Alabama football fan insulted.
Still, we'll risk perdition's flames in the name of an objective look at Alabama's 2012 schedule. Are the Tide all they're cracked up to be this season? Are they still the dominant national power? Interesting enough, we still don't know.
The BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame will tell us volumes about Nick Saban and his 2012 version of the Alabama Crimson Tide. But if you're looking for helpful hints, the Tide's schedule to this point doesn't provide much assistance.
We all know how stupendous the SEC is, right?
OK, so maybe it's not unanimous and there have been some great theories put forth lately to disprove the myth that has become the SEC. Still, Alabama plays one of, if not the most difficult conference schedules in all of football: the dreaded SEC West.
But the SEC West only accounts for six games—just half the regular-season schedule. What about the other six?
For those games, Alabama went shopping for some of the weakest of the weak. Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic, FCS Western Carolina, really? Heck, even Michigan turned out to be a laugh this season.
We don't blame Alabama for the Wolverines being a fraud, but just sayin'... They were. Alabama fans definitely shouldn't hang their nonconference hats on beating a team one day and tearing its Big Ten credentials down the next. Either Michigan is good or it isn't.
And we think it isn't.
That leaves just two games against SEC East foes. Now, had those been any combination of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the Crimson Tide would easily fly up this list. Instead, Alabama got stuck with Missouri and Tennessee.
About the only reason Alabama even makes it ahead of Kansas State is because of the SEC Championship Game showdown with Georgia. Take that away, and Alabama's schedule loses a good third of its power in our view.
Next up is Oregon.
The Ducks fell just short of an automatic BCS berth this season, but easily claimed an at-large berth in the Fiesta Bowl with an 11-1 record that included an 11-0 mark in regulation.
Oregon was once again one of the nation's top scoring offenses, averaging 50.8 points per game (second in the FBS behind Louisiana Tech with 51.5 ppg). But with nonconference opponents like Arkansas State, Fresno State and FCS Tennessee Tech, such offensive numbers shouldn't be a massive shock to anyone.
If BCS selections are all about “body of work,” then Oregon's body of nonconference work is certainly dragging down its stock.
Lucky for the Ducks the Pac-12 schedule makes up for lost ground.
The North Division has been having its way with the South for the past few years, and not even a bowl-eligible and preseason No. 1 USC could put a stop to that in 2012. The Ducks' ranking also benefits from a resurgent Oregon State.
But even though the North is clearly the tougher division, Oregon's strength of schedule takes another hit when you consider the Ducks didn't face South Division champ UCLA in 2012.
If they had, the Ducks might have been closer to the top of our power rankings.
Florida makes its appearance on our list at No. 3, having the better of the two schedules between the SEC representatives to the BCS.
First off, the SEC East has continued to improve over the past two seasons, and the division was just inches (or yards) away from finally regaining control of the SEC title. So while Florida did not face Alabama this season, the Gators had their hands full in the East Division with South Carolina and Georgia.
The Gators also faced West Division powers Texas A&M and LSU—the two teams that gave Alabama its toughest tests of the 2012 regular season.
But as so often happens with objective looks at SEC scheduling, the impressiveness of the conference schedule is tempered mightily by the addition of a weak nonconference lineup.
In 2012, Florida faced Bowling Green State, Louisiana-Lafayette and FCS Jacksonville State.
The Gators do get a bounce from their annual finale against archrival Florida State, but we can't help but notice that the UF-FSU game came after two previous weeks of nonconference creampuff competition for Florida.
SEC fans may scoff all they like; in the end, the SEC is lucky the conference schedule is so tough. Otherwise, teams like Florida and Alabama would be much, much lower on this kind of list each and every time.
It's that pesky loss to Washington way back in September.
Were it not for an upset almost no one saw (thanks to its Thursday late night timing), we might be talking about the Cardinal making a run to the BCS National Championship Game for a decidedly non-SEC rematch.
Like Kansas State and the Big 12, the Cardinal and the Pac-12 have a bloated nine-game conference slate, leaving room for just three nonconference games. But what a trio of games it was for Stanford in 2012.
All three nonconference games were against bowl teams, including No. 1 and unbeaten Notre Dame. The Cardinal also faced 10-2 San Jose State along with 6-6 Duke. That's a combined 28-8 record for Stanford's nonconference opponents.
And it's not like the Cardinal play in a pushover conference, either. Knocking off UCLA twice in two weeks in impressive enough, but wins against USC, Oregon State and Oregon make the 2012 season something very special.
And you thought Stanford would suffer without Andrew Luck! Now if the Cardinal could only get some fans to show up to their games...
Back before the 2012 season even began, Notre Dame was touted has having the most difficult schedule in the entire nation—not just among the 10 teams now in the BCS.
It's clear that a few of those opponents—namely Michigan and Michigan State—didn't quite turn out to be the BCS-bound powerhouses we all expected them to be, but if a game against Michigan hurts Notre Dame's strength of schedule, it hurts Alabama's, too, doesn't it?
Did Notre Dame end up with the nation's toughest schedule? Probably not. But was it tough? You bet.
Notre Dame is unique in our grouping in being an independent with no conference schedule. Still, the Fighting Irish do play a number of yearly games, and those eight contests—Navy, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Pitt, Boston College, Stanford and USC—basically amount to a conference schedule.
That leaves the Irish with a “nonconference” schedule of Miami (FL), BYU, Oklahoma and Wake Forest.
With a combined record of 29-19 which included Big 12 co-champion Oklahoma (at Oklahoma) and ACC Coastal Division co-champion Miami, we're much more impressed with strength of Notre Dame's non-annual opponents than any other team on our list.
At 12-0, Notre Dame earned its spot in the BCS National Championship Game. And based on the level of competition the Irish faced to reach that berth, there's no question they deserve it.