College Football Title Contenders with Easiest 2014 Schedules
The College Football Playoff and its selection committee have replaced the computer- and poll-driven BCS this season, and consequently a premium has been placed on having a schedule that's deemed tough enough to warrant getting selected for a playoff spot.
Not every championship contender has taken this to heart in 2014, though. Through the combination of conference games and non-league competition, some of the best teams in the country have pretty pedestrian schedules this fall.
It's not all their fault, however. Other than Notre Dame, the power schools are at the mercy of their conferences for giving them a quality set of league opponents. Only the nonconference portion of the schedule is flexible, and future home-and-home series—just take a look at some of the games set for Sept. 3, 2016—show us that many top programs are pushing for tougher competitions.
Here's a look at the championship contenders with the easiest 2014 schedules, based on opponents' records from a year ago and their current rankings.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 71-79
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 6 (4 home, 2 away)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 4 (2 home, 2 away)
Alabama plays in the toughest division of the toughest conference in the country yet still manages to have the easiest schedule of any national championship contender. That's what happens when the Crimson Tide avoids any real trouble in SEC crossover games and has a nonconference slate where the toughest opponent has fallen on hard times since the game was set up.
The Tide open against West Virginia in Atlanta, which was scheduled shortly after the Mountaineers won the Orange Bowl after the 2011 season. Since then WV has moved to the Big 12 and struggled, coming off a 4-8 season.
Alabama's other non-league foes, all coming to Tuscaloosa, include 1-11 Southern Mississippi and an FCS team (Western Carolina) that was 2-10 a year ago.
The toughest games come in conference play, but even in that respect Alabama got off easy. The highest-ranked foe, Auburn, is at home, as is Texas A&M. The only road games played against teams with winning records from 2013 are at Ole Miss and LSU—places where Alabama the Tide have been able to win in the past.
And the crossover games are by far the easiest pair for any SEC team. Alex Scarborough of ESPN.com wrote that "a lot of teams in the West would be quite happy to have Tennessee as its crossover rival," and while Alabama goes to Knoxville, it's a lot easier than having to travel to Georgia, Missouri or South Carolina. The other crossover game is at home against a Florida team that is coming off its worst season in more than 30 years.
Florida State Seminoles
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 83-68
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 7 (3 home, 3 road, 1 neutral)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 2 (2 home)
En route to a perfect record and a national championship, Florida State bulldozed through a relatively easy schedule in 2013. Take out the trip to Clemson and the last two contests—against Duke in the ACC title game and Auburn in the BCS title game—and the other 11 opponents averaged 5.7 wins.
This year's slate will be much more challenging but still not so hard that going unbeaten again and repeating as champs isn't a strong possibility.
The opener in Arlington, Texas, against Oklahoma State isn't as difficult in reality as on paper. OSU was 10-3 a year ago, but the Cowboys have new starters at quarterback, wide receiver and in the secondary who are replacing 2013 standouts. If not for the presence of the defending champs, it's unlikely this game would have warranted ESPN setting up College GameDay outside AT&T Stadium.
The rest of the non-league slate is all in Tallahassee, including one of just two teams ranked in the AP Top 25 that the Seminoles face. Notre Dame comes to town in mid-October, a high-profile game that will get lots of media attention because of the programs' traditions but might not be much of a challenge depending on what comes of Notre Dame's academic fraud investigation.
The ACC slate is only slightly tougher than a year ago, if only because of the addition of Louisville to the league. FSU visits the Cardinals on a Friday in late October, possibly the biggest hurdle for another unbeaten regular season, while the Clemson game is at home and the Seminoles got blessed with games against all three of the ACC teams that finished under .500 last season.
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 82-71
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 8 (5 home, 2 road, 1 neutral)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 5 (2 home, 2 road, 1 neutral)
LSU's 2014 schedule is a bit of a mixed bag. On paper it can be considered quite difficult, as two-thirds of the Tigers' opponents had winning records last year and half of them played in bowl games. Five of them are ranked, the most of any team on this list.
But take away the trip to Auburn and the finale at Texas A&M, and it's not as hard as you think.
The Tigers get to host Ole Miss and Alabama back-to-back and have a bye before facing the Crimson Tide. The opener against Wisconsin is in Houston, which is a short four-hour drive from Baton Rouge and is basically in LSU's backyard in terms of fanbase and recruiting territory.
And that overabundance of winning teams from 2013 includes Louisiana-Monroe and Mississippi State, whom LSU has beaten 14 straight times and hasn't lost to at home since 1991. There's also an FCS opponent on that list, and while Sam Houston State is among the better teams at that level, it's only 3-27 all-time against FBS teams.
Michigan State Spartans
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 82-82
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 7 (4 home, 3 away)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 3 (2 home, 1 away)
To have Michigan State on a list of title contenders with easy schedules seems weird, especially when the Spartans play arguably the toughest nonconference game of any top team in 2014 when they visit Oregon on Sept. 6. But outside of that major challenge, the sailing is actually quite smooth this fall.
MSU's two other ranked opponents both come to East Lansing, with Nebraska visiting in early October and Ohio State coming to town in early November. So does rival Michigan, while the Big Ten road games include one of the easiest possible back-to-back pairs in Purdue and Indiana.
The most challenging part of the Spartans' schedule outside the Oregon trip doesn't occur until November, when after hosting Ohio State they finish with two of three on the road with both of them at night. MSU visits Maryland, and after hosting Rutgers, the Spartans will finish at Penn State in a game that will essentially be the Nittany Lions' bowl game since they're not eligible for postseason play.
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 71-78
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 5 (3 home, 1 road, 1 neutral)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 2 (2 home)
If Oklahoma doesn't get into the College Football Playoff, it will have no one to blame but itself. The Sooners have by far the most favorable schedule of any serious playoff contender, with nearly every significant challenge being played either at home or a venue where they're used to winning.
Bill Connelly of SBNation wrote that "Oklahoma won't have to play like a top-five team to finish in the top five of the Playoff Committee's rankings" thanks to a schedule that features only two preseason ranked teams and only five that were above .500 in 2013. The Sooners begin the season ranked high in the polls, and with a schedule that begins with five teams that won a combined 19 games last year, they'll stay way up there until at least October.
The first true challenge will be the annual Red River Shootout game against Texas in Dallas, where Oklahoma lost for the first time in 2013. Texas is in a period of transition with Charlie Strong taking over for Mack Brown, so it's hard to tell what to expect from the Longhorns. As a result, this game might not be that tough.
Things get much harder after that but still not as bad as it could be. Kansas State visits in mid-October, while Baylor comes to town in November for a de facto Big 12 title game. Baylor has never won in Norman.
There are some trap games on the road slate, namely visits to TCU and Texas Tech, while the Sept. 6 trip to in-state foe Tulsa could be dangerous if the Sooners don't give it proper attention. And the finale against Oklahoma State, while at home, is always going to be a tough one because of the rivalry.
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 82-71
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 6 (4 home, 2 road)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 4 (3 home, 1 road)
Oregon has one of the biggest home-field advantages in the country thanks to the loud and raucous atmosphere at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks hardly ever lose at home, but when on the road that edge isn't there nearly as much.
Thankfully for Oregon, its road games in 2014 feature only one major test along with its annual rivalry game against Oregon State.
The Ducks visit UCLA on Oct. 11 for their first trip to the Rose Bowl (other than for the actual Rose Bowl) since 2009. They lost there in 2007, which is also the last time Oregon was shut out, and it will be a revenge game for UCLA after it was blown out in Eugene in 2013.
Beyond that, though, Oregon's road slate isn't that daunting. Washington State was a bowl team but traditionally gets blown out by the Ducks, while in November, trips to Utah and Oregon State in the final three weeks could be problematic if not taken seriously. The OSU "Civil War" shouldn't fall into such a category based on the history between the teams, though.
Oregon's home schedule is the tougher side, where that Autzen aura can play in. Michigan State, Arizona, Washington and Stanford all come to town, which gives the Ducks the edge in every matchup because of the locale.
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 82-72
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 7 (4 home, 2 road, 1 neutral)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 5 (3 home, 2 road)
UCLA only has six home games this season; it's one of the few major programs that doesn't have more than half of its schedule in friendly confines. But even with that unusual balance, the Bruins' schedule doesn't play like a very tough one because of who and where they play.
Yes, UCLA plays five ranked teams, but based on preseason rankings for those opponents, the "easiest" ones are the two it faces on the road. The Bruins visit Arizona State in late September and Washington in early November, while it gets Top 15 teams Oregon, Stanford and USC to come to the Rose Bowl.
UCLA's road games as a whole aren't that tough. Outside of the ASU and Washington trips, the other games are at the Pac-12's two worst teams from a year ago (California and Colorado, played back-to-back in October) and in nonconference play at 2-10 Virginia. A de facto road game against Texas in Arlington is a crapshoot, given the uncertainty around what the Longhorns will be like this season under new coach Charlie Strong.
Combined 2013 record of opponents: 74-78
Opponents with .500 or better record in 2013: 6 (4 home, 1 road, 1 neutral)
Opponents ranked in 2014 AP preseason Top 25: 2 (1 home, 1 neutral)
Though the Big Ten doesn't release an official preseason poll, media picks made annually in conjunction with Cleveland.com have tabbed Wisconsin as the odds-on favorite to win the league's West Division this season. And looking at the Badgers' schedule, it's easy to see why.
Wisconsin's toughest 2014 game may be its first, but the matchup with LSU in Houston won't have any bearing on the Big Ten race. Also, because of how early it is, it could end up getting discounted by the College Football Playoff selection committee if Wisconsin were to run the table after that. That's a possibility, too, as the Badgers only face one other ranked opponent, Nebraska, and that's at home in mid-November.
The Badgers lucked out in the crossover-game lottery, landing Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers as their East Division opponents. Those happen in back-to-back weeks, and the road game is at Rutgers, which lost by 35 at home twice last season.
The most major hurdle after LSU is the second-to-last game at Iowa. Wisconsin won in Iowa City last season, though, and has the talent to do so again this November.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.
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