What team in college football goes looking for trouble the most? What team really does seek out the most difficult challenges when they don’t have to? Which teams, year in and year out, are the road warriors taking their game into a hostile, foreign stadium for the sole purpose of wrecking the home team’s day in front of thousands of stunned fans?
I have reviewed the schedules of all of the FBS teams from 2003 through 2008 and have compiled a, “Top-Six” list of teams that truly mean it when they say “Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.”
The “toughest” non-conference schedule is defined by the number of games played against BCS caliber competition, a program’s willingness to travel into new time zones and regions of the country, the number of ranked opponents faced overall and signature wins over high quality opposition, with a particular emphasis on road victories.
One qualifier: I consider Utah, BYU, TCU and Boise State to be “BCS caliber” teams. These programs have demonstrated that they are capable of beating half of the BCS schools on any given Saturday and put a scare into the other half. Ask Alabama, Tide fans are still suffering from Sugar Bowl nightmares.
No. 6: The Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame is considered BCS competition; however, without a conference affiliation every contest is functionally a “non-conference” game. This makes comparison to the other teams more complex. Suffice to say, Notre Dame is probably the only true “national” college football team in America.
A gazillion Irish and/or Catholics follow the program religiously and the Fighting Irish reciprocate by traveling almost anywhere to play the game. Notre Dame has crisscrossed the country taking on teams from the Big Ten (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Penn State), the Big East ( Pittsburgh, Boston College, Syracuse), the ACC (Florida State, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, Duke), the SEC (Tennessee), the Mountain West (BYU) and the Pac-10 (USC, UCLA, Stanford, Washington).
Of the BCS, conferences only the Big-12 is avoided.
Notre Dame scores big for its willingness to play anywhere in the country and for its nationally televised rivalry with USC.
While the Fighting Irish have lost all six games against USC in the time period analyzed here (2003-2008), they also have signature road wins at No. 15 Pittsburgh in 2003 (20-14), at SEC-East winner and No. 9 ranked Tennessee in 2004 (17-13), at No. 3 ranked Michigan in 2004 (17-10) and at Georgia Tech in 2006 (14-10). Signature home wins include a 28-20 victory over then No. 8 ranked Michigan in 2004, a 41-21 thumping of a Tennessee team in 2005 that had already beaten then No. 3 LSU in Death Valley, and a 41-17 beat down of No. 19 ranked Penn State in 2006.
The Notre Dame program is on the rise and the Fighting Irish aren’t shying away from risky challenges. While the 2009 schedule is softer than in prior years, there are still games against Michigan, USC, Pittsburgh, Stanford, Boston College and Purdue. Not exactly gimmies. The No. 6 ranking here is well deserved.
No. 5: The BYU Cougars
BYU plays in the Mountain West conference and so simply must schedule tough non-conference competition if it wants to be ranked high enough to qualify for the big money, BCS bowls.
The data on BYU’s historical non-conference schedule reveals a team that is willing to travel and take on the traditional powerhouse programs. Here are the numbers:
23 non-conference games (2003-2008)
11-12 record overall
5-11 vs. BCS programs
0-7 vs. ranked programs
Just 1 FCS team on the schedule
No BCS bowls
BYU’s only road win over a BCS team in non-conference play during the time period analyzed was its 2008 victory over Washington, 28-27.
However, the Cougars do have signature wins at home including a 2003 victory over Georgia Tech (24-13), a 2004 squeaker over Notre Dame (20-17), a 2007 victory over Arizona (20-7) and last year’s 59-0 obliteration of UCLA on the way to a 10-win season. 2009 is no retreat: BYU faces Oklahoma at a neutral site and then hosts Florida State in Provo.
Overall BYU’s schedule is a bit more regional than the teams ranked higher on this list. The 0-7 record against ranked opponents is a drag on the scoring and places the Cougars in the No. 5 slot.
No. 4: The Fresno State Bulldogs
Leave it to one of the WAC teams that I don’t normally consider “BCS caliber” to try and prove me wrong. I have to admit it; I love Fresno State’s can-do attitude. “Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.” is the mantra set by Bulldogs’ head coach Pat Hill. The data backs it up.
24 non-conference games (2003-2008)
14-10 record overall
6-10 vs. BCS programs
1-8 vs. ranked programs
3 FCS teams
No BCS bowls
Fresno State is defined as much by its near misses as its schedule. The non-conference competition is very respectable. Fresno State can claim a signature road victory over then No. 13 ranked Kansas State from the Big-12.
The Bulldogs entered the game a twelve point underdog but promptly proceeded to stun the home crowd in Manhattan, the Little Apple, Kansas with a merciless 45-21 beat down.
In 2008 Fresno State was again the underdog traveling across three time zones to play what would eventually be a bowl bound Rutgers squad. Fresno State shut down the Scarlet Knights in front of its home crowd and dominated along the way to a 24-7 signature road victory.
Fresno State has secured signature home wins against a bowl-bound Oregon State team and another thrashing of Kansas State, 45-29. Near misses include a year 2005 game at Oregon that the Bulldogs lost 34-37. Fresno State came up just short against No. 1 USC in the L.A. Coliseum, losing to the Trojans by just eight points, 42-50.
The Bulldogs hosted Oregon in 2006 and just missed, 24-31. In 2007, Fresno State nearly knocked off No. 23 ranked Texas A&M in College Station, TX in a thrilling, triple overtime game won by the Aggies 47-45. In 2008 the Bulldogs showed grit and came up just short against No. 10 ranked Wisconsin, losing by just three points, 13-10.
Fresno State’s overall record is slightly better than BYU’s and includes a signature victory on the road over a ranked opponent. A tip of my hat to this program is in order for not letting the losses dissuade it from accepting all comers, whether for home and away contracts or one-sided affairs.
Fresno State’s 2009 non-conference schedule includes three very challenging road trips to play at Wisconsin, at Illinois and at last year’s Big East winner, Cincinnati. Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.
If ever the talent were to gel at Fresno State this team’s tough scheduling, along with some signature victories, would catapult this team into the conversation with Utah, BYU, Boise State, etc. when it comes to discussing the best non-BCS team in the country.
No. 3: The Florida State Seminoles
Florida State does not travel as far as Fresno State, but nonetheless claims the No. 3 spot by virtue of its tough non-conference competition, a very demanding rivalry game and signature wins both on the road and at home over very good competition. Here are the numbers.
21 non-conference games (2003-2008)
16-5 record overall
8-5 vs. BCS programs
2-4 vs. ranked programs
3 FCS teams
0-2 in BCS bowls
The Seminoles benefit from a great rivalry game with Florida each year. The rivalry has been a double-edged sword, though, with FSU dropping the last five contests. Still, FSU can claim a signature road win in its 2003 shoot out victory over the Gators in the Swamp, 38-34.
That same year FSU put a horrendous beating on Notre Dame in South Bend, 37-0. In 2007, FSU traveled a couple of time zones to the west and beat Colorado 16-6, while also handling a No. 22 ranked Alabama team at a neutral site, 21-14.
FSU’s signature home wins include a 2003 mauling of Colorado, 47-7, and a 2008 “revenge” game with Colorado that, unfortunately for the Buffaloes, ended with a similar result, 39-21 in favor of the Noles.
In 2009 FSU will travel to Provo, Utah for a showdown with BYU. FSU has a home date with an up-and-coming USF program and then there’s always that little, season ending trip to the Swamp to play a Florida Gator program that will likely be ranked No. 1 in the country. FSU does not take the easy path.
In fact, it chooses the tough road and for that I thank Florida State for giving college football fans great non-conference games to watch year in and year out.
No. 2: The Utah Utes
I actually thought that Florida State was going to secure the No. 2 spot until I compared the data. Make no mistake about it, Utah has set out to play the best games it can arrange. The Utes have been very successful and deserve a lot of credit. Here are the numbers and signature wins that beat out FSU for the runner-up award.
23 non-conference games (2003-2008)
18-5 record overall
10-5 vs. BCS programs
3-1 vs. ranked programs
Played just 1 FCS team
2-0 in BCS bowls
Utah’s numbers are clearly better than FSU’s in a side-by-side comparison, although the superior strength of FSU’s non-conference competition makes this a very close call. Like FSU, Utah’s travel is largely regional, albeit with a few long trips in the mix.
Utah’s signature road victories include a 23-6 campaign over Arizona in 2004, a 44-35 beating of Louisville and a 25-23 triumph over Michigan in the Big House in 2008.
Utah’s signature home wins are equally impressive, possibly more so, as they include a victory over No. 19 ranked Oregon (17-13 in 2003), a 46-16 thrashing of North Carolina in 2004 and an obliteration of No. 11 ranked UCLA, 44-6, in 2007.
Finally, in 2008 Utah pulled off a thrilling, come-from-behind 31-28 victory over an Oregon State team that had previously knocked off No. 1 ranked USC. Oregon State would eventually win nine-games, including a bowl victory, and finish ranked in the top-25 so this was also a high quality, signature home victory for the Utes.
I think it is also worth mentioning that Utah’s regular season success is proven to be no fluke by its post-season victories in BCS bowl games. Utah put a worse beating on Alabama, 31-17, in last year’s Sugar Bowl than Florida did in the SEC title game. Utah rolled up twenty two first downs against the Tide.
Florida got nineteen first downs and needed every bit of the fourth quarter to pull away, 31-20. Utah punched Alabama in the mouth, changed the dynamic of the game and never really had to look back after half time.
Utah is doing it right. Utah’s 2009 non-conference schedule includes a game in Eugene, Oregon against what should be a ranked Oregon Duck program, a road trip to San Jose State and a home date against the Big East’s Louisville.
The 10-5 record against BCS programs and 3-1 record against ranked teams speaks for itself and solidly secures Utah’s position as the No. 2 team here.
No. 1: The University of Southern California Trojans
No team in America brings the wood like the Trojans of USC. The numbers are just staggering.
21 non-conference games (2003-2008)
21-0 record overall
14-0 vs. BCS programs
9-0 vs. ranked programs
6 BCS bowls; 5-1 record
2 AP titles; 1 BCS title
Of all the teams with a conference affiliation only USC can really claim that it seeks out victims from all of the other conferences. There are no FCS teams on USC’s schedule. There never have been.
USC’s signature road victories are numerous and impressive. In 2003, USC traveled to Auburn, Alabama and stunned 90,000 Tiger fans in a 23-0 shutout over then No. 6 ranked Auburn that saw USC’s new quarterback throw a touchdown on his very first pass.
Matt Leinart and the Trojans then took the show on the road, traveling across three time zones to play Virginia Tech in Washington D.C. to open up the 2004 season. Va.Tech would go on to win the ACC and finish the season ranked No. 9 in the country. A partisan VT crowd was silenced in the fourth quarter when the Trojans pulled away for a double-digit victory, 24-13.
In 2005, USC traveled to South Bend, Indiana to play the No. 5 ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish in what later became known as the “Bush Push” game won by USC 34-31 as time expired. In 2006, USC traveled to Fayetteville, AR to play the eventual SEC-West champion Razorbacks.
USC was breaking in another new quarterback, John David Booty, but nonetheless blew out Arkansas, 50-14. Darren McFadden ran wild on the SEC the rest of the season but was shutdown and made a non-factor by the Trojan defense in this game.
In 2007 USC secured a signature road victory in Lincoln, Nebraska. The Trojans set a Memorial Stadium record for rushing yards by an opponent on the way to annihilating the No. 14 ranked Cornhuskers, 49-31, in a game that was not really that close.
Finally, in 2008, USC traveled across the length of the country, broke in yet another quarterback, Mark Sanchez, and crushed the Virginia Cavaliers 52-7 in front of their home crowd in Charlottesville.
USC’s non-conference signature home wins include a 28-10 victory over eventual Big-12 North champ Nebraska in 2006 and last year’s 35-3 obliteration of No. 5 ranked Ohio State.
There is no let up for the Trojans. Like Florida State, USC benefits from a rivalry game against a traditional powerhouse program in Notre Dame. In 2009, the Trojans will host San Jose State before making road trips to Columbus, Ohio to face Ohio State and South Bend, Indiana to take on Notre Dame.
Both the Buckeyes and the Fighting Irish are listed as top-10 programs in several preseason college football preview publications and so it would appear that, once again, USC is at the forefront of scheduling the big-time, non-conference, match-ups that college football fans all want to see in the regular season.
One final note, there are no representatives from the Big-12 or SEC in this list. This is not by accident. I looked at the data and, to be blunt, there were just too many games against non-BCS Sun Belt, C-USA and even FCS competition year in and year out.
Sure there are trips by Texas to Ohio State, by LSU to Washington, by Auburn to West Virginia, but these are the exceptions, not the rule.
The silver lining, however, is that this appears to be changing. A half a hat tip is extended this year to the SEC’s Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia’s non-conference schedule in 2009 includes a home game against Arizona State and then road games at Oklahoma State and at Georgia Tech.
If such scheduling is indicative of the future, then Georgia will make its mark on college football fans that love and respect the teams that truly mean it when they say “Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime.”