Ranking the 10 Bravest Programs in College Football
What does it mean to be brave as a college football program?
To me, it's twofold: facing off against other top programs in your non-conference schedule year after year and winning those games you schedule on a majority basis.
A recent graph from BCF Toys showed that the AP top 25 programs played each other less on average than they did 20 years ago. That's a troubling sign for a sport that demands marquee match-ups week after week.
What programs are still scheduling without fear? Which ones are winning the tough games they schedule? I ranked the top 10 programs I consider to be most brave. See what you think.
No. 10: UConn
The Huskies landed a date with Michigan to kick off the 2010 season, and could do to Rich Rodriguez what Rodriguez effectively did to Charlie Weis last year—deal an early-season blow that, though it didn't knock Weis out, left him gasping for air with a full season to go.
The Huskies also battled North Carolina last year and have all but secured a perennial clash with Notre Dame.
Among the several future match-ups to look forward to: a 2011 date with Iowa State and the Irish; two ACC foes in 2012, Maryland and NC State; a home-and-away series against Iowa in 2012/13, plus another clash with Michigan and Notre Dame; and a home-and-away against Tennessee in 2014/15.
Most of the bravery I attribute to Randy Edsall, a true up-and-comer who will be the candidate for many of the top jobs at next year's end. But if the Huskies are truly committed to becoming more than a basketball school, scheduling tough non-cons is the right track.
2010's Bravest Games: at Michigan (9/4)
No. 9: Texas
The Longhorns took a brief break from tough non-conference play the past few years—their best non-con game was probably against Arkansas—so you might be surprised to see them on this list if you've just tuned into the action.
But few could forget the epic series the Horns played against Ohio State at the peak of both programs' powers in 2005 and 2006. Vince Young's win at the Horseshoe was probably one of the greatest regular season battles of the aughts, and though the following year's game wasn't close, it was crucial in Colt McCoy's development as a quarterback.
The action is set to renew as the Longhorns face UCLA in 2010 and 2011 and have scheduled a home and away against Ole Miss in 2012 and 2013. The best is yet to come as UT faces off against Cal and Minnesota in 2015 and 2016.
2010's Bravest Game: vs. UCLA
No. 8: Boise State
Boise State has to be brave in their non-conference scheduling to counteract the disparaging remarks about their in-conference opponents.
But they back up that bold scheduling by winning games. They took down future Pac-10 champion Oregon in a suffocating win at home, and also beat the underrated 2008 Ducks in Autzen—ask Matt Barkley how easy that is to do.
Boise's schedule aligns perfectly this year for a run at a national championship. Aside from a home game against Oregon State, the Broncos face Virginia Tech on Labor Day for what should be one of the most hyped games of the year.
That said, their future schedule isn't as jam-packed with great series as I was expecting, and their ranking on this list suffered because of it. They play a four game home-and-away with BYU from 2012-2015 and will face Utah from 2011-2013.
A rumored deal with Michigan didn't pan out for the Wolverines' opening date in 2010, but that would have been a terrific game.
However, based on past performance, I'm certain Boise will find top opponents for 2013 and beyond. And with the way conference expansion is taking shape, perhaps they won't need to.
2010's Bravest Games: vs. Virginia Tech (at FedEx Field, 9/6); vs. Oregon State (9/25)
No. 7: Appalachian State
Do I give props to Appalachian State every chance I get? Yes. Why? Well, there's a reason that picture is saved as worstdayofmylife.jpg.
The Mountaineers scrambled Lloyd Carr's eggs all over the Big House to kick off Michigan's ill-fated 2007 season, playing without fear and without hesitation as they took apart a team many believed could have competed for a national championship.
They didn't just come to lose and recuperate in a pool of payout money; they came to spread, shred and win.
Playing without fear makes men brave. And though the Mountaineers couldn't repeat their success in a two-game series against LSU in 2008 and 2009, they'll continue trying against Florida in 2010, Virginia Tech in 2011, and against Georgia in 2013.
Any other programs looking to fill a date on their schedule are more than welcome to apply.
2010's Bravest Games: at Florida (11/20)
No. 6: Fresno State
Like Boise State, Fresno has had to root around the rest of the college football landscape for opponents that will give them legitimacy.
Unlike Boise, they haven't been as successful in winning those games. But in many, they've come damn close: a shootout loss against the 2005 Trojans; a one-point loss to Washington in 2006; a two-point loss to Texas A&M at Kyle FIeld; two losses to Wisconsin in 2007 and 2009, both by field goals.
Their future scheduling is packed with chances to change that luck. In 2011 alone, the Bulldogs play Colorado, Ole Miss, and Nebraska, and play the return games of those series between 2012 and 2015.
There's also a date with Rutgers and a rumored rematch with USC that has yet to take shape.
Any of those games could put Fresno State back in the discussion as a major BCS buster.
2010's Bravest Games: vs. Illinois (TBA), vs. Cincinnati (9/18), at Ole Miss (9/25)
No. 5: Tennessee
The Volunteers split a home-and-away series against Cal and lost both to UCLA, but they're not giving up their assault on the Pac-10; they play Oregon next year at home and away in 2013.
The Vols have also agreed to a home-and-away against North Carolina for 2011 and 2012. Assuming Butch Jones isn't a total bust, the game against Cincinnati in 2011 should be interesting.
There's also a home-and-away against Oklahoma in 2014/15, another against Nebraska in 2016/17, and one more against Ohio State in 2018/19.
Cheers to Mike Hamilton, Tennessee's embattled AD, for hooking these up. Assuming Lane Kiffin's tenure wasn't a total disaster, any and all of those could occur during a run at a national championship once the Vols get back to their winning ways.
2010's Bravest Game: vs. Oregon (9/11)
No. 4: BYU
BYU schedules like they play: with a serious chip on their shoulder.
The Cougars have scheduled some premier games against the Pac-10, beating UCLA and Washington over the past three years.
And few could forget their undoing of Sam Bradford's Oklahoma team this year. Coleby Clawson did more to change the 2010 college football landscape than maybe any other player.
The future promises more: a 2010 tilt with a more polished Locker at home, and a rematch against the Florida State team that pantsed them last year; a game against Texas in 2011; and, interestingly, a four-year series against Boise State.
2010's Bravest Games: vs. Washington (9/4), at Florida State (9/18)
No. 3: Ohio State
The Buckeyes have squared off against two of the greatest teams of the decade in non-conference play.
Their series against Texas was epic, particularly the 2005 game at the Horseshoe that the Bucks lost against Vince Young's Longhorns. Troy Smith and the Bucks responded in 2006 by stifling Colt McCoy's Longhorns in his freshman year.
The USC series wasn't nearly as successful, but last year's game came damn close to being magical. Were it not for some fatal conservatism and a few too many third down conversions, the Bucks could be sporting national championship rings right now.
Those wondering how Ohio State has remained at the top of the Big Ten and in the mix for BCS games should remember that to be the greatest, you must play the greatest, year after year.
2010's Bravest Game: at home against Miami.
No. 2: Miami
How do you get swagger? Not by beating tomato cans like Chattanooga South or swinging helmets at your neighbors at Florida Atlantic.
You get it by taking on the top programs and winning. Randy Shannon knows this, and that's why he's scheduling multiple series against the top college football programs.
The Canes' win against Oklahoma last year was a terrific start, and they begin one of the great non-con match-ups this year against Ohio State. They'll also play Pitt for a single game in 2010, and close the season against South Florida, which should be no walk in the park.
For the future, they penciled in a home and away against Kansas State for 2011/12, face Cincinnati in 2012, and play what should be an epic series with Nebraska in 2014/15. Florida rotates back onto their schedule in 2013, as well.
Regardless of what we think of the ACC now or will in the future, scheduling tough non-cons is how you crack BCS bowls.
2010's Bravest Game(s): at Ohio State (9/11), at Pitt (9/23)
No. 1: USC
The Trojans have made good on their threat to beat anyone, anywhere, by toasting their non-conference opponents year after year. They haven't dropped a non-con game in the regular season since losing to Kansas State in 2002. Living without fear was Pete Carroll's lasting legacy.
The recent sweep of the Buckeyes was a feather in their cap, but they've also faced Virginia (before the Cavaliers' total collapse), Nebraska, Arkansas, and Fresno State in past years.
Trojan fans can look forward to a home-and-away series with the Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2010/11, Boston College in 2013/14, Texas A&M in 2015/16, and, of course, the yearly tilt with Notre Dame, which has improved of late and should continue to get better as both team's fortunes ebb and flow.
2010's Bravest Game(s): at Minnesota, vs. Hawaii
Penn State: usually a cupcake crusher, the Nittany Lions kick off an away-and-home at Alabama this year, but are otherwise without good non-conference series in the future. Renewing the Pitt rivalry would go a long way.
Troy: the Trojans have yet to break through against their toughest competition, but it's not for want of trying. They beat Oklahoma State in 2007, almost topped LSU in 2008, and were tied early with Florida in a driving rain before the Gators blew it up. Their future schedules are loaded: Clemson, Navy, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi State are all targets.
UCLA: To be fair, the Bruins just missed the cut. They faced off against Tennessee, will be playing Texas this year, and set a future date with Nebraska. Another great future match-up would put them on the list for sure.
TCU: Good dates with Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Navy in the future. They've only just begun to play well against non-con competition, and beat Clemson by the slimmest margin last year.