One of the most popular debates among college football fans and pundits is the age-old question, "Which conference is best?" Instead of perpetually arguing this debate, however, we should realize teams are pretty much stuck in their conference.
It's not Oklahoma's fault they have to play Baylor every year, that's just the way the conference schedule worked out. When building a schedule, eight games a year will be in-conference. Instead of evaluating a team's in-conference schedule, let's take a step back and evaluate the out-of-conference decisions teams have made.
Obviously, the non-conference schedule is a risk/reward game. Do you play the tougher teams, risking an early loss? Do you schedule four easy teams to glorified exhibition games, just waiting until the conference season starts?
Texas' win over Ohio State in 2005 spurred their National Title run, and LSU's win over Virginia Tech early last year ultimately proved very important to the computers late in the season. But, on the other hand, that loss was the only roadblock between the Hokies and the BCS Title game.
So what does your favorite team do? There are a few different schools of thought when deciding non-conference foes:
- Let's just get to the conference schedule (We'll name this the "Wake Forest" Philosophy)
- Let's get to October undefeated, playing one somewhat decent team (We'll name this the "West Virginia" Philosophy)
- Let's get to October knowing what kind of football team we have, playing two or three decent teams we should beat (We'll name this the "Michigan" Philosophy)
- Let's have a couple breezes and one marquee matchup (We'll name this the "Ohio State" Philosophy)
- Let's get lots of money for our school (We'll name this the "Troy" Philosophy)
So, how do some of college football's biggest names fit into these categories? Let's take a look at the non-conference schedules of the Sporting News' Preseason Top 10 (there's no real reason I picked Sporting News, but go with it).
1. Georgia - Georgia Southern, Central Michigan, at Arizona State, Georgia Tech.
Having lived in Ohio my whole life and watched Michigan beat up on Northern/Southern/Eastern/Western Michigan for years, I have deduced as a general rule of thumb that Directional (Insert State here) teams are gimmies.
This leaves Arizona State as the only legitimate team on the slate, but it is quite a legitimate team. Georgia has been knocked for not scheduling tough in the past, but this year—even with the gimmies—there's no real gripe.
2. Ohio State - Youngstown State, Ohio, at USC, Troy.
Jim Tressel loves playing these in-state games, and while it may come back to bite him some time in the future, it won't this year. For how bad Youngstown State, Ohio, and Troy are, however, at USC is the toughest game of any team out of conference.
Ohio State, as I mentioned earlier, usually doesn't schedule more than one decent team a year out of conference, but as seen in the past with Texas and Washington (who, at the time the game was scheduled, was legit) and in the future with Miami, Tennessee, and Cal...they don't back down from the big names.
3. USC - at Virginia, Ohio State, Notre Dame.
Give USC credit for this schedule. Obviously they got a little lucky with Ohio State at home, but all that means is that they'll be going to Columbus next year. With this schedule, USC will definitely know what kind of football team they are headed into their conference schedule (I know they don't play Notre Dame until the second-to-last week of the year, and I know Notre Dame will be an easy victory).
The only possible gripe, if you're an Ohio State fan, is the bye week between the Virginia game and the Ohio State game, but that's petty.
4. Oklahoma - Chattanooga, Cincinnati, at Washington, TCU.
This is a pretty weak schedule, but we shouldn't be too harsh. Like Ohio State last year, Oklahoma is getting hurt by an underachieving Washington team. But, give Oklahoma credit there for trying—that's not going to be a cakewalk, Jake Locker is going to be very good this year.
As for the others, this is a pretty uninspiring schedule. It's very possible people will gripe about how Oklahoma "didn't have to play anybody" at the end of the year.
5. LSU - Appalachian State, Troy, North Texas, Tulane.
When I first typed up the different schools of thought, I originally named the first one the "LSU Philosophy." I decided against it, choosing instead to rip LSU here. Appalachian State, despite what they did to a bad and unprepared Michigan team last year, is a I-AA/FCS team. A good one, but still not a worthy opponent.
LSU does not have a road non-conference game. Troy, North Texas (follow the Directional School rule here), and Tulane's cumulative record last year was 14-22, thanks to Troy's eight-win season. This schedule is comically easy, and any LSU fan should tread extremely carefully before accusing a Big Ten or Pac-10 or Big 12 team of scheduling cupcakes.
6. Missouri - Illinois (neutral), SE Missouri State, Nevada, Buffalo.
This schedule allows Missouri to join Ohio State and USC in the last category. Nevada is not as bad as one might think, but clearly this is a one-and-done schedule. Last year, Illinois nearly beat Missouri (think about how that would've changed people's mind about Illinois), and this year's game should be just as good.
Clearly, Missouri-Illinois is the game of the first week of the season (sorry, Tennessee-UCLA). The only real gripe is the lack of a true road game—the "neutral" game is in St. Louis—but with the marquee game that criticism gets diminished.
7. Clemson - Alabama (neutral), Citadel, South Carolina State, South Carolina.
Two SEC teams on the schedule, so winning both those games could go a long way. As with Missouri, there's no real road game (though, unlike Missouri, the Alabama game is neutral, it's in Atlanta), which isn't too great.
I'm going to pair this schedule with the West Virginia Philosophy, because the South Carolina game is the last game of the season, so getting to October should definitely not be a problem. They won't be entirely untested, but they won't be breaking too hard a sweat—especially since the Alabama game is inside.
8. West Virginia - Villanova, at East Carolina, at Colorado, Auburn.
Historically West Virginia has not really pushed itself when scheduling non-conference opponents (hence the designation of the "West Virginia Philosophy"), but this year it's not too bad, finally looking to break the trend.
Two road games, one game against the Big 12, one game against the SEC...this is a team primed to prove itself. Or fall on its face. With the Big East schedule basically coming down to one game against South Florida (coincidentally enough, the last game of the season), West Virginia's non-conference schedule will be interesting to follow.
9. Florida - Hawaii, Miami (Fl), Citadel, at Florida State.
With Florida, you pretty much always know what you're going to get. You've got the two rivalry games against Miami and Florida State, so usually Florida's always going to have a pretty respectable non-conference slate. Hawaii looked a lot better before June Jones jumped ship, so no gripes about that matchup. If they didn't have a game as easy as Citadel then something would be wrong.
This is a very solid non-conference schedule—games they should all win, and games that will surely let them know what kind of football team they have (the "Michigan Philosophy" minus the embarrassing losses).
10. Illinois - Missouri (neutral), Eastern Illinois, Louisiana-Lafayette, Western Michigan.
With this schedule, Illinois is clearly pushing the limits of the "Ohio State Philosophy." Missouri is a top 10 talent to be sure, but that is all Illinois fans have to worry about. Whoever loses that first game will surely have to face the "they haven't beaten anyone this year" curse with Oklahoma and LSU for the rest of the year.
Before I bow out for the day, I need to include a shout-out for Troy. Troy was 8-4 last year, but they lost their Sun Belt offensive MVP quarterback and are facing a down year this year. So what do they do? They schedule road games at Ohio State, LSU, and Oklahoma State. In fact, they have SEVEN road games this year. That's impressive.