College Football Preseason Rankings: The 23 Easiest Schedules in the Country

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 8, 2011

College Football Preseason Rankings: The 23 Easiest Schedules in the Country

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    Since the FBS has become the “everybody gets a ribbon” division of college football, there's intense pressure to reach the six-win mark each season. Do that, and you're probably headed to a bowl game. Win seven games, and you're guaranteed a trip.

    While there's not much teams can do about their conference schedule, they have nearly total control over their non-conference schedule. And some programs are exercising that control so that they begin the season with three or four almost guaranteed wins—halfway to the ribbon already!

    Since it's the season of preseason rankings, we thought we should rank teams based on the difficulty of their schedules—or in this case, lack of difficulty.

    Here is the preseason ranking of the easiest schedules in the nation for 2011.

23. Boston College

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    The only thing that saves BC from being much higher on this list is the fact that this season they have both Florida State and Virginia Tech on their conference slate.

    Beyond those two ACC buzz saws, the Eagles set up their non-conference schedule to include Northwestern, Central Florida and FCS UMass.

    Notre Dame's usual appearance on BC's schedule also saves the Eagles from a much less flattering position.

22. Clemson

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    We'll stay in the ACC for our next selection, Clemson.

    Yes, there are two ranked SEC teams on Clemson's schedule this season, but is there anyone who honestly believes that Auburn will be anywhere near as difficult as they were last season? And remember, Auburn needed overtime to finish off Clemson last season, and Clemson was on the road. This season, Auburn will be on the road in one of the most hostile environments in the nation.

    Add in teams like Troy and FCS Wofford, and it's the Tigers' ACC lineup and South Carolina that keeps them near the bottom of this list.

21. Mississippi State

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    Yes, yes. We all know how terrible it must be to play in the SEC. I mean, SEC teams have to play the Green Bay Packers or the New England Patriots every week!

    The way SEC fans talk about it, you'd think that the SEC was somehow at a disadvantage, as if they were forced to wear shoes made of lead.

    The only problem with the “God's gift to football” attitude is the fact that so many SEC teams have an embarrassingly weak non-conference schedule. If the SEC is really that great, shouldn't SEC teams be able to beat anyone on any given Saturday? At least LSU and Alabama have read that memo, and have scheduled some darned good non-con games.

    Mississippi State, however, has one of the most laughable non-conference schedules in the nation. The Bulldogs start with a road game against Memphis, a team that couldn't even manage to win two games last season in the weak C-USA. Louisiana Tech is the next non-SEC team to make an appearance, followed by Alabama-Birmingham and FCS Tennessee-Martin.

    If it weren't for the fact that the Bulldogs have six teams on their schedule that are or could be ranked, Mississippi State would find itself much, much higher on this list.

    Plus (this should make the SEC fans feel better), a team can't really have a weak schedule if they themselves are a weak team, can they?  It's part of residing at the top so often. Eventually, you don't have much choice but to play weaker opponents.

20. Kentucky

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    If you thought Mississippi State was the worst offender in the SEC, you're wrong. The only difference here is Kentucky probably won't fare as well in conference play.

    In the SEC, Kentucky's schedule has a noticeable absence—Arkansas. Other than that, Kentucky plays a pretty rough SEC schedule this season. Outside of the SEC, Kentucky has Western Kentucky, Central Michigan, Louisville and FCS Jacksonville State. Not exactly a collection of great opponents.

    Kentucky isn't a great SEC program, but their inclusion has more to do with the pretty weak non-conference schedule. Luckily for the Wildcats, any team in the SEC will benefit from a tough conference slate.

19. Texas Christian

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    The 2011 Rose Bowl Champions probably won't be anywhere near a repeat performance of last season's magic. But that won't be because of their difficult schedule.

    The season begins for the Horned Frogs with a game against Baylor. While the Bears had their moments last season, they still fell well short of anything resembling massive success. Air Force is up next, followed by Louisiana-Monroe, FCS Portland State and SMU.

    A trip to San Diego State, the team that played TCU closest last season, could be a potential stumbling block on October 8. But TCU should be able to recover with a bye week, followed by a visit from New Mexico.

    The home stretch of the schedule is a decent mix of strong and weak, with BYU, Wyoming, Boise State, Colorado State, another bye week and Colorado State.

    Taken all together, the only thing that saves TCU from a much higher ranking is their road games at SDSU and Boise State. A virtual home game against BYU at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas doesn't hurt TCU's schedule either.

18. North Carolina

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    The Tar Heels were a bit of a disappointment last season. Scandals and suspensions will do that.

    While UNC isn't expected to be much of a threat this season, their schedule certainly sets up nicely to get the Tar Heels back to a bowl game. Florida State doesn't appear on the Tar Heels' 2011 schedule, and the additions of FCS James Madison, Rutgers, East Carolina and Louisville don't exactly give UNC's bland schedule much flavor.

17. Tennessee

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    We're back to the SEC with the team that perhaps has the weakest SEC schedule we'll see this season.

    Defending SEC-East champion South Carolina is absent from the Volunteers' schedule in 2011, and Tennessee gets to ease into the bowl season with games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky in late November.

    Outside of their conference schedule, Tennessee has FCS Montana, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Middle Tennessee State.

    If you're a gambler that only likes very safe bets, put your money on Tennessee in a bowl game. They already have four wins, and the season hasn't even started.

    If Tennessee wants to work their way back into the top echelon of the SEC, they need to begin with playing non-conference opponents closer to the SEC's talent level.

16. West Virginia

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    The Mountaineers begin the 2011 season unranked, and that has many in Morgantown (and elsewhere) a little perplexed. After all, WVU should be improved over last season's 9-4 record and Big East co-championship.

    But Mountaineer fans shouldn't worry too much. West Virginia will be ranked, sooner or later. And by the looks of their schedule, it will probably be sooner.

    The season begins with a visit from Marshall followed by FCS Norfolk State. After that 2-0 start, WVU will have their first moderate test at Maryland on September 17, which should provide a nice warm-up for the early-season showdown at home against preseason top five LSU on September 24.

    After the Tigers depart Morgantown, it's all down hill from there for the Mountaineers. The Mac's Bowling Green State is next, followed by the entirety of the Big East. While the conference does have a few decent teams this season, it's not quite the SEC or Big Ten. Or ACC. Or Pac-12. Or Big 12.

    Plus, West Virginia has both UConn and Pitt at home this season.

    WVU should have no problem earning their way to a quality bowl game this season, and a Big East title isn't out of the question—in fact, many people have picked WVU to win the Big East in 2011. The only thing keeping WVU from a top ten ranking here is probably LSU.

15. Oklahoma

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    “Really? The preseason No. 1 team in the nation is on this list and at No. 15?”

    Sure. Why not?

    Sooner fans will probably go nuts, but there are some pretty good reasons why Oklahoma makes an appearance on our weakest schedules list.

    Two games a tough schedule does not make. Yes, Florida State and Oklahoma State loom large for the Sooners, but only one of those teams can knock the Sooners out of contention for a BCS bowl. Even a loss to Florida State won't end Oklahoma's quest for a Big 12 title and subsequent BCS bowl.

    Beyond the two murderous games, OU has a veritable collection of cream puffs to roll over. Tulsa, Ball State, Kansas, Texas Tech, Kansas State, Baylor and Iowa State should all be destroyed by the Sooners this season. The remaining foes, Missouri, Texas and Texas A&M should definitely be on the losing end (and in the case of Texas, may very well get destroyed, depending on how things shake out in Austin).

    Oklahoma's collection of games that won't even be competitive this season earns them a position on the list.

14. Indiana

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    Okay, so the Hoosiers aren't exactly a big name from the Big Ten in terms of football and bowl candidates. But they are definitely set up to make a run for a bowl game in 2011.

    The Hoosiers begin with a game at the MAC's Ball State, but BSU has chosen to host the game in Indianapolis (smart move, money wise). After that win, Indiana will host Virginia and FCS South Carolina State, before traveling to North Texas.

    Indiana's Big Ten schedule this season includes a pretty good mix of top and bottom teams; Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Northwestern, Ohio State, Michigan State and Purdue round out IU's 2011 schedule.

    With four very winnable games on tap before the Big Ten season gets under way, Indiana will be looking to go just 2-6 in conference play to earn a post-season berth, and that should be within the Hoosiers' grasp.

13. Connecticut

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    It's time the college football world (and the BCS) admits that the Big East really isn't all it's cracked up to be. This isn't basketball, and even the addition of TCU in 2012 probably won't improve the conference as a whole by leaps and bounds.

    UConn slid into the Fiesta Bowl last season as the selected representative from the Big East's collection of co-champions. The Huskies were also the lowest-ranked BCS participant, thanks to the Big East's BCS Automatic Qualifier status.

    After getting walloped by Oklahoma last year, the Huskies will look to set up another bowl trip with a pretty sad looking schedule in 2011.

    Before you even look at the Big East part of the schedule, there are teams like FCS Fordham, SEC cellar-dweller Vanderbilt, Big 12 doormat Iowa State, and two MAC schools in Buffalo and Western Michigan.

    Add in their Big East opponents that other teams add in as their non-conference cream puffs, and you have a complete schedule that no one should be afraid of. If Connecticut doesn't start 5-0 in 2011, it will tell us just how far they've fallen.

12. Texas Tech

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    Well all understand that Texas Tech probably isn't going to be winning the Big 12 this season, but understanding that and overcompensating with an abysmally weak non-conference schedule are two different things.

    The Red Raiders, like all Big 12 teams this season, are left with just three non-conference games for 2011. Rather than making the most of the opportunity, Texas Tech has elected to play FCS Texas State, New Mexico (1-11 in 2010) and Nevada.

    Rightly or wrongly, the Big 12 is also perceived to be “weak” (for whatever reason), and beyond the top three teams (OU, OSU and TAMU), there's not a whole lot expected from the rest of the conference this season.

    Starting the year with games against an FCS team and a 1-11 FBS team won't get you much love, but will get you a spot on this list.

11. Miami (FL)

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    A few months ago, Miami probably would have been much lower on this list, if they appeared on it at all.

    But a funny thing happened a few months ago: Ohio State took a self-inflicted nose-dive.

    Rather than beginning the season as a legit top ten team and BCS championship contender, Ohio State was lucky to find themselves ranked as high as they were in the preseason coaches poll (No. 16). Suddenly, Miami (which was receiving votes equivalent to No. 29) is expected to be much closer to Ohio State's perceived strength.

    Now, look at the rest of the Hurricanes' schedule, and you'll see the reason for their position on the list.

    Kansas State, FCS Bethune-Cookman and South Florida. Two of those games should be easy wins for a Hurricanes team expected to make some improvements over last year's disappointing results. Were it not for the fact the USF beat Miami last season and Miami has both Virginia Tech and Florida State on the 2011 schedule, Miami would be a candidate for a top ten position on this list.

    As it stands, they find themselves just outside of the dreaded top ten.

10. Florida State

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    Florida State's hype machine is in full swing, and the Seminoles have found themselves ranked No. 5 in the preseason coaches poll.

    They also find themselves ranked with one of the ten weakest schedules in the nation. That could mean a very lofty finish for Florida State, but they will need to get past two obstacles if they hope to compete for a BCS title this season.

    The first, and only early season obstacle for FSU is Oklahoma. The 'Noles welcome the Sooners to Tallahassee on September 17 in what is sure to be one of the premiere non-conference games of the entire 2011 season.

    But beyond that showdown, Florida State has a schedule that should provide plenty of fireworks—but only for one team, Florida State.

    The season begins with a visit from Louisiana-Monroe, followed by FCS Charleston Southern. Florida State is the clear favorite in the ACC's Atlantic Division this season, and FSU also has a favorable cross-divisional schedule in 2011. The only team from the Coastal Division that appears on the Seminoles' schedule that posted a winning record last season is the 7-6 Miami Hurricanes. Virginia Tech and North Carolina are conspicuously absent.

9. Colorado State

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    The Rams probably aren't going to be winning a whole lot of votes in the polls this season, and their shockingly weak schedule won't help matters, should the expected losses begin to pile up.

    While Colorado State does get brownie points for having teams like Boise State, TCU and San Diego State on their conference schedule, the addition of 1-12 San Jose State, Utah State and FCS Northern Colorado don't help matters any.

8. Boise State

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    You can't really blame the Broncos for this one, but we'll try anyway.

    The season opener against Georgia seemed like a big-time matchup when it was first scheduled. After all, you had two BCS participants ready to lock horns, and a win would go a long way for either team.

    Now, after Georgia posted their first losing season in nearly two decades in 2010, the game provides much more upside of Georgia and much more downside for Boise State.

    As it turns out, Boise State should be favored in this game, as the Broncos begin their 2011 campaign as the preseason No. 7 team in the nation. Georgia enters as the No. 22 team, riding their name credibility and the potential of some young stars more than anything else.

    After the trip to face Georgia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, the Broncos take a week off before traveling to Toledo to take on the MAC favorite for 2011. Visits from Tulsa and a depleted Nevada are next before a trip to Fresno State round out the non-conference portion of Boise State's schedule.

    The Mountain West doesn't exactly provide much in the way of resistance for a team of Boise State's caliber. Colorado State, UNLV, Wyoming and New Mexico should all be easy wins for the Broncos. We'll also add in San Diego State to that mix, and Boise is sure to have a grudge against the Aztecs and their coach, after throwing a teenage girl-esque hissy fit about Boise State's signature blue turn when they joined the conference. SDSU's new head coach even wanted the MWC to order Boise State to replace the turf with a green surface! Don't think Boise would be in the MWC for long if that were to happen.

    As it stands, Boise State won't be allowed to wear blue uniforms at home this season, partly due to SDSU's whining. Maybe Colorado State shouldn't be allowed to wear green. Just a thought.

    The big match up everyone was looking forward to—TCU at Boise State—probably won't amount to the giant showdown everyone was expecting. TCU was decimated by graduation losses after their impressive Rose Bowl victory last season, and the Horned Frogs probably won't be able to manifest the type of game a national television audience will be looking for.

    The Broncos are a very safe bet to win a conference championship in their first MWC season, and if they get past Georgia, as expected, their weak schedule could have them headed for a 12-0 regular season.

7. Pittsburgh

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    If playing a Big East schedule wasn't weak enough, Pitt had to go and add in some more weak teams to complete the scheduling mess.

    The season starts with a team that went 2-10 last season in the MAC. Buffalo isn't even considered a challenge by their MAC foes, yet a team in the hunt for a BCS-AQ conference championship figured they'd be fine to place on the schedule.

    That's followed up with a visit from FCS Maine. The Black Bears stumbled through 2010 en route to a 4-7 season. A rebuilding Iowa team appears next on the schedule, and there's enough question about Iowa's ability to get through 2011 with the current personnel to make the Hawkeyes a wash when it comes to strength of schedule, neither helping nor hurting.

    Notre Dame shows up as the only non-conference team ranked in the preseason coaches poll, and with the addition of Utah later in the season, Pitt saved itself from a much higher position on the list.

6. Oklahoma State

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    If you've read this slide show up to this point, the inclusion of Oklahoma State probably won't come as a galloping shock.

    After all, Oklahoma made an appearance, and the Cowboys and Sooners play almost identical schedules in 2011, with only two exceptions.

    First, Oklahoma State doesn't have a single Top 25 team on their non-conference schedule in 2011. Both teams play Tulsa, and both teams play a weak opponent from a weak conference. In Oklahoma's case, it's Ball State from the MAC. In OSU's case, it's Louisiana-Lafayette from the Sun Belt. The real difference is in the game against an opponent from a BCS-AQ conference. Oklahoma has Florida State, a top five team. Oklahoma State has Arizona, a decidedly not top five team. The Wildcats aren't even a Top 25 team (they received votes equivalent to No. 32).

    So if Oklahoma appears at No. 15, it's only logical that Oklahoma State makes an apperance much higher on the list.

5. Virginia Tech

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    Along the same lines as Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech makes their entry onto the list a few spots above fellow ACC program Florida State. Virginia Tech gets their ranking on this list higher than Florida State from the obvious absence of a Top 25 (much less the No. 1 team) on the non-con schedule this year.

    However, Virginia Tech has a few things helping them this season. After losing a player like Tyrod Taylor, you need all the help you can get. Not least among those things is a shockingly weak schedule for a team expected to compete for a repeat ACC title.

    FCS Appalachian State, East Carolina, Arkansas State and Marshall make up the Hokies' non-conference slate and the first four games of the season. Then, consider the fact that cross-divisional foe Florida State doesn't appear on the regular season schedule this year, and you have all the makings of an impressive record for Virginia Tech in 2011.

    But with opponents like these, most teams should be able to put together a pretty impressive record.

4. Stanford

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    Our lone representative from the Pac-12 is Stanford.

    With Andrew Luck returning for another season under center, the Cardinal find themselves sitting at No. 6 in the preseason coaches poll. Trouble is, besides Luck, Stanford will be almost an entirely new team from the Orange Bowl champions of last season.

    If we didn't know any better, it looks as if Stanford knew there would be a few missing pieces this year. The year begins against one of the worst teams in the entire FBS—San Jose State. The Spartans are so bad they were only able to beat one team last season, FCS Southern Utah, by five points (Southern Utah was a 6-5 FCS team last year), and SJSU finished with a 1-12 record.

    Next on the schedule is Duke. Do we really need to go into how bad Duke's football program is?

    Stanford's saving grace is their Pac-12 lineup this season, which includes Pac-12-North foe Oregon and Pac-12-South opponent USC. Absent, however, is Pac-12-South contender Arizona State.

    Stanford does make up a little ground with their annual battle with Notre Dame to finish the regular season.

3. North Carolina State

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    At this point, it's almost hard not to accuse the entire ACC of conspiring together to find the weakest possible conference-wide schedule possible.

    The Wolfpack not only found an FCS team to beat up on to start the season, they managed to find a second FCS program to play in 2011.

    Really? Two FCS programs? There really ought to be a rule against that.

    Nevertheless, NC State will play both FCS Liberty and FCS South Alabama. While the South Alabama football program has never lost a game (they went 10-0 in 2010, their first-ever season), they played one of the weakest collections for FCS and Division II programs you could possible cobble together. Liberty, for their part, has done their best to consistently underachieve and disappoint their fans after lofty expectations in the Big South.

    Cincinnati and Central Michigan comprise the rest of the Wolfpack's non-conference schedule, and Virginia Tech is absent from the ACC portion of the 2011 schedule.

    If Florida State wasn't a top five team to start the year, NC State may well have found themselves competing for the top spot on this countdown.

2. Southern Mississippi

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    You would think that a team like Southern Mississippi, a member of Conference USA, would try to balance an embarrassingly weak conference schedule with a non-conference schedule that at least has the appearance of quality.

    You would think wrong.

    Southern Mississippi's season gets under way with a visit from Louisiana Tech. While the Bulldogs aren't the worst team in the FBS, they're nowhere near the top half of programs in the nation. After an early conference clash with Marshall, the Golden Eagles host FCS Southeastern Louisiana. Not only is SE Louisiana an FCS team, they're a bad FCS team, finishing 2010 with a 2-9 mark.

    Virginia is next of the schedule, and at least the Cavaliers are from a BCS conference. Of course, Virginia is a BCS conference bottom feeder, and has been for a few seasons now. Rice visits Southern Miss on October 1 before the Eagles' last non-conference game of the year on October 8, at Navy.

    While the Naval Academy has had some very good teams over the past few years, in 2010 they failed to win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2002 (Air Force captured the trophy last season). Navy's problem has usually been their defense, and in 2011, the Midshipmen return just five defensive starters.

    The Golden Eagles wrap up their season with six conference games; 2010 West Division co-champion SMU, UTEP, East Carolina, defending conference champion Central Florida, UAB and Memphis.

    At least for Southern Miss, the four top teams from the conference last season appear on the 2011 schedule—otherwise, they could easily oust the team with the weakest schedule in 2011.

1. Houston

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    For a team that's looking to rebound from an embarrassing 5-7 finish in 2010, Houston certainly has the schedule to do it.

    There has been no shortage of excuses for Houston's terrible 2010, not the least of which is the season-ending injury to their starting quarterback in the Cougars' third game of the season. Whether or not Case Keenum could have led Houston to a record better than 5-7 is debatable, and at this point, moot. The only question is, can Keenum put his torn ACL behind him and lead Houston to a better record in 2011?

    While the loss of a key player like Keenum can affect a team, Houston's 3-6 record without him probably points to Houston's complete lack of depth more so than anything else. Luckily for Houston fans, the Cougs won't have to strain themselves too much this season.

    The season gets under way with perhaps the most difficult game on the schedule for Houston: a visit from UCLA (4-8 in 2010). The Bruins weren't very good last year, but steamrolled the Cougars, 31-13 in the aforementioned third game of 2010.

    After UCLA, Houston has North Texas, Louisiana Tech and FCS Georgia State before beginning the Conference USA portion of their schedule.

    Unlike most teams on this list, Houston's conference schedule won't help their strength of schedule argument.

    UTEP, East Carolina, Marshall, Rice, UAB, Tulane, SMU and Tulsa round out the Cougars' 2011 schedule, dodging C-USA-East Division foes like defending conference champion Central Florida and 8-5 Southern Mississippi.

    Take a laughable non-conference schedule, add in a pitiful conference schedule from a mediocre-at-best Conference USA, and you get the team on our list with the weakest schedule.