The Nation's Top Programs and Their Non-Conference Schedules

Greg HuntoonCorrespondent INovember 14, 2008

In a follow-up to my recent article claiming USC as the elite of college football, I feel it necessary to draw a comparison between the always tough non-conference contests scheduled by the Trojans with the silly games you consistently find scheduled by the other top programs.

There is nothing wrong with scheduling a Middle Tennessee State or Louisiana State once every couple of years, but when the non-conference schedules are dominated by such wildly lesser programs, something just smells a little funny. Giving those growing or second-tier programs a chance to play with the big boys is a good thing, but it should be something that happens every few years, and is not a part of your yearly routine.

It's a big deal for guys from Idaho to come down and play a game in the Coliseum. I get it. But, it doesn't really say a whole lot about the power of your program when you have a couple of gimme wins from DI-AA (FCS) teams each year.

So, let's take a look at the wide variety of opponents the top six teams in the country have selected since 2002:

  • Florida
    UAB, San Jose State, Florida A&M, Middle Tennessee State, Eastern Michigan, Wyoming, Louisiana Tech, Southern Miss, UCF, Western Carolina, Western Kentucky, Troy, Florida Atlantic, Hawaii, Miami (FL), Citadel, and Florida State
  • LSU
    Appalachian State, Troy, North Texas, Tulane, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, Arizona, Fresno State, Arizona State, Oregon State, Arkansas State, Western Illinois, Citadel, Miami (OH)
  • Ohio State Buckeyes
    Youngstown State, Ohio, USC, Troy, Akron, Washington, Kent State, Northern Illinois, Texas, Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Miami (OH), San Diego State, Marshall, North Carolina State, Washington, Texas Tech, Washington State
  • Oklahoma Sooners
    Chattanooga, Cincinnati, Washington, TCU, North Texas, Miami (FL), Utah State, Tulsa, UAB, Oregon, Middle Tennessee State, Tulsa, UCLA, Bowling Green, Houston, Alabama, Fresno State, UTEP, South Florida
  • Texas Longhorns
    Florida Atlantic, UTEP, Arkansas, Rice, Arkansas State, TCU, UCF, North Texas, Ohio State, Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico State, Tulane, North Carolina, Houston
  • USC Trojans
    Kansas State, Notre Dame, Auburn, BYU, Hawaii, Virginia Tech, Colorado State, Arkansas, Nebraska, Idaho, Virginia and Ohio State

Now, after looking through these lists, I'm willing to give each team some slack on a couple of the local games, or rivalry games that definitely have their ups-and-downs (a la USC vs. Notre Dame, which many years was always the toughest game on either's schedule). You have to give the teams from your state a chance from time to time...but you also have to give other good competitive teams a crack at you in the regular season as well.

So, Florida, you can be excused your Florida Atlantic and Florida A&M games. LSU, we'll forgive you your smash-up games against Louisiana Tech and Louisiana-Lafayette. And, so on.

Each of these teams has scheduled some good non-conference games, for sure. But year in and year out, how can you measure the strength of your schedule when the majority of your non-conference games are against teams like Sam Houston State, Appalachian State (way before their one-hit wonder against Michigan), Eastern Michigan, Middle Tennessee State, etc.?

Since 2002, USC has scheduled only two significantly lesser programs with Idaho and Colorado State. Everyone else on their list are teams that frequent the top 25, if not the top 10 many years.

We're talking about the Darren Sproles-powered Kansas State, which was ranked No. 6 when the teams met in September (USC's last regular-season non-conference loss, over six years ago), Auburn who was ranked No. 6 in the nation when they met in Alabama, and Virginia Tech in a year that they were ranked as high as No. 10 in the nation.

The Arkansas teams that USC manhandled in 2005 and 2006 by 70-7 and 50-14, respectively, featured Darren McFadden and in 2006 was ranked No. 5 in the nation going into their last two games against No. 9 LSU and No. 4 Florida.

Since far before the Pete Carroll era, USC has always been a team that is willing to play anyone, anywhere. The thought of what a tough non-conference opponent would do to deter their national championship aspirations is never considered.

They also are one of only 5 Football Bowl Subdivision (DI-A) teams that have not ever played against an FCS (DI-AA) team.

Just like any year, USC's toughest competition traditionally comes from the Pac-10. You can look at it the way that the sportswriters tell you: that USC slips up against lesser opponents year after year after year. Or, you could look through a different pair of glasses and see that the entire Pac-10 marks USC on their schedule as their chance to dethrone the champ.

In every game USC plays, their opponents are thinking that they're going to be the one to upset the No. 1 (or at least top 10) Trojans. Sure, this can be said about any opponent playing one of these top programs we're dissecting, but none of these programs have dominated their own conference the way USC has, nor have any powered through quality non-conference opponents the way that USC has dusted off theirs.

So, before you spin out your yarn that USC is just whining about the fact that they get shafted in the polls year in and year out, take a look at the cold hard facts. They have:

  • played undoubtedly one of the toughest non-conference schedules every year,
  • thoroughly have dominated those opponents,
  • ruled their own conference for the last 6 years straight,
  • a 5-1 BCS Bowl game record in that stretch.

Yes, I'm sure you all know USC is good. But, judging by your quick dismissal, something tells me you're missing the point: This dynasty is far from over.