College Football 2011: The 20 Biggest Cupcake Games This Season

David Luther@@davidrlutherFeatured ColumnistAugust 25, 2011

College Football 2011: The 20 Biggest Cupcake Games This Season

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    In college football today, there is extreme pressure on coaches to deliver wins. The minimum goal of every team is to at least qualify for a bowl game. Funny enough, that task isn't terribly difficult to accomplish.

    In the “everybody gets a ribbon” attitude of college football, even sub-.500 teams (6-7) can qualify for a bowl game, and consequently receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.

    Six measly wins is all it takes.

    With that embarrassingly low bar in mind, many top teams in the nation—and now even not-so-top teams—have taken to scheduling a cream-puff or two each season. The 35 different bowl games each year in the FBS have given football programs a sweet tooth, and gobbling up cupcakes seems to be the way to go.

    There are plenty to choose from, but we're going to take a look at the 20 biggest cupcake games of 2011.

North Texas vs. Alabama

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    Alabama appears on our list more than any other single team. That's not necessarily a knock against Alabama in particular, but the Crimson Tide's 2011 schedule is indicative of a larger trend in the FBS.

    Winning a conference is difficult. It's supposed to be difficult. But rather than preparing for that difficult schedule with games against top opponents from other conferences, teams nowadays don't want to do anything that could jeopardize their chance of playing for a national championship.

    That's why we're forced to watch games like North Texas vs. Alabama. It's clearly not for the fans, because everyone knows what the outcome of this game is going to be. Who cares what the fans want, as long as we get the win, right?

Norfolk State vs. West Virginia

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    Ever since Rich Rodriguez left West Virginia for Michigan, things just haven't been the same in Morgantown.

    The years of perceived under-performance by West Virginia may all be in the past with the hiring of new head coach Dana Holgorsen.

    Holgorsen has engineered some great offenses over the past few seasons at Texas A&M, Houston and, most recently, Oklahoma State. In fact, in the past five years, Holgorsen-led offenses have wracked up nearly 20 miles of offensive yardage.

    That's exactly the kind of offensive prowess to which Mountaineer fans had become accustomed to under Rich Rodriguez, and that's exactly what could lead WVU back to the BCS.

    After three successive 9-4 seasons, WVU is hoping to break through this season, and in Week 2, West Virginia will have a great opportunity to really open up the throttle on their offensive engine.

    The Norfolk State Spartans come to Morgantown for a futile attempt at stopping West Virginia. The Spartans are a member of the FCS's Mid-East Athletic Conference, and posted a 4-4 MEAC record last season (6-5 overall). NSU has some experience against the Big East, having faced Rutgers to begin the 2010 season. The Scarlet Knights easily dispatched the Spartans, 31-0. Rutgers isn't exactly West Virginia, either.

Missouri State vs. Arkansas

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    Yet another instance of a highly-ranked SEC team playing an FCS opponent.

    Missouri State finished the 2010 season with a 5-6 record. The Bears play in one of the better FCS conferences in the nation—the Missouri Valley Football Conference—but haven't had much success since joining the conference in 2009.

    Missouri State's last FCS playoff appearance was in 1990 as a member of the Gateway Conference, and it's been an exercise in futility ever since. Only once has Missouri State won more than six games since their last playoff appearance (7-4 in '96), and with the collection of top FCS programs the Bears will face again in 2011, there's probably not a ton of hope floating around campus this season for a return to the playoffs.

    Missouri State appears twice on our list, so you can already chalk up two losses for the Bears.

    Arkansas, for their part, enters the 2011 season as a ranked team. Although the Razorbacks lost some talent from last year's impressive Sugar Bowl team, and a season-ending injury to Knile Davis severely hampers their prospects in the SEC this season, the Hogs should have no problem dispatching a middle-of-the-road FCS program like Missouri State.

Ball State vs. Oklahoma

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    When you're the No. 1 team in the nation, playing a MAC school—any MAC school—should be a pretty easy victory.

    But when the MAC team you're playing is a bad MAC team, things could get very ugly.

    Last season, Ball State struggled to finish with a 4-8 record. There weren't a lot of highlights for the Cardinals in 2010, with losses to Toledo, Kent State and Eastern Michigan, plus five others.

    Worse, there's not much reason to believe Ball State will be any better this season.

    Ever since Brady Hoke left his alma mater to coach at San Diego State (and now at Michigan) two seasons ago, Ball State has managed just six combined wins.

    If the spread on this game isn't more than 28 points, bet heavily.

Kent State vs. Alabama

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    Alabama, to its credit, did manage to get Penn State on their schedule. Even though Penn State has fallen off a bit over the past couple of seasons, when the game was originally contracted Penn State was a BCS-caliber team. Not so much this season, but we can't blame Alabama for that.

    What we can blame Alabama for is scheduling a team like Kent State.

    The Crimson Tide will open the 2011 season as the No. 2 team in the land, and they'll be taking on Kent State, a team that finished 2010 with a 5-7 record out of the MAC.

    The MAC is a motley collection of high school prospects rejected by pretty much every other FBS program around. Many of the players found on MAC rosters are from the general Great Lakes region, where a relative lack of FCS programs funnel FCS-talent level players to FBS programs like Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan, Toledo, Central Michigan, Akron and Kent State.

    Were there more FCS programs in the region (the state of Michigan, for example, with five FBS schools and eight Division II football programs, doesn't have a single FCS program), most of these players would end up at that level. But, as it stands, fans in the Great Lakes region of the country are forced to endure FCS talent playing on FBS teams.

    While putting a team like Kent State on your schedule isn't as bad as putting an FCS team on your schedule, it's pretty close.

Samford vs. Auburn

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    Defending BCS champion or not, there's not a lot one can say to excuse an FBS team scheduling a team like Samford.

    The SEC really makes it easy on their membership by building in a conference off-week into most teams' schedules in mid-November. Like Alabama, Auburn took the opportunity to add some cream filling to the schedule with the Samford Bulldogs coming for a visit.

    While Auburn was busy plowing towards a BCS championship last season, Samford was the whipping dog for the top FCS programs in the Southern Conference.

    The Bulldogs were just 2-6 in the SoCon last season, and relied on non-conference games against an FCS bottom feeder and a Division II team to find two more wins.

    Auburn is expected to finish well below their lofty accomplishments of 2010, but the Tigers' practice squad would be able to knock off Samford, so don't expect the home dress list to have any problem.

Youngstown State vs. Michigan State

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    There used to be a time when FBS teams might be wary of playing a team like Youngstown State. There also used to be a time when Michigan State was a very beatable team for FCS powers.

    Those days are probably gone.

    Last season, Michigan State captured a share of their first Big Ten conference championship in 20 years, finishing 11-2.

    Youngstown State, once an FCS behemoth under the leadership of now disgraced head coach Jim Tressel, is now nothing more than a whipping dog of the Missouri Valley Football Conference. In the past three seasons, YSU is a combined 13-21.

    The Penguins still have some recruiting power in Ohio, and it's sometimes very difficult to predict talent swings in the FCS, but YSU probably has little shot of offing a very motivated Spartans teams in the first week of the 2011 season.

Furman vs. Florida

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    The Furman Paladins make one of their two appearances on this list, and their steamrolling here will be at the hands of the Florida Gators.

    Furman finished 2010 with a 5-6 record (3-5 in the Southern Conference), and this year the Paladins can look forward to a season-finale against Florida. The Gators have taken the SEC scheduling gift of an open week in November and plugged in Furman to prepare for Florida State in the final week of the FBS regular season.

    Rather than a contest Florida has to worry about, the game against Furman will undoubtedly be used to iron out wrinkles in the Gators' game plan for the next week's game against the Seminoles.

    Expect a Charlie Weis-led offense to wrack up tons of yards and loads of points against this also-ran team of the FCS.

Northwestern State vs. LSU

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    The success of LSU last season surprised some, especially given the way the Tigers won some of their early-season games in 2010.

    But anyone who discounts a Les Miles-coached team does so at their own peril.

    LSU enters the 2011 season with a preseason ranking in the Top Five. The Tigers also have a fairly difficult non-conference schedule this season, which includes Pac-12 favorite Oregon and Big East favorite West Virginia, so one might be able to excuse the inclusion of FCS Northwestern State this time.

    After a brutal start to 2011 with a game against Oregon on a neutral field, LSU will host Northwestern State in Week 2.

    The Demons finished their 2010 season with a 5-6 record (4-3 in the Southland Conference). While Northwestern State is capable of holding their own in the Southland, their defense is nowhere near capable of fending off the offensive attacks of most FBS programs, especially if that program is expected to be one of the top teams in the nation.

    Last season, the Demons surrendered 65 points in their season-opening game against Air Force, and shoddy defensive play was the norm for the rest of the Demons' 2010 campaign.

    Whether LSU wins or loses in Week 1, this game looks ugly for Northwestern State. LSU will either be very cranky or riding high—both of which tend to make the Tigers very dangerous.

Coastal Carolina vs. Georgia

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    The Georgia Bulldogs are hoping to put last season's 1-4 start firmly behind them. Having Coastal Carolina on their early-season schedule will certainly help.

    The Bulldogs have an uphill climb to start the 2011 season, with three of the first five games all against ranked opponents (Boise State, South Carolina and Mississippi State). Still, with the amount of returning talent for Georgia, it's hard to imagine a start any slower than last season, which ended with Georgia's first losing season in nearly two decades.

    Coastal Carolina is a new football program, playing their first season in 2003. The Chanticleers are also a member of the Big South conference, one of the weakest in the FCS.

    In fact, the Big South only last year received their first-ever automatic berth to the NCAA playoffs—and it was the 6-6 Chanticleers making the trip.

    While Coastal Carolina was a playoff team, it's painfully clear that their berth was a result of the Big South's new automatic qualification status and, suffice it to say, the Chanticleers made a hasty exit from the playoffs in Round 1.

Louisiana-Lafayette vs. Oklahoma State

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    What happens when you get one of the nation's top offenses to face one of the nation's worst defenses?


    And a lopsided score.

    That's exactly what we're bound to see in this cupcake game between the Oklahoma State Cowboys and the Ragin' Cajuns from Louisiana-Lafayette.

    Last season, the Cowboys sported the nation's third-best offense and the Ragin' Cajuns were ranked 82nd in total defense.

    The Cowboys were an impressive 11-2, while the Cajuns were a pretty awful 3-9 (and Lafayette didn't have nearly as difficult a schedule as Okie State).

    Oklahoma State also begins the season as a firm Top 10 team, and they're expected to be right in the middle of what should be a great three-team race for the Big 12 championship this season.

Idaho vs. Texas A&M

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    The Texas A&M Aggies put up a respectable 9-4 record last season that earned them a berth in the Cotton Bowl.

    This season, the Aggies will be starting as a Top 10 team, and A&M is returning enough talent to put themselves in a position to possibly win the Big 12 in 2011. After opening the season with a game against SMU, the Aggies will host Idaho, one of the nation's most underwhelming teams.

    The Vandals come out of the WAC, where they posted a 3-5 record last season (6-7 overall). While there are certainly worse teams in the FBS, Idaho is a team that simply seems to slide from one season to the next without ever drawing any attention to itself, good or bad.

    From 2001 to 2008, the Vandals never won more than four games per season. Since 2009, they are a combined 14-12. Not terrible, but 14-12 won't get you recognized when you play in the WAC.

    Idaho also sported one of the nation's worst defenses last season, ranking 95th in the FBS. The Vandals offense was a bit better—ranked 55th—but still nowhere near good enough to have any hopes of defeating a Top 10 team like A&M.

Western Kentucky vs. LSU

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    With LSU's four non-conference games in 2010, it's pretty easy to categorize them into one of two labels. One: very difficult. Two: very easy.

    The second easy game on LSU's non-conference schedule comes against one of the worst teams in the FBS—Western Kentucky.

    The Hilltoppers are the newest members of the FBS, playing their first full FBS schedule in 2008. Since the start of that season, WKU has managed just four wins and 32 losses.

    Luckily for the Hilltoppers, there will be four new teams added to the FBS over the next few seasons (South Alabama, UMass, Texas State, Texas-San Antonio), so hopefully some of the negative attention can be split amongst the newbies.

    This game also comes in November, when LSU should be perfecting their game plans for a run at the SEC championship and a possible BCS championship game berth.

    That spells embarrassment for WKU.

Louisiana-Monroe vs. Florida State

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    It's almost time for Florida State to prove the hype. Are the Seminoles deserving of the Top Five preseason ranking? We're all about to find out.

    Well, we'll actually have to wait a few more weeks.

    The Seminoles will start the 2011 season against Louisiana-Monroe, our first of Florida State's two-week opening cupcake binge.

    The Warhawks finished with a 4-4 record in the Sun Belt (5-7 overall) last season, a conference that annually competes against the MAC for the title of worst of the FBS. In an era when the majority of FBS teams find their way into a bowl game, ULM is one of the few that hasn't been able to earn an invitation, even during the odd years when the Warhawks actually managed to go 6-6.

    In fact, since joining the FBS in 1994, ULM has never appeared in a bowl game. Don't expect that to change in 2011.

    Florida State is at the other end of the spectrum, currently riding a bowl streak that extends back to 1982 (if you ignore the fact that the entire 2006 and 2007 seasons have been vacated by Florida State). The Seminoles are starting this season as the top-ranked ACC program and are the odds-on favorite to earn that conference-automatic BCS berth that comes with a conference title.

    Florida State easing into the 2011 season with a game against ULM should be about as interesting as slipping into a warm bath.

The Citadel vs. South Carolina

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    The South Carolina Gamecocks finally broke through last season, winning their first-ever SEC-East divisional title.

    The pollsters have acknowledged SC's success, and the Gamecocks find themselves ranked fairly high to start the 2011 season—their the highest ranked SEC-East team.

    In the traditional second-to-last SEC vs. cupcake matchup, the Gamecocks will host The Citadel.

    The Bulldogs finished 2010 with an abysmal 3-8 record (1-7 in the Southern Conference). Apart from being one of the worst teams in the SoCon, the Bulldogs had to rely on games against a Division II opponent and the worst from two FCS conferences to gain their three victories in 2010.

    There's no reason to expect a team from The Citadel—which hasn't appeared in the FCS playoffs since 1992—will provide anything more than mild amusement for a Gamecocks team hungry for another shot at the SEC in 2011.

South Dakota vs. Wisconsin

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    Wisconsin will be starting the 2011 season in search of another Big Ten championship. Last year's co-championship team and Rose Bowl participant will be in a position to challenge for the Leaders Division title, and fans in Madison are hoping that the Badgers could position themselves for a run at the program's first-ever national championship in 2011.

    After an 11-2 finish in 2010, the Badgers will be starting the 2011 season with four games against opponents that aren't quite on the same level as Wisconsin. In the case of the fourth opponent of the season (South Dakota), the opponent isn't anywhere near the level of Wisconsin.

    The Coyotes only recently became an FCS program, making the jump from Division II in 2008. Since joining the FCS, the Coyotes have joined the Great West conference,along with recent D2-to-FCS programs such as North Dakota and UC-Davis. The Coyotes do, surprisingly, already have a win over an FBS team under their belts.

    Unfortunately, that win was against an absolutely abysmal Minnesota team last season.

    While South Dakota may be fooled into thinking they have what it takes to beat Big Ten teams, they've yet to face an FBS opponent anywhere near the skill level of Wisconsin.

    The Badgers are big and strong, and you can expect Bret Bielema's squad to run it right down South Dakota's throat all game long.

Charleston Southern vs. Florida State

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    Florida State begins the year with an easy contest against Louisiana-Monroe and follows that near-guaranteed win with a contest against FCS Charleston Southern.

    The Buccaneers finished 2010 with a pretty terrible 3-8 effort, which ended with a 70-3 drubbing at the hands of Big South champion Coastal Carolina.

    Charleston Southern isn't just a bad team, they're a bad team in a bad conference. The best comparison for the Big South to an FBS conference would probably be the Sun Belt. There's no national power, and there's no reason to believe we'll see one out of this conference anytime soon.

    Florida State should have ample opportunity to put up 70-or-more points on the Buccaneers, and after two successive weeks of cream-puff opponents, the Seminoles should be in high spirits heading into their Week 3 showdown with No. 1 Oklahoma.

San Jose State vs. Stanford

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    All the talk this season at Stanford is the fact that Andrew Luck is returning.

    The Heisman finalist led the Cardinal to the Orange Bowl last season, where Stanford dispatched the Virginia Tech Hokies fairly easily.

    Many people think that the Cardinal will be starting the 2011 season with an undeservedly high ranking in the polls. After all, the Cardinal have just five returning starters on offense and six on defense. But what this technically true analysis fails to point out is the fact that so many of the returning non-starters have quite a bit of game experience and, in some cases, as much experience as the returning starters.

    While it's still valid to question whether or not Stanford will be able to sustain the success enjoyed last season, there's little doubt that the Cardinal will be able to dispatch their first opponent of the season with ease.

    San Jose State faces Stanford for the 65th time this season. The Spartans have never had much success against Stanford, with the Cardinal enjoying a 49-14-1 edge in the series. But this season's SJSU team probably has little to no chance of even staying close to the Cardinal.

    Last season, San Jose State was easily one of the worst teams in the nation, finishing with a 1-12 record. That lone win came against FCS Southern Utah, a team that was itself 6-5. San Jose also managed to beat the Thunderbirds by just five points, raising the question: “Was there any team worse than San Jose State in 2010?”

    In our opinion, no, there wasn't.

    Juxtapose that to Stanford, and the fact that there were very few teams in the nation better than the Cardinal.

    This game will be over by the end of the first quarter.

Missouri State vs. Oregon

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    The Oregon Ducks have a little unfinished business left over from 2010.

    After tearing through the Pac-10 and earning a berth in the BCS Championship Game, the Ducks came up just short against Auburn in the championship. That near miss doesn't sit well with most people, and the goal is clearly to return to the BCS title game and capture that elusive Coaches' Trophy.

    The top FBS offense in 2010—Oregon—will be hosting Missouri State from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, a team that went just 5-6 in 2010. While the Bears aren't exactly a bad FCS team, they're not what we could call good, either. When a team like that faces the FBS team with the highest offensive output in the nation, it's going to be a long, long day for the defense.

Georgia Southern vs. Alabama

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    Perhaps no conference has perfected the art of cupcake eating better than the SEC.

    Each season, nearly every SEC team relishes in scheduling an FCS program and proceeds to beat the ever-loving tar out of them with the third string.

    Really, what purpose does this serve?

    The old SEC-phile argument is that the SEC is so tough that SEC teams deserve to take a week off.

    Okay, then take a week off! Don't insult our intelligence by scheduling a team that has no hope of winning.

    Alabama is starting the year as the No.2 team in the country, and should be in the running for a BCS trip this season. But rather than scheduling Georgia Southern as an early season warm-up, the Crimson Tide placed this game in late November. The Crimson Tide should be in top form by then—and Georgia Southern should be crushed by the end of the first quarter.

    Regardless of how good GSU might be in the FCS this season, there is no hope of knocking off a team like Alabama late in the season.

    If the SEC truly is the greatest thing in college football, they should prove it by beating good teams in November, not fattening up on FCS cream-puffs like Georgia Southern.