We Hate Cupcakes!: The Toughest Schedules From 2001-2008

Pete MisthaufenAnalyst ISeptember 2, 2009

MIAMI - JANUARY 2:  Quarterback Carson Palmer #3 of USC passes against Iowa during the FedEx Orange Bowl at Pro Player Stadium on January 2, 2003 in Miami, Florida.  The University of Southern California Trojans defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes 38-17.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Over the last several years, a disturbing trend has taken over college football.  Rather than scheduling difficult out-of-conference (OOC) games, many schools have decided to play three or four OOC games against vastly inferior competition, thereby inflating their record.

This trend has increased rapidly as the BCS formula evolved into a more subjective test.  Today, most of the BCS standings result from the USA Today Coaches' Poll and the made-for-BCS Harris Poll, each providing one-third of the current BCS calculation. 

Voters, many of whom have admitted to watching only limited numbers of teams or having assistants and staffers involved in the voting process, provide a subjective determination of quality.

As such, the voters are vulnerable to factors such as hype and reputation, as well as which teams are highlighted on ESPN shows.  For example, many voters in both polls admitted to watching little if any of the 2008 Utah Utes this season before their Sugar Bowl domination of the poll-favorite Alabama.

Recently, I have written several articles about rethinking-strength-of-schedule and looked closely at  the BCS games from the 2001 to 2004.

Basically, I have argued that we should only really look the games where teams played good teams.  Good teams win seven or more regular season games against FBS (formerly Division I-A) teams.

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Now good teams are not great teams.  On a standard grading system from school, we could call them the A and B teams. 

Now, the more games against A and B teams, the more chance to win against good teams.  With the current trend of dumbing down schedules, many schools have few opportunities to even play many good teams.

A-teams are the true elites of college football.  While a typical B-team wins only one or two games against good teams on any given year, these schools do it year and year out.  A future article will go into the A-teams of the last eight years.


The best example of a B-team would be the 2001 BYU Cougars.  The Cougars started the season 12-0, but could not progress too high up the BCS standings.  While under the current rules, they could have qualified for a BCS bowl if they had won their final regular season game, BYU was informed that there was no possibility of making a BCS bowl, even at 13-0.

So, BYU went out and lost its last game to unheralded Hawaii.  At the time, this whole even appeared to be an outrage.  BYU fans were very angry.  But, BYU's loss to Hawaii really was not an upset.

BYU had played eleven games against bad or average teams, defeating only fellow B-team, Utah.  Hawaii, a B-team playing a much more challenging schedule than BYU, had already played four games against good teams, winning two games.  As such, in a battle between two B-teams, the one playing at home with the harder schedule won.  Not an upset after all.


Now, what about C-teams.  After all, a 6-6 or 5-7 SEC is better than a 8-4 CUSA or Mountain West team, isn't it?

To demonstrate a C-team, we need not go any further than the 2008 Tennessee Volunteers.  Sorry, Tennessee fans, I know I brought up a sore subject, but it works so perfectly.

Now, Tennessee is a top-tier program.  Six of the last eight years the Volunteers have been an A or B team.  Last year was a true exception.

Tennessee lost to the three "good" it played: Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

Tennessee did not play a single FCS school. Instead, they scheduled one average Pac-10 school, one bad CUSA school, one average MAC school, and a bottom feeder from MWC school. Tennessee should have gone 4-0 against this schedule, but went 2-2.

One more win against either Wyoming or UCLA and Tennessee goes bowling.  Win against both and Tennessee is suddenly a B-team.

Tennessee defeated fellow C-teams, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, while losing to two C-teams, South Carolina and Auburn. The Vols also took care D-team Mississippi State.

So, taking out the three games against good teams, Tennessee went 5-4 against C and D teams.

So, C teams usually lose to B and A teams, but split with C and D teams.

Best Schedules 2001-2008

After doing my initial research, I decided analyze the records of every FBS school for the last eight years to determine their records against A and B teams.

Only a handful of teams stood out as having played very difficult schedules.  Of these teams, many are BCS conference bottom-feeders, heavily ridiculed, with their coaches getting canned.  Having reviewed this information, I would have to argue that in many instances, this criticism has been unjustified.

So, the best single regular season schedule belongs to USC in 2002, matched only by the 2003 Alabama team. 

USC played ten games against A and B teams, going 8-2.  No other school in the last eight years has won eight regular season games against good teams.  As I previously argued elsewhere, this Carson Palmer led Trojan team is likely the best team in the last eight years, in spite of the two losses.

Mike Shula's first year appeared horrible at the time, going 4-9.  But of those nine losses, every single team was a A or B team, as was one of the wins.  The Tide rolled over the three average and bad teams it faced that year.  In spite of the record, Bama was a solid C team, even with nine losses.

2002 and 2003 served as the high-water market of tough scheduling, as 2002 featured 18 teams that had faced seven or more A and B teams, while 2003 saw 19.

Compare that to four teams in 2008 (Baylor, Purdue, UCLA, and Washington) and seven teams in 2008.

Obviously, teams scheduled up in order to comply with the BCS formula and then have scheduled down ever since.

A handful of teams played nine good teams in 2002 and 2003.  All these teams had bad records against these good teams.  They are North Carolina (2002), Iowa State (2003), Notre Dame (2003), and Texas A&M (2003).

Several schools have three or more seasons featuring seven or more regular games versus good teams:  Baylor, Florida (though not last year's cupcake schedule with only two good teams), Louisiana Tech, and Notre Dame.

Only two teams have won seven games against A and B teams, 2002's Georgia and Miami-Fla.  Again, these were excellent teams, deserving of a shot at a national title through a playoff.

The following teams have six wins against good teams:  2001 Florida, 2002 Ohio State, 2003 Ohio State, and 2003 Oklahoma.  Again, great teams, elites for sure.


Having looked the records for 119 teams for the last eight years, some very interesting patterns have developed.  We have clearly seen a drop-off in the number of games between good teams.  Cupcake scheduling has taken over.

2002 and 2003 were also two of the best years of college football ever.  Given the pressure of the BCS formula at the time, teams avoided cupcakes and tried to maximize their schedules, resulting in tough schedules and great teams.

I will continue this investigation with several more articles into the nature of scheduling.  Cupcake schedules, like that of last year's Gators, have taken over, as the BCS has moved more to hype and less to reality.

Look for this year's BCS title game to again reward hype over substance.

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