Cupcake Connoisseurs: CFB Teams with Absurdly Easy Nonconference Schedules
Playing one of the weakest nonconference schedules in the country did not keep Washington from reaching the 2016 College Football Playoff. Can the Huskies waltz through cupcake city en route to the national semifinals for a second straight year?
The Huskies are one of eight teams facing a laughably favorable nonconference schedule, but their season-opening slate of Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State wasn't quite soft enough for the top spot on this list.
It should be noted here that rankings are based entirely on the weakness of the schedule. Whether the team has a shot at winning the national championship or is ineligible for postseason play is irrelevant—though there will be space on each slide dedicated to the team's outlook for the year ahead.
Listed on each slide is the team's nonconference schedule, along with the ESPN Football Power Index rank (if applicable) for each opponent. Our rankings are only loosely based on those analytics, but if a team resides outside the top 100 in FPI, it stands to reason that opponent is probably not going to provide a stiff challenge.
8. Ole Miss Rebels
Sep. 2 vs. South Alabama (FPI: 117)
Sep. 9 vs. Tennessee-Martin (FCS school)
Sep. 16 at California (FPI: 64)
Nov. 11 vs. Louisiana (FPI: 110)
It's too bad the Rebels are ineligible for postseason play, because based on this joke of a nonconference schedule, they will only need to go 2-6 against the SEC in order to hit the six-win threshold.
The only game that might be a bit of a problem is the road tilt against California. In terms of both location and FPI rank, that is the most difficult nonconference game any team on this list will face.
Considering the Pac-12 media almost unanimously projected California to finish in last place in the Pac-12 North, that's really saying something about how pathetic these schedules are.
Outside of the showdown with the Golden Bears—which the Rebels will likely be favored to win by a single-digit margin—it would be shocking if Ole Miss is favored by fewer than 20 points in any of its nonconference games.
Per OddsShark, we already know the Rebels are a 24.5-point favorite in the opener against South Alabama. And that cushion is only going to increase the following week against UT Martin.
Basically, the only way Ole Miss loses to a non-SEC opponent is if the ongoing off-the-field fiasco keeps it from remaining focused on the task at hand on the field. And with Shea Patterson hoping to play his way into the 2018 preseason Heisman candidates conversation, there should be at least one Rebel giving it everything he's got.
Frankly, against this schedule, that might be enough.
7. Kansas Jayhawks
Sep. 2 vs. Southeast Missouri State (FCS school)
Sep. 9 vs. Central Michigan (FPI: 85)
Sep. 16 at Ohio (FPI: 91)
Kansas is one of five teams that does not face a single nonconference opponent in the top 80 of ESPN's FPI. But considering the Jayhawks are 6-60 against FBS opponents over the last six years, can you really blame them?
This schedule is quite similar to the one they put together three years ago. In the first three weeks of the 2014 season, Kansas won home games against Southeast Missouri State and Central Michigan and got blown out on the road against Duke. Replace Duke with Ohio and a repeat wouldn't be surprising, but neither would a loss to CMU—even though it's a home game for the Jayhawks.
For what it's worth, in the Athlon Sports Big 12 preview, Steven Lassen had Kansas projected for 0-9 in Big 12 play, finishing with an overall record of 3-9. So, even though this might be the worst power-conference team in the country, its nonconference schedule is so full of cupcakes that it might enter Big 12 play with a 3-0 record.
6. Indiana Hoosiers
Sep. 9 at Virginia (FPI: 73)
Sep. 16 vs. Florida International (FPI: 124)
Sep. 23 vs. Georgia Southern (FPI: 113)
Indiana is the only team on this list which did not schedule a game against a FCS school, but it didn't exactly seek out the cream of the FBS crop, either.
Georgia Southern, FIU and Virginia went a combined 11-25 last season, each failing to qualify for a bowl game. Granted, nonconference schedules are made years in advance, so we shouldn't judge the Hoosiers' intentions solely based on how those teams fared in 2016.
But even from a historical perspective, this was never meant to be a gauntlet. Georgia Southern is only in its fourth season at the FBS level, FIU has an overall winning percentage of 31.6 dating back to 2004 and Virginia has posted a losing record in eight of the past nine seasons.
Like Kansas on the previous slide, though, it's hard to blame the Hoosiers, given their struggles in recent years. Indiana has just one winning record (7-6 in 2007) in the past 22 years and has not appeared in the AP Top 25 since September 1994.
Indiana did qualify for bowl games in each of the past two seasons and has enough returning assets to possibly pull off one big upset in the Big Ten East, but it also needs these cupcake games if it wants to finally remember what it feels like to win at least eight games in a year.
5. Ohio Bobcats
Sep. 2 vs. Hampton (FCS school)
Sep. 8 at Purdue (FPI: 97)
Sep. 16 vs. Kansas (FPI: 101)
Sep. 30 at Massachusetts (FPI: 112)
Though the Bobcats play multiple games away from home—the only team in our top eight which fits that description—the quartet of nonconference opponents they will face is so lamentable that they still made it into our top five. In fact, according to ESPN's FPI, Ohio has the weakest overall schedule in the entire country.
But is this team good enough to take advantage of that situation and make a run at a 10-win season?
Ohio went 8-6 last year before getting slightly gutted by graduations. Leading receivers Sebastian Smith and Jordan Reid are both gone, as are defensive stalwarts Blair Brown and Tarell Basham. The latter duo is the more troublesome departure, as Ohio had one of the best rush defenses in the nation last season, and it won't be the same without Basham and Brown.
Then again, replacing nonconference games against Tennessee and Gardner-Webb with pass-happy, low-scoring opponents like Purdue and Massachusetts might be enough to counterbalance those personnel losses.
4. South Florida Bulls
Aug. 26 at San Jose State (FPI: 111)
Sep. 2 vs. Stony Brook (FCS school)
Sep. 15 vs. Illinois (FPI: 86)
Oct. 14 vs. Massachusetts (FPI: 112)
In recent years, South Florida always had a respectable nonconference schedule. They had home-and-home series with Syracuse and Florida State in 2015 and 2016, had another home-and-home with Maryland for 2014 and 2015, faced Wisconsin and N.C. State in 2014 and scheduled Michigan State and Miami (FL) in 2013. You get the idea. Even when the Bulls were struggling through four consecutive losing seasons from 2011-14, they weren't afraid to seek out a challenge.
Which is exactly what makes this cream-puff buffet so strange.
The Bulls finally have a team that can compete with the big boys—they beat South Carolina and put up 35 points against Florida State last year—only to cobble together their most woeful schedule in at least a decade.
Sure, they might go undefeated, but are we supposed to be impressed by that? Heck, Western Michigan went 13-0 with road wins against two Big Ten programs and the Broncos still never made it into the Top 10 of the polls.
It's going to be fun to watch Quinton Flowers put up ridiculous numbers against hapless competition, but it's a shame South Florida was unable to continue its tradition of scheduling aggressively. This should have been our annual "If the dominoes fall perfectly, maybe they can sneak into the College Football Playoff" Group of Five team.
3. Washington Huskies
Sep. 1 at Rutgers (FPI: 88)
Sep. 9 vs. Montana (FCS school)
Sep. 16 vs. Fresno State (FPI: 109)
Washington infamously played one of the worst nonconference schedules last season (vs. Rutgers, vs. Idaho, vs. Portland State). But if the excuse for that atrocity was that the Huskies were a year ahead of schedule, what's the rationale behind still facing no one worth a darn in what was supposed to be their breakout season?
At least this year, the game against Rutgers will be played on the road. Technically speaking, that makes this a tougher schedule.
But it's hardly a challenge fit for a title contender, and it's a little disturbing that—for a second straight year—it wouldn't keep them from having a shot at the national championship.
What kind of message does it send to other teams with title aspirations that this type of weak scheduling is enough to get the job done, provided you can then go on to win your conference? Why would Alabama and Florida State or Florida and Michigan schedule another Week 1 game against each other when beating up on Rutgers and some FCS schools will suffice?
It will be interesting to monitor how aggressively teams decide to schedule over the next few seasons, particularly if Jake Browning, Myles Gaskin and the rest of the Huskies are able to win the Pac-12 once more.
2. Colorado Buffaloes
Sep. 1 vs. Colorado State (neutral site) (FPI: 66)
Sep. 9 vs. Texas State (FPI: 130)
Sep. 16 vs. Northern Colorado (FCS school)
When Colorado was busy putting together this nonconference schedule back in 2014-15, things were looking grim for the program.
The Buffaloes hadn't posted a winning season since 2005 and lost at least 10 games in each of the 2011, 2012 and 2014 seasons. At the time, scheduling home games against Texas State and Northern Colorado might have felt like the only way to avoid a winless campaign.
But then Colorado came out of nowhere to win 10 games and the Pac-12 South title in 2016. And now, this weak start to the 2017 season looks downright unforgivable for a team expected to finish in the top half of its division.
There are several teams in the Big Sky Conference that would be a threat to knock off a low-hanging power-conference side, but Northern Colorado isn't one of them. This team hasn't even had a seven-win season since 2001.
And in case ESPN's ranking of Texas State isn't enough proof that nothing is expected from the Bobcats, Athlon Sports ranked them at No. 129 out of 130 teams earlier this offseason.
At least Colorado State should be able to put up a bit of a fight, but the fact the Buffaloes don't play a true road game in nonconference play only furthers the narrative that they did everything possible to avoid facing any sort of challenge for the first three weeks.
1. Missouri Tigers
Sep. 2 vs. Missouri State (FCS school)
Sep. 16 vs. Purdue (FPI: 97)
Oct. 21 vs. Idaho (FPI: 120)
Oct. 28 at Connecticut (FPI: 122)
From 2007-14, Missouri won at least 10 games five times in eight years.
Based on this nonconference schedule, it appears the Tigers are seeking a return to that win total by any means necessary.
Three of their four nonconference games are against teams that either rank in the bottom 11 nationally in FPI or that don't compete at the FBS level. (And in case you're wondering if Missouri State is one of the good FCS teams, the Bears haven't had a winning season since 2009.) The one exception to that rule is a home game against a Purdue team that is 2-18 away from home—both wins against Illinois—over the past four seasons.
But wins are wins, and these four games should get the Tigers two-thirds of the way to becoming bowl-eligible.
Will they do enough on defense to pick up two more victories in SEC play, though? With 10 returning starters from an offense that put up at least 61 points on multiple occasions, scoring shouldn't be a problem. However, Missouri lost its top linebacker (Donavin Newsom), top pass-rusher (Charles Harris) and top cornerback (Aarion Penton) from a defense that was already arguably the worst in the conference.
Sandwiched between the home games against Missouri State and Purdue is another home game versus South Carolina—which is Missouri's most likely win in SEC play. So, even though this team put together the weakest nonconference schedule in the country, a loss in Week 2 would just about kill all hope for postseason play.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.