One of the significant factors the College Football Playoff Selection Committee considers when putting together its weekly rankings is strength of schedule, even though it is left to the eye of the beholder. Some leagues have gaudy nonconference records but build them against creampuffs. It is hard to say how much impact those records have on the committee overall.
Here is an evaluation of each league’s nonconference schedules as we prepare for the 2019 season. Listed below are the strongest and weakest in each conference along with a ranking of the toughest in FBS this season.
The SEC is one of the two Power Five conferences that still plays only eight league games. That means each team has four nonconference games instead of three, and the SEC knows just what to do with those — play FCS schools. Every team in the SEC will play at least one game against an FCS team, and Florida will play two FCS teams, Towson and Tennessee-Martin; however, the Gators also play in-state rivals Miami and Florida State, making them one of only two SEC teams playing two Power Five opponents. South Carolina is the other.
The SEC is also playing the greatest percentage of home games of any league at just over 80 percent. Also, because the league has five neutral-site nonconference games, it only plays 10 percent of its non-league games on the road, by far the lowest percentage of any conference. Finally, in keeping with tradition, even on the rare occasion an SEC team leaves home, it will still play in the South. Only two SEC nonconference games will be played outside of the league footprint: Missouri will open the season at Wyoming, while Vanderbilt plays at Purdue in Week 2.
That is not to say there are no good games to be found. The highlight on the schedule is Notre Dame taking on Georgia between the hedges in Athens, Georgia. Texas A&M and South Carolina will each play defending national champion Clemson. The Aggies may be the best team that Clemson faces all season. Also, Auburn will face Oregon in Arlington, Texas, to open the season, and LSU will travel to Texas in Week 2.
The Big Ten is right up there with the SEC when it comes to home cooking. It will play just over 78 percent of its nonconference games at home. No other league is higher than 67 percent. However, with only one neutral site game (Ball State vs. Indiana in Indianapolis), the Big Ten ends up with a much higher percentage of true road games than the SEC at 19 percent.
Because of league rules restricting games against FCS schools, less than 10 percent of the Big Ten’s nonconference games are against those teams. Every other league plays at least 20 percent of its games against FCS opposition.
The conference typically has relatively high percentage of games against other Power Five opposition, but that is not the case this season. The Big Ten has the lowest percentage of such games among the Power Five conferences. There are only 10 games against such schools among the 14 schools, and Purdue plays two of those games.
I’d love to “wow” you with the marquee matchups on the Big Ten nonconference slate, but after Notre Dame at Michigan, you have … um … Ohio State hosting Cincinnati? Minnesota at Fresno State? Iowa at Iowa State should be pretty good. That’s about it.
Like the SEC, every team in the ACC will play four nonconference games and at least one of those against FCS opponent. Virginia Tech has doubled up on FCS opposition. Unlike the SEC and the Big Ten, the ACC will play a relatively high percentage of road games. Just over 28 percent of their nonconference games are true road games.
The ACC also has the highest percentage of games against Power Five opposition, helped by four in-state rivalries with SEC teams and five games with Notre Dame. Boston College is playing two Power Five teams on the road, but one of them is Rutgers.
The highlights include Florida State and Miami each taking on Florida, as well as the Seminoles facing Boise State. Virginia and Virginia Tech will each play Notre Dame and we will see the last rivalry game between Pitt and Penn State for the foreseeable future.
Because of the size of the league and the full round robin conference schedule, the Big 12 has the fewest number of nonconference games at 30. Still, only Texas is playing a full schedule of FBS teams, which means the Big 12 is playing the greatest percentage of FCS opposition at 30 percent. It is also just behind the ACC in percentage of games against Power Five teams with 33 percent.
Texas hosting LSU is the best game on the Big 12 slate this season. Oklahoma will travel to UCLA, which probably is not ready to compete with the Sooners yet. OU may get a greater test from Houston at home.
The Pac-12 has some interesting issues with regard to scheduling primarily because of the geographically isolated nature of the league. The Big 12 is the next closest major conference, and you will see a few games between those two leagues, but in order to get games against better opposition, often times Pac-12 teams have to hit the road. So it should come as no surprise that the Pac-12 does play the highest percentage of road games at just under 31 percent.
The Pac-12 also typically has a high number of games against Mountain West foes, and this year is no exception. There are seven games between those two leagues.
Notre Dame is featured prominently in the highlighted games, as it is every year. The Irish play Stanford and USC each season. This year, the Trojans will go to South Bend, Indiana, and the Cardinal will host the Fighting Irish. Arizona State got the Herm Edwards era off to a great start with a win over Michigan State last season. The Sun Devils will return the trip to East Lansing, Michigan, this season.
The AAC is again leading the Group of Five in percentage of home nonconference games. The slate contains nine home games against Power Five opposition, including all three against the Pac-12. UCF hosting Stanford and Wisconsin traveling to South Florida are two of the most prominent of those home games. Cincinnati will also get a crack at Ohio State but will have to play the Buckeyes in Columbus.
Other Group of Five conferences
Not surprisingly, none of these conferences are playing 75 percent of their games at home. However, they are getting more home games in general. Only the Sun Belt was unable to schedule 50 percent or more of its nonconference games at home. You may think that is possible only by loading up on games against FCS teams, but in general, the Group of Five conferences play a lower percentage of those games than most of the majors.
Getting home games against Power Five teams is not getting easier though, except for the AAC. The MAC, for example, has 22 games against major-conference schools, but the only one that is not a true road game is the Ball State-Indiana contest. The Sun Belt also does not have a home game against a Power Five school. That seems like a trend that may not be stopping any time soon.