The publication of Phil Steele’s 2020 College Football Preview Magazine means the grand reveal of his yearly strength of schedule rankings.
Steele goes above and beyond the NCAA’s schedule rankings – which are based completely on each opponent’s winning percentage from last season – by also taking into consideration power rankings for this season and the number of home and away games scheduled.
Even though the entire 2020 season is certainly “at risk” there is still something to be learned from Steele’s rankings. Yes, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have already cancelled their non-conference opponents and yes, the other Power 5, and then Group of 5, members may follow suit.
All that said, the strength rankings still ooze with meaning. Which programs and conferences have stepped up to the plate and scheduled the stiffest sets of opponents this season? Which have fallen short? Which leagues have the most difficult conference slates?
The bigger truth is, just because teams will/or won’t play the schedule they’ve mapped out doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be celebrated/called out for designing them.
Following are facts gleaned from a first look at Steele’s rankings. While we all collectively hope we’ll see at least a portion of the live action intended for 2020, until then we can dine out on a little diversionary data.
(1) As a conference, the BIG TEN has the toughest combined schedule strength in 2020 averaging a 25.2 ranking across the board. Compare that to the SEC (28.1), the Big 12 (33.2) and the Pac-12 (39.3). The ACC is the Power league with the weakest combined strength at 47.3.
(2) CONFERENCE USA has the easiest combined schedules of any league this season, averaging a 105.4 ranking, edging the next lowest finisher – the Sun Belt – at 104.7.
(3) The Group of 5 conference with the toughest combined schedule is the AMERICAN ATHLETIC with an average rank of 67.3 among its membership. Coming in at a distant second and third among G5 leagues are the Mountain West (96.4) and MAC (102.7).
(4) The program with the most difficult slate in all of 2020 is GEORGIA TECH, which is up 23 places from its No. 24 rank last season.
(5) The Power program with the easiest schedule in 2020 is CLEMSON at No. 79 nationally, which is one slot easier than UCF at No. 78 and one notch more difficult than SMU at No. 80. The top 5 easiest schedules among Power programs is rounded out by MIAMI FL. (No. 75), UTAH (No. 72), NC STATE (No. 71) and SYRACUSE (No. 68).
(6) The Group of 5 program with the toughest schedule in 2020 is USF at No. 50. That places it just behind Northwestern at No. 49 and ahead of Minnesota at No. 51. Honorable mention goes out to HOUSTON (No. 52), TULSA (No. 58), TULANE (No. 62) and KENT STATE (No. 65) for fielding the remainder of the Top 5 among G5 schools.
(7) TEXAS A&M has the advantage of dropping the furthest in schedule strength vs. last season. The Aggies’ slate was ranked at No. 4 in difficulty in 2019 and comes in at No. 66 this year.
(8) The biggest jump in strength belongs to VIRGINIA, which goes from having a No. 75 ranked slate last season to a No. 32 rated schedule in 2020.
(10) By conference, the Top Ten most difficult schedules belong to four members of the Big Ten, three members of the SEC, two Pac-12 schools and one ACC program. The Big 12 is the only Power league not represented.
(11) The toughest/weakest schedule within each of the Power 5 leagues are as follows:
(12) The toughest/weakest schedules among Group of 5 conferences are: