How did teams with the easiest and most difficult schedules perform in 2018?

By Amy Daughters -

Coming into last season we highlighted the toughest and lightest schedules by conference using Phil Steele’s preseason magazine rankings. Now that the dust has settled on the 2018 season – how did schedule strength effect outcomes?

ACC

Most Difficult: Florida State (No. 5 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 5-7

Easiest: North Carolina (No. 60 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 2-9

2018 ACC Champion: Clemson (No. 43 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 15-0

Florida State faced six opponents that were ranked in the Top 25 when they played. They went 1-5 in those games, the only win coming in a narrow 22-21 decision over (22) Boston College. They also doubled-up on Power non-ACC foes (Notre Dame and Florida) – both who were ranked at game time and both resulting in losses.

Compare that to North Carolina, who played one Power foe out of conference (Cal – a 24-17 loss) and one ranked team (No. 16 Miami Fla. – a 47-10 loss). Coming into the season only five Power programs had schedules rated easier than the Tar Heels.

It may at least partially explain why the Seminoles’ Wille Taggart kept his job despite posting the program’s worst finish since 1976. And why UNC’s Larry Fedora lost his job after seven years of declining results.

AMERICAN ATHLETIC

Most Difficult: Tulsa (No. 66 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 3-9

Easiest: Memphis (No. 119 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 8-6

2018 AAC Champion: UCF (No. 80 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 12-1

Tulsa made road trips to Texas and Arkansas in 2018. Though it played well against the Longhorns (losing by one touchdown), it got blanked 23-0 by the Razorbacks. Beyond that, the Golden Hurricane faced USF from the East division, who were No. 23 at game time (a narrow 25-24 loss).

While Memphis had Missouri as its only regular-season Power foe (a 65-33 loss), it faced UCF twice – on Oct. 13 when the Knights were ranked No. 10 (a 31-30 loss) and then again in the conference title game when UCF had risen to No. 7 (a 56-41 loss).

BIG 12

Most Difficult: Texas (No. 8 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 10-4

Easiest: Oklahoma State (No. 41 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 7-6

2018 Big 12 Champion: Oklahoma (No. 19 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 12-2

Despite having the eighth-hardest schedule in the nation Texas made it to the Big 12 title game and posted double-digit wins for the first time since 2009. Like Florida State, the Longhorns were one of only 12 Power programs that played two Power 5 members in non-conference action.

Oklahoma State, on the other hand, was one of only six Power teams that didn’t face a Power 5 member out of league play last season. It makes Texas’ results all the more impressive.

BIG TEN

Most Difficult: Purdue (No. 2 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 6-7

Easiest: Wisconsin (No. 65 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 8-5

2018 Big Ten Champion: Ohio State (No. 52 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 13-1

Purdue, like Florida State and Texas, played two Power opponents outside of conference play – Mizzou and Boston College. It was also on the receiving end of a visit from Ohio State from the Big Ten-East.

Based on the Big Ten’s scheduling guidelines, Wisconsin did technically play a non-conference Power foe, but that was independent BYU. According to Steele’s rankings, only Oregon had an easier slate than the Badgers among Power 5 members.

CONFERENCE USA

Most Difficult: Charlotte (No. 84 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 5-7

Easiest: UAB (No. 125 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 11-3

2018 C-USA Champion: UAB (No. 125 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 11-3

UAB is the only team in 2018 that had the easiest-rated schedule in its own league AND went on to capture the conference championship – the first such title in program history. The Blazers did pay a visit to Texas A&M in mid-November, but the balance of their non-C-USA slate consisted of FCS Savannah State, Coastal Carolina and Tulane.

Charlotte drew a road trip to Tennessee and also played host to Appalachian State, who is 41-11 since 2015.

MAC

Most Difficult: Northern Illinois (No. 67 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 8-6

Easiest: Ohio (No. 128 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 9-4

2018 MAC Champion: Northern Illinois (No. 67 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 8-6

The absolute opposite of UAB’s scenario, Northern Illinois is the only team in 2018 that had the most-difficult rated schedule in its own league and despite that went on to win a conference title. The Huskies six losses include defeats at Iowa (33-7), vs. Utah (17-6) and at Florida State (37-19). They also skipped playing an FCS opponent for the first time since 1997, instead edging BYU (a team many conferences count as a Power foe) 7-6 on the road.

Ohio’s four losses came vs. Virginia (41-35), at Cincinnati (34-30), at Northern Illinois (24-21) and at Miami Ohio (30-28).

MOUNTAIN WEST

Most Difficult: New Mexico (No. 73 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 3-9

Easiest: Nevada (No. 110 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 8-5

2018 MWC Champion: Fresno State (No. 98 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 12-2

Though New Mexico’s three-win campaign can’t be completely blamed on its schedule strength, it didn’t help that it was the only Mountain West program last season to play a team that was ranked in the Top Ten at game time – traveling to No. 5 Wisconsin in Week 2. The Lobos also drew both Fresno State and San Diego State – the two top dogs – from across the conference in MWC-West.

Nevada, on the other hand, didn’t play a single ranked team in 2018.

PAC-12

Most Difficult: UCLA (No. 1 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 3-9

Easiest: Oregon (No. 70 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 9-4

2018 Pac-12 Champion: Washington (No. 58 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 10-4

The story of schedule strength, the Pac-12 and the 2018 season perfectly illustrates the inequality in scheduling even within a specific conference.

In this case, you’ve got two new head coaches – Mario Cristobal at Oregon and Chip Kelly at UCLA – starting out in very similar situations with teams that went 10-15 and 11-14 respectively from 2016-17. Coming into the season, Oregon’s slate was ranked the easiest among all the Power 5 members, while the Bruins’ was the most difficult in the entire nation.

The Ducks didn’t face a Power team out of Pac-12 play (Bowling Green, FCS Portland State and San Jose State) while the Bruins played at Oklahoma (which went on to win the Big 12), Cincinnati (which finished 11-2 and ranked No. 24 in the AP) and Fresno State (the MWC champs). And where Oregon drew Arizona, UCLA, Utah and Arizona State from the Pac-12 South, UCLA got Washington, Cal, Oregon and Stanford from the North.

So, while, yes, Cristobal’s 9-4 looks like he’s got things on the right track vs. Kelly’s 3-9 train wreck – it’s not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison.

SEC

Most Difficult: LSU (No. 10 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 10-3

Easiest: Florida (No. 64 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 10-3

2018 SEC Champion: Alabama (No. 48 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 14-1

Only Oregon had an easier rated schedule among Power teams than did Florida in 2018. The Gators played a struggling Florida State, Colorado State and two FCS foes out of SEC action and then drew Mississippi State as their rotating opponent from the West division – thereby avoiding Alabama, Auburn and Texas A&M. In all, Florida played three ranked opponents in the regular season.

Compare that to LSU, which opened against Miami Fla. (then No. 8) in Arlington, Texas and drew Georgia as its rotating opponent from the East. The Tigers played six ranked foes (or double that of the Gators) during the regular season, four of which were in the Top Ten.

Again, it drives home the point that all 10-win seasons aren’t created equally.

SUN BELT

Most Difficult: Louisiana (No. 85 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 7-7

Easiest: Troy (No. 129 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 10-3

2018 Sun Belt Champion: Appalachian State (No. 127 in the FBS in schedule strength) – finished 11-2

Despite its schedule strength, Louisiana ascended to the Sun Belt title game, losing 30-19 at Appalachian State. It’s a huge achievement for a program that hadn’t posted a winning mark since 2014 and who played both Mississippi State and Alabama – on the road – as a part of its 7-5 regular-season record.

Troy, which posted it’s third-consecutive 10-plus win season in 2018, didn’t necessarily take the easy route either losing to then (22) Boise State in its the opener and traveling to Nebraska and shocking the Huskers with a 24-19 upset victory.

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Comments (4)

I liked the article, but I am surprised it emphasized # of rank teams played at the time of the game. If a team is ranked at the start of the season and then turns out to be not that good of a team, other teams should not get some special reward because they were fortunate to play that team at the start of the season.

If rankings are to be emphasized, should list # of ranked teams played according to the polls at the end of the season.

Ehh. That kinda makes sense. But momentum is a bitch. And it can be swiped at any moment. NC State for example crashed after being waxed by Clemson.

…..your compare and contrast with regards to the Pac-12 was great. The Big 12? Okie St played the toughest NC game v Boise no?