Perfect storms: the most experienced CFB teams with the easiest schedules in 2021

By Amy Daughters -

While we’ve already established that not all schedules are created equal, the cyclical nature of college sports means it’s also true that not all rosters are created equal. At least in terms of experience.

With strict limits on eligibility and the opportunity for elite athletes to declare for the NFL draft before graduation, every year is a new year in terms of personnel. So, where one club might have a roster full of battle-tested vets, another has a bunch of freshmen and sophomores.

The following list highlights those fortunate teams that enter this season with the tasty combo of tons of experience and a manageable schedule. If the situation is taken advantage of, these clubs are ready to strike.

Schedule strength and experience ranks are via Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview magazine.   

Group of 5 Teams

5. COASTAL CAROLINA

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 128

Experience Rank: No. 17

According to Steele’s metrics only two programs in the entire FBS have an easier set of opponents than the Chanticleers do this season. The non-conference schedule consists of FCS The Citadel, Kansas (over whom scored a win over last season), Buffalo and UMass. In Sun Belt play, they avoid fellow front-runner Louisiana from the West Division. Combine that with 19 returning starters – including ten from a defense that finished 2020 ranked No. 19 nationally in scoring – and it paints a pretty picture for a team that went 11-1 last year.

4. EASTERN MICHIGAN

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 117

Experience Rank: No. 5

Eastern Michigan is set to welcome back a whopping 21 starters from last season. The only missing link – across the entire roster – is the No. 3 receiver. As far as the schedule, the Eagles do travel to Wisconsin in non-league play, but that challenge is tempered with games vs. FCS St. Francis, UMass, and Texas State. From across the MAC in the East, they draw tougher opponents Ohio and Miami at home and get only Bowling Green (which has won 12 total games since 2016) on the road. EMU finished a disappointing 2-4 last year but were only outscored by a grand total of 17 points. Look for a big improvement this season.

3. LIBERTY

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 125

Experience Rank: No. 10

Liberty’s only misstep in 2020 was a 15-14 loss at NC State. This season, they return 20 starters from the 10-1 product of a year ago, including every member of an offense that finished last season ranked No. 16 in the FBS in scoring and No. 9 in rushing. The only Power 5 members on the schedule in 2021 are Syracuse (who the Flames beat last season) and Ole Miss. Combined, Liberty’s opponents went 43-58 (.426) last year. Look for Hugh Freeze’s stock to continue to rise in 2021.

2. TOLEDO

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 122

Experience Rank: No. 4

Toledo comes into the season as the most experienced team in the MAC with the third-easiest schedule. Back on campus are 21 starters – or all but starting QB Eli Peters. That said, the No. 2 QB from last season – Carter Bradley (who started the last two games, both wins) – is back and will battle for the starting role. While the Rockets do have a road trip to Notre Dame in non-MAC play, they also get FCS Norfolk State, Colorado State and UMass – all winnable affairs. From across the league in the East, they get top dog Ohio on the road but also draw Bowling Green and Akron, the bottom two teams. Toledo has a legitimate shot to capture its first MAC title since 2017.

1. UTSA

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 127

Experience Rank: No. 2

The most perfect “perfect storm” among Group of 5 teams is forecast for UTSA. Only three teams in the entire FBS have an easier schedule and only one has a more experienced group of guys. And – this is a unit that went 7-5 last year, the best finish since 2013. With 21 starters returning, the only guys missing are WR Brandon Dingle (266 yards and 2 TDs on 27 receptions) and DB SaVion Harris (26 tackles). The stiffest tests in non-conference play are roadies at Illinois and Memphis, while in cross-division action it’s a visit to Western Kentucky. The Roadrunners – which didn’t field a team until 2011 – have never won a divisional or conference title. This could be their year.

Power 5 Teams

5. BOSTON COLLEGE

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 83

Experience Rank: No. 52

Not only does Boston College have the easiest schedule in the ACC, it has the second-easiest schedule among all Power 5 members. The only real threat in non-league action is a visit from Missouri – a club that hasn’t gone over .500 since 2018. In cross-division play, the Eagles draw Georgia Tech to go along with their standing date with Virginia Tech, thereby avoiding top dogs North Carolina and Miami altogether. Combine that with 17 returning starters – including the quarterback, top receiver and entire offensive line from a passing attack that finished last season ranked No. 24 in the FBS – and BC has the potential to earn more than seven wins for the first time since 2009.

4. MINNESOTA

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 36

Experience Rank: No. 1

As per Steele’s calculations, no program in the FBS has a more experienced unit than does Minnesota which brings back 20 starters. Included in the haul are starting QB Tanner Morgan, the top four rushers and the top nine tacklers. All that’s missing is No. 1 receiver Rashod Bateman – but where he had 472 yards on 36 catches last season, the No. 2 guy Chris Autman-Bell had 430 yards on 22 grabs, and he is back on campus. While the Gophers’ schedule isn’t as light as others featured here, it’s manageable. In non-league play the big gun is Colorado, a road game. From across the Big Ten in the East, they open with a visit from Ohio State, but temper that with a home game vs. Maryland and a roadie at Indiana – no easy task, but also not trips to Penn State or Michigan.

3. WAKE FOREST

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 71

Experience Rank: No. 27

While Wake Forest doesn’t have the extreme experience levels of Minnesota, it does have the fourth-easiest schedule among Power 5 members. The stiffest test in non-conference action is a roadie at North Carolina (which is being played as a non-ACC game). Virginia is the rotating foe from the Coastal Division – paired with permanent rival Duke, which means that the Deacons avoid Miami, Pitt, and Virginia Tech. Wake – the second deepest team in the ACC – returns 20 starters from last season’s 4-5 product including QB Sam Hartman, the top six receivers and the entire offensive line from a passing attack that finished last season ranked No. 26 in the FBS.

2. MIAMI FLA.

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 53

Experience Rank: No. 8

The most experienced unit in the ACC, the Hurricanes bring back 19 starters from their 8-5 product from last season. Included are QB D’Eriq King, the top four rushers, the top nine receivers, the entire offensive line and the top three tacklers. Though they do have the opener with Alabama in Atlanta, they draw NC State from the Atlantic to go along with their standing date with Florida State, meaning they avoid Clemson. Miami hasn’t captured a conference title since winning the Big East in 2003 – its final season there. Could this be the year that the Hurricanes finally make their mark in the ACC?

1. ARIZONA STATE

Strength of Schedule Rank: No. 63

Experience Rank: No. 12

Not only is Arizona State the most experienced team in the Pac-12 it has the easiest schedule. On offense the Sun Devils welcome back QB Jayden Daniels, the top six rushers, the top six receivers and all but one member of the offensive line. If that weren’t enough, they bring back every single defensive player that recorded a tackle in 2020. It’s quite a thing for a team that finished last season ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. Schedule-wise, ASU won’t face a Power 5 member out of league play, opting instead to visit independent BYU in Week 3. While it gets USC at home, in cross-division play it draws Washington and Stanford – two of the top three contenders from the North. On the plus-side it avoids Oregon. The Sun Devils have the potential to hit double-digit wins for the first time since 2013.

Experience and schedule ratings courtesy of Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview Magazine. Statistics courtesy of CFBstats.com. Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football.

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Liberty’s schedule as a whole isn’t that daunting, sure, but there are a few tests in there (no, I’m not counting Power 5 side Syracuse as a test). The Flames have to pay UAB a visit and host Louisiana and West Point. All of them are certainly better than Syracuse is likely to be. Even with them being outside the Power 5 structure, those games and the Flames’ visit to Ole Miss will determine whether or not the Flames can at least match 2020’s win total (10).