While there are an endless number of ways to assess schedule strength, one of the simplest is to compare the number of “quality” opponents’ teams will play.
What is a “quality” opponent? Which metric do we use to gauge which foes are inherently more difficult than others?
One of the most straight forward approaches is to group opponents into three clearly defined categories: those from Power 5 conferences (plus independents Notre Dame and BYU), those from Group of 5 leagues and then those from the FCS level.
While certainly not comprehensive, this simplistic criterion allows us to compare schedules from a bird’s eye view. It’s assessing schedule strength by looking at the forest as opposed to getting all up in the trees.
In 2020, there are only four programs – or 3% of the entire FBS field – that will play 11 of their 12 regular-season games vs. a member of a Power 5 conference.
It’s a big deal that will likely go completely unnoticed regardless of how this anomaly impacts each team’s win/loss record. It’s one of those things that will make one team’s 8-4 finish completely different than another’s.
By conference, two honorees on the over-achiever list come from the Pac-12, one hails from the Big Ten and one is from the Big 12. The ACC and SEC don’t have any representatives by design. Where the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 all play a nine-game conference schedule, the ACC and SEC play eight league games. So, where a Big Ten school would only have to schedule two Power opponents in non-conference play to get to 11 Power foes, an SEC member would have to schedule three such programs. And that’s not happening.
2020 schedule: Northwestern, at BYU, Toledo, Miami Fla., at Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State, at Indiana, Minnesota, at Penn State, Rutgers, at Maryland
The only non-Power opponent on Michigan State’s 2020 slate is Toledo. Other than that, it’s nine Big Ten opponents, one ACC foe and independent BYU (which is, again, generally accepted as a Power foe).
The last time the Spartans played 11 Power opponents in the regular season was in 2016 when they played at (18) Notre Dame and hosted BYU out of Big Ten play. The only non-Power opponent that year was FCS Furman. That squad finished 3-9, the program’s worst mark since 1991.
Compare Michigan State’s schedule with fellow Big Ten East member Indiana’s. The Hoosiers non-conference slate consists of games vs. Western Kentucky and Ball State and a roadie at UConn. It means that they’ll play nine total Power opponents – two fewer than the Spartans – in 2020.
2020 schedule: William and Mary, at Arizona, USC, at UCLA, at Notre Dame, Washington State, at Oregon, Oregon State, at Washington, Colorado, at Cal, BYU
The only non-Power element of Stanford’s 2020 slate is the opener vs. FCS William and Mary. Other than that, it’s nine Pac-12 opponents and then the duo of “Power” independents Notre Dame and BYU.
The Cardinal played 11 Power opponents as recently as last season when it added Northwestern to its annual date with Notre Dame. A visit to (17) UCF was its only non-Power opponent. Before that, it was 2016 when it opened against K-State and then played the Irish in mid-October. Rice was its only non-Power foe that season.
Compare Stanford’s schedule with that of fellow Pac-12 North member Washington State. The Cougars are slated to play Utah State, Houston and FCS Idaho out of league play. That means that the only Power foes WSU will face are the nine teams on its Pac-12 schedule.
2020 schedule: Alabama (at Arlington, Texas), New Mexico, at Stanford, Arizona State, at Utah, Cal, at Arizona, Colorado, at Oregon, Washington, at UCLA, Notre Dame
The only non-Power opponent USC will play this season is New Mexico. Not only do the Trojans deserve kudos for quantity, they get extra credit for quality with Oregon (who won the Pac-12 last year and finished No. 5 in the AP) in cross-division play and Alabama (No. 8 in the final poll) and Notre Dame (No. 12) in non-conference action.
For USC it’s not so much about the last time it played 11 Power foes, but instead the last time it didn’t do so. That was five seasons ago, in 2015 when it added Arkansas State and Idaho to its standing date with Notre Dame. Since then it’s added Alabama (2016), Texas (2017-18) and BYU (2019) to its annual meeting with the Irish.
Compare the Trojans’ slate to that of cross-town rival and fellow Pac-12 South member UCLA. The Bruins avoid the Ducks and have New Mexico State, Hawaii and San Diego State outside of conference play.
2020 schedule: Florida State (at Atlanta, Ga.), Eastern Kentucky, Maryland, Kansas State, at Texas Tech, TCU, at Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State, Baylor, at Iowa State
West Virginia’s only non-Power foe in 2020 is FCS Eastern Kentucky. That leaves its nine regular dates with the rest of the Big 12 and the opener against Florida State and a visit from Maryland in Week 3.
Like the Trojans, the Mountaineers have made a habit of scheduling 11 Power opponents. Last season they had a roadie at Mizzou and a visit from NC State along with their Big 12 slate. In 2018, it was Tennessee and, again NC State (a game that was ultimately cancelled due to Hurricane Florence). 2017 was the last time they didn’t play 11 Power foes.
Compare West Virginia’s schedule to fellow Big 12 member Kansas State, who will welcome Vanderbilt, Buffalo and FCS North Dakota to Manhattan this season.
Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football.