Schedules are not created equal, and some of the 2009 hopefuls will take very different approaches to how they navigate the season. Southern Cal and Texas can tell you that getting through the conference slate can be the real challenge, but the nonconference games can have an impact not only on the record but also on how the program is perceived by peers and pundits.
(By the way, I can’t help responding here to Kyle’s claim that the BCS "encourages…strong scheduling in ways a playoff never would." The primacy of the regular season and the stigma of even a single loss provide a strong disincentive to schedule tough opponents. I understand that there are reasons for doing so, but the system hardly "encourages" it. What the system encourages above all else is playing in a major conference and navigating the season with as few blemishes as possible. College basketball has a playoff and, by consequence, less emphasis on regular season games, but the tradeoff is that big games like last weekend’s Duke – Georgetown matchup are commonplace in college hoops.)
Here are the nonconference schedules of the top 6 contenders next season (according to Mark Schlabach). Most (save Texas) have at least one decent challenge, but on the whole it’s pretty much status quo.
- La. Monroe
- Central Florida
Comment: To be fair, Texas did have Arkansas back out, and the ‘Horns are looking to improve their schedule over the coming years. But we’re focusing on 2009 here, and the Big 12 opener against Colorado should be the only thing standing between Texas arriving at the Red River Shootout with an unblemished record, a very high ranking, and a slew of lopsided yawners under their belt.
- San Jose St.
- @ Ohio State
- @ Notre Dame
Comment: As usual, the Trojans have a respectable nonconference slate, and only one of the games is at home. The Pac 10 plays nine conference games (there’s a novel idea for the superconferences), so SoCal only has three games to schedule.
- Southern Cal
- New Mexico State
Comment: Southern Cal stands out of course, and assume that everyone will head into the season chalking that up as a loss. The rest of the nonconference schedule is light. Who in the Big 10 will be able to stop an improved Pryor and his team? Michigan’s not there yet. Penn State’s losses are big. Iowa loses their threat at tailback. Any conference loss would have to be considered a big upset. Go ahead and pencil in the Buckeyes for Pasadena – but for which game?
- Virginia Tech (in Atlanta, Ga.)
- Florida International
- North Texas
Comment: The Tide used a big win over an ACC team to launch their 2008 return to glory, and they’ll go back to that well in 2009. The rest of the schedule is miserable, and their SEC slate doesn’t include Florida or Georgia.
- BYU (in Dallas, Tex.)
- @ Miami (Fl.)
Comment: Even with one game TBA, Oklahoma already has one of the better schedules of the contenders. Their decent schedule in 2008 gets credit for landing them at the top of the one-loss teams, but winning their conference didn’t hurt either. They’ll be the more battle-tested team when they play Texas, but will it matter?
- Charleston Southern
- Florida International
Comment: Urban Meyer’s not dumb. Win the SEC with one loss or less, and you could play high school teams from region 4-AAA and stand a good chance at making the national title game. The Gators can focus on repeating as SEC champs and won’t have to face Auburn, Alabama, or Ole Miss during the regular season. The Gators won a national title in 2008 with only a middling Miami bulking up the schedule, so what’s the incentive to toughen the schedule again?
Though no one will include them among the list of 2009 contenders, offered without comment is Georgia:
- @ Oklahoma State
- Arizona State
- Tennessee Tech
- @ Georgia Tech