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Which Teams REALLY Play A Tough Schedule?

DuckTownHusker

Blackshirt Sith Lord
5 Year Member
Some comments about Notre Dame in another thread got me thinking. I had always assumed the Irish played a relatively patsy schedule, given that they're not locked into a major conference. I knew they had (mostly) annual games against Michigan, Michigan State, USC, Stanford and/or Purdue, but I didn't see how that was any different than, say, Nebraska playing (mostly) annual games against Oklahoma, Texas, A&M, Colorado and Missouri in the Big XII.

I was wrong, though. Not ashamed to admit it. The Irish actually have one of the tougher schedules in the nation. Below are two charts I threw together using data from the College Football Database. A couple of points. Both charts are cumulative averages, meaning that they represent a typical season for a team. Especially in 12+ team conferences, we know cross-divisional play is a big factor. Some years you get Ohio State-Michigan-Penn State and other years you get Rutgers-Maryland-Indiana. But on average, this evens out.

Secondly, I only ran this for teams who have ever finished in the AP Top 25 Poll at least once in their lifetimes. That's 101 total schools. The database includes data on most every FBS/FCS Team, but I really didn't want to have a chart that went three miles horizontally because I included Bucknell, Yale or even Creighton from when they used to field football. Onto the eye candy!

Strength of Schedule


Nebraska holds it own here. #27 overall. But man-oh-man, check out the Big Ten. Ohio State, Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana are all ranked above Nebraska. You have to drop to #13 before you hit the SEC (Georgia). Certainly confirms the suspicion that the SEC plays weak-ass schedules.

But not nearly as weak as the ACC. Most of the ACC tends to be in the bottom half of the chart with notable exceptions for Georgia Tech, Pitt plus the FSU-Miami combo. In a ACC-B1G comparison, I'd expect Maryland's SOS to rise over the years as they are now annually playing some monsters in the Big Ten East. Same for Rutgers, who's riding the "used-to-be Big East" train for now.

Oklahoma plays a slightly weaker schedule than Nebraska, but it's not a massive difference. Texas is likewise slightly higher, but again, all within a fraction of a point.

Boston College is essentially the break-even point. They're just slightly below zero, but closer to zero than West Virginia. So the barometer here says that if you're playing a weaker schedule than BC, your schedule is actively working against you when it comes time for bowl selections.


Now onto the Simple Rating System. SRS is a measurment that essentially calculates your Strength of Schedule against Point Differentials. It's a clever metric because teams who dominate against weaker schedules can forecast more favorably than teams with hard schedules who crumble. In some respects that does give a lift to a team like Florida, who may skip Alabama, LSU and Auburn plus load up on non-cons like Citadel. Supposing they blow the socks off their NAIA opponents, they aren't overly penalized. But it's not enough to overcome a team like Nebraska edging out quality wins over teams like Iowa or Wisconsin. Another way to look at SRS is to ask yourself, "did this game beat the teams they should have?"



This is what you'd expect from college blue bloods. Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC, Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida State all come in ahead of Nebraska at #9. Of those top teams, however, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida State make the biggest jumps when comparing this chart against SOS.

USC, Notre Dame and Ohio State all trade places among the Top 3 on both charts, which says that they schedule tough teams and then beat said teams. But the massive jump by NU, OU and FSU screams to me that we schedule solidly good teams (~Top 25 SOS) but then absolutely annihilate them since the difference between SOS and SRS is point differential. That would seem to bear out, anecdotally, as people often point to NU teams along with some of Switzer and Bowden's squads as absolute nightmares who would yank teams' arms off like a Wookie.

A few call outs on the SRS chart:

The SEC gains ground on the Big Ten here. I alluded to this earlier with my Florida-Citadel example, and it kind of confirms the notion that SEC beats themselves up = good, while B1G beats themselves up = bad. I think more than anything, the difference here is non-conference opponents and the B1G historically takes on higher caliber non-cons. Even when we schedule outside of the Power 5, it's often to a MAC school which is filled with solidly coached teams like the Fighting Frankies of Ohio. Contrast that against all the regional SunBelt and D2 squads that the SEC likes to gobble up. Our upcoming game with Cincinnati is a great example of a solid mid-major who could pose some problems. Or same for BYU a few years ago. It's kind of an age old question of whether it's better to upend some crappy team or play a tough team and -maybe- get a win.
 

wcbsas

All Big 10
15 Year Member
Definitely interesting information I also think mix has a lot to do with strength of schedule ... sure Alabama plays ranked opponents such as LSU, Auburn and aTm ... along with possible cross-overs against Florida, Tennessee and Georgia ... but the caliber of the rest of their opponents is pretty poor. This last season they played Duke, Southern Miss, West Carolina and New Mexico State. All of those schools are on the right hand side of your charts.

Playing that kind of schedule allows teams like Alabama to potentially avoid injuries as well as build up depth. They avoid potentiality of near upsets.
 

DuckTownHusker

Blackshirt Sith Lord
5 Year Member
Definitely interesting information I also think mix has a lot to do with strength of schedule ... sure Alabama plays ranked opponents such as LSU, Auburn and aTm ... along with possible cross-overs against Florida, Tennessee and Georgia ... but the caliber of the rest of their opponents is pretty poor. This last season they played Duke, Southern Miss, West Carolina and New Mexico State. All of those schools are on the right hand side of your charts.

Playing that kind of schedule allows teams like Alabama to potentially avoid injuries as well as build up depth. They avoid potentiality of near upsets.
If anything, the SOS numbers confirm the Big Ten is a deep conference. As a fan I'm not a, well, fan of how the SEC schedules, but like many things they've found the loophole and are exploiting it to much success.

This year, we start off with Purdue. I wouldn't be opposed to us sprinkling non-cons throughout the year as a sort of de facto BYE week. Lord knows teams like Alabama do it when they sandwich a school like Middle Tennessee State right between Auburn and LSU.
 

DuckTownHusker

Blackshirt Sith Lord
5 Year Member
Fla st always plays fla and miami, but the in confr games are mediocre except clemson
And that's a great point about the Gators, in a way. I read somewhere that the Gators haven't left the Sunshine State for a non-conference game in like 15 years. They either play FSU, Miami, USF, etc. (all INSIDE Florida) or they make teams like Arkansas State come to Gainesville.
 
@DuckTownHusker How do the charts change if you only snapshot the last decade or last 20-25 years?
I was thinking something similar, though (because we're all Nebraska fans) I'd go back to '62 when The Bob showed up in Lincoln.

Another observation worth mentioning is that the ACC teams that rank the highest also are the most recent additions of teams that were powerhouses elsewhere. Pitt was an absolute powerhouse football program throughout the 20th century until sometime in the 80s when things fell apart. Georgia Tech was a member of the precursor to the SEC, left it and played as an independent for decades, then joined the ACC in the 80s. Florida State was an irrelevant also-ran until Bobby showed up in the 70s, but they went anywhere and played anyone when Bobby took over, and they became a powerhouse by the time they joined the ACC in '92. It was an open question as to whether or not they'd ever lose a conference game, let alone NOT win the ACC as they never lost a conference game until '95 (which was 29 straight), and they won the ACC every year from when they joined ('92) through 2000, losing only 2 conference games, total, in 9 seasons. Florida State had some great teams during that run,... but the ACC was also really, really bad. Listing those teams' schedule difficulty in this context makes the ACC's overall scheduling look better than the pathetic mess that it was.

In fairness, the ACC was just an atrocious conference in football where they just waited for basketball to start until Florida State joined in '92. If your entire conference is bad, it's going to hurt your strength of schedule.

One more thing worth noting is that the teams that play in the toughest conferences have the toughest schedules, but a team like UCLA has a tougher schedule, year in and year out, than USC because ... they had to play USC. Same is true for Stanford and Cal, and the same is true for the B1G schools.
 
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Sooner 24

BOOMER SOONER!!!
15 Year Member
Some comments about Notre Dame in another thread got me thinking. I had always assumed the Irish played a relatively patsy schedule, given that they're not locked into a major conference. I knew they had (mostly) annual games against Michigan, Michigan State, USC, Stanford and/or Purdue, but I didn't see how that was any different than, say, Nebraska playing (mostly) annual games against Oklahoma, Texas, A&M, Colorado and Missouri in the Big XII.

I was wrong, though. Not ashamed to admit it. The Irish actually have one of the tougher schedules in the nation. Below are two charts I threw together using data from the College Football Database. A couple of points. Both charts are cumulative averages, meaning that they represent a typical season for a team. Especially in 12+ team conferences, we know cross-divisional play is a big factor. Some years you get Ohio State-Michigan-Penn State and other years you get Rutgers-Maryland-Indiana. But on average, this evens out.

Secondly, I only ran this for teams who have ever finished in the AP Top 25 Poll at least once in their lifetimes. That's 101 total schools. The database includes data on most every FBS/FCS Team, but I really didn't want to have a chart that went three miles horizontally because I included Bucknell, Yale or even Creighton from when they used to field football. Onto the eye candy!

Strength of Schedule


Nebraska holds it own here. #27 overall. But man-oh-man, check out the Big Ten. Ohio State, Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue and Indiana are all ranked above Nebraska. You have to drop to #13 before you hit the SEC (Georgia). Certainly confirms the suspicion that the SEC plays weak-ass schedules.

But not nearly as weak as the ACC. Most of the ACC tends to be in the bottom half of the chart with notable exceptions for Georgia Tech, Pitt plus the FSU-Miami combo. In a ACC-B1G comparison, I'd expect Maryland's SOS to rise over the years as they are now annually playing some monsters in the Big Ten East. Same for Rutgers, who's riding the "used-to-be Big East" train for now.

Oklahoma plays a slightly weaker schedule than Nebraska, but it's not a massive difference. Texas is likewise slightly higher, but again, all within a fraction of a point.

Boston College is essentially the break-even point. They're just slightly below zero, but closer to zero than West Virginia. So the barometer here says that if you're playing a weaker schedule than BC, your schedule is actively working against you when it comes time for bowl selections.


Now onto the Simple Rating System. SRS is a measurment that essentially calculates your Strength of Schedule against Point Differentials. It's a clever metric because teams who dominate against weaker schedules can forecast more favorably than teams with hard schedules who crumble. In some respects that does give a lift to a team like Florida, who may skip Alabama, LSU and Auburn plus load up on non-cons like Citadel. Supposing they blow the socks off their NAIA opponents, they aren't overly penalized. But it's not enough to overcome a team like Nebraska edging out quality wins over teams like Iowa or Wisconsin. Another way to look at SRS is to ask yourself, "did this game beat the teams they should have?"



This is what you'd expect from college blue bloods. Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC, Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas and Florida State all come in ahead of Nebraska at #9. Of those top teams, however, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Florida State make the biggest jumps when comparing this chart against SOS.

USC, Notre Dame and Ohio State all trade places among the Top 3 on both charts, which says that they schedule tough teams and then beat said teams. But the massive jump by NU, OU and FSU screams to me that we schedule solidly good teams (~Top 25 SOS) but then absolutely annihilate them since the difference between SOS and SRS is point differential. That would seem to bear out, anecdotally, as people often point to NU teams along with some of Switzer and Bowden's squads as absolute nightmares who would yank teams' arms off like a Wookie.

A few call outs on the SRS chart:

The SEC gains ground on the Big Ten here. I alluded to this earlier with my Florida-Citadel example, and it kind of confirms the notion that SEC beats themselves up = good, while B1G beats themselves up = bad. I think more than anything, the difference here is non-conference opponents and the B1G historically takes on higher caliber non-cons. Even when we schedule outside of the Power 5, it's often to a MAC school which is filled with solidly coached teams like the Fighting Frankies of Ohio. Contrast that against all the regional SunBelt and D2 squads that the SEC likes to gobble up. Our upcoming game with Cincinnati is a great example of a solid mid-major who could pose some problems. Or same for BYU a few years ago. It's kind of an age old question of whether it's better to upend some crappy team or play a tough team and -maybe- get a win.
I always attribute people saying Notre Dame plays a patsy schedule to people’s dislike of the Irish.
 
I always attribute people saying Notre Dame plays a patsy schedule to people’s dislike of the Irish.
It depends on the year. There were times when it wasn't overwhelming, yet Lou Holtz acted like he was playing NFL teams. I can't think of anybody serious who would say that their whole schedule was easy, but there were times when USC was down that they basically had a similar type of schedule to an Osborne Nebraska schedule, which usually looked like this: 1 quality conference opponent, 1 mediocre conference opponent, 1 mediocre non-conference opponent, a bunch of patsies, and a bowl game ... in a pear an orange tree.

Nebraska occasionally had a good UCLA or Penn State team that slipped in there as well. Similar.
 
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Sooner 24

BOOMER SOONER!!!
15 Year Member
It depends on the year. There were times when it wasn't overwhelming, yet Lou Holtz acted like he was playing NFL teams. I can't think of anybody serious who would say that their whole schedule was easy, but there were times when USC was down that they basically had a similar type of schedule to an Osborne Nebraska schedule, which usually looked like this: 1 quality conference opponent, 1 mediocre conference opponent, 1 mediocre non-conference opponent, a bunch of patsies, and a bowl game ... in a pear an orange tree.

Nebraska occasionally had a good UCLA or Penn State team that slipped in there as well. Similar.
Like I said in the other thread not counting the service academy’s I’ve never seen Notre Dame play anything but Power 5 schools. Plus Ducks research proves that out.
 
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Like I said in the other thread not counting the service academy’s I’ve never seen Notre Dame play anything but Power 5 schools.
There are some Power 5 schools who have not been good at football for a long time. I'd have rather played Stanford in the 80s and 90s than Oklahoma State. Pitt used to be good, but it's been a long, long time. Vandy and Purdue showed up often. Boston College has never been terrifying. On it goes. You get the point. It's one thing to say that they played tough Michigan and Miami teams in '88, which they did, but it's another to say that that was the sort of Power 5 team that they were playing week in and week out, which was not the case.

Also, just a quibble, a lot of the teams that they used to play regularly were, by definition, NOT Power 5 teams because they were independents, which makes sense because Notre Dame has always been an independent. The Power 5 teams that they have most frequently played when they literally were in what we now call a Power 5 conference would be USC, Stanford, ... and the B1G ... who were adding Notre Dame on top of already tough conference schedules.
 
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Sooner 24

BOOMER SOONER!!!
15 Year Member
There are some Power 5 schools who have not been good at football for a long time. I'd have rather played Stanford in the 80s and 90s than Oklahoma State. Pitt used to be good, but it's been a long, long time. Vandy and Purdue showed up often. Boston College has never been terrifying. On it goes. You get the point. It's one thing to say that they played tough Michigan and Miami teams in '88, which they did, but it's another to say that that was the sort of Power 5 team that they were playing week in and week out, which was not the case.

Also, just a quibble, a lot of the teams that they used to play regularly were, by definition, NOT Power 5 teams because they were independents, which makes sense because Notre Dame has always been an independent. The Power 5 teams that they have most frequently played when they literally were in what we now call a Power 5 conference would be USC, Stanford, ... and the B1G ... who were adding Notre Dame on top of already tough conference schedules.
Just look at Ducks graph. Says it all. I’m not a Notre Dame fan by any stretch but I’ll give credit where it’s due.
 

berryhusker

Travel Squad
15 Year Member
Fighting Irish is my second favorite team. Lots of fans hate ND ..... why? Discrimination?
To some degree I do degree, definite hatred based on discrimination but also a bias because media members were biased toward ND for a long time. East Coast bias was what I always knew in the 80's and early 90's.

My personal dislike (I would never say hatred because how can a person hate an artificial entity?) of the ND Irish came/comes from knowing my ex-father-in-law. He loved 'The Irish' because he was half-Irish and raised Catholic, although he was not a very good human being to be extremely kind. His bias and rationale was so gross, ND football was and should be superior because Catholicism was superior to any and all belief systems. Obviously, this dude was in the vast, vast minority, but it spoiled me in a number of ways...
 

Hooked on Huskers

I'm old as a rock
5 Year Member
To some degree I do degree, definite hatred based on discrimination but also a bias because media members were biased toward ND for a long time. East Coast bias was what I always knew in the 80's and early 90's.

My personal dislike (I would never say hatred because how can a person hate an artificial entity?) of the ND Irish came/comes from knowing my ex-father-in-law. He loved 'The Irish' because he was half-Irish and raised Catholic, although he was not a very good human being to be extremely kind. His bias and rationale was so gross, ND football was and should be superior because Catholicism was superior to any and all belief systems. Obviously, this dude was in the vast, vast minority, but it spoiled me in a number of ways...
Irish=Rich tradition. A few movies focus on ND football .... the last film was "Rudy". And I believe no major NCAA violations; clean program.

Discrimination? ...... Catholic school.
 
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