Strength of schedule. This variable is more important now than ever before as college football evolves from the Bowl Championship Series era to something much closer to the Final Four in college basketball.
Apart from winning, where you play and who you play are probably the two most important elements – or should be - in determining the national rankings in college football and ultimately which four teams make the cut for the inaugural College Football Playoff this season.
How difficult the schedule is can mean all things good or a team’s worst nightmare. Teams that play a tough schedule and do well reap much greater rewards in the end than teams that load up with easy teams they are supposed to beat.
So which teams in the Big 12 draw the short stick this season when it comes to the difficulty of the schedule. You might be surprised to learn that it is not any of the conference teams that were nationally ranked in the preseason polls. The one exception might be the Texas Longhorns. More on that later in this article.
This is not to say that Oklahoma and Baylor, the teams most college football pundits and analysts cite as the best two teams in the Big 12 heading into opening of the 2012 season next weekend, don’t play difficult schedules. It’s just that the Sooners and the Bears are projected to be better than most all of the teams they play this season, at least on paper.
West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Iowa State aren’t that fortunate – not this coming season, anyway.
West Virginia gets my vote as the Big 12 team with the most difficult road to travel in terms of the Mountaineers’ 2014 football slate. To begin with, coach Dana Holgorsen’s team opens up with arguably the SEC’s best team, the Alabama Crimson Tide (back-to-back national champions in 2011 and 2012). The game is not in Tuscaloosa, but it is in Atlanta, which makes it a virtual home game for the Crimson Tide, despite the neutral-field setting.
Week two brings a home game against Towson, an FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) school. But don’t be fooled by Towson’s smaller-school standing. This Baltimore, Md.-based university was runner up to mighty North Dakota State, the same team that beat Kansas State last season and opens this year at Iowa State, in the FCS championship a year ago.
West Virginia’s final nonconference game of 2014 follows in week three at Maryland (which moves from the ACC to the Big Ten beginning this season), a team that hammered the Mountaineers a year ago in Morgantown by the hefty count of 37-0.
If that’s not enough, the Mountaineers open up their Big 12 schedule in week four, when preseason favorite Oklahoma comes calling. West Virginia does receive a break of sorts in hosting Baylor, Kansas State and TCU, in addition to the Sooners, this season. But they do have to go to Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, three of the toughest road environments in the Big 12.
Oklahoma State may have the most difficult opening-game assignment of any Big 12 team, with an Aug. 30 date against reigning national champion Florida State. This is another spotlight game on opening weekend, with a neutral-site setting at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The location will slightly favor the Cowboys of OSU, but that will be the only advantage that might not go to the preseason No. 1-ranked Seminoles.
Not to jinx coach Mike Gundy’s Cowboys, but two other Big 12 teams have played in season-openers at the former Cowboys Stadium, and both lost (Oklahoma to BYU in 2009 and TCU to LSU last season).
Iowa State will probably be favored in only one conference game this season, and possibly not even in that game (at Kansas) by the time it tolls around on the schedule the second weekend in November. Next to Texas, Iowa State has the most difficult three-game nonconference schedule.
The Cyclones open up at home against three-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State. Two weeks later, they go to Iowa City for their annual clash with in-state rival Iowa, which went to the Outback Bowl last season (where the Big Ten Hawkeyes lost to LSU by a touchdown). Iowa State’s final nonconference game of 2014 doesn’t take place until the middle of October: a homecoming game against Toledo, the fifth-place team in the Mid-America Conference last season.
Coming back around to Texas, the Longhorns, under new head coach Charlie Strong, don’t leave the state of Texas until the end of September. Between then, however, the Longhorns will square off against a couple of highly formidable opponents.
On Sept. 6, the Longhorns will host BYU, which received votes in both the AP media poll and the Amway coaches’ poll to start the season and handed Texas a resounding 40-21 defeat in Provo last season. Top-10-ranked UCLA will be the opponent on Sept. 13 in a game to be played in Arlington that is certain to draw national attention.
Texas’ entire season could be determined in a two-week stretch between Oct. 4 and Oct. 11, when the Horns visit Baylor, followed by the annual Red River Showdown against archrival Oklahoma in Dallas.
All the preseason pontification will soon turn to actualization as the season kickoff looms just one week off.