Alabama plays in the toughest division (and conference) in the country, so playing Michigan (at Arlington, Texas), Western Kentucky, Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina is a fair non-conference schedule considering their overall schedule.
Most of these schedules are made up years in advance so it can be difficult to gauge how good an opponent will be three or four years down the road. But scheduling a team that hasn't had a winning record for years—such as North Texas or Tulane—isn't that risky and doesn't fall under the "They were good when we scheduled them" excuse. Scheduling a BCS team that generally finishes up in the middle of the conference (ie- Wake Forest or Northwestern) is risky because nobody can predict how much improvement will materialize three years after a schedule is finalized— those mid-level BCS teams are capable of beating anyone.
Keeping all of that in mind, here are the fluffiest non-conference schedules for BCS teams.
When you have two FCS teams on your schedule, you get an automatic "cupcake" tag on your non-conference schedule. Florida State opens 2012 with Murray State and then Savannah State. Yes, the 'Noles had to replace West Virginia with Savannah State at the last minute, but two back-to-back blowout games still qualify as a fluffy non-conference schedule. They do play at South Florida and host Florida, but season ticket holders have to be a little disappointed with these home games: Murray State, Savannah State, Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College, Duke and Florida.
North Carolina State
The Wolfpack open their 2012 season in Atlanta, Georgia with Tennessee, a team that's posted a 23-27 overall record over the past four years. After that, it's UConn, South Alabama and The Citadel, making this another non-conference schedule with two FCS teams. Overall, their schedule doesn't appear to be that difficult, so posting a 7-5 or 8-4 record with this non-conference slate will probably not impress the majority of pollsters. Because they play two FCS teams, NC State, like Florida State, needs seven wins to become bowl eligible this year.
The last two years haven't been kind for Kansas fans but the Jayhawks took drastic action in firing Turner Gill and hiring Charlie Weis as their new head coach. So it only makes sense that with a nine-game conference schedule, their non-conference schedule shouldn't be too overwhelming. Then again, when you have TCU, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia on your schedule, shouldn't you be well-prepared before playing those teams? Playing South Dakota, Rice and Northern Illinois won't help the Jayhawks, but perhaps having TCU sandwiched between Rice and Northern Illinois will.
The Longhorns have Wyoming, New Mexico and a road game at Ole Miss as their 2012 non-conference opponents. Last year, Wyoming finished 8-5, New Mexico went 1-11 (including a loss to FCS team Sam Houston State) and Ole Miss posted a 2-10 record with their two wins over Southern Illinois and Fresno State. If Wyoming appears to be their toughest non-conference opponent, we can pretty much assume Texas won't be getting any love from the pollsters in the first three weeks of the new season.
Here is a calorie-laden menu: Northern Illinois (in Chicago), Iowa State, Northern Iowa and Central Michigan. Iowa State has upset Iowa twice in the past six years (including 2011) and also beat Oklahoma State last year, so they're always a potential trap game. Northern Iowa gave Iowa fits in 2009, finally losing 17-16 to the Hawkeyes. Maybe these games will be challenging for Iowa, but honestly, should they be?
The Hoosiers open 2012 with Indiana State and then travel to play at UMass, a new FBS team in the MAC. So far, not impressive. A date with Ball State and a road tilt at Navy complete their non-conference slate. Granted, this is Indiana football, a program that is still struggling in the Big Ten, but if this were an SEC team's non-conference schedule, Big Ten fans would be throwing cupcakes at them.
Purdue has played Notre Dame every year since 1946, so having the Fighting Irish on their schedule is almost akin to a conference game. The Boilermakers' other three conference games are Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan and Marshall. Should we give Purdue a break since they play Michigan, Wisconsin and at Ohio State in three consecutive weeks? Nope.
Non-conference games with Northern Iowa, at Oregon State, Utah State and UTEP for a team that has played in the Rose Bowl the last two years? Props to Wisconsin for scheduling a BCS team (Oregon State) but the Beavers went 3-9 last year. Sure, they may be better this year but the bottom line is that this schedule isn't very challenging.
I realize Kentucky is trying to strengthen their football program but this schedule is pretty soft; at Louisville, Kent State, Western Kentucky and Samford. Let's put it this in perspective, shall we? If Kentucky goes 4-0 in those non-conference games and then beats Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, they go bowling to a decent bowl. Yes, really. Scheduling a BCS team (Louisville) saves them from getting tabbed runner-up in the Cupcake Wars.
If it weren't for Clemson, Auburn would get an "F" in non-conference scheduling. The Tigers play the Tigers in Atlanta in week one. Two weeks later, they host Louisiana-Monroe. If they can hang on to November, they get two additional cupcakes in New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. Yes, they also have Georgia and Alabama in November, but if you look at most other BCS teams' schedules, November is the month of heavy conference play, not two difficult games and two guaranteed wins. The good news is that they aren't the worst offender—these next seven teams "take the cake."
The Buffaloes are in another rebuilding year under head coach Jon Embree. Winning on the road has been a real problem but they finally notched their first road win in years (not counting their annual date with Colorado State in Denver) when they beat Utah 17-14 in their final game of 2011. This year, the Buffaloes have a good shot of winning a road game early—they play at Fresno State in week three. Prior to that, they play Colorado State (in Denver) and Sacramento State. To recap, the combined win-loss total for their three opponents last year was 11-29.
Okay Tennessee fans, how excited are you for these non-conference games at Neyland Stadium: Georgia State, Akron and Troy. Tennessee's one decent non-conference game, NC State, is being played in Atlanta, Georgia. Sure it's their season opener, but when you are coming off a 4-8 season (1-7 in the SEC), playing a middle-tiered ACC team (8-5) that finished strong may not be such a good idea. Compounding this horrible schedule is that the Volunteers play Georgia State before Florida, and Akron before traveling to Georgia.
LSU has North Texas, Washington, Idaho and Towson as non-conference games. Now before LSU fans cry out that Washington is a good team, let me point out that LSU made this schedule in the spring of 2008. That time-frame is significant because Washington was coming off of a 4-9 2007 season and spanked out a 0-12 record in 2008—LSU was scheduling a bad Husky team at the time. As luck would have it, Washington hired Steve Sarkisian, who has turned around this team in a positive direction. But Washington went 5-7, 4-9 and 0-12 from 2006 through 2008, ostensibly during the time LSU discussed a series with Washington and thus, no brownie points are awarded for scheduling a quality BCS team.
The Aggies came close to grabbing the "Cupcake Crown." They have two FCS teams on their schedule in South Carolina State and Sam Houston State. Yes, they are transitioning from the Big 12 to the SEC and they may have had some last-minute difficulties completing their schedule, but the Aggies don't get a semi-hall pass like Florida State does. They also have two road games at Louisiana Tech and SMU—because two of their four non-conference games are on the road, they didn't grab this year's crown. Better luck next year.
The Ducks should be pretty plump after this array of cupcakes: Arkansas State, Fresno State and Tennessee Tech. Fresno State used to be a great non-conference opponent but the program has had a difficult couple of years and legendary coach Pat Hill is no longer coaching there. Arkansas State is a good Sun Belt team but that same team also lost to a 6-7 Illinois team. Apparently, the Ducks are a tad gun shy after previous non-conference bouts with Boise State and LSU.
The Red Raiders look like a real contender for this year's fluffiest non-conference schedule. What were they thinking with his slate: Northwestern State, Texas State and New Mexico. Oh, I'm sure fans will be saying, "We're just trying to give an in-state team (Texas State) some visibility" but last year Texas State was an FCS team. To sum up; Texas Tech is playing one FCS team, one team that is one year removed as an FCS team and a New Mexico team that spanked out a 1-11 record last year.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. No words are needed here—just gaze at this non-conference beauty that includes two FCS teams: Jackson State, at Troy, South Alabama and Middle Tennessee State.
Up next: The most difficult non-conference schedules.