Scheduling more than two BCS teams, historically elite programs (Alabama, Michigan, USC, Nebraska, etc.) or top-tiered teams in a non-BCS conference gets enormous respect. But it's not just the actual selection of teams that determines how soft or difficult a non-conference slate is—when and where these teams are scheduled can make or break a season. Here are the best BCS teams' non-conference schedules.
The Beavers' non-conference schedule starts out with Nicholls State but after that it's more difficult. The Wisconsin Badgers come to Corvallis in week two and in mid-October, the Beavers travel to Provo, Utah to play BYU. After a shockingly poor season last year (3-9), this schedule looks daunting. The only bright spot is that they didn't draw USC from the South for conference play.
The Demon Deacons' first two of four non-conference games aren't very alarming (Liberty, Army) but their last two (Notre Dame, Vanderbilt) are for two reasons. First, Wake Forest travels to South Bend, Indiana in mid-November, not exactly a warm time of year in the Midwest. Second, Wake Forest ends their regular season with a dangerous SEC team that has been known to pull an upset. The fact that Wake Forest's final two games are non-conference games makes this even more confusing.
Todd Graham's first year as the new head coach of the Sun Devils will be severely tested by mid-September. The former Pittsburgh head coach's team opens up the season with Northern Arizona, but after that, it's gut-check time. Having Illinois and Missouri as part of your non-conference schedule is a huge challenge for any BCS team, but this team is coming off a 2011 season that ended badly—Arizona State dropped six of their final seven games including a blowout by Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Huskies open the season with the San Diego State Aztecs, a program that figures to be down a notch this year due to the departures of quarterback Ryan Lindley and running back Ronnie Hillman. Washington then travels to Baton Rouge to play LSU. A probable night game with the Bayou Bengals in Death Valley is arguably one of the most inhospitable venues in college football. The Huskies then come home to play Portland State, an FCS team in the Big Sky Conference that will put points on the board. While the Huskies do play an FCS team, also playing San Diego State, at LSU, Stanford, at Oregon and USC in that six-game stretch is challenging.
The Spartans get to open with Boise State. Granted, quarterback Kellen Moore is gone, but the Broncos haven't had problems reloading at quarterback this decade—Boise State is always dangerous. After a road trip to Central Michigan, the Spartans then play Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish beat the Spartans 31-13 last year. Despite this being a non-conference game, it could very well be the deciding factor in both teams' final BCS rankings. Michigan State's last non-conference game is with Eastern Michigan. Two non-conference games with a realistic potential for two losses make this a tough non-conference schedule.
The Eagles open their 2012 season not with a non-conference game, but with conference foe Miami. They get a break playing Maine the following week but this has" trap game" written all over it—the Black Bears were very good in 2011 and kept Pitt on its toes before finally losing 36-29. A trip to Northwestern the following week is a question mark—Northwestern beat Boston College last year. Boston College also travels to Army for another trap game—Army is sandwiched between Clemson and a road tilt at Florida State. Finally, Notre Dame comes to Chestnut Hill in mid-November, right before the Eagles play Virginia Tech.
It's difficult enough playing in the SEC, but Vanderbilt made 2012 even more treacherous with their non-conference schedule. The Commodores open 2012 hosting division foe South Carolina before traveling to Northwestern. Next up is Presbyterian, a team that shouldn't give them any problems but its slot before Vanderbilt's road tilt at Georgia is a bit unsettling. UMass comes in October and then a real puzzling game appears on Vanderbilt's schedule; at Wake Forest on November 24. Two BCS teams on the road—one as the final game of the regular season—is challenging for a team that has only gone bowling four times since 1974.
The Clemson Tigers play their first game of 2012 in Atlanta against Auburn. A season-opener against an SEC West team that will be much improved from last year and a team looking for revenge after last year's loss to Clemson make this contest intimidating. Two back-to-back games against Ball State and Furman shouldn't give the Tigers too many problems but Clemson's rivalry game against South Carolina in late November will be huge—the Gamecocks are coming off their first 11-win season in school history. Playing two respected SEC teams on a non-conference slate is a bonus for an ACC team shooting for a BCS Championship invite.
If you want to search for a bright spot in the Wildcats' 2012 schedule, here it is: If Northwestern ends up as a .500 team, they're a real good team. Northwestern travels to Syracuse to open the 2012 season, then returns home to host Vanderbilt, Boston College and South Dakota. Yes, they play an FCS team, but they also play THREE BCS teams, one of which is on the road. Tough, real tough.
The Hurricanes' 2012 schedule starts ominously with three of their first four games on the road including a non-conference game at Kansas State. They host Bethune-Cookman, which is sandwiched between Kansas State and Georgia Tech. In October Miami travels to Soldier Field in Chicago for a game with Notre Dame that is practically a home game for the Fighting Irish. Their last non-conference game is in November hosting the South Florida Bulls. Playing three BCS teams—two on the road—makes this schedule difficult by anyone's standards.
The Wolverines have a monster schedule and it starts in the first week when they open with Alabama at Arlington, Texas. The first game of the year is against the defending BCS Champs? Eeek. The following week they host Air Force, a program that always is competitive and can cause havoc with opposing defenses. They get a much-needed break hosting the MAC's UMass but then it's another tough road trip to South Bend to play Notre Dame. Playing the defending BCS Champions and Notre Dame, both on the road, means Michigan has the most challenging non-conference schedule.
Honorable mention: Pittsburgh and South Florida
Although the Big East teams' schedules are incomplete, two teams appear to have beefed up their conference schedules with some terrific non-league contests.
Pitt's non-conference schedule (so far) looks challenging; Youngstown State, Virginia Tech, at Buffalo and at Notre Dame.
South Florida also gets a pat on the back for Chattanooga, at Nevada, at Ball State, Florida State and at Miami. Rarely do you see a team play more non-conference games on the road than at home.
Up next: The weirdest schedules