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A lesson in College Football Strength of Schedule

06.24.2010     03:01 PM     Andrew Lange     Printer Friendly

Strength of schedule is always an interesting topic come college football season. Formulas, power ratings, past results, projections – they are all used to uncover each team’s level of competition for the upcoming season. Most of the time, it doesn't take a genius to spot out those who will be up against it and those who might as well be playing in the Sun Belt. One theory that gets tossed around the Sportsmemo office is that when it comes to non-conference games, what is the difference between playing Rice or Idaho State at home if you are Texas? Rice may look better on paper because they are from C-USA whereas Idaho State is I-AA, but “sure wins” are still “sure wins” in our book. Next is the question of whether the actual team factors in on its strength of schedule. Texas for example plays a relatively easy schedule by its standards with wins projected in nearly every game. But what if Purdue played at Texas Tech, vs. Oklahoma, at Nebraska, vs. UCLA, vs. Texas A&M? The headlines in West Lafayette would read, “Boilers’ schedule a monster in ‘10”. Lastly does conference affiliation mean too much or not enough? The SEC is the toughest conference in the nation but for certain teams, their schedules are manageable whereas the PAC-10, which is perceived to be a step down in class, has as many as eight very similar teams which makes it tough to find a schedule that doesn’t have a lot of difficulty. 

Here is a comparison of the toughest schedule in the country and 44th according to Phil Steele's ratings. In defense of Phil, I don't believe he uses last year's records and if you manage to make it through his in-depth SOS explanation, it isn't that farfetched. If anything it is much more accurate than taking last year’s records and adding them together – bonus points for playing 10-3 Middle Tennessee State! Regardless, we'll let you decide which schedule you'd rather play.

No. 1 Iowa State
vs. Northern Illinois
at Iowa
vs. Kansas State (@ Kansas City)
vs. Northern Iowa
vs. Texas Tech
vs. Utah
at Oklahoma
at Texas
vs. Kansas
vs. Nebraska
at Colorado
vs. Missouri

Without question ISU plays a tough schedule but we wonder whether or not having Oklahoma AND Texas on the slate is too much of a factor. If you took Oklahoma and Texas out and put in games at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State – both likely losses – ISU’s strength of schedule would plummet yet in the big picture, it would essentially be the same. I guess the argument you could make for the Cyclones is based on their ability, there are no “sure wins”.

No. 44 Georgia
vs. Louisiana
at South Carolina
vs. Arkansas
at Mississippi State
at Colorado
vs. Tennessee
vs. Vanderbilt
at Kentucky
vs. Florida (@ Jacksonville)
vs. Idaho State
at Auburn
vs. Georgia Tech

Alabama isn't on Georgia's schedule, while Florida is at a neutral site and Arkansas is in Athens. Tack on games against bottom feeders Louisiana and Idaho State and we start to see some of the justification for the Bulldogs' SOS being considerably mediocre by big conference standards. But they still have to play at Auburn and at South Carolina with a funky midseason road trip to Colorado and also the season finale against Georgia Tech.

When you look at both schedules side-by-side, do you see that much of a difference? Georgia plays your typical SEC schedule while Iowa State’s seem fairly normal but boosted because two teams they would likely lose to no matter what the situation or location are on the road and back-to-back. The big question is, if Texas or Oklahoma played Iowa State’s schedule, would it be the toughest in the country? Maybe that is the point of Phil’s rankings; who you are means more than who you play. But if that is the case, then the formula seems even more flawed than I had originally thought. My brain is fried.

One thing you may want to do is break down SOS using Vegas’ season over/under wins numbers once they are posted. You can all but figure out all what the market projects as wins and losses within a game or two with most teams. I’ve always tried to gauge SOS by determining how many “swing games” are on the slate. “Swing games” are those that even with various edges (i.e. home field, off a bye week) you could see going either way – keep in mind you have to draw the line somewhere which probably makes this argument more flawed than anything we previously discussed. Nevertheless, I took similarly projected teams – Arizona and California – and broke down their schedules into three parts...

Arizona has “wins” at Toledo, vs. The Citadel, at Washington State, vs. Washington, vs. Arizona State
Arizona has “losses” at UCLA, at Stanford, at Oregon
Arizona has “swing games” vs. Iowa, vs. California, vs. Oregon State, vs. USC

California has “wins” vs. UC Davis, vs. Colorado, vs. UCLA, vs. Arizona State, at Washington State, vs. Stanford, vs. Washington
Cal has “losses” at Arizona, at USC, at Oregon State
Cal has “swing games” at Nevada, vs. Oregon

Based on the above theory – my crazy theory – Cal seemingly has the easier of the more manageable one’s in the conference in fact. Yet, based on Phil Steele’s SOS, Arizona plays the weaker of the two slates with the 40th vs. 32nd for the Golden Bears.

I may be stretching here with a lot of this but the point is that in order to truly grade SOS, you must use as many factors as possible, especially those outside of the norm. When season o/u wins start popping up, there are going to be a lot of teams whose projections looks awful similar to that of your everyday top 25 preseason poll – Iowa is a team I think is already getting way too much praise. Being able to step in and decipher the true difficulty of a schedule can not only help you in the futures market but the first half of the season as well because a lot of week one’s lines will have a lot to do with where the market projects each team’s win total.

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