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Which Team Plays the Toughest Schedule in 2011?

Today’s Blog is an in-depth look at who plays the toughest schedule this year and also some of the flaws in the other methods in determining schedule strength.

At the beginning of the season, the NCAA usually releases a rating of each team’s schedule based on their opponents’ win/loss record from the previous season, This is a good method but it does have its obvious flaws.

The first flaw is basing the ratings on opponents records from the previous season. Let’s look at a couple of examples. At the start of 2007 I had Illinois rated as one of the top teams in the Big Ten and they went on to knock off #1 Ohio St and play in the ROSE Bowl. My ratings had them as an above avg opponent at the start of the year and they finished the regular season #13 (AP). Using 2006’s record as the criteria for determining the strength of an opponent’s schedule, however, you would count them as a 2-10 team! In 2008, I had teams like Ole Miss and Minnesota on my Most Improved Teams List meaning I thought they were bowl caliber but using the previous year’s record you would have counted them as 3-9 and 1-11 teams (both made bowls, Ole Miss finished #14). On the flip side of the coin, Notre Dame was in an obvious rebuilding year in ’07 yet was still counted as a 10-3 team if you based strength of schedule on 2006’s record and they were far from a January bowl team in 2007 at just 3-9!

The second flaw is basing it on pure overall records. If a team plays an FCS (IAA) school that was 11-1 in 2007, that counts as a MUCH tougher game in the NCAA ratings than facing a team like Alabama who was 7-6 in ‘07 but #1 at the end of ‘08 regular season! My ratings had Bama ranked as a much tougher team than any FCS foe. To give you an example from 2002, my ratings foresaw that teams playing Kansas St were facing a Top 10 team based on my preseason ratings. The NCAA strength of schedule ranking rated a game against Kansas St as just a game vs a 6-6 opp (2001 record). Kanas St finished #7 AP for 2002 and walloped their opp’s by an avg of 45-12, not exactly numbers from a typical middle-of-the-road opponent.

On the flip side let’s look at 2009’s Ball St team. They were in an obvious rebuilding year and my power ratings had them only winning 2 or 3 games. My methods gave teams credit for a weak foe when facing Ball St but basing it on the previous year’s record, teams were given credit for playing a 12-2 team which is what they finished in 2008! That is a MAJOR flaw!

Here are the NCAA rankings for 2011’s Opponent Winning %

NCAA Method (Opponent Win %)

Rank
School
Foe Wins
Foe Loss
Foe Win %
1
Clemson
104
54
65.80%
2
Baylor
96
56
63.20%
3
Kansas
97
57
63.00%
4
Washington
96
57
62.70%
5
LSU
95
58
62.10%
6
Notre Dame
95
59
61.70%
6
Iowa St
95
59
61.70%
8
Miami, Fl
95
60
61.30%
9
Mississippi
93
60
60.80%
10
UNLV
92
60
60.50%
11
Minnesota
94
62
60.30%
12
Arizona
89
60
59.70%
13
Penn St
90
61
59.60%
14
Colorado
98
67
59.40%
15
Oregon St
89
61
59.30%
16
Nebraska
90
62
59.20%
16
New Mexico
90
62
59.20%
18
Missouri
91
63
59.10%
19
Texas A&M
91
64
58.70%
20
Kansas St
88
63
58.30%
21
Oklahoma
89
64
58.20%
22
Boston College
90
65
58.10%
22
Virginia
90
65
58.10%
24
Indiana
87
64
57.60%
24
USC
87
64
57.60%
26
Alabama
88
65
57.50%
26
Arkansas
88
65
57.50%
28
Oregon
86
64
57.30%
29
Purdue
87
65
57.20%
29
Texas Tech
87
65
57.20%
31
Toledo
86
65
57.00%
32
Michigan
87
66
56.90%
32
Texas
87
66
56.90%
32
Rutgers
87
66
56.90%
35
Mississippi St
86
66
56.60%
36
Florida
87
67
56.50%
37
SMU
85
66
56.30%
38
Oklahoma St
86
67
56.20%
39
Auburn
85
67
55.90%
40
Duke
85
68
55.60%
41
Wake Forest
85
69
55.20%
41
South Carolina
85
69
55.20%
41
Boise St
85
69
55.20%
44
Tulsa
84
69
54.90%
45
Georgia
84
70
54.50%
45
Marshall
84
70
54.50%
47
Arizona St
81
68
54.40%
47
California
81
68
54.40%
49
Army
82
69
54.30%
50
Ohio St
83
70
54.20%
50
Vanderbilt
83
70
54.20%
50
San Jose St
83
70
54.20%
53
Michigan St
81
70
53.60%
53
Louisville
81
70
53.60%
53
South Florida
81
70
53.60%
56
West Virginia
80
70
53.30%
57
Wisconsin
81
71
53.30%
57
Tennessee
81
71
53.30%
59
Pittsburgh
80
71
53.00%
59
Bowling Green
80
71
53.00%
59
Central Michigan
80
71
53.00%
62
Ball St
80
72
52.60%
63
East Carolina
81
73
52.60%
64
Washington St
78
71
52.30%
65
Cincinnati
80
73
52.30%
66
Illinois
77
71
52.00%
67
UAB
79
73
52.00%
68
Iowa
77
73
51.30%
68
ULM
77
73
51.30%
70
Northwestern
78
74
51.30%
70
Maryland
78
74
51.30%
72
Utah St
78
75
51.00%
73
Navy
79
76
51.00%
74
Fresno St
84
81
50.90%
75
Syracuse
76
74
50.70%
76
Louisiana Tech
77
75
50.70%
77
Wyoming
75
74
50.30%
78
Florida St
76
75
50.30%
79
Kentucky
76
76
50.00%
80
Florida Atlantic
75
76
49.70%
81
Air Force
74
75
49.70%
82
San Diego St
74
76
49.30%
83
NC State
68
70
49.30%
84
UTEP
74
77
49.00%
84
Buffalo
74
77
49.00%
86
Utah
73
76
49.00%
87
Georgia Tech
74
78
48.70%
88
WKU
72
77
48.30%
89
North Carolina
72
79
47.70%
89
BYU
72
79
47.70%
91
UCLA
71
78
47.70%
92
Akron
70
78
47.30%
93
Temple
71
80
47.00%
94
Kent St
65
74
46.80%
95
UCF
71
81
46.70%
96
New Mexico St
78
89
46.70%
97
Nevada
71
82
46.40%
98
Memphis
70
81
46.40%
99
North Texas
69
80
46.30%
100
Virginia Tech
69
81
46.00%
101
Connecticut
68
80
45.90%
102
Rice
69
82
45.70%
103
Colorado St
68
82
45.30%
104
Idaho
68
83
45.00%
105
Stanford
67
83
44.70%
106
Louisiana
66
82
44.60%
107
Tulane
73
91
44.50%
108
TCU
67
84
44.40%
108
Western Michigan
67
84
44.40%
110
Houston
64
84
43.20%
110
Miami, Oh
64
84
43.20%
112
Arkansas St
64
85
43.00%
113
Hawaii
70
93
42.90%
114
Southern Miss
64
86
42.70%
115
Troy
63
86
42.30%
116
Eastern Michigan
62
85
42.20%
117
Northern Illinois
60
86
41.10%
118
FIU
57
92
38.30%
119
Middle Tennessee
53
95
35.80%
120
Ohio
50
95
34.50%

Now below are my 2010 toughest schedules, which take two major factors into account. The first is my 9 sets of Power Ratings. This ensures that an FCS team is rated much lower than Texas and Georgia, two Top 20 teams that finished with a losing record last year! The second factor is the amount of home and away games played. As an example, this year some teams will have as many as 8 home games, while others play as many as 8 on the road. Below are this year’s toughest schedules rated from the most difficult to the easiest. The toughest schedule this year according to my rankings belongs to Colorado while the easiest belongs to Ohio.

Phil Steele’s 2011 Toughest Schedules

Rank
Team
Rank
Team
Rank
Team
1
Colorado
41
Purdue
81
Toledo
2
Iowa St
42
Marshall
82
New Mexico St
3
Baylor
43
California
83
Virginia Tech
4
Oregon St
44
Louisville
84
San Diego St
5
LSU
45
Florida St
85
Wyoming
6
Boston College
46
Washington St
86
Florida Atlantic
7
USC
47
Nebraska
87
North Texas
8
Washington
48
Illinois
88
ULM
9
Auburn
49
Stanford
89
Nevada
10
Miami, Fl
50
Texas Tech
90
Connecticut
11
Vanderbilt
51
Boise St
91
Central Mich
12
Clemson
52
South Carolina
92
TCU
13
Mississippi
53
Georgia
93
Utah St
14
Notre Dame
54
New Mexico
94
UCF
15
Mississippi St
55
Penn St
95
BYU
16
Arizona
56
Tulsa
96
Army
17
Michigan
57
Kentucky
97
Idaho
18
Oklahoma St
58
Michigan St
98
Bowling Green
19
Missouri
59
Northwestern
99
Air Force
20
Arkansas
60
Pittsburgh
100
Akron
21
Minnesota
61
Syracuse
101
Miami, Oh
22
Texas A&M
62
Navy
102
WKU
23
Florida
63
Georgia Tech
103
Colorado St
24
Alabama
64
USF
104
Buffalo
25
Oklahoma
65
NC State
105
Tulane
26
Kansas
66
SMU
106
Louisiana
27
Kansas St
67
San Jose St
107
Memphis
28
UCLA
68
North Carolina
108
Troy
29
Duke
69
East Carolina
109
Temple
30
Wake Forest
70
Iowa
110
Kent St
31
Texas
71
Wisconsin
111
Arkansas St
32
Ohio St
72
Rice
112
Western Mich
33
Utah
73
UAB
113
Eastern Mich
34
Tennessee
74
West Virginia
114
Houston
35
UNLV
75
Cincinnati
115
Hawaii
36
Indiana
76
Ball St
116
Middle Tennessee
37
Maryland
77
Rutgers
117
Southern Miss
38
Virginia
78
Louisiana Tech
118
FIU
39
Oregon
79
Fresno St
119
Northern Illinois
40
Arizona St
80
UTEP
120
Ohio

Here are the teams with the biggest discrepancy in the two methods of determining toughest schedule and you can check out each team’s schedules to see which method you think is better. I list the difference in rankings between the two in ( )’s. Most UNDERRATED schedules (teams that face a tougher slate than the NCAA’s % rankings): 1. UCLA (63) 2. Stanford (56) 3. Utah (53) 4. Vanderbilt (39) 5. Maryland (33) 5. Florida St (33) 7. Auburn (30) 7. Rice (30) 9. Georgia Tech (24) 10. Tennessee (23).

Here are the most OVERRATED schedules (teams that face an easier slate than the NCAA’s % rankings): 1. Toledo (50) 2. Army (47) 3. Rutgers (45) 4. Penn St (42) 5. Bowling Green (39) 6. New Mexico (38) 7. Central Michigan (32) 8. UNLV (25) 9. Nebraska (31) 10. SMU (29).

Naturally teams would much rather face a team from a non-BCS conference like Nevada that went 13-1 last year (but does lose Kaepernick) than say a team like Texas that went 5-7 but will ranked this year. Some teams that really will throw off the SOS if you based it on last year’s records are Miami, Oh (10-4 LY) and on the other side of the coin Cincinnati (4-8). I guarantee you when these two meet this year at Miami, Cincy will be a large favorite and LY they beat the RedHawks 45-3. Based only on LY’s record Miami, Oh is a vastly superior squad.

Now let’s pick out some teams to show you the differences between my method and the NCAA’s and you can decide which one you think is more accurate.

Based on 2010’s opponent records Toledo plays the 31st toughest schedule while UCLA takes on an easy #91 slate. UCLA’s “cupcake” #91 schedule features Houston, Texas, Stanford, USC and Arizona St (10 BCS teams total). Toledo’s much “tougher” slate has just ONE AQ and also one FCS team. Put UCLA vs the #31 Toledo schedule and they are thinking double digit wins. Toledo will be lucky to be favored in 8 or 9 games this year vs their #31 schedule but would be favored in ONE game vs UCLA’s #91 schedule. Do you really think Tim Beckman would trade schedules? For the record my SOS has UCLA’s schedule at #28 and Toledo’s at #81.

Here is another example. Based on 2010’s opponent records, Army plays the 49th toughest schedule while Stanford takes on an easy #105 slate. The Cardinal’s “cupcake” schedule features 11 BCS teams including 3 top 25 teams in USC, Oregon and Notre Dame. Army’s much “tougher” schedule has just 3 AQ teams and one FCS team. If you give Stanford the schedule Army plays this year, they would probably be a double digit favorite over every team and a clear favorite to go 12-0 and play for the national title. Meanwhile Army a bowl team from last year might be a favorite in only two games on Stanford’s schedule. For the record I have Stanford’s schedule at #49 while Army’s is #96.

A great example using two BCS teams is according to the 2010’s opponent records Utah faces the 86th toughest schedule while Rutgers faces the 32nd toughest schedule. According to the NCAA’s method, Utah’s schedule which features 6 road games (incl at USC, BYU and Pittsburgh) is much weaker than Rutgers’ schedule which sees them play “only” 4 true road games. Also no one can argue, the Pac-12 is a tougher conference than the Big East.

So which method do you think is better? Respond back with your questions/comments via Facebook or Twitter!

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  • vegasobie

    LOVE your method, always drives me crazy when “experts” on TV refer to SOS and use previous years record.  This takes no thought and a monkey could be on TV doing it, which most EsPN “experts” are no better than. 

  • http://www.philsteele.com Phil Steele

    Thanks for the kind comments!

  • Meadow Todd

    Finally someone who gives the Buffs the respect that we deserve! We have very difficult schedules every season. At least we know that when we win out, we deserve to be in the national championship game. Heck, we shouldn’t even have to play the game. They should just give us the trophy because we got there, lol!

  • http://twitter.com/dougbushbc Doug Bush

    Phil, thanks for doing all the awesome things you do, just listened to you on the Stuart Mandell podcast, great to hear some of your wisdom verbatim!!!

  • NotreDameFootballIsMyPassion

    Before I start, I should mention that this is the first time that I have read anything that you have written; I followed a hyperlink from “Her Loyal Sons”. Well, the 3 previous comments have all been kind, so it falls to me to rain on your parade. Anyone can pick out several instances over a period of several years (you go back as far as 2002) and indicate that it shows how “their method” is superior to “somebody else’s method”. Basically, your article substitutes anecdotal data for empirical data; a violation of the scientific method. If you compared/contrasted all AP Top 25 teams using both your method and the NCAA method during each of the past 10 years, then you would have something to brag about. Even then, your article would be flawed, since it fails to explain or even outline your methodology. I’m not saying the NCAA method doesn’t have flaws, every system has flaws. However, an article that indicates how “their method is flawed”, without indicating how “your method is better”, and backing it up with empirical data is worthless.

  • http://www.philsteele.com Phil Steele

    As a fellow passionate football fan, I appreciate your point. However my numbers are based on my 9 sets of power ratings and unfortunately I’m not yet ready to reveal the “magic” behind my methodology. I put a lot of time and energy into these Power Ratings and use them for every aspect of the magazine which includes many articles like this one as well as writeups on all 120 teams (which I write myself). I pride myself on having the most updated and accurate numbers out there, and it has paid off as the National College Football Preview is ranked the most accurate preseason magazine the L13Y. I do like the suggestion of comparing the AP Top 25 teams using both methods and will consider doing that for a future Daily Blog.
    Thanks,
    Phil

  • razordoc

    Forgive me if I seem a bit confused by your rankings but I must ask this: How is Arkansas playing the 20th toughest SOS when they play 4 opponents that you have picked to win 10+ games….3 of them on the road? Plus a 5th team that is a top 20 opponent (Miss St.)?  The TAMU game is played in Dallas…which is hardly a neutral site considering it is roughly 3 hours from college station and 8 hrs from Fayetteville.

    I suppose there must be some extremely difficult schedules out there for this to be accurate but I see discrepency.  I see Miss St. at 15th and I believe they must travel to Arkansas, Georgia, and Auburn….and not one decent OOC game, so I hardly see that as a more difficult slate.

    Some of your top 15 play, at most, 3 top 20 teams.  For instance: ND plays host to Mich St. and USC and travels to Stanford and Michigan….and yet they have the 14th toughest schedule?

    Even Miami at your 10th spot only plays 3 top 20 teams…they host Ohio St. (in a very down year) and travel to play FSU and VT.

    I love your magazine and all of your rankings.  I know you put an incredible amount of time into all of this…and obviously your method is better than the NCAA’s.  I just wonder how much common sense you add b/c there should be some level headed human element.  Either that or your home/road advantage is not weighted heavily enough.  Perhaps you could use some stats to incorporate the difficulty of playing on the road.  For instance…playing @LSU, @Mich or @Alabama in front of 100,000 screaming lunatics on a saturday night provides a much tougher SOS than say @TCU, @Boise, or @ any other sub 50,000 stadium.  Stadium size would be one way to weight home field advantage but taking into account the architecture of the stadium would be ideal.  ie: a closed in stadium is much louder than an open horseshoe.  Also, opponents win/loss records at such stadiums would be another way to go.

  • Wolfpack for life

    Good article and I agree with most of your rankings and it is a lot better than the win % one, but I have two concerns. First I am confused on the Overrated/Underrated there are a few teams that make larger moves then the teams you posted such as Marshall who moves 39 spots, etc. Also, can you justify why Ball State is ahead of Virginia Tech and just two below WVU (I am not a fan of either team so this is not a bais, I graduated from NC State and am just curious why you made that pick). I know that Ball State plays at USF, Oklahoma, and Northern Illinois but then they play a bunch of teams that both of the teams mentioned above would love to be able to play every week if their strength of schedule was going to stay the same.  I’m not sure 3 big games trumps a season worth of hard games, but can be convinced.

  • Brian Gaddy

    Yours!, because its close to mine!!! I use a little bit of everything , how good that team was when you played them (injuries and let down performances) weather, very bad calls like Ex.= Toledo vs Syracuse! Opponents win/loss and the most accurate one = common sense! Ex.= A win at Miss St(6-6) would be equal to a win at Mich St!!!(10-3) cause Mich State played an easier schedule and would be 6-6 if they played Miss States My top 25 toughest is 1.Auburn 2.Mississippi 3.Missouri 4 Tennessee 5.LSU 6.Vanderbilt 7.Georgia 8.Miss St 9.S.Carolina 10.Arkansas 11.Alabama 12.Texas 13.Clemson 14.Tex A&M 15.Colorado 16.Florida 17.Baylor 18.Iowa St 19.Baylor 20.Oklahoma St 21.Kansas St 22.Miami(fla) 23.Florida St 24.N.Dame 25.Oregon St./Boston Coll (TIE) PS …..You have the PAC10/12? Over rated!!!