Sometimes it’s smart to schedule soft. You’re a year or two into your job at a program that needs to be completely rebuilt. You want some easy wins early to develop confidence in your players and fan support/excitement for your team. So you construct a nonconference schedule filled mostly with patsies and vow to change your ways a few years down the road when things are on stable footing.
Makes total sense.
Thus, as we unveil our list of the 10 worst nonconference schedules in the country among the big boys, I can totally understand why a coach such as Mississippi State’s Rick Ray or TCU’s Trent Johnson devised a relatively weak slate. Others such as Mike Anderson at Arkansas and Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh have no excuse.
Whatever the context, all of the schools on this list are high-major programs from the nine conferences that were part of this package and all 10 could’ve done better by at least adding another marquee game or two (schools listed in alphabetical order).
Toughest: Colorado (Nov. 30)
Next-toughest: Richmond (Nov. 27)
The rest: vs. Army (Nov. 8 in Lexington, Va.), vs. Citadel/VMI (Nov. 9 in Lexington, Va.), Jackson State (Nov. 14), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 17), Colorado Christian (Nov. 20), South Dakota (Dec. 5), Western State (Dec. 9), UC Riverside (Dec. 14), at UC Davis (Dec. 21)
Give the Falcons credit for scheduling a pair of quality opponents at home in Colorado and Richmond. But there really isn’t much else to get excited about here. Air Force’s only true road game is a Dec. 21 tilt at UC Davis. The rest of the schedule is abysmal, but Dave Pilipovich’s squad is in rebuilding mode, so this is actually a smart slate for this particular team.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next-toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)
This is one of the more embarrassing schedules on this list. If I'm ranking the top 10, Arkansas would probably be No. 2 or No. 3. Other than the Maui Invitational (the Razorbacks open against Cal and then play either Minnesota or Syracuse), there is not a single noteworthy game on this list. Arkansas is known for its tremendous fan support. Yet the best home game Mike Anderson can schedule for the Razorback faithful is a tilt with SMU? Inexcusable.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at Arkansas (Dec. 7)
Next-toughest: South Carolina (Nov. 17)
The rest: Stetson (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 13), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 29), South Carolina State (Dec. 3), Furman (Dec. 14), at Auburn (Dec. 19), VMI (Dec. 30)
The Tigers will likely enter ACC play with a gaudy record, but they won’t have many quality wins on their résumé. Other than maybe a road tilt at Arkansas, there isn’t one noteworthy game on this schedule. Unless, of course, you count the Charleston Classic, but it doesn't have a particularly strong field this season. Brad Brownell’s team opens up with Temple and will face either Georgia or Davidson the following day. This is an incredibly weak slate. Luckily Clemson has a big-time football team that will hold fans’ attention until January.
Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Next-toughest: at Texas A&M (Dec. 4)
The rest: Texas State (Nov. 8), at UT-Pan American (Nov. 11), UT-San Antonio (Nov. 14), Lehigh (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 21), Texas-Corpus Christi (Nov. 30), San Jose State (Dec. 7), Alcorn State (Dec. 9), Louisiana-
Lafayette (Dec. 14), Rice (Dec. 21)
Four players on the Cougars' roster were ranked in the Top 100 of their respective high school class. In other words, there is way too much talent on Houston’s roster to be playing a schedule this weak. Playing Stanford (and either Pittsburgh or Texas Tech) at the Legends Classic is fine. But if UH wants to be taken seriously on a national level, it needs to add a few marquee games to its slate starting next season. The Cougars -- who won 20 games last season -- are in a big-boy conference now. They need to start scheduling like it.
Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)
The Bulldogs’ program was in shambles when Rick Ray took over prior to last season -- and things got even worse during the year thanks to a long list of suspensions and injuries. It got so bad that Ray had to use a graduate assistant in practice, until he tore his ACL. Somehow, Ray kept his players’ spirits up, and they managed to win a few games (including one against NCAA tournament team Ole Miss) near the end of the season. It was a phenomenal coaching job by Ray, but make no mistake, this program is still in full rebuilding mode, which is why this schedule makes sense. Whoever thought that Florida Gulf Coast would be the No. 1 home opponent on the nonconference schedule of a team from a major conference?
Toughest: vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 17 in New York)
Next-toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Savannah State (Nov. 8), Fresno State (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 17), Lehigh (Nov. 20), Duquesne (Nov. 30), Penn State (Dec. 3), Loyola Marymount (Dec. 6), Youngstown State (Dec. 14), Cal Poly (Dec. 21), Albany (Dec. 31)
The Panthers aren’t doing much to prepare themselves for their first season in the ACC, which will easily be the nation’s toughest conference. When your marquee nonconference game is against Cincinnati -- and this is the only thing close to a marquee game on this schedule -- then you know you’ve got problems. The only other semi-decent opponents are Penn State in early December and then Texas Tech in the Legends Classic, with a game against either Stanford or Houston the following night. Pittsburgh lost some key players to graduation (Tray Woodall) and the NBA draft (Steven Adams). And J.J. Moore transferred to Rutgers. So this may be the perfect year for a weak slate. Still, considering how good Pitt has been over the years, this could be the worst schedule in America.
Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23 in New York)
Next-toughest: at Rutgers (Dec. 8)
The rest: Niagara (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 13), at Mercer (Nov. 16), Monmouth (Nov. 18), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), LIU Brooklyn (Dec. 5), NJIT (Dec. 10), St. Peter’s (Dec. 14), Eastern Washington (Dec. 22), Lafayette (Dec. 27)
My colleague, Dana O’Neil, said it best about the Pirates in her analysis of nonconference schedules in the Big East: “If the Pirates beat Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer, they might face Michigan State. Or they might not. And that’s about all there is to like about this schedule.”
Toughest: vs. SMU (Nov. 8 in Dallas), at Washington State (Nov. 24)
Next-toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27, 29-30), at Mississippi State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 12), Abilene Christian (Nov. 19), Texas Pan-American (Dec. 15), Grambling State (Dec. 19), Tulsa (Dec. 21), Texas Southern (Dec. 29)
This would be a terrible schedule for a program that was experiencing a moderate amount of success. But considering TCU won just two Big 12 games last season, this is the perfect slate for the Horned Frogs as they try to rebuild. Second-year coach Trent Johnson didn’t schedule the type of Top 25 squads that will shatter his team's confidence. But he also didn't produce a schedule so weak that it wouldn’t challenge his team as it continues to grow. SMU could contend for an NCAA tournament berth and, even though Washington State has struggled in recent seasons, Pullman is a difficult place to play. Tulsa and Texas Southern are both solid teams, and Mississippi State was making huge strides at the end of last season.
Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next-toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)
I’m a little surprised that Billy Kennedy didn’t put together a tougher schedule for his third season. Granted, the Aggies lost two of their top players (Elston Turner and Ray Turner), so this team may take a small step back. But there’s not a single true road game on the nonconference schedule. The Aggies’ most daunting nonleague game is against an Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament. And their most appealing home contest is against Houston. Yay.
Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 3), BYU (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: Fresno State (Dec. 7)
The rest: Evergreen State (Nov. 8), UC Davis (Nov. 15), Grand Canyon (Nov. 21), Lamar (Nov. 22), Savannah State (Nov. 23), Ball State (Nov. 27), Idaho State (Dec. 10), Texas State (Dec. 19), St. Katherine (Dec. 28)
After struggling for most of the season, Utah won four of its final five games last spring and entered the offseason full of enthusiasm about the 2013-14 campaign. Reaching the NCAA tournament, however, will be darn near impossible with a schedule that includes just one true road game (at Boise State) and only two contests against likely tourney-bid contenders (Boise State and BYU). Playing a weak schedule the past two seasons made sense. But the Utes should’ve stepped it up a bit this season.