Forty strong: Observations and declarations about college football's schedules

It is unofficially college football season. I know this because the preview magazines are out, and that gives us all license to start wishing our way through the summer toward Aug. 29 – opening night of the 2013 season.

To help get us from here to there, it’s time for my second annual 40 observations on schedules from coast to coast, from have to have-not, from soft to suicidal.

1. If you’re looking for the trap game on Alabama’s schedule, give up now. There isn’t one. At least not one like the Crimson Tide fell into last year, when it staggered out of a donnybrook in Tiger Stadium and into a home game seven days later against Johnny Football and Texas A&M. This year, ‘Bama has no consecutive killer weeks. The Tide opens with Virginia Tech in Atlanta, but then has a week off to prep for its trip to College Station for the rematch with J. Football. The only time Alabama plays 2012 bowl teams on consecutive Saturdays is Nov. 9-16, when its home game against LSU is followed by a trip to Mississippi State.

2. If Ohio State isn’t 12-0 headed to the Big Ten championship game, something went wrong. The Buckeyes play just five FBS teams that had winning records last year, avoid Nebraska and Michigan State in inter-divisional play, and draw Wisconsin and Penn State in Columbus. Take care of business in Evanston on Oct. 5 and Ann Arbor on Nov. 30, and the Buckeyes will quite likely be both undefeated and overrated.

3. The only team more likely to go 12-0 than Ohio State is Louisville. The Cardinals, who flash back to their any-night-of-the-week scheduling of a decade ago with five non-Saturday games, don’t play a road game against a team with a 2012 winning record until Dec. 5, at Cincinnati. The toughest test at home could be Oct. 18 against Central Florida. While there is a great chance of going undefeated, lack of competition could keep Louisville out of the national title conversation and compromise quarterback Teddy Bridgewater’s Heisman Trophy non-campaign.

4. Few heavyweight programs are willing to embrace the off-Saturday kickoffs that USC is embarking upon this season. The Trojans play three non-Saturday games, accommodating three different networks in the process: Thursday, Aug. 29 at Hawaii on CBS Sports Network; Thursday, Oct. 10 against Arizona on Fox Sports 1; and Friday, Nov. 1 at Oregon State on ESPN2. The Trojans will take a three-game losing streak into that opener in Honolulu.

5. Oklahoma and Texas deserve some credit for routine willingness to play a true road game against a decent opponent before league play fully ramps up. This year for the Sooners, Notre Dame is the matchup, which follows previous games at Florida State (2011), Cincinnati (2010), Miami (2009) and Washington (2008). The Longhorns visit BYU this year, after previous trips to Mississippi (2012) and UCLA (2011), not to mention oddball visits to Wyoming (2009) and UTEP (2008). Baylor (Wofford, Buffalo, Louisiana-Monroe), Kansas State (North Dakota State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Massachusetts) and Texas Tech (at SMU, Stephen F. Austin, Texas State) are less adventurous Big 12 schedulers.

6. Who has a golden opportunity to reclaim his reputation in the first two weeks of the season? None other than Bobby Petrino. Starting over at Western Kentucky, Petrino has a chance to put two Southeastern Conference skins on his wall right away: a neutral-site opener against Kentucky in Nashville and then a trip to Tennessee. Petrino retained some talent from former coach Willie Taggart, while the Wildcats are limping off a 2-10 season and the Volunteers are breaking in a new quarterback and an entire receiving corps – and could be looking ahead at a couple of big games that follow. If the Hilltoppers are 2-0 against the SEC, Petrino might suddenly be a lot less of a pariah in the eyes of athletic directors looking to make hires.

7. Traditionally, schools look for bad teams to schedule for homecoming games. The thinking is that you want to give the alums an easy victory, and it’s a good way to fill a few more seats against a small-time opponent. Maybe homecoming means something different in the Pac-12, where Stanford (35-5 the last three years) is the homecoming opponent for three teams: Oregon State, USC and Utah. That’s the North Texas treatment for what has become an annual conference title contender.

8. Dave Doeren’s first season at North Carolina State could be challenging, given the rebuilding necessary on the offensive line and defensive back seven. But the schedule is on his side, especially early. The Wolfpack don’t play a road game until Oct. 5, at Wake Forest, and don’t leave the state until Oct. 19, at Florida State. They also don’t play Virginia Tech or Miami from the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division.

9. Duke also won the ACC’s inter-divisional lottery, missing Florida State and Clemson from the Atlantic Division.

10. UCLA did not win the Pac-12 lottery. Not only do the Bruins play both Stanford and Oregon from the North, they play them in consecutive weeks. Both on the road. Throw in a trip to Nebraska in September and a trip to Arizona in November (where UCLA has not won since 2003) and Jim Mora has plenty of reasons to be cranky. As if he needs any.

11. Michigan State and Purdue are looking at diametrically opposite schedules over the first two-thirds of the season. The Spartans only play one FBS team in the first eight games that had a winning record in 2012 (at Notre Dame on Sept. 21). The Boilermakers only play one team in the first eight games that didn’t go to a bowl game in 2012 (Indiana State on Sept. 7). Advantage, Sparty.

12. Toughest four-game stretch in the SEC: Arkansas from Sept. 28 through Oct. 19: – Texas A&M, at Florida, South Carolina, at Alabama. Welcome to the league, Bret Bielema.

13. Toughest two-game stretch for an SEC team: Tennessee from Sept. 14 through 21 – at Oregon, at Florida. Welcome to Rocky Top, Butch Jones.

14. Toughest September for an SEC team: Georgia's. Opens at Clemson, then home against South Carolina on Sept. 7 and hosts LSU on Sept. 28.

15. The Conference USA schedule apparently was put together at Happy Hour. Six teams play three straight road games at some point in the season: Florida Atlantic (Aug. 30-Sept. 14), Southern Mississippi (Sept. 7-28), East Carolina (Sept. 28-Oct. 12), Rice (Oct. 5-19), Tulane (Sept. 12-28), UTEP (Oct. 26-Nov. 9). No conference was remade more by realignment (six new members in 2013), and it shows in the haphazard scheduling.

16. Last year at this time, everyone was talking about how tough Notre Dame’s schedule was. It didn’t quite play out that way, due to some underachieving opponents. This year – on paper, in June – the slate again looks rigorous. After opening with Temple, every other opponent went bowling last year. Is Tommy Rees up to the challenge?

17. Texas A&M opens with four straight at home and has eight home games total. September looks like the longest stretch jet-setting Johnny Manziel will spend in College Station since last season ended.

18. Boone Pickens Stadium isn’t going to need a lot of cleaning in September. Oklahoma State plays just one game there that month, hosting mighty Lamar on Sept. 14. The rest of the early schedule: Mississippi State in Arlington, Texas, Aug. 31; at UT-San Antonio on Sept. 7; off Sept. 21; at West Virginia on Sept. 28. The Cowboys never play at home on consecutive Saturdays in 2013.

19. By the end of September, Virginia Tech will have played as many games in Atlanta (vs. Alabama, at Georgia Tech) as in Blacksburg (Western Carolina, Marshall).

20. There hasn’t been a lot of interest in Connecticut football under Paul Pasqualoni, but the school gave fans some compelling reasons to buy season tickets this year. First is the Edsall Bowl, as former coach Randy Edsall brings Maryland in to face his old team Sept. 14. A week later Michigan visits for what surely is the biggest game in the august history of Rentschler Field. And then a potentially undefeated Louisville arrives for a Friday night game Nov. 8.

21. Hopes are high at Arizona State. The question is whether they’ll still be high after this four-game stretch from Sept. 14-Oct. 5: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC, vs. Notre Dame in Texas.

22. Speaking of that Wisconsin-Arizona State game: It’s the second straight season the Badgers have traveled to Pac-12 territory. Last year it didn’t work out so well, with Oregon State scoring a 10-7 upset that set the tone for both teams’ seasons. This year it will be the first big test for new Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.

23. Athletic director Tom Osborne’s lovely parting gift for Bo Pelini at Nebraska: four non-conference home games to start the year. The Big Ten added a fifth straight against Illinois. The Cornhuskers do not play a road game against a team that finished 2012 with a winning record until Nov. 9, at Michigan.

24. South Carolina’s schedule runs in streaks. The Gamecocks open with four straight opponents who had winning records in 2012 (North Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt, UCF, a combined 39-14). Then comes four straight that had losing records (Kentucky, Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri, a combined 16-32) – but the last three are on the road. Then November features four straight at home, three against quality competition (Mississippi State, Florida and Clemson, a combined 30-9). When all is said and done, this will be one of the nation’s toughest schedules.

25. Miami, North Carolina and Georgia Tech are keeping it real, playing all 12 games on natural grass.

26. Kansas State, Hawaii, UNLV, Wyoming, Air Force, Ohio, Buffalo, Massachusetts, Louisiana-Lafayette, Texas State and UTSA are keeping it fake, playing all 12 games on artificial turf.

27. Idaho wins the award for toughest two-week commute, traveling from remote Moscow to Tallahassee for a Nov. 23 game against Florida State, then turning around and going to Las Cruces to play New Mexico State a week later. The Vandals also have hauls to Jonesboro, Ark., and Oxford, Miss., in October.

28. Iowa State and Tulsa have got to stop meeting like this. The two storm teams (Cyclones vs. Golden Hurricane) will play Sept. 26, their third meeting in 16 games.

29. Boston College visits New Mexico State on Nov. 9. Nobody knows why.

30. Western Michigan has a masochistic streak. Last year the Broncos played 12 straight weeks, no byes, all on artificial turf. This year they play nine straight without a bye, including three games against Big Ten opponents (at Michigan State, at Northwestern, at Iowa).

31. Keep an eye on Colorado State. Not necessarily because the Rams are talented, but because they have some opportunities afforded by schedule. They catch three different opponents in Fort Collins who are playing their second straight road game: San Jose State comes in Oct. 12 after playing at Hawaii the previous week; Boise State arrives Nov. 2 after visiting BYU; and Nevada comes in Nov. 9 after playing at Fresno State.

32. UNLV coach Bobby Hauck is 0-20 on the road in three inglorious seasons. First chance to stop the bleeding is Aug. 29 at Minnesota.

33. Cincinnati may have the easiest schedule in the country. The Bearcats don’t play a team that had a winning record in 2012 until Nov. 9 – and that’s SMU, which eked out a 7-6 record last year. There are just three opponents who had winning records in ’12.

34. Speaking of SMU, this is the fourth straight year the Mustangs will open with a Big 12 opponent – this time, Texas Tech. They lost the previous three by an average margin of 22.7 points. But the Red Raiders are the first to come to Dallas.

35. Penn State’s only true road game in the first half of the season is at Indiana, which is as false as true road games get. There will be plenty of seats available for Nittany Lions fans willing to make the trip to Bloomington.

36. The Grove will get a workout in the latter half of the season. Mississippi plays six straight home games from Oct. 12-Nov. 23, after opening with four of five on the road.

37. As if Rutgers doesn’t have enough to worry about, there’s this: two road games in six days in October. The Scarlet Knights are at SMU on Oct. 5, then play a Thursday night game at Louisville Oct. 10.

38. Nevada was a stout 5-1 on the road last year, but this year it is breaking in a new coach (Brian Polian) with trips to UCLA, Florida State, San Diego State, Boise State and Fresno State. Combined 2012 record of those teams: 50-17. Plus there is the previously mentioned potential trap game at Colorado State. No wonder Chris Ault (who was the athletic director as well) chose this as the year to retire.

39. After going winless in 2012, Southern Miss’ idea of turning it around includes consecutive September road games against Nebraska, Arkansas and Boise State. Good luck to Todd Monken, brought in to clean up the disaster Ellis Johnson left behind.

40. Pittsburgh’s inspirational bid for a fourth straight BBVA Compass Bowl appearance begins and ends with weeknight home games against teams from Florida. The Panthers open ACC play hosting Florida State on Labor Day and end it hosting Miami on the day after Thanksgiving. With 10 new teams on the schedule, Pitt can just about toss all of last year’s video archives.

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