Top 25 schedule grades: Need for W's means not a single A

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Alabama is like the other teams in the rugged SEC, filling its non-conference slate with softies. (US Presswire)  
Alabama is like the other teams in the rugged SEC, filling its non-conference slate with softies. (US Presswire)  

No guts, no glory. Right?

That's what our country is built on. We are a nation with a lot of guts. Hey man, that's why we love Chuck Norris.

In college football, having the guts to go outside the conference and play good teams has become downright un-American. A number of factors have brought that about. The biggest is the fact the BCS requires that you only go unbeaten -- it doesn't matter who you play since the strength of schedule component isn't a factor. Second, the big money schools can make more cash with a sacrificial lamb coming to their stadium instead of agreeing to a home-and-home series where they have to return a visit.

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For a point of reference, in 1988's preseason poll, there were 15 non-conference games matching up teams inside the Top 20. This year, based on the first coaches poll, there are five.

Ahhhh, the good old days. Well here's how the non-conference slates grade out for this year. Keep in mind, any non-FBS schools that show up on the schedule automatically get an "F."

1. Oklahoma

Sept. 3: vs. Tulsa, C-
Sept. 17: at Florida State, A+
Oct. 1: vs. Ball State, D-
Overall grade: C+

With the Big 12 going to a full round-robin schedule, the Sooners and the rest of the conference will have just three non-conference games. And we think that FSU rematch is pure delish, of course. It's great to see two major powers schedule a home-and-home in this day and age. You have to guess the Sooners will have to watch out for "hostile and abusive" Seminole treatment after administering that 47-14 beatdown in Norman last year. With that to look forward to, maybe the other two non-conference games are excusable.

2. Alabama

Sept. 3: vs. Kent State, D-
Sept. 10: at Penn State, C
Sept. 17: vs. North Texas, D-
Nov. 19: vs. Georgia Southern, F-
Overall grade: D-

In 1975, when Bear Bryant publicly said he "didn't want to play Nebraska or Oklahoma" in a bowl game, bumper stickers in Big 8 country read, "Bear Bryant sleeps with the night light on." If that's true, does this schedule suggest Nick Saban sleeps with a 100,000-watt klieg light on? I mean is this any way for a national championship contender to prove it can win outside the SEC during the regular season? Kent State has had one winning season since 1987, Penn State still isn't up to Nittany speed yet as a middle-of-the-road Big 10 team and the last two listed above will be mere scrimmages and stat-padding. Trent Richardson, grab a fork and knife and have at it.

3. Oregon

Sept. 3: vs. LSU (Arlington, TX), A+
Sept. 10: vs. Nevada, C+
Sept. 17: vs. Missouri State, F-
Overall grade: B-

Somehow the Ducks lately seem to find themselves in some of the more interesting road games of every season, especially recent trips to Boise State and Tennessee. This time, Kelly and Co. have helped put together the marquee non-conference game of the early season with that hoedown in the JerryDome vs. fellow Top Fiver LSU. Plus, give some nice attempt points for their game vs. Nevada. The Pack may not be the giant killers they were last year, but it's definitely a trap door game if the Ducks ride in high after a win over the Tigers. Watch where you quack, Nike-boys.

4. LSU

Sept. 3: vs. Oregon (Arlington, TX), A+
Sept. 10: vs. Northwestern State, F-
Sept. 24: at West Virginia, B+
Nov. 12: vs. Western Kentucky, F
Overall grade: B-

For the second year in a row, Les Miles will be eating grass -- or, make that field turf and old tire bits -- from a great big stage in Week 1. Last year it was a showdown with North Carolina in the Georgia Dome. This time, an even tastier matchup with national runner-up Oregon. The pure athleticism on the field could rival any Olympic trials. Additionally, the rematch in Morgantown is a huge red flag, not because the Mountaineers are going to be world-beaters, but because you know Dana Holgorsen is going to be Jonesing for a red letter win to usher in his era with a sonic boom. Bon appetit Coach Miles, if you've got the stomach for it.

5. Florida State

Sept. 3: vs. Louisiana-Monroe, D-
Sept. 10: vs. Charleston Southern, F-
Sept. 17: vs. Oklahoma, A+
Nov. 26: at Florida, A
Overall grade: B-

Now this is a non-conference sked us college football fans can love. Thank you Coach Bowden, wherever you are now, for putting together this Oklahoma home-and-home series. Sure, the two opening scrimmages are sure to remind us that this isn't exactly the days of yore where the Seminoles played anyone and everyone in the '80s. Still, you've got to love what comes immediately afterward. Those games against the Sooners, and later vs. the Gators, could very well play a big part in the chase for the BCS title game for 2011. Oh, and have fun dominating the ACC between these showdowns.

6. Stanford

Sept. 3: vs. San Jose State, D-
Sept. 10: at Duke, C-
Nov. 26: vs. Notre Dame, A
Overall grade: C

Man, every team could use this kind of luck, right? I mean, had Andrew Luck not decided to come back for his senior year, this non-conference schedule might be considered a wee bit more difficult. But with Luck in tow as the best player in college football, this should be a slam-dunk 3-0. The only caveat is that this might just be the year the Fighting Irish finally bust through and become a national player again. But until we get confirmation of that, the Pac-12 schedule is the only thing giving the Cardinal any cause for concern. So yes, it's still good to have Luck on your side.

7. Boise State

Sept. 3: at Georgia, A+
Sept. 16: at Toledo, C
Sept. 24: vs. Tulsa, C-
Oct. 1: vs. Nevada, C
Oct. 7: at Fresno State, C+
Overall grade: B+

Boise is quickly becoming the biggest sideshow in college football, having provided the biggest headlines in the past two opening weekends. This year will be no different as they'll bravely head to peanut country to take on a team many are picking as a dark horse in the SEC. (And in case you're wondering, of course there's no return trip.) The impressive thing about the remainder of the Broncos' non-conference opponents is that they all played in bowl games last season. Nobody else in the Top 25 can say the same. Coupled with the move to the Mountain West this year, these Broncos had better be ready to kick.

8. Oklahoma State

Sept. 3: vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, D-
Sept. 10: vs. Arizona, B-
Sept. 17: at Tulsa, C
- Overall grade: C-

There may not be a great collection of competition here, but the Pokes make up for it by providing us with some of the better shootouts we'll see. QB Brandon Weeden will go arm-to-arm with UofA's Nick Foles and Tulsa's G.J. Kinne, giving both games an over-under on passing yards at something close to 1,000. The Cowboys should win both, but they could be among the most entertaining non-conference games in 2011. So for that, we give our salutes. But part of the reason these will be aerial fling-fests is because OSU's pass defense was ranked No. 115 in the country last year. Eek!

9. Texas A&M

Sept. 4: vs. SMU, C+
Sept. 17: vs. Idaho, D
Oct. 1: vs. Arkansas (Arlington, TX), A
Overall grade: B

The opener vs. the Mustangs is a whole lot more intriguing now that June Jones has them flinging the rock all over the place and actually playing in the postseason. Not sure the Ags saw that coming when they scheduled them a few years back. Also, big props for another trip to the JerryDome to play the Hogs. That's big time, in so many ways. Of course, don't get too geeked, the Maroons have lost their past six games vs. the SEC. And most of those games haven't been close. All of which begs the question: Are the Aggies sure they want to go to the SEC?

10. Wisconsin

Sept. 3: vs. UNLV, D-
Sept. 10: vs. Oregon State, B-
Sept. 17: vs. Northern Illinois (Chicago), C-
Sept. 24: vs. South Dakota, F-
Overall grade: C-

This looks like the kind of schedule that is tailor-made to usher in a new starting quarterback, right? Then again, if that new starter is the uber-athletic Russell Wilson from North Carolina State, you don't really need to coddle him along. Either way, the Jump-Around fans are looking at four near-made-to-order wins before Big Ten play lays its heavy hand on Badger Nation. The Oregon State game does raise a red flag, though. Remember how much trouble Bucky and the crew had with the last mid-level Pac-10 team? They were a missed extra point away from a home loss to Arizona State. The Beavers have enough difference-makers to turn the cheeseheads sour.

11. Nebraska

Sept. 3: vs. Tennessee-Chattanooga, F-
Sept. 10: vs. Fresno State, C
Sept. 17: vs. Washington, B-
Sept. 24: at Wyoming, D
Overall grade: C-

If Taylor Martinez doesn't try to pogo around the field on only one good ankle like he did for the last half of 2010, you have to figure this will be a pedestrian 4-0 start for the Big Red. Both Fresno and Washington have lost multiyear starters at quarterback and will be weaning newbies under center. Plus, the Cornhuskers have that intense revenge factor going up against the Huskies, who stunned them 19-7 in the Holiday Bowl last December. The rigors of Big 10 play await after this four-game exhibition, so this slate won't exactly prepare them for trips to Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. But when you come to Nebraska, you are expected to play in big-time venues.

12. South Carolina

Sept. 3: vs. East Carolina (Charlotte), C-
Sept. 17: vs. Navy, C
Nov. 19: vs. The Citadel, F-
Nov. 26: vs. Clemson, B
Overall grade: C

I have to level with you, with the lack of starters and athletes returning on defense for the Pirates (the 120th-ranked defense in 2010, so yes, even New Mexico's porous D was better) and the Midshipmen, I'm scared to see what kind of numbers Lattimore, Garcia and Jeffrey put up in those two games. Though both earned a C, neither game should be very competitive. Getting The Citadel right before the Clemson game is a good gift as well, unless the Gamecocks relax too much and end up with egg on their faces. Then again, with Steve Spurrier's right arm cocked and ready to throw the visor down, does anybody in this program ever really relax?

13. Virginia Tech

Sept. 3: vs. Appalachian State, F-
Sept. 10: at East Carolina, C-
Sept. 17: vs. Arkansas State, D
Sept. 24: at Marshall, D+
Overall grade: D

A lot is being said about the chances of the Hokies making a run at an unbeaten record. Now you see one of the main reasons. There is no LSU, Nebraska or Boise State on the ledger like in recent years. (Then again, there is no James Madison either.) So these glorified JV teams the Hokies will be taking on meshes well with un-daunting road trips to Wake, Duke, Georgia Tech and Virginia in ACC play. That's like going from Creampuff City to Cupcake Land. The problem is, they may be too fatted up on these sweets by the time the ACC title game against Florida State comes around.

14. Arkansas

Sept. 3: vs. Missouri State, F-
Sept. 10: vs. New Mexico, F
Sept. 17: vs. Troy, D+
Oct. 1: vs. Texas A&M (Arlington), A
Overall grade: C-

This is essentially a one-game non-conference slate, and that one game will come against a team the Hogs have taken care of the previous two years. But they've also had the luxury of facing the Aggies before their confidence grew in the latter portion of their seasons. This should be a different A&M squad that shows up in Arlington. What adds to that climb? The week before that, the Hogs will go to Alabama. They say that K2 is the toughest mountain in the world? Pshaw.

15. TCU

Sept. 2: at Baylor, B-
Sept. 17: vs. Louisiana-Monroe, D
Sept. 24: vs. Portland State, F-
Oct. 28: vs. BYU (Arlington, TX), B+
Overall grade: B-

These guys will be big-time targets in 2011, with teams wanting one last parting shot in the Mountain West before the Purple People Eaters mosey on to the Big East. And don't forget the non-conference teams looking to make a big splash against a Rose Bowl champion. It starts with that Friday night reunion of Southwest Conference rivals featuring Robert Griffin and Baylor. You've also gotta dig that matchup with former conference mate BYU, who will be out to pull as many statement wins as it can as a first-year independent. In other words, if new TCU QB Casey Pachall doesn't make a smooth transition to starter, the Horned Frogs could become an endangered species for bowl season.

16. Ohio State

Sept. 3: vs. Akron, F
Sept. 10: vs. Toledo, C
Sept. 17: at Miami (Fla.), A-
Sept. 24: vs. Colorado, C+
Overall grade: C

There are some years where scheduling Miami and Colorado would be a death march. Imagine if this was 1991 or something. But here, not so much. I mean, we love their guts. Who else schedules teams like Texas, USC and Miami for home-and-home in this day and age? The Buckeyes may need this kind of easy ramp to their season with all the suspensions, infractions and reality show drama. If we were grading on how to ease into a season, this schedule would be an A, giving hot-shot freshman QB Braxton Miller some time to get his feet wet before the big dogs come hunting.

17. Michigan State

Sept. 2: vs. Youngstown State, F-
Sept. 10: vs. Florida Atlantic, F
Sept. 17: at Notre Dame, A
Sept. 24: vs. Central Michigan, D-
Overall grade: D+

For a team that got smash-mouthed so badly in its bowl game, maybe a pre-conference slate like this is like a big bowl of chicken soup. Just what the soul needs. The Spartans have a three-tier schedule, the first of which is this very manageable. After that, it's Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Whatever kinks -- nay, knots, snags and attached anchors -- you still have left over from that Alabama beatdown need to be worked out quickly here. Roll up the sleeves.

18. Notre Dame

Sept. 3: vs. South Florida, B
Sept. 10: at Michigan, B
Sept. 17: vs. Michigan State, A
Sept. 24: at Pittsburgh, B
Oct. 1: at Purdue, C-
Oct. 8: vs. Air Force, B+
Oct. 22: vs. USC, A
Oct. 29: vs. Navy, C
Nov. 5: at Wake Forest, D+
Nov. 12: vs. Maryland, B
Nov. 19: vs. Boston College, B-
Nov. 26: at Stanford, A
Overall grade: B+

The Irish made some strides back to the promised land last season. But wow. This year's grind offers nearly no gimmes, much less any four-leaf clovers. Nine of the 12 teams listed for their 2011 schedule went to bowl games, and probation-hindered USC was one of the three that didn't. The first four games are all potential losses, so if the Golden Domers don't keep the nose to the grindstone from whistle one, this could easily dive into yet another nondescript season -- the kind they've been having since Lou Holtz wore a dirt path up and down the sidelines. And that's not what Brian Kelly was hired for.

19. Auburn

Sept. 3: vs. Utah State, D-
Sept. 17: at Clemson, B
Sept. 24: vs. Florida Atlantic, F
Nov. 19: vs. Samford, F-
Overall grade: D-

In the words of John Winger in Stripes, this sucks. Two Sun Belt teams and a FCS team? And a rather ordinary FCS team at that. Yick! Obviously Clemson is the only saving grace to this disgrace. The Tigers will be snorting steam after being a dropped TD pass from ruining Auburn's unbeaten season and likely knocking them out of a national title trip last year. Death Valley will be rolling under Howard's Rock. But don't underestimate the talent Gene Chizik brought in to replace the difference-makers this team lost from last year. We'll just have to wait until the SEC kicks in before finding out.

20. Mississippi State

Sept. 1: at Memphis, D-
Sept. 24: vs. Louisiana Tech, D
Oct. 8: at UAB, D+
Nov. 5: vs. Tennessee-Martin, F-
Overall grade: D-

It's cowbell clear that this is as close as it gets to earning an F grade in BCS-level football. For a team that came within a field goal of the national champions last year, this slate is embarrassingly easy. Then again, wasn't this also the same team that had to white-knuckle its way to a five-point win over UAB at Scott Field? Just goes to show the Maroons are a little green when it comes to handling the favorite role and contending for conference titles. Stay tuned. No game with these guys apparently goes by the script.

21. Missouri

Sept. 3: vs. Miami (Ohio), D
Sept. 9: at Arizona State, A-
Sept. 17: vs. Western Illinois, F-
Overall grade: C

Shamefully, the Arch Rivalry series with Illinois came to an end after last season's game, which was the sixth consecutive win for the Tigers over the Illini. So now we're stuck with stinkers like Miami (not the good Miami) and Western Illinois. But give thanks to the football gods for the Arizona State series. Devils coach Dennis Erickson hasn't brought his team to a bowl game since 2007, and with a rigorous Pac-12 slate ahead, how badly do you think he'll want this marquee win over Mizzou? That "Fear the Fork" marketing campaign is pointing right at you, Tigers.

22. Georgia

Sept. 3: vs. Boise State, A+
Sept. 17: vs. Coastal Carolina, F-
Nov. 5: vs. New Mexico State, F
Nov. 26: at Georgia Tech, B
Overall grade: C+

Speaking of hot seats, Mark Richt is feeling it after suffering the Dogs' first losing since 1996. But improvement is imminent, despite the specter of Kellen Moore and Co. to face in Game 1 and Stephen Garcia and Co. in Game 2. It may take time for Georgia's new infusion of stars-to-be to jell. After the layup win over the Chanticleers, the Dogs will have winnable games with Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. So after a rocky start (and more grumbling from the fan base) look for the Dogs to hunker down in a hairy fashion against anyone. In other words, Yipe! followed by Grrrrr!

23. Florida

Sept. 3: vs. Florida Atlantic, F
Sept. 10: vs. UAB, D+
Nov. 19: vs. Furman, F-
Nov. 26: vs. Florida State, A+
Overall grade: D

Good thing for the Gators that Florida State decided to start playing football once again; otherwise this non-conference schedule grade would be tip-toeing the "F" borderline. I was hoping fiery coach Will Muschamp would take one look at that schedule and go, "Oh no way! We're gonna man up and challenge ourselves." Then again, I shouldn't harsh their mellow, the Gators are still trying to recover in the post-Tebow era, and the first month of FAU, UAB, Tennessee and Kentucky will be a good way to reestablish the confidence of John Brantley. But from here on out, Coach Muschamp, we're looking in your direction for better.

24. Texas

Sept. 3: at Rice, D
Sept. 10: vs. BYU, B+
Sept. 17: at UCLA, C+
Overall grade: C

Seems like this grade should be better, huh? But remember, BYU needed a win over UTEP just to get over .500 last year, and the Bruins, despite their mauling of UT's pride last September in Austin, still finished 2010 with just four wins. No matter who the Longhorns' opponents are, the new shifting and motion-heavy offense will still take a few weeks to come together. Remember, while everything usually points to the OU game (which is Oct. 8 this year), overlooking either of these three opponents like they did vs. UCLA last year will result in an equally embarrassing L in the right-hand column of the ledger.

25. Penn State

Sept. 3: vs. Indiana State, F-
Sept. 10: vs. Alabama, A+
Sept. 17: vs. Temple, D+
Sept. 24: vs. Eastern Michigan, D-
Overall grade: C-

A lot of us old enough to remember yearn for the days when the Lions' games with Alabama would be earth-tilting, season-determining outcomes. They meant everything. The only thing left over from that era is Joe Paterno's white socks and black shoes. The Lions, fresh off a serious dressing down at the hands of Florida, are still not back to Pete Giftopolous-type greatness. They'll be overwhelmed again by the Red Elephants. But an 8-1 (or maybe 7-2, Iowa won't be easy) start is fully plausible before the meat-grinder finish of Nebraska, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Pull up those white socks and get to work.


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