This is the last of a weeklong SportsLine.com series on college football scheduling. Today: Strength of schedule.
North Carolina's schedule is a joke. Not in the I-AA, cream-puff, pushover sense. More like: What the Heel is John Bunting thinking?
"I've got to believe we have the toughest schedule," said Bunting, heading into his fifth season as coach of that other sport in Chapel Hill. "Our kids know that."
|John Bunting's Tar Heels were 6-6 in 2004. (Getty Images)|
Both are brutal.
If anything, the degree of difficulty has increased for 2005.
North Carolina and Georgia Tech tied for No. 1 in schedule strength, according to the formula devised by CBS SportsLine.com. That's not exactly a surprise considering Carolina had the second-toughest schedule in 2004, according to the NCAA and was No. 1 in the respected Sagarin Ratings.
The catch is that schedule strength doesn't necessarily translate into success. In fact, it makes it damn hard for programs like Carolina. Since 2001, the Heels are 6-9 in non-conference games, 2-6 against teams from BCS leagues.
A team like Kansas State has played a total of eight BCS-league non-conference games in the past 11 years. North Carolina did it in the past four, having played teams from seven different leagues during that span as the joke took shape.
"Some of that scheduling was there (when I arrived) and the ACC wasn't the way it is today," Bunting said. "The ACC the way it is now, you don't want to be scheduling powerhouses."
|Rating by Conferences|
Bunting, 54, arrived at his alma mater at a weird time. ACC expansion had yet to become an issue in 2001. North Carolina was initially against it.
Meanwhile, the schedule had been upgraded from the Mack Brown-Carl Torbush days. With expansion, Miami is an annual opponent in the ACC Coastal Division and the non-conference hits just keep on coming. This year's out-of-league Burma Road includes Wisconsin, Utah and Louisville, a combined 32-4 in 2004.
"I was one that wanted it, because I think it will help us in recruiting," Bunting said of expansion. "I think we're the best university in the ACC, in terms of everything it has to offer."
Bunting asked his first team if they wanted to travel to Oklahoma to open the season in '01. What do kids know? Of course, the seniors voted enthusiastically to play the Sooners in their first game since winning the 2000 national championship.
"We almost got blown out in the first five, six minutes," he said. "A turnover returned for a touchdown, a kickoff returned for a touchdown. It was 28-0 at the end of the first quarter."
The Heels were respectable, losing by 14, but in the second week of September 2001, Bunting's first team was 0-3 after roadies to Oklahoma, Maryland and Texas. Then 9/11 hit, pushing a layup against SMU to the end of the season. But a funny thing happened during the two-week layoff -- Carolina got better. It beat Florida State at home, starting a five-game winning streak, the highlight of an 8-5 season.
In 2002, Carolina played Syracuse (win) and Texas (loss) back-to-back. In 2004, Louisville and Utah popped up on the schedule. The two top 10 teams whipped the Heels by a combined 80-16.
"Who knew that Louisville was going to be like they are (11-1)?" Bunting said. "Who knew that Utah was going to have Alex Smith and Urban Meyer was going to construct that type of offense that destroyed everybody?"
Before this year's first spring practice, Bunting had a short film made for his team embracing the schedule issue. It starred fifth-year quarterback Matt Baker.
"He's going through the schedule, eyeballing it in the lockerroom," Bunting said. "The first time he shakes his head. The second time he goes, 'Oh wow' and the third time he goes, 'Holy S---, look at this schedule?'"
Then, mimicking a current office supplier commercial, Baker presses the "easy" button.
If it were only that simple.
You just wonder why Bunting continues to endure (or welcome?) the punishment. With a 19-30 record in his four seasons, he has played roulette with his career. Bunting has been close to termination (if you believe the pundits). Now the former Tar Heels all-ACC linebacker says he's close to glory.
"Our kids are toughened to the point where they don't get rattled," Bunting said. "Playing the types of opponents we play, they're not scared. I just think they're battle-hardened."
The evidence suggests that Carolina is making a slow, deliberate turnaround.
After a 5-19 patch in 2002 and 2003, Carolina rebounded in 2004 with a 6-6 bowl season that included a life-changing upset of the Hurricanes. Ninety minutes after the game, Bunting was surprised to find a fellow Class of '72 Tar Heel waiting to congratulate him -- Roy Williams.
If Carolina can beat the Canes with a third-string tailback (the departed Chad Scott) and a porous defense, think what it can do this year. Bunting has arguably his best team with the return of 18 seniors and 10 defensive starters. All that group has to do is get past four 2004 bowl teams in the first five weeks.
North Carolina (eight) and Georgia Tech (six) are at the top primarily because they face a combined 14 bowl teams. The programs are among a handful of the 119 I-A teams playing three teams with at least 10 wins from 2004.
The symmetry is beautiful. North Carolina opens the season at Georgia Tech on Sept. 10. The winner and loser know the schedule will only get harder.
Notes on the formula
Each conference team started with a base number. That number was reached by determining the overall 2004 winning percentage of each conference (based on 2005 membership). In the ACC that number was .571. To that number was added the percentage of 2004 bowl teams multiplied by .75. Seventy-five percent of the ACC's seven bowl teams (including Boston College) is .4374.
Added together the ACC's base number is 1.0088.
Teams were then given credit for playing 2004 bowl teams in the non-conference (.0178 per team) and for each game overall against a 10-win team (.109). The thinking being that even though it is a new year, bowl teams, especially really good bowl teams, will have some carryover.
Both Carolina and Georgia Tech were from the same conference. Each face three bowl teams in the non-conference and three 10-win teams from 2004. That's why their total is identical -- 1.3893.
The Big East has the toughest schedule strength overall largely because six of its eight teams went to bowls last season. The league got a huge boost in schedule strength by inheriting Louisville and Cincinnati, two 2004 bowl teams from Conference USA.
Seven of the top 12 teams in CBS SportsLine.com's strength of schedule rating are from that reconfigured Big East. That will be a big surprise to SEC (No. 2 in schedule strength) and Big 12 (No. 3) loyalists who annually argue about the strongest conference.
What about defending champion USC? It is in the middle at No. 56 overall. Orange Bowl opponent Oklahoma is tied for the 36th-toughest schedule. Not that that necessarily indicates success. Last year USC ended the season No. 18 in NCAA schedule strength. Oklahoma was No. 11.
In case you're wondering about the Big Three talent-producing states: Baylor (Texas), South Florida (Florida) and Stanford (California) have the toughest schedules in those states.
|2005 Strength of Schedule|
|3||West Virginia||Big East||1.385|
|8||South Florida||Big East||1.293|
|21||Oklahoma State||Big 12||1.2208|
|21||Texas A&M||Big 12||1.2208|
|24||Ohio State||Big Ten||1.213|
|25||Texas Tech||Big 12||1.211|
|32||Kansas State||Big 12||1.1565|
|36||Iowa State||Big 12||1.1386|
|50||Penn State||Big Ten||1.0861|
|66||Air Force||Mountain West||.9857|
|71||Michigan State||Big Ten||.9771|
|76||San Diego State||Mountain West||.912|
|77||New Mexico State||WAC||.902|
|78||Colorado State||Mountain West||.894|
|84||New Mexico||Mountain West||.8589|
|90||San Jose State||WAC||.840|
|108||East Carolina||Conf. USA||.6734|
|111||Southern Miss||Conf. USA||.6644|
|113||Florida Atlantic||Sun Belt||.6535|
|113||Middle Tennessee||Sun Belt||.6535|
|116||North Texas||Sun Belt||.6356|
|118||Arkansas State||Sun Belt||.626|
|119||Florida International||Sun Belt||.617|