The Southern Methodist Mustangs return to major-conference status this college football season. And this college football season alone.
SMU joins the Big East, which is transitioning into the American Athletic Conference, a beleaguered league that for one final season has an automatic berth in the BCS. Past 2013, the American Athletic Conference is on its own.
But give SMU credit for this. The Mustangs are playing an excellent schedule. In fact, of the 72 teams in a BCS conference, SMU is playing the nation’s best non-conference schedule.
In a virtual tour of old Southwest Conference foes, the Mustangs host Texas Tech and play at Texas A&M and at TCU. A&M is considered an SEC power, TCU is considered a Big 12 favorite and Tech is a solid, albeit not spectacular, foe. SMU also plays an obligatory I-AA opponent, Montana State.
But three quality opponents out of four is far above the curve for college football, a sport in which a team playing two quality non-conference foes is eligible for a medal.
SMU beat out Arizona State, California, Clemson and Georgia for the honor.
The last week, I’ve ranked, league-by-league, each team’s non-conference schedule. Today, I’ve ranked all 72 teams’ non-conference schedules. Here they are.
1. SMU: Texas Tech, Montana State, at Texas A&M, at TCU. Heck of a schedule by the Mustangs. Three old Southwest Conference foes, two of them championship contenders in their league.
2. Arizona State: Sacramento State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame at Arlington, Texas. Wow. Hosting Rose Bowl regular Wisconsin and playing Notre Dame on a neutral field. That’s a schedule.
3. California: Northwestern, Portland State, Ohio State. Two quality Big Ten teams coming to Berkeley? That’s impressive.
4. Clemson: Georgia, South Carolina State, The Citadel, at South Carolina. Two SEC heavyweights? Who schedules like that? Kudos to the Clemsons. Makes up for having two I-AA opponents.
5. Georgia: at Clemson, North Texas, Appalachian State, at Georgia Tech. At Clemson and at Georgia Tech. You’d think Georgia would try to get the rotation changed so that they get one of those traditional rivals a year at home, one on the road.
6. Florida: Toledo, at Miami, Georgia Southern, Florida State. What a fabulous schedule. Just like Georgia, even the automatic victories carry a little status. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are traditional I-AA powers. And North Texas and Toledo are decent names.
7. Purdue: at Cincinnati, Indiana State, Notre Dame, Northern Illinois. Three solid opponents, including two that were in BCS bowls last season.
8. South Carolina: North Carolina, at Central Florida, Coastal Carolina, Clemson. If someone wants to argue that the Gamecocks belong with Georgia and Florida, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight. I went with Georgia first because the Bulldogs have two monster road games. Florida has one. But South Carolina’s third-toughest game is at Central Florida. That’s three losable games. Who in the heck plays three losable games?
9. Oklahoma: Louisiana-Monroe, Tulsa, at Notre Dame. When Louisiana-Monroe is your worst opponent, you’ve got a good schedule. The Warhawks beat Arkansas last season and dang near beat Baylor.
10. Central Florida: Akron, at Florida International, at Penn State, South Carolina. Few teams will play a pair of opponents as strong as the Nittany Lions and Gamecocks.
11. TCU: LSU in Arlington, Southeastern Louisiana, SMU. What a game. TCU-LSU in JerryWorld. Frogs, we’re proud to have you in the Big 12. Maybe your attitude can rub off on some of your conference members.
12. Virginia Tech: Alabama at Atlanta, Western Carolina, at East Carolina, Marshall. Good schedule. A national power, plus two solid mid-majors.
13. Washington: Boise State, Illinois at Chicago, Idaho State. Excellent schedule. Boise State and a Big Ten trip.
14. Southern Cal: at Hawaii, Boston College, Utah State, at Notre Dame. Not the typical USC murderer’s row, but still solid.
15. South Florida: McNeese State, at Michigan State, Florida Atlantic, Miami. Typically strong schedule by the Bulls.
16. Michigan State: Western Michigan, South Florida, Youngstown State, at Notre Dame. The Spartans can always be counted on to step up.
17. Michigan: Central Michigan, Notre Dame, Akron, at Connecticut. Ditto for the Wolverines.
18. Miami: Florida Atlantic, Florida, Savannah State, at South Florida. Like always, the Hurricanes have a solid schedule. Not like always, they are playing hapless Savannah State.
19. Connecticut: Towson, Maryland, Michigan, at Buffalo. UConn also hosts South Florida, Louisville and Rutgers. That’s a good home schedule.
20. Stanford: San Jose State, at Army, Notre Dame. That Stanford-Notre Dame rivalry is growing some teeth.
21. UCLA: Nevada, at Nebraska, New Mexico State. UCLA-Nebraska last season was an eye-opening game.
22. Florida State: Nevada, Bethune-Cookman, Idaho, at Florida. The Seminoles often play a schedule better than this, but this isn’t bad.
23. Georgia Tech: Elon, at Brigham Young, Alabama A&M, Georgia. Two good games, two I-AA opponents.
24. Virginia: Brigham Young, Oregon, VMI, Ball State. All home games, but two of them against brand names.
25. Texas: New Mexico State, at Brigham Young, Ole Miss. Not a bad little schedule, Mack Brown. Not a bad schedule at all. I mean, Mississippi’s capable, and playing in Provo never is easy.
26. Syracuse: Penn State at East Rutherford, N.J.; at Northwestern; Wagner; Tulane. The Orange played Penn State every year from 1944 through 1990, but only twice since.
27. Pittsburgh: New Mexico, Old Dominion, at Navy, Notre Dame. No Penn State. No West Virginia. That’s a crying shame.
28. North Carolina: at South Carolina, Middle Tennessee, East Carolina, Old Dominion. Does the loser of the Tar Heels-Gamecocks game have to refrain from referring to itself as “Carolina”?
29. Oregon: Nicholls State, at Virginia, Tennessee. Good schedule, except the Cavaliers and Volunteers aren’t their usual selves.
30. Iowa State: Northern Iowa, Iowa, at Tulsa. Solid schedule by the Cyclones. Two losable games, plus an in-state foe. Lots of schools won’t do either of those categories.
31. Northwestern: at California, Syracuse, Western Michigan, Maine. If any Big Ten school has the right to dumb down its schedule, it’s Northwestern. But the Wildcats rarely do.
32. Wisconsin: Massachusetts, Tennessee Tech, at Arizona State, Brigham Young. Talk about no middle ground. Two good games, two awful games.
33. Nebraska: Wyoming, Southern Miss, UCLA, South Dakota State. This would be a fairly salty schedule had Southern Miss not laid an 0-12 egg last season.
34. Temple: at Notre Dame, Fordham, at Idaho, Army. Notre Dame solves a lot of scheduling woes.
35. Boston College: Villanova, at Southern Cal, Army, at New Mexico State. It would be difficult to find two locales more culturally different than Boston’s Chestnut Hill and Las Cruces, N.M.
36. LSU: TCU at Arlington, Texas; Alabama-Birmingham, Kent State, Furman. The next five SEC teams are too close to call. You could put them in a hat, pull out a name and be just as accurate. I went with LSU because the Frogs in their backyard won’t be easy, and Kent State has become a decent mid-major.
37. Ole Miss: Southeast Missouri State, at Texas, Idaho, Troy. Idaho is terrible, else the Rebels would rank ahead of LSU.
38. Mississippi State: Oklahoma State at Houston, Alcorn State, Troy, Bowling Green. Troy and Bowling Green aren’t awful programs, which is why the Bulldogs are a fraction ahead of Alabama.
39. Alabama: Virginia Tech at Atlanta, Colorado State, Georgia State, Chattanooga. Georgia State and Chattanooga would be overmatched by Sun Belt teams, much less college football’s best.
40. Tennessee: Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, at Oregon, South Alabama. Going to Oregon is as good a game as a team can schedule. But Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and South Alabama are as weak a trio as a program can find.
41. Cincinnati: Purdue, at Illinois, Northwestern Louisiana, at Miami-Ohio. Decent schedule for a program fighting for its football life.
42. Maryland: Florida International, Old Dominion, at Connecticut, West Virginia at Baltimore. I feel sort of bad ranking the Terrapins this low, considering they’ve got two games against fellow power-conference schools. But I look at this schedule and think blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
43. Ohio State: Buffalo, San Diego State, at California, Florida A&M. Pretty soft for a program the caliber of the Buckeyes’.
44. Illinois: Southern Illinois, Cincinnati, Washington, Miami-Ohio. Three quarters of this schedule matches OU’s 2008 slate – Cincy, Washington, a I-AA foe. But while the Illini play Miami-Ohio, OU played TCU.
45. OSU: Mississippi State in Houston, at Texas-San Antonio, Lamar. Mike Gundy didn’t want to play Mississippi State, but without the Bulldogs, OSU would challenge for the nation’s worst schedule.
46. Kentucky: Western Kentucky at Nashville, Miami-Ohio, Louisville, Alabama State. The Wildcats always have Louisville.
47. Penn State: Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J.; Eastern Michigan; Central Florida; Kent State. Good to see an old Eastern rivalry renewed, with Syracuse.
48. Rutgers: at Fresno State, Norfolk State, Eastern Michigan, Arkansas. The Scarlet Knights won in the Ozarks last season.
49. Iowa: Northern Illinois, Missouri State, at Iowa State, Western Michigan. Not a terrible schedule, but mainly because Northern Illinois is better than it ought to be.
50. Washington State: at Auburn, Southern Utah, Idaho. Auburn stunk last season, but you have to expect that to be an aberration.
51. Utah: Utah State, Weber State, at Brigham Young. The Utah triumvirate.
52. Wake Forest: Presbyterian, Louisiana-Monroe, at Army, at Vanderbilt. Not a good schedule, but you can’t blame the likes of Wake, Duke and Vanderbilt.
53. Indiana: Indiana State, Navy, Bowling Green, Missouri. Mediocre schedule. Mizzou-Indiana sounds like a Big Ten game.
54. Arkansas: Louisiana-Lafayette, Samford, Southern Miss, at Rutgers. The main knock on the Hogs is that every SEC team above them has scheduled a power – Louisville, Oregon, Virginia Tech, etc.
55. Houston: Southern U., Rice at Reliant Stadium, at Texas-San Antonio, Brigham Young. Not a great schedule, but the Cougars move into a new stadium in 2014.
56. Missouri: Murray State, Toledo, at Indiana, Arkansas State. Who blames Mizzou for going light?
57. West Virginia: William & Mary, Georgia State, Maryland at Baltimore: Two I-AA opponents is shameful.
58. Oregon State: Eastern Washington, Hawaii, at San Diego State. Nothing to get excited about here.
59. Colorado: Colorado State at Denver, Central Arkansas, Fresno State. Bill McCartney won a national title with the Buffs in 1990 playing a non-conference schedule consisting of Tennessee (which won the SEC that year), Stanford, Illinois (which tied for the Big Ten title and Texas (which won the Southwest Conference). Now Colorado is winning three games a year and playing Central Arkansas.
60. Auburn: Washington State, Arkansas State, Western Carolina, Florida Atlantic. Four home games. Not one of them worth rolling out of bed for, unless you’ve got a thing for Mike Leach.
61. Louisville: Ohio U., Eastern Kentucky, at Kentucky, Florida International. Not a schedule befitting a program of the Cardinals’ status.
62. Memphis: Duke, at Middle Tennessee, Arkansas State, Tennessee-Martin. Actually, for Memphis’ lack of standing in college football, this isn’t awful.
63. Kansas: South Dakota, at Rice, Louisiana Tech. When I was a kid, I thought the North Central Conference, which was led by the four Dakota schools, was really cool. Alas, it died in 2008.
64. Texas Tech: at SMU, Stephen F. Austin, Texas State. At least the Red Raiders are playing SMU in Dallas. Otherwise, this would be total embarrassment.
65. Vanderbilt: Austin Peay, UMass at Foxboro, Mass.; Alabama-Birmingham, Wake Forest. At least Vandy’s playing in the Patriots’ stadium.
66. North Carolina State: Louisiana Tech, Richmond, Central Michigan, East Carolina. When you don’t have even one quality opponent, and you’re in the ACC, that’s four rumdum games.
67. Duke: North Carolina Central, at Memphis, Troy, Navy. It’s hard to get too upset with the Blue Devils for playing such an atrocious schedule.
68. Texas A&M: Rice, Sam Houston State, SMU, Texas-El Paso. Who schedules for the Aggies? Texas Tech? This looks just like a Tech schedule. Play only Texas teams, but play no good ones.
69. Kansas State: North Dakota State, Louisiana-Lafayette, UMass. You know your schedule’s bad when the marquee matchup is a I-AA foe.
70. Arizona: Northern Arizona, at Nevada-Las Vegas, Texas-San Antonio. El stinko.
71. Baylor: Wofford, Buffalo, Louisiana-Monroe. The Bears’ non-conference schedules are set through 2019 – and not one decent opponent on them. Duke and SMU are the best of the bunch.
72. Minnesota: Nevada-Las Vegas, at New Mexico State, Western Illinois, San Jose State. Hope the Big Ten Network enjoys this slate of games.