Ranking Non-Con MAC Opponents
By Jon Coffey
With the College Football Playoff looming in the 2014 season, strength of schedule has suddenly become an issue of importance that didn’t exist a year ago in the FBS.
There is now an incentive to schedule tougher non-conference opponents at the beginning of each season — especially for teams like those in the MAC that might need some extra help in bolstering their playoff bids.
Just like the significance of RPI during NCAA basketball tournament selection committee meetings and its influence on scheduling tough non-conference opponents, college football now has a similar mechanism.
Many teams playing in the nation’s major conferences will not have to think about this issue nearly as much as the mid-majors. Teams like this year’s Northern Illinois could be excluded from a playoff spot based solely on the toughness of the team’s non-conference opponents.
But with all playoff possibilities excluded for the present year, it’s time to turn our attention to those non-conference teams the MAC schools have scheduled, and which of those groups of four games will be the toughest in 2013.
13. Ball State
- Week 1 vs. Illinois State (Thurs.)
- Week 2 vs. Army
- Week 3 at North Texas
- Week 4 at Virginia
Wins in 2012 against Penn State, NC State, and Miami (FL) make Virginia the most imposing team on Ball State’s non-conference schedule. But those three wins accounted for all but one of Virginia’s victories last year, so the Cavaliers lose some of their scariness. If this is the toughest game of the four, it’s no wonder that the Cardinals have the easiest non-conference schedule in the MAC.
North Texas has the potential for an upset here (and it would be an upset), but Ball State should be able to take care of business.
Ball State should go 4-0, although Virginia or North Texas will probably steal one.
12. Miami (OH)
- Week 1 vs. Marshall
- Week 2 at Kentucky
- Week 4 vs. Cincinnati
- Week 5 at Illinois
Marshall and Kentucky are two of the better non-conference road matchups for MAC schools this season.
Cincinnati finished as the runner-up to Louisville in the Big East last year, but the Bearcats split with MAC opponents. On top of that, the Redhawks will get Cincinnati at home.
Playing in Champagne will be a noisy road game, but the Fighting Illini won just two games last season.
Miami could win all four of these games, but the Redhawks likely will split.
- Week 1 at Louisville (Sun.)
- Week 2 vs. North Texas
- Week 3 vs. Marshall
- Week 4 vs. Austin Peay
The matchup with Louisville is the only real blemish on this non-conference schedule.
North Texas could offer a few surprises, but most MAC teams are capable of beating the Mean Green in 2013.
Marshall has been a middle-of-the-pack team for the last several years and MAC schools shouldn’t fear their former conference brethren. Austin Peay is a winnable game no matter how you slice it.
Ohio should go 3-1 against these four teams.
10. Eastern Michigan
- Week 1 vs. Howard
- Week 2 at Penn State
- Week 3 at Rutgers
- Week 7 at Army
Three road games makes this non-conference schedule slightly tougher than Ohio's.
Penn State and Rutgers should be tough road opponents in 2013.
Even though it’s an away game, Army wouldn’t be much to worry about if this wasn’t Eastern Michigan.
In case you forgot, the Eagles were the second-worst team in the conference last season. One of the team’s two wins did come against Army.
Eastern Michigan will likely go 2-2 against non-conference opponents.
9. Northern Illinois
- Week 1 at Iowa
- Week 3 at Idaho
- Week 4 vs. Eastern Illinois
- Week 5 at Purdue
As mentioned before, the Hawkeyes have faired well against the MAC in the 2000s, outscoring MAC teams 527-202 in those contests. But NIU fell just one point short last season when these two teams met. Playing Iowa on the road is always tough and that game should be a dandy, but the rest of the Huskies' non-conference schedule doesn’t pack quite the same punch.
Playing at Purdue could be somewhat challenging, but the other two would be competitive for any MAC team. Northern Illinois should win at least three of the four, but don’t be shocked if the Huskies go into their conference schedule with a loss.
- Week 1 at Central Florida (Thurs.)
- Week 2 vs. James Madison
- Week 3 at Michigan
- Week 4 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Games at UCF and Michigan would be problematic ventures for any MAC school. Louisiana-Lafayette could compete with any MAC school.
In the last three seasons, Akron has defeated Buffalo, VMI (Virginia Military Institute), and Morgan State.
The Zips will be lucky if they beat James Madison out of the four in this bunch.
7. Bowling Green
- Week 1 vs. Tulsa (Thurs.)
- Week 3 at Indiana
- Week 4 vs. Murray State
- Week 5 at Mississippi State
Tulsa may not be on your radar as a team to watch, but the Golden Hurricanes finished the 2012 season just outside the AP Top 25.
Mississippi State will be a tough road game against an SEC opponent hitting its stride in Week 7.
Murray State is a beatable team for the majority of the MAC schools, but Indiana, who split with MAC opponents a year ago, could be close.
Bowling Green loses three of four.
6. Kent State
- Week 1 vs. Liberty (Thurs.)
- Week 2 at LSU
- Week 3 at Penn State
- Week 4 at South Alabama
It’s a good thing Liberty is on the schedule, because playing back-to-back games in two of the nation’s toughest stadiums won’t be an easy task, even for the MAC East champs from one year ago.
South Alabama shouldn’t be a problem, but Kent State will likely break even coming out of this non-conference schedule.
- Week 1 at Ohio State
- Week 2 at Baylor
- Week 3 vs. Stony Brook
- Week 4 vs. Connecticut
The last time Ohio State lost a football game was Jan. 2, 2012 against Florida in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl. Opening the season in the Horseshoe is probably the single toughest way to start the season in 2013.
Playing in Waco, Texas, a week later won’t be much more pleasant. Baylor went 3-3 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 last season, and 1-0 against opponents ranked in the Top 5.
Stony Brook is this schedule's saving grace, because Connecticut can play with anyone in the MAC.
Buffalo will likely enter Week 6 with a 1-4 record.
4. Central Michigan
- Week 1 at Michigan
- Week 2 vs. New Hampshire
- Week 3 at UNLV
- Week 5 at NC State
Playing in the Big House to start the year is a great financial move for any MAC team, but in terms of wins and losses, there’s almost nowhere worse a team could choose to play to start the year. Michigan will be in somewhat of a transition, but that doesn’t mean they’ll come out of the offseason flat and unprepared.
New Hampshire is a competitive game for the MAC and one that Central Michigan should probably win.
Playing on the road at UNLV is tough simply because it’s a road game. The Rebels have won six games during the last three seasons combined.
Playing an away game against NC State will be difficult. And even though Central Michigan could be coming off of three straight wins, I don’t see many MAC teams fairing well in this situation save NIU, maybe.
The Chips go 2-2 in non-conference play.
- Week 1 at Florida
- Week 2 at Missouri
- Week 3 vs. Eastern Washington
- Week 8 vs. Navy
Two non-conference road games against SEC teams back-to-back is scary for any program in the country. For any of this year’s MAC schools, it’s a nightmare. The Gators are on a 22-game season-opening win streak — good for second in the nation (Nebraska is first with 26). On top of that, Navy and its high-powered rushing attack is nothing to overlook.
Toledo will likely lose three out of these four.
2. Western Michigan
- Week 1 at Michigan State (Fri.)
- Week 2 vs. Nicholls State
- Week 3 at Northwestern
- Week 4 at Iowa
Western Michigan kicks off the season on a Friday night in East Lansing against Michigan State. Although this will probably be the first year of the last several where MSU won’t start the season in the AP Top 25, the last time the Broncos defeated the Spartans was 1919.
Similarly, Iowa is never an easy opponent to play in Iowa City, and even after a 4-8 campaign in 2012, the Hawkeyes will be a handful for both of their MAC opponents this year. Since 2000, the Hawkeyes are 12-3 against teams from the MAC (although two of the three losses have come at the hands of Western Michigan).
Obviously Northwestern is a program on the rise, and playing them on the road will be no easy task. The Broncos will likely go 1-3 in these games, but I’ll say 2-2 on a gut feeling instead.
- Week 1 at Wisconsin
- Week 2 vs. Maine
- Week 3 at Kansas State
- Week 4 vs. Vanderbilt
Despite playing only two non-conference games on the road, Massachusetts will be the only 2013 MAC team to have at least two opponents that could start the season in the AP Top 25 on its schedule. Vanderbilt finished 2012 in the AP Top 25, and Kansas State spent time at the No. 1 spot last year. Opening on the road in Madison does not make this non-conference schedule any less intimidating.
Although Maine doesn’t sound like an imposing matchup, the Black Bears beat Massachusetts in 2011, making this non-conference schedule the toughest of any in the MAC.
UMass should be competitive with Maine, but will almost certainly lose the other three.