We’re in the home stretch until kickoff for the 2021 college football season, so that means it’s time to dig in and examine the 40 most interesting elements of the schedule:
1. Notre Dame’s schedule looks plenty challenging, with three opponents in the Sports Illustrated preseason top 10 and four in the top 13. But if you dig in a bit deeper to the way the schedule falls, it gets considerably harder.
A whopping five opponents have an open-date preparation/rest advantage over the Fighting Irish. Wisconsin is coming off an open date when it takes on Notre Dame at Soldier Field Sept. 25; Cincinnati has the same advantage the next week; and Virginia Tech makes it three in a row when the Irish go to Blacksburg on Oct. 9. Then North Carolina gets the open-date break Oct. 30, while Notre Dame is coming off a rivalry game against USC. Finally, the Irish's visit to Virginia Nov. 13 comes after a week off for the Cavaliers. Yikes.
Nationally, Notre Dame is the extreme outlier. Plowing through the rest of the FBS, I couldn’t find any teams with more than two games in which it was at an open-date disadvantage. This is part of the difficulty of independent scheduling, when a league office is more likely to consciously avoid putting one of its members in that sort of position repeatedly.
In 2010, Alabama complained loudly about playing six Southeastern Conference opponents that were coming off an open date. The Crimson Tide lost two of those games: a major upset at South Carolina and a one-point home loss to eventual national champion Auburn. The loss to the Gamecocks remains the last game the Tide have lost to an SEC East opponent.
Will the rest/prep disadvantage lead to the demise of Notre Dame’s season? Nobody knows now. In 2018, Brian Kelly’s team went undefeated through a closing gantlet that included four games away from South Bend out of the final five, so he knows how to handle this sort of week-to-week challenge. But Kelly would probably rather go through this with more than three returning offensive starters.
2. When it happened in late May, Oklahoma’s publicly announcing that it is “bitterly disappointed” about having to play Nebraska at 11 a.m. local time on Sept. 18 seemed like some next-level entitlement. Athletic director Joe Castiglione, normally one of the most circumspect administrators in the country, fired off a strident statement aimed at TV partner Fox for doing the unthinkable—taking a matchup marking the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century and airing it during its marquee time slot, the Big Noon Kickoff. The reaction was disproportionate to the action.
In retrospect, this fit of pique might have been more calculating—an attempt to gin up dissatisfaction with both the Big 12 and Fox in advance of the Grand Exit Plan that Oklahoma and Texas had devised with the SEC. For whatever reason, Castiglione deviated from the customary athletic director discourse when it comes to broadcast partners. This is what Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby had to say about that at the conference’s media days, when he was unaware of the bomb the Sooners and Longhorns were about to drop on him: “We all signed the TV contract, and we can change it the next time around if we want to change it, but we are going to live by our stipulations on the television agreements, and that’s what we did on this occasion.”
3. For some reason, Oklahoma’s playing Texas at 11 a.m. in Dallas is fine, but playing Nebraska in that time slot is not. The Red River game has kicked off at 11 a.m. in nine of the past 10 seasons and 11 of the past 13. (And given the unrestrained partying in Dallas the night before, there are a lot of fans playing hurt that Saturday morning.) Texas hasn’t been great in recent seasons, but it’s been markedly better than Nebraska. Trying to market a moldy rivalry on nostalgia and one relevant team isn’t the easiest sell.
4. Bluebloods complaining about scheduling is not a new phenomenon. Part of Oklahoma’s lament comes from having a lot of 11 a.m. kickoffs in recent seasons. Two years ago, Alabama chafed at its number of early games as well. (Home-field advantage is rarely as strong early as it is late—more tailgate time has a funny way of leading to more in-stadium noise.) Duke basketball once complained about being scheduled for an excess of Sunday-night Atlantic Coast Conference games. “I don’t think hate is a strong enough word,” said Blue Devils guard Mike Dunleavy Jr. in 2003.
When programs with clout complain, they often get results. But one of the burdens of being good is a high degree of TV interest, which can mean a high degree of TV influence on a marquee team’s schedule. That’s how this thing works.
5. More complaints: Stanford coach David Shaw declared himself “pissed at Fox” for slotting the Cardinal to open with an early kickoff against Kansas State in Arlington, Texas. The game will start at 11 a.m. local, which is a 9 a.m. body clock game for Stanford. The following week, Oregon will play Ohio State at noon in Columbus, also a 9 a.m. body clock kickoff for the visiting Pac-12 team.
“For Stanford in particular and Oregon to be going and playing in a different time zone, and give us an early kickoff, to me, is incredibly disrespectful,” Shaw told The Athletic. “And it shows a lack of understanding of what we have to do, and the way that time difference truly affects us. It shows a lack of care for our student-athletes.”
Seems like you can count Shaw as a “NO” on the Pac-12’s periodic discussion of jumping into the noon ET TV window for conference games. If there is a Pac-12 scheduling alliance with other leagues, that would only increase the likelihood of playing those bright-and-early games.
6. Other early wakeup calls: Illinois plays at Virginia in an 11 a.m. kickoff Sept. 11, which is 10 a.m. Champaign time; New Mexico gets a 10 a.m. body-clock start at Texas A&M on Sept. 18; Boise State and Utah State have mutual suffering with a 10 a.m. kickoff in Logan on Sept. 25; Army vs. Air Force in Arlington starts at 11:30, which is 9:30 for the Falcons; Boise at San Diego State is a 9 a.m. local kickoff Nov. 26, bringing new meaning to Black Friday mayhem.
The Virginia home crowd for an 11 a.m. kickoff promises to be one of the most listless of the season. But a 9 a.m. San Diego State “home” game two hours from campus on the day after Thanksgiving could easily set a new standard for apathy. (The Aztecs are playing in Carson this season while construction is underway on a new on-campus stadium.)
7. Stanford has one other daunting element to its schedule this season: 12 games against Power 5 competition. That’s a first in program history, and the Cardinal are the only team in America to play all their games against P5 opponents. In addition to nine Pac-12 contests and the previously noted Kansas State opener, Stanford visits Vanderbilt Sept. 18 and finishes the regular season against Notre Dame.
8. Then there are the schools that are avoiding P5 competition completely in nonconference play. The list: Indiana plays Idaho, Cincinnati and Western Kentucky; Oklahoma State plays Missouri State, Tulsa and Boise State; Baylor plays Texas State, Texas Southern and BYU; Texas Tech plays Houston, Stephen F. Austin and Florida International; Arizona State plays Southern Utah, UNLV and BYU; Utah plays Weber State, BYU and San Diego State; Washington State plays Utah State, Portland State and BYU; Arizona plays BYU, San Diego State and Northern Arizona.
Clearly, BYU is the Power 5 substitute program of greatest utility. As an independent, the Cougars need games, and scheduling them always looks good on paper as a quality matchup. (How it works out in 2021 remains to be seen. BYU has a lot of holes to fill from last year’s 11–1 team.)
9. With conferences more willing to schedule league games as season openers, the first weekend(s) of the season may be the best we’ve ever seen. Factoring in Week 0, how are these for conference openers: Nebraska at Illinois; Ohio State at Minnesota; North Carolina at Virginia Tech; Michigan State at Northwestern; Penn State at Wisconsin; Indiana at Iowa. (Penn State’s trip to Madison will mark the Nittany Lions’ first season-opening true road game outside the state of Pennsylvania—other than the pandemic-altered, league-only slate of 2020—since a 1994 visit to Minnesota.)
10. Then there are the enticing nonconference Week 1 matchups: Boise State at UCF; Alabama vs. Miami; Louisiana at Texas; San Jose State at USC; Georgia vs. Clemson; LSU at UCLA; Notre Dame at Florida State on Sunday Sept. 5; and Louisville vs. Mississippi on Labor Day.
11. The Louisiana-Texas game is one of the more pressurized coaching debuts in recent memory. Steve Sarkisian takes over the Longhorns and faces a team that begins the year in the SI top 25, and knocked off Iowa State on the road to start the 2020 season. Then you factor in the SEC gambit, and the last thing Sark needs is to begin this bold new era in Texas football with a loss to a Sun Belt opponent—even a good Sun Belt opponent. (Sark and Texas then follow that up with a trip to Arkansas. And while the Razorbacks likely won’t be very good, they are an ancient rival who would love to beat the Horns. Former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who famously went “Horns Down” at the 2000 Cotton Bowl, recalled being taught that version of the Texas hand sign when he was 6 years old.)
12. First meetings that will be a lot of fun: LSU at UCLA, a great uniform battle with all those Tigers fans invading the Rose Bowl . . . and alcohol being sold at the game; Auburn at Penn State on Sept. 18, their initial regular-season matchup after two previous meetings in bowl games; Louisville-Mississippi; Missouri–Boston College; Stanford-Vanderbilt, in an SAT Bowl that should have happened decades ago; Army-Wisconsin; Illinois-Virginia for the first time on campus, after two bowl matchups;
13. TCU and California meet for the first time in the regular season, in a rematch of one of the most memorably bad bowl games in history: the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl, a 10–7 TCU triumph that set the sport back several years.
14. The biggest two-game segment on any schedule in the country is Cincinnati’s road trips to Indiana on Sept. 18 and Notre Dame on Oct. 2. (The open date in between certainly comes in handy.) Those are exactly the games a non–Power 5 team has to schedule—and win—to have a shot at the playoff. Of course, they also would have to take care of business in the American Athletic Conference while knowing the selection committee is far more likely to punish them for a loss than a member of The P5 Club.
15. Michigan State’s game at Miami on Sept. 18 will be its furthest trip South in the contiguous 48 states since a 1982 game against the Hurricanes in the old Orange Bowl Stadium.
16. The most intriguing P5 at G5 road games both involve teams leaving Oklahoma.
The Sooners are at Tulane for their opener—an interest game not because the Green Wave will win, but because of the potential to establish the OU brand in SEC country. And perhaps Oklahoma would extend an invitation to a certain high school quarterback in the city to attend a Friday walkthrough or the game on Saturday. Any takers, Arch Manning?
The other: Oklahoma State at Boise State, Sept. 18. The Cowboys will be the first Big 12 team to play a regular-season game on the blue turf. (TCU played at Boise in 2011 when it was a member of the Mountain West Conference.)
17. Warm weather teams in cold-weather November games: Houston is at Temple on Nov. 13 and at Connecticut on Nov. 27. Florida State is at Boston College on Nov. 20. Wake Forest is at BC on Nov. 27.
18. Front-loaded/back-loaded schedules, take one: Virginia Tech opens with six of its first seven at home, and the road trip is just 250 miles to West Virginia. The Hokies then finish with four of their last five on the road.
19. Front-loaded/back-loaded schedules, take two: Arizona State has had a mess of an offseason but could potentially start 6–0 if it can win at BYU and UCLA. The Sun Devils avoid Oregon in crossover, but then face three preseason AP top 25 teams in the back half of the season and have back-to-back trips to the Pacific Northwest, going at Washington and at Oregon State on Nov. 13–20. Weather could play a factor by then.
20. Homebodies: Michigan spends the entire month of September in the Big House. Miami plays its first true road game Oct. 16. TCU’s first road game is Oct. 9. Iowa doesn’t leave the state until Oct. 2, and that’s the only time it strays outside the border before Oct. 30. Duke doesn’t leave the state of North Carolina until Oct. 16. Of the first six games, the only two on the road are at Charlotte on Sept. 4 and eight miles down the road in Chapel Hill on Oct. 2. Rice doesn’t leave Texas until Oct. 23, and plays just twice outside the state. Florida doesn’t leave the state until Oct. 2.
21. On the flip side: UAB doesn’t play in its home stadium until Oct. 2, opening against Jacksonville State in Montgomery and then playing three straight true road games.
22. Reunion games: The Bret Bielema Bowl is Oct. 9 (Wisconsin at Illinois); the Hugh Freeze Bowl is Nov. 6 (Liberty at Mississippi).
23. Toughest road doubles on consecutive weekends, in terms of travel/logistics: UCLA is at Arizona on Oct. 9, then at Washington on Oct. 16, with both opponents coming off open dates; South Florida is at BYU on Sept. 25, then at SMU on Oct. 2; North Carolina State is at Boston College on Oct. 16, then at Miami on Oct. 23; Washington is at Arizona on Oct. 22, then at Stanford on Oct. 30 with the Cardinal coming off an open date; Arizona State is at Washington on Nov. 13, then at Oregon State on Nov. 20; San Jose State is at Hawaii on Sept. 18, then at Western Michigan on Sept. 25; Louisiana Tech is at Old Dominion on Oct. 30 and at UAB on Nov. 6, with both opponents coming off open dates. Ball State is at Penn State on Sept. 11 and at Wyoming on Sept. 18.
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24. Toughest road doubles on consecutive weekends, in terms of competition: Arkansas has a tough one in October (at Georgia, at Mississippi) and a tough one in November (at LSU, at Alabama); Penn State is at Ohio State on Oct. 30 and at Maryland on Nov. 6, coming off 2020 losses to both; Rutgers is at Indiana on Nov. 13 and at Penn State on Nov. 20; Minnesota is at Iowa on Nov. 13 and at Indiana on Nov. 20; Oklahoma State is at Texas on Oct. 16 and at Iowa State on Oct. 23; Louisiana-Monroe is at LSU on Nov. 20, at Louisiana on Nov. 27; New Mexico State is at Alabama on Nov. 13 and at Kentucky on Nov. 20; Connecticut is at Clemson on Nov. 13 and at UCF on Nov. 20.
25. SMU has a pair of road doubles, and in both cases the second of the two roadies is against an opponent with an open-date advantage. The first: at Louisiana Tech on Sept. 18, at TCU Sept. 25. The second: at Houston on Oct. 30, at Memphis on Nov. 6.
26. Sun Belt doubles on short turnarounds: Georgia State is at Georgia Southern on Oct. 30, with the Eagles coming off an open date, then at Louisiana five days later. Georgia Southern is at Troy on Oct. 9, then at South Alabama five days later.
27. Seven teams are playing a road triple on consecutive weekends.
From the Sun Belt: Arkansas State is at Washington on Sept. 18, at Tulsa on Sept. 25, and at Georgia Southern on Oct. 2. Troy is at Southern Mississippi on Sept. 18, at Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 25, at South Carolina on Oct. 2. South Alabama is at Troy on Nov. 6, at Appalachian State on Nov. 13, and at Tennessee on Nov. 20. (The Jaguars then finish the season with league heavyweight Coastal Carolina six days after the Volunteers, for added punishment.)
From C-USA: Middle Tennessee is at Virginia Tech on Sept. 11, at UTSA on Sept. 18 and at Charlotte six days later. Florida International is at Texas Tech on Sept. 18, at Central Michigan on Sept. 25 and at Florida Atlantic on Oct. 2. UAB is at Georgia on Sept. 11, at North Texas on Sept. 18 and at Tulane on Oct. 2.
And one from the MAC: Ohio is at Louisiana on Thursday, Sept. 16, at Northwestern on Sept. 25 and at Akron on Oct. 2.
28. Two Sun Belt teams play on four days of the week: Appalachian State plays on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (twice) and Saturday; Coastal Carolina plays on Wednesday, Thursday (three times), Friday (twice) and Saturday.
29. A season after going winless on the road, West Virginia opens with four of the first six away from home. That includes consecutive trips to Texas to play Baylor and TCU, but the Mountaineers do have an open date between those October games.
30. Liberty’s four road trips in a five-week span will tax the school’s equipment truck. The Flames go to Syracuse on Sept. 24 (529 miles), UAB on Oct. 2 (571 miles), Louisiana-Monroe on Oct. 16 (923 miles) and North Texas on Oct. 23 (1,193 miles). The other two road trips are to Troy on Sept. 11 (638 miles) and Mississippi (719 miles) on Nov. 6.
31. Best road schedule in the Big Ten: Wisconsin. The Badgers’ four league opponents away from Madison (Illinois, Purdue, Rutgers and Minnesota) were a combined 10–20 last year. Wisconsin gets five league games at home: Penn State, Michigan, Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska. None of those road games are on consecutive weekends.
32. Best road schedule in the SEC: Georgia visits Vanderbilt, Auburn and Tennessee, in addition to the annual neutral-site game against Florida in Jacksonville. (Also user-friendly: Texas A&M visits Missouri on Oct. 16, Mississippi on Nov. 13 and LSU on Nov. 27, plus plays Arkansas in Arlington Sept. 25.)
33. Best road schedule in the Big 12: Oklahoma is at Kansas State, Kansas, Baylor, Oklahoma State. Plus the Dallas neutral-site game against Texas. No true road games back-to-back.
34. Best road schedule in the ACC: Pittsburgh is at Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, Duke and Syracuse.
35. Best road schedule in the Pac-12: Washington is at Oregon State, Arizona, Stanford and Colorado.
36. Nebraska coach Scott Frost begins a critical season with three of his first four on the road, including his first two Big Ten games (at Illinois, at Michigan State). Last year—when the schedule was stitched together during the fall—was the first time the Cornhuskers had opened Big Ten play with consecutive road games. Now they’re doing it two years in a row. Nebraska fans will undoubtedly blame it on the vindictive league office.
37. Longest road trip in the contiguous 48 states: UConn at Fresno State in Week 0, a land distance of 3,041 miles.
38. From Sept. 25 through Nov. 6, Navy plays the top six teams in the AAC standings from 2020, plus Notre Dame. Four of the games are on the road, including a six-day turnaround game at Tulsa after playing Cincinnati and before playing Notre Dame.
39. Auburn is the only team in America keeping it real by playing all its games on natural grass.
40. The teams playing all their games on fake grass: Ohio State, Kansas State, Army, Air Force, Colorado State, Utah State, Coastal Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas State, Texas State, Charlotte, Old Dominion, UTSA, North Texas, Toledo, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio), Buffalo.
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