Columns/Opinion, Football, Sports, WVU Sports

When it comes to nonconference scheduling, there’s a divide wider than Morgantown to Lubbock

MORGANTOWN — A few years ago, when Art Briles was enjoying his pre-scandal salad days at Baylor, he looked at me with a straight face and ridiculed teams who “schedule themselves a bunch of automatic wins.”

For the record, that season Baylor survived the murderers’ row of Wofford, Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe.

No team in the Big 12 affords itself so puny a nonconference slate this fall, but the degree of difficulty still varies. Here’s how the toughest schedules shake out, one through 10:

1. Texas

DKR owns a rep for being the sleepiest 100,000-seat assembly in college football, but it should be raucous when USC visits Sept. 15. Then again, that electricity could be drained if the Longhorns fail to take care of business in their opener against Maryland at FedEx Field. (Parking advisory for UT fans: Arrive early. Like two days early.)

Minus Sam Darnold, Southern Cal is picked to win the Pac-12 South. Maryland was slotted only fifth in the Big Ten’s East Division, though the four teams above it are projected top-25.

Tulsa, voted last in the AAC West, certainly represents a Week 2 breather, but give Texas kudos for continuing to avoid FCS opponents. The last one was Sam Houston State in 2006.

2. WVU

Most seasons, WVU would rank atop the list by facing Tennessee and N.C. State away from home. But the Vols’ tradition has faded like those orange trucker caps the fans wear, and first-time head coach Jeremy Pruitt faces a brutal rebuild. Tennessee was picked next to last in the SEC East ahead of only Vanderbilt, explaining why WVU is a decided favorite to win the neutral-site opener in Charlotte.

The Mountaineers’ second trip to North Carolina on Sept. 15 looks trickier, with N.C. State feeling frisky after a nine-win season. The Wolfpack were voted third in the ACC Atlantic behind Clemson and Florida State.

WVU faces 11 Power 5 schools this fall — just as it did in 2014 and 2016 — and that trend will continue through at least 2024. Coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t bashful about pointing out the scheduling disparities at competing schools.

“We play 11 Power 5 schools … I wish everybody would do that. It’s not quite fair that we have to play that schedule and then you have schools in other respective conferences that play nine,” he said. “It’s uneven, but we’re going to keep doing it.

“It’s good for the fan base, good for TV. It’s good for everything.”

Even the FCS appetizer features a preseason top-25 Youngstown State.

3. TCU

The Big 12’s marquee nonconference game transpires in Arlington on Sept. 15 when TCU hosts Ohio State. That presents the mother of all moments for the Frogs to leap into national contention.

The SMU series is an annual event where the parking lot features some of the most expensive student rides in the FBS, but the Mustangs aren’t so elite on the field. Voted fourth in the AAC West, they appear to be resetting after Chad Morris left.

Southern out of the SWAC won’t give TCU any resistance in the season opener.

4. Iowa State

It’s not often that the Cyclones’ non-conference schedule rates in the upper half of the conference, but facing Iowa on the road is a biggie, considering the Hawkeyes are projected No. 2 in the Big Ten West.

Akron figures to be mediocre, though it won its MAC division a year ago. South Dakota State isn’t a run-of-the mill schedule filler, picked among the preseason top 10 in the FCS.

5. Kansas State

For all the greatness Bill Snyder embodies, his non-conference schedules haven’t been meaty. Mississippi State comes to Manhattan picked third in the SEC West behind Alabama and Auburn, so that’s a legit top-25 foe.

UTSA was voted second in the Conference USA West, so as Group of 5 programs go, not embarrassing. South Dakota is the FCS pay-to-play game.

6. Texas Tech

A neutral-site game vs. Ole Miss at NRG Stadium should be fun to watch, but the Rebels lost their quarterback and a bunch of quality transfers to the NCAA escape hatch.

Houston boasts one of the nation’s top defensive linemen, Ed Oliver, but the class of the AAC appears to be UCF and Memphis.

Lamar is pitiful even by FCS standards, going 5-17 the past two seasons.

7. Oklahoma

September should be intriguing with Lane Kiffin and Chip Kelly rolling into Norman, but FAU and UCLA are merely alphabet soups of mediocrity this season. The Owls were picked fifth in the C-USA East and the Bruins fourth in the Pac-12 South.

The Sooners also face Army’s grind-it-out triple-option, so there’s some novelty, but anything less than three dominating victories would be cause for alarm.

8. Oklahoma State

Boy, Sept. 15 keeps popping up as a make-or-break weekend for the Big 12. The Cowboys will be tested by another really strong Boise State crew, one dangerous enough to make its way into the margins of the playoff conversation.

Mike Gundy hasn’t embraced playing Power 5 schools in the nonconference portion, and OSU won’t do it this fall, with South Alabama and woeful Missouri State in the early lineup.

9. Baylor

The Bears had gone seven seasons without scheduling a Power 5 team in their non-conference until they faced Duke last year. Now the Blue Devils make the return trip to Waco, looking like a 6-6 team.

Baylor, after last season’s collapse, would love to go 6-6, and could be halfway there if they handle Abilene Christian and win at UTSA.

10. Kansas

That tell-tale weekend of Sept. 15 also is when one of the Big Ten’s worst teams (Rutgers) faces the Big 12’s undisputed bottom-feeder (Kansas).

The Jayhawks also visit Central MIchigan, resurrecting the age-old question: Could KU go .500 in the MAC?

Be on the alert when Nicholls State, an FCS preseason top 25 squad, comes to Lawrence for the opener.