Hot Reads: Strength of Team > Strength of Schedule
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hot Reads: Strength of Team > Strength of Schedule

March 22, 2018

According to the official NCAA method for calculating such things Nebraska has the second-toughest football schedule in the country in 2018.

That method is simply a cumulative calculation of opponent winning percentage from the previous season. The 12 teams on Nebraska’s schedule won 62.8 percent of their games a year ago. Only Florida State’s tally (63.4) is higher. Michigan is right behind the Huskers at 62.7.

Of course, as Phil Steele notes, that’s a fairly basic way to project the strength of an upcoming schedule:

I want to remind you that this is the NCAA’s method, not mine. Prior to last year, this method said that Indiana was facing the 110th most challenging schedule as their opponents won only 47% of their games in 2016. I had Indiana 54 spots higher and 8 of 12 of their opponents went on to play in bowl games. It’s pretty clear that there were not 109 schedules tougher than Indiana’s.

Steele doesn't divulge his rankings yet, but goes on to offer tallies of the number of teams with winning records, number of ranked teams (end of 2017 season) and number of bowl teams each school faces in 2018. Those are somewhat interesting to look at, though they all share the same basic limitation the NCAA method does – it's all based on last season.

And that's not a huge flaw. Teams that were good previously are often good again. It's a decent predictor, but would it be at least a little bit better if we were using projections (which factor in previous team strength) rather than the past? Out of curiosity, I decided to look at what FPI said about Nebraska's schedule for 2018 and the four seasons prior.

FPI offers its own strength-of-schedule ranking, but it hasn't been released for 2018 yet, so I'm leaving that off for all years. We'll just look at the average FPI rank of the 12 regular-season opponents on the schedule, projected winning-record teams faced, projected top-25 teams faced and actual top-25 teams faced based on final FPI.

YEAR AVG. FPI RANK WINNING TEAMS PRESEASON TOP 25 FINAL TOP 25
2018 45.8 5
2017 51.2 8 4 4
2016 63.2 4 1 2
2015 59.8 5 1 1
2014 57.2 5 1 2

Based on the average preseason FPI of Nebraska's schedule the 2018 Huskers slate looks like the most difficult of the span by some margin. Nebraska is set to face five teams ranked in the FPI top 25, which equals the number the Huskers actually faced in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 regular seasons combined.

The pre-Frost years might be what's actually interesting here, however. If you just look at the Mike Riley years it offers a pretty interesting context. The 2015 schedule was the second-weakest of the 2014-18 stretch and included just one FPI-ranked team. Going 5-7 against that slate sets off louder alarm bells retrospectively than it did in the present.

The 2016 schedule, the weakest of the span, accompanied Nebraska's one winning record under Riley. Nebraska was only set to face one top-25 team in the preseason. It ended up being two by the end of the year (Ohio State, Wisconsin), and the Huskers lost both.

The schedule took a huge jump in difficulty in 2017, and we know how that ended up. (Of course, FPI did project the sort of season Nebraska had, though even it didn't see four wins coming.) Point is, if you wanted to tell the story of the Riley era at Nebraska you could come up with a pretty good outline of what it was based on those schedule numbers alone.

But the larger point is the most obvious one: Schedule strength is a fine offseason topic, but teams can barely control it. Better to just be good than the decent team that benefits from an advantageous schedule.

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