In a lot of ways, a tough schedule can present an opportunity. Put up 10 or 11 wins against a slate that includes multiple ranked opponents, and nobody can doubt the validity of your record. This was the situation that Tech found itself in last offseason: fresh off an 11-win campaign, if the Jackets could repeat that success, the challenging 2015 schedule would be a bridge to even greater heights.
Of course, there’s the flip side: it’s harder to win against tougher opponents. Having a good strength of schedule (SoS) is no solace for a team that loses one too many games... or nine too many, as the case may be.
Looking ahead, the schedule should be less brutal for Tech in 2015—not by a ton, but enough that some improvement seems reasonable.
Just how bad was it last year?
By any measure, it was the toughest schedule in recent memory. Here is a list of Tech opponents that were ranked in the AP poll at some point last season:
|Team||2015 Record||Preseason AP Rank||Highest AP Rank||Final AP Rank|
|Notre Dame||10-3||#11||#4 (Week 12)||#11|
|Duke||8-5||NR||#22 (Week 8)||NR|
|North Carolina||11-3||NR||#8 (Week 13)||#15|
|Clemson||14-1||#12||#1 (Weeks 10-14)||#2|
|Pittsburgh||8-5||NR||#23 (Week 8)||NR|
|Florida State||10-3||#10||#9 (Weeks 2+7)||#14|
|Georgia||10-3||#9||#7 (Weeks 2+3)||NR|
Even setting aside the three teams that finished unranked... that comes out to four teams in the top 15 of the final AP rankings, all four of which were in the top 10 of the final College Football Playoff rankings (which were conducted prior to bowl season). It’s rare that any team has to run a gauntlet like that, much less a team in a division that had no teams ranked wire-to-wire.
Still, looking at that list provides plenty of sadness but no clear frame of reference. The simplest FBS-wide metric is the NCAA’s preseason strength of schedule model, which ranks teams by their opponents’ combined win-loss record in the previous season (excluding FCS opponents and bowl games). Tech’s SoS rankings via the NCAA method dating back to the 2013 season appear below:
|Year||Opponent W-L Record||Opponent Win Percentage||SoS Rank||Tech Reg. Season W-L Record|
The NCAA method provides a good rough measure, but its reliance on win-loss records alone means it is fairly flawed. Still, in Tech’s case, it proved fairly accurate for last season; the Sagarin SoS rankings, which use a more sophisticated approach, also had Tech at No. 14.
(Side note: it could always be worse. Arkansas, which has the misfortune of being stuck in the SEC West, has been either No. 1 or No. 2 in the NCAA method SoS rankings since at least 2013.)
So are things going to get better?
Tech’s non-conference slate should be easier on the whole. Georgia should improve with the return of running back Nick Chubb and Georgia Southern is a tougher foe than Tulane, but the switch from preseason No. 10 Notre Dame to Vanderbilt plays hugely in Tech’s favor. The cross-divisional ACC matchup is also a boon, with Tech swapping out preseason No. 4 Florida State for Boston College.
But as rough as Tech’s schedule was a year ago, if we’re going by the NCAA method, 2016 isn’t so much better on paper... and the problem is the ACC Coastal. During the 2014 season, the rest of the division had a combined overall record of 39-38, but in 2015, the Coastal went 46-32 overall. Some part of that is the fact that Tech dropped from 4-2 against the division to 0-6, but some Coastal teams—particularly UNC and Pitt—made major strides last season that were reflected in their records.
If Pitt adds two more wins to become a 10-win team, David Cutcliffe finds a suitable replacement for flexbone wrecking ball Jeremy Cash, or Mark Richt gets Miami to actually play up to its potential, Tech could find itself back at square one in terms of schedule difficulty. None of those things are even close to guaranteed, though. And on top of that, we’re talking about the ACC Coastal, where logic tends to go out the window and good teams routinely and inexplicably finish the year 6-7.
All that is truly clear at the moment is that two top-10 powerhouse teams are off the schedule, replaced by much more winnable games. As Tech looks to rebound, that can only bode well.