It'll play itself out, but who projects to have the tougher schedule? Alabama or Clemson?
In case you haven’t been consuming all the college football offseason content possible — you totally should be because there’s an awesome website that provides a ton of it that you might be familiar with — you might not have seen this popular topic of discussion.
It’s the strength of schedule discussion, and as is often the case, Alabama and Clemson are at the center of it.
CBS Sports ranked Alabama dead last in the SEC for strength of schedule, which created quite the response:
Let the talk about Alabama's strength of schedule begin! pic.twitter.com/Lkt1JHhtsl
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) May 20, 2019
This was a couple weeks removed from complaints spreading about Clemson’s strength of schedule, and how the Tigers will benefit from a weak conference slate.
If we’re being totally honest, all of this is peak offseason. Strength of schedule arguments in the preseason disappear when games are played. They’re essentially like that first Associated Press poll. It creates discussion, but this stuff always plays itself out. The Playoff selection committee is ultimately going to be able to judge Alabama and Clemson to determine their status in November, and not in May.
But because this is the offseason and we have the time, why don’t we at least open up the topic for some discussion.
Who looks like they’ll have the tougher schedule? Alabama or Clemson?
I mean, this isn’t even a debate. As much as I try to avoid overreacting about a team’s schedule in May, I feel confident that Clemson’s nonconference schedule will be better than Alabama’s.
Why? Um, it’s pretty obvious:
Clemson has 2 games that are tougher than Bama’s headliner nonconference matchup. And for what it’s worth — not much — Wofford and Western Carolina are both in the Southern Conference. The former went 6-2 and the latter went 1-7, so Clemson even has the edge with the FCS foe.
It’s not close. In fact, it’s somewhat surprising that Clemson is getting dogged because it has one of the toughest nonconference slates of any ACC/SEC team (those are the Power 5 conferences with 4 nonconference games). Clemson went out and made sure it had 10 games against Power 5 opponents, unlike Alabama, which settled for 9 and just a neutral-site game against Duke.
I truly believe that’s where a lot of this Alabama outrage stems from. The offseason discussion about the Crimson Tide’s strength of schedule seems to always hinge on that opener. Last year, the talk was that Alabama was getting off easy because it had post-Lamar Jackson Louisville in Orlando. Two years ago, Alabama had a gauntlet schedule because it started with “the greatest opener in college football history” against No. 3 Florida State in Atlanta.
That leads me to my next point:
Alabama and Clemson have totally inverse gripes with their 2019 schedules.
Many are frustrated that the Crimson Tide didn’t challenge themselves with a bigger nonconference game, but they seem to ignore that it’ll still be playing in the toughest division in America. And with Clemson, people are frustrated that the ACC projects to have a down year, but they seem to ignore that the Tigers went out and scheduled a legitimately challenging nonconference schedule.
It’s a bit strange. From that, I assume that people wished Alabama and Clemson played top-10 teams every week and that it’s a shame they don’t … even though they don’t have to.
That brings me back to the point about who has the tougher conference schedule. It’s Alabama, and we assume it’s not close.
But we’re assuming it’s not close because of preseason rankings and somewhat ignoring 2018 results (remember this is just conference play):
Makes you think a little bit, doesn’t it? Clemson’s conference slate isn’t as weak as some might believe based on the early projections.
And obviously it’s worth mentioning that we’re assuming that LSU and Texas A&M will be tougher conference matchups than anything that the Tigers will see in the ACC. If I’m betting today, I’m picking that to hold up. That’s with me believing that Syracuse isn’t getting enough preseason love and thinking NC State has been better than advertised.
Alabama is going to get the edge over Clemson with conference play based on how well those top teams performed, especially down the stretch last year. But would it stun me if Alabama and Clemson ended up with comparable amount of top-25 teams on their schedule? No. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if they faced as many Power 5 bowl teams as one another, as well.
Let’s revisit this discussion in mid-November.
Overall, who’s schedule is tougher?
Advantage: Alabama … slightly
Based on my way-too-early projection, it’s close. And for the record, I think both Alabama and Clemson’s schedules will be better than many are giving them credit for. We tend to forget that Alabama and Clemson don’t have matchups against themselves on their own schedule, so it’s always going to look like an easier path for them than someone like South Carolina.
And I’ll say this. To complain about Clemson’s schedule is foolish when there’s a pair of SEC teams, one of which is expected to start in the top 15. If you wanted to go there, you could make a better complaint against Alabama because of the nonconference strength, or lack thereof.
But I give Alabama the slight edge in terms of difficulty because while I think Clemson has as many games against mediocre to decent Power 5 teams, the degree of difficulty for the Crimson Tide in the headliner matchups is higher. With all due respect to emerging Syracuse, I’d rather play a game in the Carrier Dome than at Kyle Field. I’d rather play at Syracuse instead of a home game against LSU, too.
Clemson also plays 4 of its first 7 games against new coaches. That’s not including Willie Taggart, who might want to pretend this is Year 1 in Tallahassee. From a projection standpoint, that’s super favorable for someone as good as Dabo Swinney.
And as bad as Alabama’s nonconference schedule is, we’re still talking about 3 potential road games against ranked teams in SEC play (Auburn, MSU and Texas A&M) with a pair of games against 2018 bowl teams away from home (Duke and South Carolina). If I had to pick between Alabama or Clemson losing a regular season game, I’d probably go with the Crimson Tide.
Will any of this matter a few months from now when actual games are being played? No. And does that mean Alabama and Clemson should both have to run the table to make the Playoff with those schedules? Not necessarily. A lot can happen, and as always, it depends who they’re being compared to in order to determine the Playoff field.
All I know is nobody will be surprised if both of these teams are the last ones standing yet again, regardless of what we think about their schedules.