We are only in mid-September, two weeks into the season, so it is early to start talk about a national championship. But it’s never too early for an upset. Ask Arkansas.
With that in mind, the time is right to look at the schedules of the top five teams in the current AP Top 25 to see whose path has less of a chance for an upset.
A fortune-teller could not have predicted Louisiana-Monroe’s upset of the Razorbacks. So there’s no telling if South Carolina could upset LSU in Baton Rouge or Arizona can upend Oregon in Eugene.
Judging the schedules at face value, however, we can get a good indication of whose path is paved toward the BCS title game and who is looking at a dirt road filled with pot holes.
Let’s rank the schedules of the nation’s Top 5 teams, starting with the easiest:
1. OREGON – In what seems to be a tailor-made schedule for success, the Ducks’ only significant difficult task is playing at No. 2 USC on Nov. 3.
Upstart Arizona, ranked No. 24, must play at Eugene on Sept. 22. Stanford, ranked No. 21 this week, also must travel to Oregon on Nov. 17. Oregon can slip in road games against Arizona State (Oct. 18), Cal (Nov. 10) or Oregon State (Nov. 24), but coach Chip Kelly has to like his team’s chances against those unproven teams.
The great unknown is what could happen to Oregon after it plays USC. If the Ducks beat the Trojans in Los Angeles, they must guard against a letdown the following week at upset-minded Cal. If they lose to the USC, they must not get demoralized and fall apart with challenging games against Cal, Stanford and Oregon State to end the regular season.
2. LSU – Starting this weekend playing host to hapless Idaho, the Tigers’ schedule is very manageable. Their only other non-conference game remaining is at home against Towson (Sept. 29) and they play winnable games on the road in the SEC against Auburn (Sept. 22), No. 18 Florida (Oct. 6), Texas A&M (Oct. 20) and Arkansas (Nov. 24).
The Tigers will play No. 8 South Carolina (Oct. 13) and No. 1 Alabama (Nov. 3), but those teams must travel to Baton Rouge.
Playing any SEC team no matter the location is difficult. That argument is valid. The Tigers, however, will undoubtedly be favorites on the road in the SEC because of its dominance and shortcomings at Auburn (0-2 start under embattled coach Gene Chizik), Florida (eight sacks allowed in a 20-17 win at Texas A&M), Texas A&M (adjusting to the SEC) and Arkansas (upset by Louisiana-Monroe last weekend).
3. ALABAMA – Playing at Arkansas and LSU in one season seemed like a tall order for Alabama. Cut that order in half.
The Crimson Tide travels to Arkansas this weekend for what appeared to be a much anticipated showdown between two potential Top 10 teams. The Razorbacks, however, suffered the most disappointing loss of the college football season with their 34-31 overtime setback at home to Louisiana-Monroe.
Alabama’s toughest remaining games appear to be at Tennessee on Oct. 20 and at LSU on Nov. 3. Despite a potential argument from Crimson Tide fans, Alabama’s game at Baton Rouge does not make its schedule the most difficult of the current top five teams.
Alabama plays a weak non-conference schedule and its only other test of note is playing the Volunteers on the road.
The Crimson Tide hosts Florida Atlantic (Sept. 22) and Western Carolina (Nov. 17). Yawn. Alabama ends the season with three consecutive home games against beatable teams – Texas A&M, Western Carolina and Auburn. That means if LSU beats Alabama and runs the table, the Crimson Tide still has a very good chance to finish the regular season No. 2 behind the Tigers.
4. USC – The Trojans host No. 4 Oregon (Nov. 3) and No. 20 Notre Dame (Nov. 24) but the Trojans hit plenty of those potential potholes along the way that can knock them off course toward their national championship goal.
USC faces a road schedule in the Pac-12 that includes No. 21 Stanford this weekend, Utah (Oct. 4), Washington (Oct. 13), No. 24 Arizona (Oct. 27) and No. 22 UCLA (Nov. 17). All those teams are beatable but can give USC a good game, especially if the Trojans play like they did last weekend against Syracuse at East Rutherford, N.J., surviving with a 42-29 win.
If USC can get by Stanford this weekend, that could catapult the Trojans psychologically into championship mode. The Cardinal have won three straight against USC and Heisman hopeful Matt Barkley, but Stanford does not have Andrew Luck this time and it has never beaten the Trojans four consecutive times dating to when the schools first met in 1905.
USC has enough with Barkley on its side, let alone history.
5. OKLAHOMA – Difficult Big 12 games on the road against conference newcomers West Virginia (Nov. 17) and TCU (Dec. 1) make the Sooners’ goal of a national championship the most challenging of the Top 5 teams.
In other difficult games, the Sooners host No. 15 Kansas State this weekend and play No. 14 Texas in the Red Rivalry Game on Oct. 13 in Dallas. Oklahoma also plays No. 20 Notre Dame in Norman on Oct. 27.
Oklahoma should be favored in all of those games and other league games against Texas Tech, Kansas, Iowa State and Baylor. If the Sooners are not unbeaten when they travel to West Virginia, it will be a disappointment for a program starving for its first national title since 2003.
The problem is even if Oklahoma survives to that point with an unblemished record, it must beat West Virginia, Oklahoma State and TCU in the last three games to remain unbeaten. That’s about as daunting of a finish a team can have in any league.