Creating a nonconference schedule is a little like trying to make your way across a tightrope. Balance is imperative.
So is awareness, a factor that sometimes gets overlooked when glancing at the myriad slates for teams in Power 5 conferences. Take Boston College and Duke as examples.
BC has the weakest nonconference schedule among Power 5 teams, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Duke, meanwhile, is playing two Power 5 nonconference opponents for the first time since David Cutcliffe became head coach in 2008.
The Eagles have taken their fair share of criticism for a schedule that includes UMass, Wagner, Buffalo and UConn, the only school in the ACC without a Power 5 nonconference opponent. Should BC have done better? Yes. But here is where the awareness comes in. This is the first year since 2006 the program has not played a P5 nonconference team. BC also happens to play in the Atlantic, where Florida State, Clemson and Louisville reside. When you schedule at a school like Boston College, setting up a more manageable nonconference schedule is important (See: NC State). Especially at a program that has had only pockets of success in recent years.
“What you’re trying to do when you build a program, you want to recruit, you want to develop and you want to build strength and build wins and get your program back,” coach Steve Addazio said. “This was a five-year project. That didn’t go away. We just overachieved Year 1 and 2. We knew there was going to be a couple of bumps along the way. You get your program healthy, you get it where it’s supposed to be and then you talk about tackling one of those nonconference opponents. Again, we did it two years ago, we beat USC right in our stadium and that will happen again.”
Playing a more manageable nonconference schedule has been hugely beneficial to Duke. When Cutcliffe arrived, the Blue Devils were in the ACC cellar. He knew the rebuilding process would be long and hard. So Duke scheduled nonconference games accordingly. Since 2012, Duke has posted a winning record in nonconference play, including 4-0 marks in 2013 and 2014. Only three P5 teams were on the nonconference schedule. Duke made bowl games in each of those four seasons.
This year, Duke must play consecutive road games against Northwestern and Notre Dame, presenting its most difficult nonconference schedule in years. It will not ease up, either: Duke plays Northwestern and Baylor in both 2017 and 2018. With a program now on much more solid footing, Cutcliffe believes he can take greater risks nonconference.
“It’s challenging but thank goodness we’ve got it now instead of earlier in our tenure at Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “We’re equipped to go play any schedule that you put in front of us. Like I told our squad, it does matter how well we prepare now and I think it’s motivated our team. Based on spring practice and what I know about our kids, I know we’ll be ready. It doesn’t guarantee results, but we’re equipped now for that type of schedule.”
Starting in 2017, the ACC requires all its teams play at least one Power 5 nonconference opponent. Boston College picks Notre Dame back up in 2017 and has games scheduled against Purdue (2018, 2020) and Ohio State (2023, 2024). There has to be the right balance for all teams, depending on how strong they are, and how quickly they can contend for championships.
"We have to play Florida State, Clemson, Louisville … not to mention all the rest of them, and Notre Dame every other year so I’m just saying, I think we play a pretty tough schedule," Addazio said. "Our nonconference games, a lot of the stuff is out of my control, a lot was done before I got there. But what’s wrong with playing Connecticut, which makes geographical sense? What’s wrong with playing UMass, which makes geographical sense? Everybody’s always going to say, 'Why don’t you play this team?' Let’s be honest. We have teams in our league that don’t play Florida State or Clemson."