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The American Preview: Strength of Schedule Rankings

The American Athletic Conference exists in a sort of a netherworld. A mashup of the remaining football members of the old Big East Conference plus newcomers from the last iteration of Conference USA, the American is a conference born out of this age of intercollegiate athletics: the age where dollars trumped old alliances.

In fact, the American itself is not fully formed, as the version of the conference that sets off on this new direction on July 1 will not be the league in permanence, as Rutgers (Big Ten) and Louisville (Atlantic Coast Conference) depart for supposedly greener pastures after this season and East Carolina, Tulsa and Tulane arrive to replace those departing members.

Some of the challenges that the league faces can be seen in the scheduling philosophies, with the 2013 schedules being an interesting mix of teams that were in a one-time BCS qualifying league and teams that were outsiders.

The question though, is this: What is the strength of schedule, from most difficult to least difficult, for the 2013 member of the American?

The American will play an eight game conference schedule, which means that the conference schedules are by nature unbalanced, as each team will miss one other school in the conference. So the nature of the missed opponent has been examined, as well as taking a look at non-conference opponents and where those non conference games will take place.

(Note that while Houston’s game versus Rice is considered a neutral site game, it is being played at Reliant Stadium, which is serving as the temporary home for the Cougars for 2013.)

1) Southern Methodist – The Mustangs play all four of their non-conference games in the state of Texas. So why do they have the toughest schedule in the American? Three of those opponents are fellow instate powers Texas Tech (presumably better under young new coach Kliff Kingsbury), TCU (a bowl team from last season, even in a down year) and Texas A&M, a favorite to win the SEC West with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Johnny Manziel. The TCU and Texas A&M games are on the road, and Kyle Field in particular will not be a hospitable environment for the Mustangs. SMU misses Louisville, but has to travel to Cincinnati in November before hosting UCF to close the year.

2) South Florida – The schedule appears to be tough early and tough late for the Bulls. September games at Michigan State and hosting Miami (FL) lead into a tough early tilt with Cincinnati. The schedule ends with two potentially tough road games at fellow Sunshine State resident UCF and then Rutgers in New Jersey. The Bulls do get Louisville at home, but it’s a short week as they then travel to Houston for a Thursday Halloween game.

3) Temple – The Owls open with a road trip to Notre Dame for an afternoon tilt with the Fighting Irish, then return home to face Houston. They end September with a lengthy road trip out west one week before hosting American favorite Louisville. It’s a bit challenging early, although the schedule favors them late with softer games and a late bye week. Of course, by then it could be too late.

4) Rutgers – The Scarlet Knights have a long row to hoe, as they will travel great distance this season to take on a couple of teams on the schedule. The travel is mitigated by two three game home stands, but the schedule has almost no rhythm to it. Rutgers plays for four straight weeks, then has a bye, then plays two games in five days, then doesn’t play for 16 days. Oh, and they also have another two games in five days stretch in November, with those two November dates being against Cincinnati and at UCF. It’s an odd schedule that, due to the lack of rhythm, may cost Rutgers in the end more than they’ll make from taking those Thursday night slots on ESPN.

5) UConn – UConn might have one of the biggest “gets” of the non-conference season in the American, as they are hosting Michigan on September 21 at Rentschler Field. That is the end of a three game home stand to start the season for the Huskies before they head to Buffalo to finish the non-conference schedule. Michigan traveling to UConn raises the stakes a bit, but the prior week the Huskies face their old coach, Randy Edsall and the Maryland Terrapins, so an emotional letdown is very much in the cards. The Huskies travel to Cincinnati and UCF in late October and get Rutgers at home in late November. A manageable schedule, but a good start in the first four games, or at the very least wins over Michigan and Maryland, would make for some positive momentum heading forward.

6) UCF – The Knights have a chance to compete for a conference title in their first season in the American, and the schedule sets up relatively nicely for them. A road trip to Happy Valley to face the Nittany Lions is an early season test, but then the Knights have two weeks off to prepare for the other big “get” at home for the American, as Steve Spurrier is bring the Gamecocks into Bright House Networks Stadium on what is sure to be a frenzied day (or night). The Knights travel to Louisville, but have 13 days to prepare for the game, but they will have to face Rutgers on a short week. Overall, though, they have a chance to control their destiny in the American and set themselves up for a nice bowl game in the process.

7) Cincinnati – Tommy Tuberville’s squad faces four teams that had losing records in 2012. Two of those games will be on the road (at Illinois, at Miami (OH)), so neither is a guaranteed win, although things do look favorable for the Bearcats. Cincinnati misses UCF altogether, travels to Rutgers in mid-November and hosts Louisville to close out the season. It looks like a very manageable schedule for Tuberville’s team in 2013.

8) Houston – The Cougars are in a bit of a transition themselves, as they will be playing the 2013 season at Reliant Stadium while their new stadium is being built on campus. It helps to have some games that should draw butts to the seats, and a winnable game against Southern to open the season should do the trick. A tilt with BYU in mid October is another one of those games that should be a packed house, as will the city rivalry game with Rice. The conference schedule gets tricky in November, with three straight games against UCF, Louisville and Cincinnati (with the first two of those three on the road).

9) Memphis – The Tigers need some good things to happen to help turn around what has been a relatively moribund program over the last few years. The schedule sets up decently for them overall to perform better. They probably won’t make a bowl game, but it is not an overly daunting schedule. The roughest patch is the consecutive trips to South Florida and Louisville in mid November, but they avoid Rutgers and host Cincinnati in a midweek game after an 11 day break. Also, they start the season a week later and play all of their non-conference games in the state of Tennessee.

10) Louisville – A preseason pick to win the American in the league’s inaugural season, the Cardinals have a non-conference schedule featuring an Ohio team that stumbled down the stretch last season, a Kentucky team that is breaking in a new coach, a FCS squad in Eastern Kentucky and an FIU program that is breaking in a new coach as well. The toughest spot is probably hosting Rutgers on a short week near the beginning of October, but otherwise it should be smooth sailing for the ‘Ville.