When putting together your team’s schedule, it’s important to have a realistic sense of your own program’s quality and ambition. If you swing too hard, you might blow a postseason chance, have to replace a head coach, or something worse.
Well, below are the somethings worst, when some of history’s worst college football teams faced schedules that would’ve been difficult even for good teams.
To find the most inappropriately difficult slates ever, I compared team power ratings (using the SRS metric by Sports-Reference) to schedule-strength ratings (using the SOS metric by Sports-Reference) for every season played by every major-level program. Basically, I went looking for the teams with the biggest differences between their own quality and their average opponent quality in a given season.
From that list of most extravagantly overwhelmed teams, I picked one for each decade, all the way back to 1869.
“Major” is a key term here, encompassing FBS, I-A, and other top-level terminology from previous eras. It’d be easy to point at the worst team in Division I or lower each year, but we’re interested in contemporary FBS equivalents. When it’s unclear how to assess an older season, we’ll leave the call once again to Sports-Reference.
All rankings below are via SRS.
2010s representative: Kansas, #119 out of 128 FBS teams in 2015
- 62-7 L at #5 Oklahoma
- 66-7 L vs. #14 Baylor
- 23-17 L at #20 TCU
- 58-10 L at #33 Oklahoma State
- 49-0 L vs. #35 West Virginia
- 55-23 L vs. #42 Memphis
- 30-20 L vs. #56 Texas Tech
- 45-14 L vs. #63 Kansas State
- 59-20 L at #69 Texas
- 38-13 L at #82 Iowa State
- 27-14 L at #88 Rutgers
- 41-38 L vs. FCS #15 South Dakota State
Here’s a fact: just about the least embarrassing game of KU’s 2015 was when they nearly reached overtime against a team that is otherwise 0-9 all-time against FBS programs, but fumbled while trying to spike the ball.
It was almost all downhill after that, and this team never should’ve agreed to face anyone tougher than Colgate, who finished just behind SDSU in the FCS rankings.
“But they had to play conference games,” you might retort.
The fact that we have systems designed to obligate 2015 Kansas to play more football is an argument against those systems.
Also considered: 2019 UMass, with a 21-point disparity between the Minutemen and their average opponent ... despite UMass’ schedule rating as the country’s second-easiest. There is no good answer to the question of why the ex-MAC Minutemen chose FBS independence over FCS. But at least they beat Akron in one of the least necessary games ever.
2000s rep: Temple, #112 out of 119 teams in 2005
- 34-3 L vs. #7 Miami
- 65-0 L at #17 Wisconsin
- 37-7 L at #25 Clemson
- 63-16 L at #26 Arizona State
- 51-3 L at #38 Virginia
- 38-7 L vs. #41 Maryland
- 42-17 L vs. #46 Toledo
- 38-17 L at #53 Navy
- 41-14 L vs. #56 Miami (Ohio)
- 70-7 L at #76 Bowling Green
- 19-16 L vs. #86 Western Michigan
It’s a good thing Temple, newly independent after getting kicked out of the Big East for not trying hard enough at football, limited this burst of ambition to only playing two Miamis in one October.
The Owls might’ve also lost to the NEO Golden Norse of Miami, Oklahoma, a productive JUCO led by NFL draftee Deji Karim at the time.
Also considered: 2003 Army, during the program’s doomed experiment with Conference USA membership, and 2001 Duke, SRS’ worst power-conference team of the millennium.
1990s rep: Illinois, #101 out of 112 teams in 1997
- 41-6 L at #9 Ohio State
- 35-22 L vs. #13 Washington State
- 41-6 L vs. #18 Penn State
- 27-17 L vs. #20 Michigan State
- 38-10 L at #23 Iowa
- 24-7 L vs. #24 Southern Miss
- 48-3 L vs. #25 Purdue
- 34-21 L vs. #48 Northwestern
- 31-7 L at #53 Wisconsin
- 23-6 L vs. #81 Indiana
- 26-14 L at #104 Louisville
This could’ve been WAY worse! If the Big Ten’s current structure had been in place, Illinois could’ve also had to face an elite Michigan and an even better Nebraska. Moving right along.
1980s rep: 1981 Northwestern
and 1970s rep: 1978 Northwestern
I’m not the one forcing Northwestern to keep trying (both way too hard and not very hard) at football, so I’m not gonna take the time to list all this.
The important notes are that Northwestern gets permanent power-conference status, and Boise State doesn’t, while other Big Ten programs get to boast about the courage value of a nine-game schedule that includes teams such as Northwestern. Pretty great deal!
1960s rep: Illinois, #105 out of 122 teams in 1969
- 37-6 L vs. #1 Missouri
- 41-0 L at #2 Ohio State
- 57-0 L vs. #11 Michigan
- 49-22 L vs. #17 Purdue
- 40-0 L vs. #45 Iowa
- 41-20 L at #48 Indiana
- 48-20 L vs. #50 Iowa State
- 10-6 L vs. #70 Northwestern
- 55-14 L at #78 Wisconsin
- 19-18 L vs. #87 Washington State
Ugh, all these bad programs facing absurd levels of difficulty. Decades later, they’re all still clogging up the schedules of better teams. In college football, nothing ever cha-
Alabama! 1955! #92 out of 110 teams!
- 21-0 vs. #3 TCU
- 26-2 L vs. #8 Georgia Tech
- 34-12 L at #14 Miami
- 21-6 L at #17 Vanderbilt
- 26-0 L vs. #25 Auburn
- 20-0 L vs. #30 Tennessee
- 26-7 L vs. #39 Mississippi State
- 27-7 L vs. #40 Tulane
- 35-14 L at #46 Georgia
- 20-0 L at #51 Rice
History proves it’s impossible for Alabama to defeat Rice, so sure, this scheduling was way too courageous for Ears Whitworth’s boys at the time. But now that Bama’s spent the last seven decades working up the gall to face the Owls again, could it be just about time?
Also considered: Alabama is 0-3 against Rice.
1940s rep: Pitt, #72 out of 120 teams in 1947
- 69-0 L at actual national champ Michigan
- 40-6 L vs. national co-champ Notre Dame
- 14-0 L at #10 Illinois
- 29-0 L at #12 Minnesota
- 28-0 L at #17 Purdue
- 29-0 L vs. #18 Penn State
- 41-6 L at #42 Indiana
- 17-2 L vs. #44 West Virginia
- 12-0 W vs. #51 Ohio State!
In any football history thing, World War II and its aftermath make the ‘40s weird. The worst team on this schedule was Ohio State! That’s weird!
The Panthers should’ve followed the Steelers’ wartime lead and merged with nearby programs (a la the local pro team’s 1943 Eagles and 1944 Cardinals combo teams).
Merge 1947 Pitt with South Carolina and soar around the country in the CockPitt.
Also considered: 1949 BYU, whose schedule was far too challenging even before you factor losses to Pepperdine and one of the last WWII programs, Pacific Fleet. “The immediate outlook for the Cougars is not bright,” admitted the media guide before the season.
1930s rep: Sewanee, SRS #123 out of 128 teams in 1935
When none of your conference rivals feel the need to visit your place, you should make better friends (who are, like you, not great at football).
- 46-0 L at #23 Vanderbilt
- 25-0 L at #31 Mississippi State
- 32-0 L at #41 Georgia Tech
- 33-0 L at #43 Tulane
- 33-0 L at #44 Ole Miss
- 20-0 L at #82 Florida
- 32-0 L vs. #89 Saint Louis
- 9-7 W vs. non-major Tennessee Wesleyan
- 6-0 W vs. non-major Tennessee Tech
The Tigers would leave the SEC and work their way to a friendlier fit in Division III. Either way, nothing can take away the national championship I’ve awarded Sewanee for 1899, other than the fact they’ve yet to accept it.
Also considered: 1939 Wyoming, but here’s a much better (worse) Wyoming:
1920s rep: Wyoming, #108 out of 109 in 1923
The best thing about the 1923 Cowboys’ horrendous ratings: they don’t fully factor the gravity of this year’s loss to a team that isn’t an opposing university. See if you can spot the game I’m referring to:
- 20-3 L at #7 Colorado
- 33-0 L at #16 Colorado State
- 34-7 L vs. #20 Colorado College
- 20-6 L vs. #39 Utah State
- 79-0 L at #45 Utah
- 45-0 L at #68 Denver
- 20-0 L vs. #89 Colorado School of Mines
- 14-0 L vs. University of Wyoming faculty members
There’s almost nothing on the internet about it, including newspaper archives. It appears all we know is this: Wyoming’s football team shouldn’t have agreed to a football game against their teachers, because their teachers won.
1910s rep: 1917 Newberry, #88 out of 88 teams and super decisively the worst team in South Carolina
- 20-0 L vs. #48 Presbyterian (of Clinton, South Carolina)
- 45-0 L at #51 Wofford in Spartanburg, South Carolina
- 38-0 L at #66 South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina
- 20-7 L at #70 Furman in Greenville, South Carolina
- 32-7 L at #71 The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina
- 57-0 L vs. non-major Erskine (of Due West, South Carolina)
At least the pre-Wolves managed to avoid this year’s Clemson, which beat all five of Newberry’s major opponents.
Also considered: 1911 Colorado State, statistically the most overmatched team in major CFB history. The Rams’ average opponent was 24 points better. But those were all conference games, and it’s much funnier to look at independents like Newberry, who opted into each of these bad ideas one-by-one.
1900s rep: Florida in 1904, 86 years before Florida invented football
This program wasn’t yet the Gators, a major, or even really the University of Florida. But I’m ignoring all that, because everyone should get a load of this 17-day season:
- 29-0 L at SRS #57 (out of 81 teams) Alabama on a Monday
- 44-0 L at #28 Auburn via train the next day
- 52-0 L at #67 Georgia via train four days after that
- 77-0 L at #36 Georgia Tech via train after a single, luxurious bye week
- 23-0 L vs. non-major Florida State four days after that
And now we know why, to this day, the Gators never willingly leave the state.
Also considered: 1904 Franklin & Marshall, almost equally outclassed ... against twice as many opponents.
1890s rep: MIT, #41 out of 41 teams in 1899
- 44-6 L at #10 Wesleyan
- 38-0 L at #13 Brown
- 12-5 L at #35 Amherst College
- 29-0 L at #36 Tufts
- 10-6 L vs. #36 Tufts
- 24-0 L vs. non-major Boston College
The first sentence explains the second:
- The Engineers were helpless against a pretty light schedule.
- A year or so later, the Engineers quit football for 71 years.
Also considered: 1891’s 0-6 Haverford, the only season in school history considered major-level. Probably a good reason for that!
1880s rep: Lehigh, #9 out of nine teams in 1884
- 61-0 L at #7 Rutgers
- 50-0 L at #8 Lafayette
- 34-4 L vs. #8 Lafayette
- 36-12 L vs. non-major Haverford
This is almost literally the easiest schedule a team could construct while still being considered a major. The only way to make this easier without playing half of it against non-major teams: replace that game against #7 Rutgers with yet another against #8 Lafayette. But two Lafayette games were already way too many for Lehigh to handle!
The country’s lightest schedule was still far too ambitious. Lehigh’s debut team would’ve been a 36-point underdog against an average contemporary anyway.
They then chose to keep playing Lafayette until the end of time, usually doing much better than these first efforts.
1870s rep: The Tufts Jumbos, #6 out of eight teams in 1877
- 1-0 L at national champ Yale
- 8-4 L at SRS #3 Amherst College
- 3-0 L vs. #4 Harvard
By far the least embarrassing entry. That’s Jumbos football, baby.
Also, the Jumbos could’ve just played one game this year, as some teams were still doing. The Jumbos should’ve just given Yale a pretty good challenge, and then the Jumbos should’ve quit and declared the Jumbos #2.
1860s: Oh yeah, you guessed it
In 1869, Rutgers began scheduling itself to appear in football-like games, a problem for which we’ve yet to find a solution.