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In which we adopt 2021 college football teams based solely on schedule quirkiness

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State, by Ryan Nanni

In their first year under new head coach Mel Tucker, the Spartans finished with a very odd 2-5 record. The victories: a close road win over rival Michigan and a defeat of eventual West division champion Northwestern, ranked #8 at the time. The losses: Rutgers’ first conference win since 2017, blowouts at the hands of Indiana, Iowa, and Ohio State, and a second-half collapse against Penn State. There’s evidence of anything you want to believe, from the start of a successful transition to a painful descent for a program facing a rebuild.

Good news: Whatever your conclusion, it’ll get tested pretty quick in 2021!

SEPT 4: @ Northwestern

SEPT 11: Youngstown State

SEPT 18: @ Miami (Florida)

SEPT 25: Nebraska

OCT 2: Western Kentucky

OCT 9: @ Rutgers

OCT 16: @ Indiana

OCT 23: BYE

OCT 30: Michigan

NOV 6: @ Purdue

NOV 13: Maryland

NOV 20: @ Ohio State

NOV 27: Penn State

Entering the revenge game against Rutgers (that’s fun to say, isn’t it?), the Spartans could be off to a strong start, splitting two challenging road contests and holding serve at home. Or they could be in a tailspin, with losses to the Huskers and the Hilltoppers, who won nine games in 2019. There’s also option three, where Michigan State just alternates wins and losses most of the year as they flirt with bowl eligibility.

There’s no way to tell, either, because this Spartan schedule features mystery box after mystery box. Were the steps Indiana, Northwestern, and Miami took last season part of a sustainable climb? Did Michigan, Purdue, and Penn State slide back as hard as it appeared? Is Maryland allowed to be good beyond Week 3? What is “Nebraska,” and why? Michigan State’s final record might turn more on the answers to all of these questions than the strides Tucker and his staff make in their second year.

That’s why I find this schedule fascinating. It’s a reminder that we don’t control most of what happens in life. All we can do – all any of us can do – is try not to turn the ball over seven times against Rutgers this year.

BYU, by Brian Floyd

Bask in the glory of this pieced-together schedule simply for the teams and destinations:

SEPT 4: Arizona (in Las Vegas)

SEPT 11: Utah

SEPT 18: Arizona State

SEPT 25: USF

OCT 1: @ Utah State

OCT 9: Boise State

OCT 16: @ Baylor

OCT 23: @ Washington State

OCT 30: Virginia

NOV 6: Idaho State

NOV 20: @ Georgia Southern

NOV 27: @ USC

Here we have five Pac-12 teams, which makes BYU both an honorary league member and immediate frontrunner in the South division. Look at that opening stretch of a Las Vegas vacation with Arizona, Utah (on Sept 11), and Arizona State while also making note of how many home games are at the front of the slate. By Week 4, we’ll have a pretty good idea, in one direction or another, of where to peg BYU’s championship game hopes.

After a month of not leaving Utah – and where the only away game is in Logan – the Cougars pay the toll of Waco and Pullman trips in back-to-back weeks, which is certainly a choice when mapping out a road trip.

From that wild swing, they jump right into a game that surely won’t cause any anxiety or stress at all with former head coach Bronco Mendenhall coming to town. BYU ends the season by flying to Statesboro and Los Angeles on back-to-back weeks to bookend Thanksgiving. This all feels like a bad idea.

Penn State, by Steven Godfrey

All James Franklin really has to do this season is convince us that EVERYTHING IS FINE. Remember that hellacious 2020 skid? It was a product of injuries, the pandemic, or anything else that can’t be considered systemic to his program. Penn State can and will win consistently and immediately.

This is a downright terrible schedule in which to achieve that.

To be clear: Franklin currently sits atop a cold coaching seat, thanks to a robust contract and his larger body of work. But another bad start could change the tone and tenor around Happy Valley real fast – and would y’all look at that, the Lions’ early conference schedule is pocked with potential trouble.

Except they might also beat an SEC program during this slide?

Just look at this thing; it’s a weird, woeful task for anyone trying to measure PSU before Thanksgiving:

SEPT 4: @ Wisconsin

SEPT 11: Ball State

SEPT 18: Auburn

SEPT 25: Villanova

OCT 2: Indiana

OCT 9: @ Iowa

OCT 16: BYE

OCT 23: Illinois

OCT 30: @ Ohio State

NOV 6: @ Maryland

NOV 13: Michigan

NOV 20: Rutgers

NOV 27: @ Michigan State

Penn State is going to try to assure us all that things are FINE … in a trap opener against a ruddy ol’ Sconnie returning a bunch of offensive starters, then a still-really-good Indiana featuring one Michael Penix Jr., and then a road trip to Iowa City, where the Lions eked out wins by five and two points in their previous visits, against an Iowa team that whipped them 41-21 in State College last year. It’s a virtual lock that Penn State will either lose this game by 20-plus or devolve into an Iowa themselves to win 12-10. This is what happens in Iowa City, for the corn knows no other way.

So it’s entirely possible — nay, likely — that PSU opens 3-3 with three conference losses and a win against a rebuilding Auburn, with Ohio State and Michigan looming in the back half of the year. How do you spin that? Even if the Hoosiers are simply better for two consecutive years, how does that fact land among fans?

And if they are 3-3, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Franklin and his hiccuping offense to beat their aspirant baby-brother “rivals,” Maryland and Rutgers, just to keep face. Anyway, I’m sure the press conferences will be mild and not at all interesting.

Arkansas, by Holly Anderson

Did you even watch any games last year? Me either. It’s fine. Allow me to reintroduce you to the Razorbacks, an ever-reliable zero-entry pool of football happenings. Even if your understanding of the sport’s landscape has simmed directly from winter of 2019 to now, you should be able to peruse the following slate and divine a spot or three where some real outlandish nonsense is bound to arise:

SEPT 4: Rice

SEPT 11: Texas

SEPT 18: Georgia Southern

SEPT 25: @ Texas A&M (in Arlington)

OCT 2: @ Georgia

OCT 9: @ Ole Miss

OCT 23: Arkansas-Pine Bluff (in Little Rock)

NOV 6: Mississippi State

NOV 13: @ LSU

NOV 20: @ Alabama

NOV 26: Missouri

Sark’s Texas choo-choo train rolls into town on the 20th anniversary of 9/11, followed by an option team; sure, that’ll be fun to prepare for! That pivot, however, pales in comparison to what comes next: a three-week road trip ping-ponging the Hawgs from the Jerrydome to Athens to the Grove, with nary a slouch opponent to be seen.

And speaking of Jerry, did he set fire to Greg Sankey’s house and we just missed it? Why is Arkansas being dispatched to LSU and Alabama in back-to-back weeks in the middle of November (I don’t care what state of disarray the Bayou Bengals are in; the fans are at least as daunting an opponent even at the worst of times)? What have they ever done to us, besides provide a constant stream of FOIA-based entertainment and a grandiose series of ever-escalating wildlife statuary?

Don’t you dare feel sorry for us, Razorback lifers will hiss. We don’t. Not because this isn’t an absolute beast of a schedule – but because Arkansas is not a program one historically wants to approach in tall grass when they’re lying low. The deck is stacked against them, but at minimum, somebody’s ankles are getting bit up real good this season. Achilles tendons are gonna find themselves on the wrong ends of knives in the dark. At least one set of highfalutin’ asses will be gored on live television, and I hope I’m there when it happens. And failing that, there’s always a stout chance Kendal Briles gets narced on by his own industry peers for whatever bullshit he gets up to on the trail this time. That’ll be fun too.

The argument is simple, and eternal: It’s Arkansas. Y’all know something squirrelly’s gonna happen.

[MEMO TO ARKANSAS FANS: The above is a sincere and heartfelt compliment. Please do not approach my mother in church.]