Difficult schedules have not been a major problem for the Cincinnati Bearcats in recent memory. In fact, the last time they had a schedule that was considered more difficult than average was 2010 when they faced No. 8 Oklahoma as well as nine-win teams like West Virginia and NC State. Last year’s slate of games was given a -0.76 strength of schedule rating by Sports-Reference, which put the Bearcats near the bottom of the nation in terms of degree of difficulty.
A simple schedule should help a team win more games. Unfortunately, in the last two seasons, despite playing considerably easier schedules, the Bearcats have gone just 8-16, losing twice as many games as they’ve won. As they enter the summer and prepare for the 2018 campaign, a quick glance at the schedule ahead shows a group of 12 games that, on paper, would fall into what the video game world calls “playing on easy.”
Based on the projected S&P+ ratings for the upcoming season, UC’s average FBS opponent would be ranked No. 77 in the country, with a high of No. 17 (UCF) and a low of 125 (East Carolina). To put that in perspective, UC’s average opponent had a S&P+ rating of 64 last season, including three teams in the top 30. If the projections for this season prove true, then UC will only face one top 30 team this year. That doesn’t even take into account a Sept. 15 home game against Alabama A&M, a team that went 4-7 last year playing in the FCS ranks.
Of course, there’s more to determining how difficult your schedule is than just who you play. Where you play also makes a huge difference. In that regard, the schedule certainly has some pitfalls. Starting the year at UCLA and at Miami-Ohio will make for a tough start. The Bruins went 6-7 last season and all six of their wins came at home, where they did not lose once. While Miami only went 3-3 at home, let’s not forget that if it weren’t for the late-game heroics of Kahlil Lewis and Malik Clements, UC would not have claimed the Victory Bell last fall.
There are a number of other tough road games to be dealt with as well. A Nov. 17 game at UCF, the defending national champions by some measure, and a two-game stretch at Temple and SMU at the end of October will really test the mettle of Luke Fickell’s second team. But both Temple and SMU are outside the top 70, so its not exactly like testing a slew of SEC teams. Additionally, the other road game is against UConn, which has won six games combined during the last two seasons and is projected to finished No. 124 in S&P+ rating.
East Carolina is another squad expected to be in the 120-range and the Pirates are the final game of the season, which will be played at home. Other home dates against Ohio, Tulane, Navy, USF and Alabama A&M will make some of those games less challenging.
It is still going to take a big-time effort and immense improvement for the Bearcats to be competitive week in and week out in 2018. Fickell’s group, as well recruited as it may be, still has learning to do and problems to fix, but the scheduling for this season lends itself to a step forward in the standings, even if its just by a win or two. That would be enough.