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Comparing 2018 USF to Past 6-0 Teams with Weak Schedules

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We examine the history of teams that started 6-0 and finished less goodly.

Brian Urlacher
1997 New Mexico had Brian Urlacher, but they played a weak schedule, and had a very 1990s font.

As we all know, USF has put us through a wringer of clutch last-second wins against very bad teams. The phrase “worst 6-0 team ever” has been thrown around, so let’s investigate that. Is it true?

Short answer: probably not, and “worst 6-0 team ever” wouldn’t be saying much anyway.

Long answer: I did an analysis of teams that started a season at least 6-0, and finished the season ranked 50th or worse in sports-reference.com‘s Simple Rating System metric. I like the SRS because it rates all teams in terms of points above or below average, for both offense and defense, and adjusts for garbage-time points.

I figure this metric will capture teams that either crashed and burned mid-season, or played very weak schedules overall. Anyone ranked above 50 didn’t have that bad of a season. One team that comes to mind is last year’s San Diego State. Started 6-0, ended 10-3 with an upset bowl loss to Army. They were 47th in the SRS ranking. Probably not the season they wanted, but not the worst ever after a 6-0 start.

Here is a list of the candidates. I’m not including any 2018 teams yet, since the season is still on going. But there are other suspect teams: Colorado and Cincinnati might be on a future version of this list.

2016 Baylor (7-6, #54 in SRS)

Like 2018 USF, their schedule was front-loaded with weak teams: FCS Northwestern State, SMU (5-7), Rice, Iowa State (2-7 in the Big 12), Kansas. They did have a creditable win, over a 10-3 Oklahoma State team. Baylor peaked at #8 in the AP Poll before a 35-34 loss to Charlie Strong’s Texas Longhorns. After that, the defense came apart, and the Bears gave up 42 points in 5 straight games. They played better in the finale against West Virginia, losing only 24-21, then beat Boise State in the Cactus Bowl.

To put it mildly, this team had some distractions: this was the season of the sexual assault scandal at Baylor that forced out head coach Art Briles and athletic director Ian McCaw.

2012 Rutgers (9-4, #55 in SRS)

This was the Rutgers team that looked like they might actually win the Big East. Despite Greg Schiano leaving for Tampa Bay before the season, they started 7-0 overall and 5-0 in the conference. The team that knocked Rutgers off? Kent State, of all teams, in their one good season under Darrell Hazell.

Rutgers started the season beating Tulane (2-10), FCS Howard, USF (when the delapidated state of the program could no longer be explained away), Arkansas (4-8), UConn (5-7), Syracuse (8-5), and Temple (4-7). West Virginia was in the Big 12 by now, leaving Charlie Strong’s Louisville squad as the only elite team. Rutgers could have lost to them and still won the Big East outright, but were upset by mediocre Pittsburgh. They settled for a four-way tie at 5-2 and went to the Russell Athletic Bowl, which they lost to Virginia Tech. Louisville claimed the champion’s invitation and beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

9-4 with a conference co-championship and an SEC road win isn’t a bad year by any stretch. But this team warrants a mention because its schedule was very weak, and it didn’t exactly blow out any of the bad teams it played.

2012 Ohio (9-4, #77 in SRS)

Like 2012 Rutgers, but even more so. Started 7-0, including a win over just-happy-to-be-playing-football Penn State. Lost four MAC games down the stretch. Rebounded to win the Independence Bowl over Louisiana-Monroe. They played the second-easiest schedule in FBS that season.

2011 Illinois (7-6, #51 in SRS)

Another team who turned a 6-0 start into a 6-6 finish. Illinois’ early opponents were more mediocre than bad: Arkansas State (10-3 in the Sun Belt), Northwestern (5-7), and Western Michigan (7-6) were all middle-of-the-FBS-pack. Their other wins were Indiana (1-11), and FCS South Dakota State. They beat an Arizona State team that was thought to be good, but ended up 6-7 in Dennis Erickson’s last season. Like USF, a lot of these wins were close.

The Illini were 6-0 going into a home game with a non-vintage Ohio State team. Illinois couldn’t get any offense going most of the game, losing 17-7. The next opponent was .500 Purdue, whom they fell behind 21-0, only to lose 21-17. Next up was Penn State. In what turned out to be Joe Paterno’s final game, Illinois was clinging to a 7-3 lead late, but gave up one long drive to lose 10-7. They had a chance to tie it, but a field goal attempt hit the upright, dropping them to 6-3. Competitive losses to good Wisconsin and Michigan teams were nothing to be ashamed of, but they got blown out by a 3-9 Minnesota team to complete the 6-up 6-down season.

This was still good enough to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. They fired Ron Zook anyway. Under an interim coach, they beat UCLA in the bowl game.

2003 Northern Illinois (10-2, #54 in SRS)

A good team, but it shows up here because of a very weak strength of schedule. NIU’s schedule was ranked 113 out of 117, despite beating a Top 25 Maryland team, and a win at Alabama. (For awhile in the early 2000s, Alabama was bad at football. It sounds crazy, I know, but it’s true.) They also beat Iowa State, giving them three wins over major conference teams. But most of the MAC was awful, which explains the low SoS numbers.

But the MAC had other great teams: Miami of Ohio had Ben Roethlisberger, and Bowling Green was still capitalizing on recent head coach Urban Meyer. All three MAC teams won ten games and saw significant time in the AP poll. NIU lost the division-deciding game to BGSU, and late in the season to an 8-4 Toledo team.

Unfortunately, the MAC had only two bowl contracts, so this 10-2 team sadly went nowhere.

2002 Bowling Green (9-3, #56 in SRS)

Similarly to NIU, this Urban Meyer-coached team had power conference wins (Missouri and Kansas), but a weak SOS due to playing a lot of awful MAC teams. And oh yeah, they lost 29-7 to South Florida, in what would be USF’s first win over any kind of ranked FBS team.

2002 Air Force (8-5, #54 in SRS)

Like 2011 Illinois, this team had one quality win (California) mixed in with several average-to-below-average foes. They then lost to better teams Notre Dame, Colorado State, and Virginia Tech (in the San Francisco Bowl). They also lost to two bad teams in Wyoming (2-10) and San Diego State (4-9). Air Force has always been an option team, and it can be hard to draw conclusions from such teams.

1997 New Mexico (9-4, #52 in SRS)

This team is interesting in that their entire regular season was played against teams ranked outside the Top 60. That’s right, they didn’t play anyone in the top sixty until the conference championship game. And there were only 112 I-A teams at the time.

This was the era of the 16-team Western Athletic Conference. New Mexico’s division that year consisted of Rice, SMU, Utah (who wasn’t good yet), TCU (ditto), BYU (in a 6-5 season), UTEP, and Tulsa. Their crossover opponent was 5-7 San Diego State, and their non-conference games were neighborhood rivals/perennial losers UTEP and New Mexico State. They also played Utah State and a I-AA team. They had Brian Urlacher, though, so it’s safe to say their defense was legit.

UNM finally faced Top 25-caliber competition in the conference championship game and the bowl game. Guess how those went. (To be fair, the bowl game was a close 20-13 loss to Arizona in a virtual road game.)

1990 Toledo (9-2, #77 in SRS)

Another case of a MAC team that had a bad SoS because they were way better than most of the rest of the league. Their only conference loss was to co-champion Central Michigan by 1 point, which was enough to cost them the MAC’s only bowl game invitation. Their head coach was a guy named Nick Saban.

Keep in mind that this far back, there was no Sun Belt, no Conference USA, and no start-up programs (though there was still a Big West). So the MAC was further removed from the other conferences than it is now.

1984 Indiana State (9-3, #69 in SRS)

A Missouri Valley Conference team? Yes, the Missouri Valley was I-A until 1986. I think this tells us we’ve gone back far enough. Any further and we’d have to start considering Ivy League teams.

So what do we make of all this?

  • If you’re 6-0, no matter how you got there, you’re not that bad. In 35 years, only a handful of such teams finished outside the Top 50, and many of those were due to strength of schedule. Almost all of these teams stuck their heads into the AP and Coaches’ Polls. Northern Illinois got as high as #12. Baylor reached #8. USF is only #20, in a year where teams ranked #20-25 aren’t exactly distinguishing themselves.
  • Very few teams start 6-0 and fall apart completely. Only two went from 6-0 to 6-6. One had an interim head coach and nasty off-field problems. And both won their bowl game.
  • In cases where a 6-0 start was built on the backs of a weak first-half schedule, those teams continued to beat lesser opponents. This bodes well for USF’s ability to dispose of UConn and Tulane at home. Let’s hope it doesn’t take all 60 minutes.
  • There are several other teams that started 6-0 but played weaker schedules than USF. USF’s schedule looks bad now (116th out of 130), but it’ll get better. Not just because we play Houston, Cincinnati, Temple, and C., but because Georgia Tech and Illinois will play all P5 opponents and their ratings will rise.
  • The question of “worst 6-0 team ever” depends on cross-era and cross-conference comparisons that are difficult to make. How would you compare USF with MAC teams from before the spread offense or start-up football programs were widespread? How would you compare the American to conferences that had 8 or 16 teams? How do you compare USF with option teams? I don’t think you can. But, we now have an idea what the worst 6-0 team ever might look like. And I don’t think we’re it.