So after I looked at how the leagues schedules affected the race in East, now for the part I care more about: How the West will be won.
How I think the fans of the six schools should feel about what their league schedule looks like:
Very Happy: La Tech
Calm: Rice, UTSA, UTEP
Unhappy: Southern Miss
Very Unhappy: None
Let’s assume that La Tech fancies to have a shot at the division title. Maybe not the best one at the outset – but still a shot. If they could have drafted their league schedule to help them achieve this goal this is pretty much what it would look like. In crossover games they got winnable away games at FBS neophyte Old Dominion and 2-win UAB, and a home a game against WKU (not a gimme) but at home La Tech should think this game is winnable. That leaves them with 3 home games within the division and they got 2 of the favorites, Rice and UTSA, at home, as well as UTEP. On the road they get USM and as the only negative a game at UNT. If they could have switched UTEP with UNT this would have been the perfect schedule. So if La tech is good enough to challenge for the division 6 or 7 conference wins are not out of the question. Be aware that if La Tech should turn out to only be a “normal circumstances bowl team”, then the home/road split is not quite so favorable.
Rating UNTs out of conference schedule right now is kind of hard. If we assume that UNT might have a decent outside shot at the division crown then this schedule is not easy, but allows for a chance. The crossover part is nothing short of spectacularly favorable for UNT. UNT misses both Marshall and MTSU, and doesn’t even have to contend with WKU. I was partially surprised by this, because it is the first time in 14 years that MTSU is not on UNTs schedule. That was as close to a stable series as UNT had. Instead they get both Florida schools at home and a trip to UAB. If UNT is to challenge for a division title then 3 wins in those games have to be possible. The home/away split is not super favorable though. Because UNT hosted all Texas schools, it will have to play away in San Antonio and Houston. Splitting those games is not easy if they are away, but it might be enough if UNT can hold serve at home against La Tech (a plus to get that team at home) and USM. All in all, considering the alternatives I think UNT fans can be cautiously happy with this schedule.
Compared to UNTs crossover schedule, UTSAs crossover schedule is just a tad bit more challenging. There is a decent bit of travel with FAU and WKU and both teams project to be middle of the pack to OK, so playing them on the road is a hurdle — managable. Tripping up is clearly a possibility also. FIU at home has to be a win. The intra-division home/road split is ok. With only two road games left at La Tech and at Rice is not ideal, as La Tech is another hurdle that is harder on the road, and the game with Rice might be very crucial to the division race. But then again the home advantage for Rice might only mean so much. Home games against UTEP and Southern Miss need to be won if UTSA wants to win the division and playing UNT in San Antonio is a clear advantage. All in all this schedule give UTSA a fair chance, but it also put in a decent amount of hurdles to jump if UTSA is to climb to the Wests top spot.
At a first glance, Rice’s schedule looks really nice. As the defending champion they get the West runner ups UNT and UTSA both at home and only have one semi-difficult road trip within the division (@La tech). But the crossover games have a bummer in them. Yes there are probably two wins with ODU coming to town and away to FIU but then there is this game at Marshall. A rematch of last year’s championship game clearly favors Marshall this time, because they bring back much more of last year’s team, but also because that game in Huntington. If Rice should indeed loose this game, then the home/road split within the division is still nice, but there will probably be zero margin for error.
I really can’t see Southern Miss challenging for much more than a bowl this season. Because of that, I was close to putting the Eagles into the very unhappy category. First in the crossover games, USM gets to play both Marshall and a game at MTSU. That is pretty awful. At least they get UAB at home, a game both programs will probably look at as a good chance for a W. The home/away split within the division is not exactly lucky either. In order to get to a bowl UTEP would have been a good game to have at home. At least they get La tech and Rice at home, but at UNT and at UTSA will be tough outs. Rice at least would not have that much of a home advantage. USM needs probably 4 conference wins to get bowl eligible, and this schedule, particularly the crossover part, is not helpful in that respect.
UTEP is another program where the ceiling this year is probably more bowl eligibility than a division title. The crossover part with @WKU and vs MTSU and ODU looks challenging, but with (a good bit of) imagination maybe a 2-1 can be eeked out. The home/road split within the division is ok, but not great. On the plus side they get USM at home, and who knows maybe something can be made of a home game against UNT, but La Tech on the road is a negative, and games @Rice and @UTSA don’t project to much promise for unexpected Ws.