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UCF Football’s Strength of Schedule Steps Up in the Big 12

The AAC got better, but it’s not the Big 12.

JRP and the Knights get a major jump in competition in the Big 12
Photo: Derek Warden

One of the things we’ve heard since time immemorial is the UCF Knights’ schedule in The American just doesn’t hold up compared to Power Five conferences, and if the Knights moved to a league like that, they’d learn that the weekly grind is much more challenging.

Fortunately, we can measure that. The question is how.

I took a look at UCF’s football schedule from 2017 on, using the same formula I did for Volleyball — the rolling average of the opponents’ rankings.

The problem is finding the right ranking to use since football has no RPI. That’s where Jeff Sagarin’s rankings come in.

Sagarin measures all teams in Division I — FBS and FCS — and pools them into one unified ranking system. That way, we can measure the schedule strength for every team on UCF’s total schedule, and each team’s rating is valid across all games as well.

So let’s start by comparing UCF’s 2023 schedule (based on the 2022 final rankings) vs. the average of UCF’s schedules from 2017-2022:

Data: Sagarin

Here’s how UCF’s schedules ranked (again, per Sagarin) from 2017-2022:

  1. 2022 — 78
  2. 2020 — 79
  3. 2017 — 80
  4. 2019 — 91
  5. 2018 — 94
  6. 2021 — 98

A couple of observations:

  • The average Sagarin ranking of UCF’s opponents in the Big 12 is 56, up from 78 across 2017-2022
  • Check out how the trend line for 2023 (blue) starts higher than 2017-2022 (black) and gets even higher as the season progresses.
  • UCF’s non-conference schedule throws this off a little bit, thanks to games against the likes of South Carolina State, Bethune-Cookman, and (unfortunately in-conference until 2020) UConn.

Because of that last note, I wanted to go a little deeper and see the conference schedules, so I charted those (excluding conference title games, which tend to throw off the averages):

Data: Sagarin

2023’ Big 12 opponents average out to 37th in Sagarin. From 2017-2022, the average AAC team ranked 87th — a 50-place jump.

The toughest AAC schedules UCF faced (by average Sagarin ranking):

  1. 2022 — 72
  2. 2017 — 83
  3. 2020 — 85
  4. 2021 — 90
  5. 2019 — 92
  6. 2018 — 98

Some more observations:

  • UConn is absolutely horrendous at football and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the Big 12 or any other FBS conference under any circumstances.
  • Interesting how 2019 was UCF’s toughest AAC schedule.
  • The average Sagarin ranking of UCF’s AAC opponents from 2017-2022 was 87th. The Knights’ first Big 12 schedule averages out to 37th.
  • Shout-out to 2017 for being the toughest AAC schedule over this period, and that was before UCF put the AAC’s competition level on the national map.

These 2023 numbers are based on 2022’s final rankings. I’ll update this once the season is over. But for now, let it be known that yes, UCF is seeing its overall strength of schedule jump up just by virtue of being in the Big 12.

What the Knights do with this challenge will be the big storyline not just in 2023, but for the next several years.