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Will Stanford's 2014 schedule be as hard as we make it out to be?

After closer inspection, there's reason to think the Cardinal might have an easier ride than expected

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

If there's anything resembling a unanimous opinion among Stanford fans regarding football, it's this: the 2014 schedule is brutal. And it's hard, looking at the teams on the schedule, to contradict that. They look really, really good.

But there's one thing that gives you comfort as a Stanford fan: history. It's rare for a team to play against an arduous schedule twice in a row. Here's how I determined that. I took the top-5 teams in strength of schedule, as judged by Sagarin, for each year dating back to 2000. Then I compared that to their subsequent year's strength of schedule, by subtracting the average of the first year from the average of the second. Here are the results (as well as the average of the average):

Year Average difference in rating Average difference in ranking
2000-->'01 1.55 5.88
2001-->'02 3.602 26.2
2002-->'03 2.682 8.4
2003-->'04 3.696 27.8
2004-->'05 2.364 14.8
2005-->'06 5.348 27.2
2006-->'07 2.118 8.2
2007-->'08 2.518 13.6
2008-->'09 1.414 8
2009-->'10 2.096 14.8
2010-->'11 5.348 27.2
2011-->'12 3.28 9
2012-->'13 3.06 20.2
Average average 3.006 16.25

So, if history's any guide, we can expect an easier schedule this time around. Going from the toughest schedule -- at least in Sagarin's estimation -- to something like Washington's (the 17th-hardest schedule in 2013) would be helpful in offsetting any decline in quality. If I understand Sagarin's rating system correctly, the average decline is around a field goal against an average opponent on a neutral field -- a pretty substantial effect.

But, then again, there's quite a bit of variance here in the data. If we get the decline in difficulty associated with the 2008 cohort, things will barely be easier. On the other hand, getting something like the 2010 to ‘11 decline would be substantial -- potentially enough to give Stanford a superficially better record, with equivalent or worse performance. (Which goes to show you: in college football, it's often as much about timing and luck as it is quality. The 2013 team was an excellent team that ran into a brutal schedule. It happens.)

Why does this occur? A few thoughts. One possibility is that it's a function of home and away games in the conference schedule -- a tough schedule might be driven by unfavorable road games, which shift to a more favorable position in the next year. If that's so, Stanford can expect less of a bounce than most.

Another possibility is that teams try to schedule easy after a difficult schedule. That seems unlikely, as college football schedules are often set well in advance.

(Fun bonus fact: between 2001 and 2013, Stanford has had one of the five most difficult schedules on four separate occasions. UCLA is second with three.)

A final possibility is that teams are regressing to the mean. That should be what Stanford fans are hoping for, as it suggests the Pac-12 will be less of a jungle this time around.