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Arizona football has stronger strength of schedule than you think

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Despite what seems to be a weak non-conference slate, the Pac-12 schedule will not be kind to the Arizona Wildcats.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona football's non-conference schedule isn't very impressive. It's not necessarily embarrassingly poor, either. UNLV turned a 2-11 record in 2012 into a 7-6 mark last season, UT-San Antonio is working toward becoming a big boy and Nevada is coming off a relatively down season.

It's that Pac-12 slate making Arizona's schedule nothing short of difficult. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Wildcats have the 16th-hardest schedule in the nation and the eighth-hardest in the conference.

Don't believe ESPN? Phil Steele also ranks Arizona fairly high, projecting the Wildcats as having the 29th toughest schedule. Steele has Notre Dame with the toughest schedule instead of UCLA, though that makes sense because the Irish play defending champ Florida State on the road, along with meetings with Stanford, USC and Arizona State.

Arizona's non-conference schedule will probably be a target of criticism, but the SOS goes in the other direction considering UA must face the two favorites from the Pac-12 North and South -- Oregon and UCLA -- on the road. The good news is the Wildcats have USC and ASU in Tucson and miss playing against Stanford for the second year in a row.

Strength of schedule doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. National championship contenders will have a playoff beginning this year, and unlike basketball, SOS hardly comes into play when determining where reasonably good teams like Arizona will play in bowl games. In the end, the difference between lower-tier bowl games is more about which bowl committee has first dibs on which conferences, and which team it thinks can draw the largest crowd.

Strength of schedule can, however, predict favorites, as it did for Arizona over Boston College in the bowl game last year.

It still has a bit to do with the reasoning for Pac-12 coaches, outside of Rich Rodriguez, to be pushing the other Power 5 conferences to play as competitive of schedules as they do. But maybe it's clear why RichRod was the only Pac-12 coach who wouldn't be for Power 5 schools playing against only Power 5 opponents in their non-conference schedule.

Arizona won't play a Power 5 school before Pac-12 play but the schedule is still considered more difficult than five of the top-6 schools with the best odds to win the national title (Auburn is ranked as having the fifth-toughest schedule by Steele). Ohio State (36), Florida State (46), Oregon (48), Oklahoma (49) and Alabama (61) all fall below UA's 29th-place ranking, according to Steele.