This week's Top 10 list: Toughest schedules in 2012. To help figure things out, I awarded a point system to every team's opponents: 1 for a “cupcake”; 2 for a decent team; 3 for a top 40 caliber opponent; 4 for a top 20ish opponent; 5 for a Top 5 heavyweight. I'd also bump up the point total, usually half a point if it were a road opponent.
1. Notre Dame: Wait, where are the cupcakes? ND is one of the few programs that doesn't play any FCS programs. The closest things to “cupcake games” are the opener against Navy in Ireland (the Midshipmen have won 24 games the past three seasons); Purdue (a Big Ten team which won seven games in 2011); at BC (who did beat both NC State and Miami last year) or against Wake Forest (which has beaten FSU four of the past six times they've met.) More impressively, the Irish face five teams that have a good shot to be in the top 15: at Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, at OU and then the Irish finish at arch-rival USC. Perhaps the best proof of how hefty this route is for the Irish, consider that Miami--after BYU (a team that may win 10 games this fall)--could prove to be the seventh toughest game on the schedule.
2. Washington: The Huskies, who are completely overhauling a dreadful 2011 defense, don't have too much time to ease into things. They start with San Diego State (who's won 17 games the past two seasons), then venture off to Baton Rouge to face a loaded LSU squad. After the encounter with the Tigers, they get FCS Portland State before the Huskies get into the teeth of their schedule: a three-game stretch against Stanford, the most physical team in the Pac-12, at Oregon and then home against USC to wrap things up against the league's three most talented teams. That means Steve Sarkisian's team faces three teams that figure to be ranked in the preseason Top 5 (USC, LSU and Oregon) and two of those games are on the road. It'll also be interesting to see how healthy and focused the Huskies are after enduring so many heavyweights early because the latter half of the season is packed with road trips.
3. Oregon State: Nicholls State is a comfy opponent to open with, but then a punishing Wisconsin team comes to Corvallis. The Badgers, combined with a trip to BYU, translate into a pretty unpleasant non-conference schedule even with Nicholls as the third part of things. In the second half of the season, when coach Mike Riley very likely will be battling to keep his job, his team has to deal with Utah, Washington, ASU, Stanford, Cal and Oregon, which translates to probably five of the six best teams in the league. The good news: at least the Beavers miss out on USC. The bad news: Washington State or ASU is probably the second-easiest match-up the entire season.
4. Michigan: Year Two for Brady Hoke begins against the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide in Arlington, Texas. Good luck with that one. The Wolverines then don't have much time to bounce back after dealing with such a punishing opponent since they get Air Force in Week Two. The Falcons are always a headache to prepare, coming off a game Alabama figures to make them that much more of a problem. The easiest match-up of the season comes in Week Three against UMASS, which is transitioning into becoming a MAC team. Then, the Wolverines visit Notre Dame to wrap up a brutal non-conference slate. In Big Ten play, they have two ominous road trips: to Nebraska (which comes the week after playing rival Michigan State) and then the finale at Ohio State.
5. Kansas: Charlie Weis inherits a two-win team and a schedule that, after the first two weeks, features 10 consecutive solid opponents that include a trip to face an underrated NIU team, at K-State, at OU, at Texas Tech and a finish in Morgantown. It also makes things seem more ominous for a team when you're the only real hapless program in a league where everyone else is dangerous as the Big 12. Just ask OU and Oklahoma State, who each were knocked off by Texas Tech and Iowa State last year. And then by adding in TCU and WVU, things only got rougher in the Big 12.
6. Ole Miss: If you only look at the first month of the season, things seem quite favorable for new coach Hugh Freeze. The Rebels have three straight home games, with a Week Three visit from Texas being the only one where they'll be an underdog. In Week Four, Ole Miss goes to a rebuilding Tulane program. That means before the end of the September, the Rebels should've surpassed their entire win total of the previous year, and that's really without having beaten anyone too imposing (assuming they are 3-1 with the lone loss against Texas.) But it's after that where things get nasty: the Rebels crack the top six on this list for this reason alone: they have four road games at Alabama; Arkansas, Georgia and LSU, probably the four most talented teams in the country's toughest league. Throw in games against Texas A&M, Auburn and Miss. State and it makes you think it's going to be another dismal fall for the Rebels.
7. Auburn: The Tigers open with one of the most explosive teams in the country, facing Clemson in Atlanta. Then visit Miss. State. Their conference schedule isn't as ominous as Ole Miss because at least Auburn gets to host LSU, Arkansas, Georgia. Of course, the Tigers do have to go visit their arch-rival Alabama.
8. Iowa State: Tulsa and at Iowa aren't easy match-ups for the Cyclones to open the non-conference with. Aside from Kansas, which is sandwiched in between late games at Texas and against WVU, no other Big 12 team seems like it won't be a bowl contender in the league.
9. Cal: The Bears get seven home games, which is nice but they also have back-to-back road trips to Ohio State and USC in the opening month of the season. There is also a four-game stretch of Stanford, at Utah, Washington and Oregon and that comes right after a trip to Wazzu, which is going to be a handful for teams to prepare for this fall.
10. South Carolina: The SEC East teams typically have the easier road these days of the two sides of the country's top conference. The Gamecocks, though, get to go to LSU this fall, which is obviously no cupcake trip. The game with the Tigers also is sandwiched between games against Georgia and at Florida. South Carolina then finishes up at arch-rival Clemson this year.