Who you play each season matters in college football. It's always been the case, but in the age of the College Football Playoff, it matters even more. While winning your conference is as simple as having a better record against your conference opponents than everybody else within it, it's not enough to get you to the playoff.
To reach the playoff, you have to be deemed one of the four best teams in the country by a select group of individuals, a group that might have stats and metrics available to them as tools to make decisions, though they remain humans nonetheless.
You have to impress them. You have to beat Somebody. You can't lose to Nobody.
With that in mind, I've spent the last few springs trying to determine which teams in the country are likely to face the most difficult schedules in the upcoming seasons. It's not an overly complicated process, but I'll explain how it works.
Methodology: I rank all 130 teams using use a statistical model that judges teams based on their performances in games. My opinion plays no role in it. History often gives us the best glimpse into the future, so I use rankings from the previous seasons to get an idea of how good any given team can expect to be in the next season. Teams are then given a weight that coincides with their past performance, and these weights are applied when going through each team's schedule.
I then add or subtract additional weights based on where and when the game is being played. Road games are more difficult than home games, for example, and playing a Thursday night game after playing the previous Saturday adds a degree of difficulty. Playing eight straight weeks without a bye does, too.
After inputting all of this information, a number is produced that shows a team's projected strength of schedule. One thing to keep in mind before you go through these rankings is that the best teams in a conference are at somewhat of a disadvantage compared to their conference mates as they do not get to play themselves. That naturally hinders its SOS against the other programs in the conference that do face it. Conversely, the worst team doesn't play itself, and that impacts the floor of its SOS projection.
What do the scores mean? The overall score is the team's SOS compared to the average SOS of all 130 FBS teams. For example, 21.34% is better than average. A negative score indicates below average. Colorado (39.19%) will enter 2020 with the toughest projected schedule among Power Five teams, while Syracuse (-6.40%) will have the easiest. The conference score is the same principle, but it is strictly in relation to the average score of the schedules within that team's conference.
Here's how things shook out in the AAC.
|Tulane reached a bowl game for the second consecutive season in 2019, the first time it had done so in program history. If it's going to extend that record to three, it's not going to be easy. The Wave play a nonconference schedule that features two Power Five opponents in Northwestern and Mississippi State, both of which will be on the road. Tulane will also play Army as well as Southeastern Louisiana at home. In conference, divisions are gone and Tulane finds itself playing UCF and Houston on the road as well as Memphis and Temple at home. Overall: 12.44% | AAC: 11.53%|
|The Bulls lead off the season with what should be their most difficult nonconference game on the road at Texas. The rest of the noncon includes a road game against Florida Atlantic and two home dates with Bethune-Cookman and Nevada. In AAC play, the Bulls play everybody you'd like to avoid if you could. They'll get UCF and Navy at home. That's the good news! The bad news is the Bulls have to play Cincinnati, Temple, Memphis and Houston on the road. Jeff Scott's first season in Tampa won't be breezy. Overall: 9.78% | AAC: 8.84%|
|In 2016, Tulsa went 10-3, which was far and away its best season as a member of the AAC. In its other five seasons in the conference, it has averaged 3.4 wins per season. Improving that number significantly should prove difficult in 2020. Outside the AAC, the Golden Hurricane get one of the better MAC programs in Toledo, as well as a strong Sun Belt program in Arkansas State on the road. There's also a trip down the road to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State and a home date with Northwestern State. It's not crazy to think the Hurricane could go 1-3 in that stretch. Conference play then opens with UCF on the road, a bye, Cincinnati at home and USF on the road. November brings another tough stretch of games at Navy, vs. SMU, vs. Tulane and at Houston to finish the year. Overall: 7.90% | AAC: 6.94%|
|Cougars everywhere you look! Houston will go on the road to face the Cougars of Washington State and BYU this year. If only BYU had been able to schedule a game with Wazzu so we could have a Cougar Cup. Anyway, those will be Houston's two most difficult noncon games, as home dates with Rice and North Texas seem manageable. Conference play throws a rough road slate at the Coogs as they'll play Memphis, Navy, Cincinnati and SMU on the road. At home, they draw both UCF and USF, as well as Tulane and Tulsa. Overall: 7.21% | AAC: 6.25%|
|Outside the AAC, Memphis will get a chance to add a Big Ten pelt to its resume when it hits the road to face Purdue. It plays Arkansas State like Tulsa does, but gets the Red Wolves in the Liberty Bowl. Other noncon games against UTSA and UT-Martin don't look imposing. The Tigers catch a break because they have to play Houston, UCF, Temple and USF, but get them all at home. Of course, that doesn't mean road games against SMU, Cincinnati, Navy and Tulane won't provide challenges. Overall: 3.89% | AAC: 2.89%|
|One could argue that Navy's game against Notre Dame is the most difficult nonconference game any AAC member will play in 2020. The good news for Navy is the game has been moved from Ireland to Annapolis. The rest of the noncon slate includes requisite dates with Air Force (in Colorado), Army (in Philly) and Lafayette. In conference play, the Mids avoid drawing both UCF and Cincinnati. They also get Temple, Houston and Memphis at home. Overall: 2.02% | AAC: 1.00%|
|As represented in the overall score, as compared to the entirety of FBS, ECU basically has an average SOS projection. The toughest noncon game will be at South Carolina. Marshall, Norfolk State, and a road game against Georgia State are more manageable. In the AAC, the Pirates open conference play with UCF and hit the road to face USF. Of course, playing in a stadium with a pirate ship might negate USF's home-field advantage there. I did not include this in my calculations. Maybe I should have? Anyway, there's a tough road stretch late in the season when the Pirates will play at Cincinnati and Temple in consecutive weeks before finishing the season at home against SMU. Overall: -0.16% | AAC: -1.21%|
|As you can see in the scores, this is the point where we see a significant drop-off in the projections. Though it's not really Cincinnati's fault here. A road game against Nebraska should carry a lot more weight in theory, but the Huskers have been bad for a few years now, and they don't. The rest of the noncon is Austin Peay and Western Michigan at home, as well as Miami (Ohio) on the road. That's pretty bland. Conference play is where the true tests lie, as the Bearcats get USF, Memphis, Houston and ECU at home. The final two games of the regular season are roadies against UCF and Temple, which is a tough finish as both games could have significant implications. Overall: -6.18% | AAC: -7.28%|
|TCU has finished outside the top 50 of my rankings three times in the last four years. That means SMU's annual meeting with the Frogs doesn't carry as much weight as it had in recent seasons. Dates with Stephen F. Austin, Texas State and North Texas don't do much, either, even if the latter two are on the road. In conference play, the Mustangs avoid both UCF and USF and get Memphis, Cincinnati, Navy and Houston at home. The toughest road game appears to be either Tulane or Temple. Overall: -6.19% | AAC: -7.30%|
|Opening the season with Miami (FL) can only do so much when the rest of your noncon features Idaho, Rutgers and UMass. Those three games do a lot of the dragging down on this schedule's projection, as does East Carolina in conference play. Of course, that doesn't mean there won't be difficult tests. The Owls have to go on the road for games against Navy, Memphis and UCF in conference play and get tough home games against USF, SMU and Cincinnati as well. Overall: -7.39% | AAC: -8.51%|
|Now, to be clear, UCF is hurt by not getting to play UCF. It's the highest-rated AAC program in my ranking system and carries more weight in these projections than anybody else. But that is not the only reason UCF's projection is what it is. North Carolina is a team with potential in 2020, but it didn't finish better than 109th in my rankings during the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Last year it finished 47th. Then there's Georgia Tech, which is another ACC program, but Yellow Jackets finished 117th last season and have only been a top 60 team once since 2015 (26th in 2016). That leaves both with a similar projection as FIU, which the Knights get at home, as well as Florida A&M. UCF's biggest tests are likely to come in AAC play, as they'll be on the road for Memphis and Houston in October. November won't offer much relief, either, as the Knights will finish the season with Temple, Cincinnati and a trip down I-4 to take on South Florida. Overall: -11.99% | AAC: -13.16%|