AAC strength of schedule rankings: UCF gets toughest draw yet, but will it be enough for CFP consideration?

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Scheduling matters more than ever before in the College Football Playoff era. As we've seen in the history of the CFP, it's one of the most significant factors in deciding who gets a shot to play for a national title and who does not. It's not just whether you win your conference, but who you play along the way. It's also proven that it's not just about who you have beaten, but who you lost to during the season.

We've already seen numerous examples of teams missing out on the playoff not just because of who they lost to, but which teams they never gave themselves a chance to beat.

So it only makes sense that we try to get an idea of which teams will play the more demanding schedules before the season even begins, and that's precisely what we've done. Now, it isn't a perfect process, but it's one I think gives us a good idea of what to expect. I'll explain.

Methodology: Essentially, what I do is look at which teams each program is playing, and how strong those teams have performed in my ranking system in past years. The history of a program is a better indicator of its future success than just about anything, though I did make a change this season.

In previous years I ranked programs based on how they fared the last five seasons. This year I've changed it to the last three seasons. Yes, the sample size is smaller, but what I noticed is that it's typically the same teams performing well over the last three as it was the previous five, but by changing it to three, it shows a bit more accuracy for the upcoming season. For example, playing UCF last season wasn't worth as much as it probably should have been when considering UCF's previous five seasons. Now, considering only the last three, UCF is much stronger. On the flip side, there's a program like Oregon, which is the No. 27 team overall over the previous five seasons but is only No. 47 in the last three. Considering the Ducks haven't finished any of the previous three seasons ranked in the AP Top 25 poll, that No. 47 ranking better reflects their overall strength at present than the previous five seasons ranking.

Finally, I consider other factors like where the game is played, as well as when it's played. For example, if you're playing Boston College on the road and it's your fifth game in five weeks, that's more difficult than if you were playing Boston College on the road following a bye. The same can be said if your opponent is coming off a bye while you've played a month straight. There's also the issue of playing on a short week.

I then crunch all the numbers, and in the end, I get something that gives us all a good idea of which teams are most likely to face the most difficult schedules in 2019.

And, without further ado, here are your 2019 American Athletic Conference strength of schedule rankings.

American Strength of Schedule Rankings
1
Tulsa will play two Power Five opponents and no FCS foes in its nonconference schedule, which gives it a leg up on a lot of its AAC counterparts. The Hurricanes open the season with road games against Michigan State and San Jose State before returning home for Oklahoma State and Wyoming. Then it's a bye before conference play opens with six games in six weeks. The sixth game will likely be the most difficult, as UCF will come to H.A. Chapman Stadium, and so will Memphis two weeks before that and Navy two weeks before Memphis. Houston also comes to Tulsa, so if there's good news, it's that all of what look to be the toughest conference games this year are at home.
2
Tulane has one of the more difficult noncon schedules in the AAC. The Wave open with FIU but then hit the road for Auburn. A week later, it's Missouri State, but there's also a road trip to Army at the beginning of October. The cross-divisional draw doesn't do any favors, either. Sure, there's UConn at home, but there's also Temple and UCF in back-to-back weeks in mid-November. The Wave will also be on the road in consecutive weeks against Memphis and Navy.
3
The top four schedules in the AAC aren't separated by much, and Cincinnati could easily end up with the most difficult schedule in the conference by the time the season ends. It would only make sense seeing as how the season opens with UCLA at home and a road game against Ohio State. Miami (OH) shouldn't be a problem, but a road trip to Marshall could prove tricky too. Conference play opens with UCF at home and a road trip to Houston, but then things take a bit of a break with Tulsa, East Carolina and UConn. The homestretch won't be fun, as it includes a road game against USF, home for Temple, and then back on the road against Memphis.
4
Houston's schedule is in a similar position to Cincinnati's, as it could prove to be a lot more complicated than my projections have it. The reason is that Cincinnati is coming off an 11-win season, but it's 19-18 the last three years, so it doesn't carry as much weight. Still, the Cougars will have to play at Oklahoma, Washington State, at North Texas, Cincinnati, at UCF and against Memphis this season. You could easily argue there isn't another team in the AAC with a top six like that when it comes to toughest opponents. As for why it's fourth, it's also dragged down a bit by games against Prairie View A&M and UConn.
5
The noncon is respectable, if not daunting. The Mustangs open with a road game against Arkansas State before returning home to face North Texas and Texas State. Then it's a trip to TCU before AAC play opens with USF on the road and home for Tulsa. Then, after six games, the Mustangs will have their first bye before a tough stretch against Temple, Houston and Memphis.
6
The Bulls have a tough noncon. They're playing Wisconsin, Georgia Tech and BYU (as well as SC State), but at least both Wisconsin and BYU come to Tampa. The cross-divisional draw could have been a lot worse, though. Yes, the Bulls will get Memphis (again, in Tampa), but SMU and Navy aren't killers. Finally, the road schedule isn't too difficult. There's the regular season finale at UCF, but other than that, the road schedule is Georgia Tech, UConn, East Carolina and Navy.
7
Navy only won three games last season, and after a first glimpse at this schedule, I like their chances of improving on that total. The season begins with Holy Cross before a bye, a home game against East Carolina, and then another bye before a road trip to Memphis. That Memphis game is the start of a six-week stretch that won't be easy but does offer an opportunity for wins at home against Air Force and Tulane, as well as a road game against UConn. The arduous stretch begins after another bye when Navy will travel to Notre Dame on Nov. 16, return home for SMU, hit the road again for Houston and then finish the season in Philadelphia against Army.
8
UCF plays its toughest noncon schedule of the CFP era, but will it be enough to impress the committee? Even with it, the Knights only finish eighth here. A home game against Stanford is huge, but I don't know how much weight Florida A&M, at FAU and at Pitt is going to carry unless FAU and Pitt make drastic improvements this season. UCF's schedule is also hurt by not having Memphis on it this season, as the Knights draw Houston, Tulsa and Tulane from the West. Cincinnati on the road should be a test, as should Temple, and the season ends with The War on I-4 against USF in Orlando.
9
A road game against NC State's a difficult start to the season, but the rest of the noncon features two FCS opponents in Gardner-Webb and William & Mary, as well as a road trip to Old Dominion. Outside of NC State, the toughest tests will be in conference play as the Pirates must hit the road (open seas?) to take on both Navy and UCF, and get Temple, USF and Cincinnati at home.
10
Typically UConn would get a boost in my projections because it doesn't play itself, and the Huskies are a bottom five team in my rankings over the last three seasons. But while UConn plays two Big Ten opponents this season, those two teams are Illinois and Indiana, which don't carry a lot of weight. Nor do two other noncon games against Wagner and UMass. Still, there are road games against UCF, Cincinnati and Temple, so it's not like it'll be easy for the Huskies.
11
The noncon doesn't do a whole lot to move the needle, though Maryland and Georgia Tech will both provide tests, but both will come to Philly. A road trip to Buffalo could prove tricky, but I don't think anybody is worried about Bucknell. In conference, the Owls also get UCF and Memphis at home but do have to go on the road for tough games against USF and Cincinnati in November.
12
In theory, a season-opener against Ole Miss should carry a lot of weight. Unfortunately for Memphis, Ole Miss has gone 16-20 the last three seasons and only ranks as the No. 84 team in the country in my rating system over that span. The rest of the noncon doesn't help, either, as it's Southern, South Alabama and UL-Monroe. In AAC play, the Tigers also benefit by avoiding UCF, but they will get Temple, Houston and USF on the road.
CBS Sports Writer

Tom Fornelli has been a college football writer at CBS Sports since 2010. During his time at CBS, Tom has proven time and again that he hates your favorite team and thinks your rival is a paragon of football... Full Bio

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