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 ACC.
|The Yellow Jackets projected SOS ranks sixth in the nation, and if the ACC hadn't been so mediocre the last few years outside of Clemson, it would have ranked first. The Bees are playing a nonconference schedule from hell. They'll play games against UCF and Notre Dame at home and Georgia on the road. Toss in a home date with Clemson to open the season and that's three games against teams who have reached the College Football Playoff in the last few years, and another against a program many felt should have been in the CFP with them. Overall: 30.20% | ACC: 23.55%|
|Mike Norvell's first season with the Seminoles will not be an easy one. The team's nonconference schedule consists of two Power Five opponents in Florida and West Virginia, as well as a road game against one of the top Group of Five programs, Boise State. Then there's the conference slate, which includes Clemson and some tricky road games against NC State, Louisville and Miami (FL). Overall: 28.03% | ACC: 21.18%|
|The Cardinals are here thanks in large part to two difficult nonconference games in November. In back-to-back weeks, the Cardinals will play on the road against Notre Dame and then home against Kentucky to finish the season. They're also in a difficult spot of having to open the season with two ACC games, one of which is on the road against Clemson. Also, it doesn't help that the Cards draw both Virginia and Virginia Tech from the Coastal. Those two finished atop the division last season. Overall: 22.71% | ACC: 15.35%|
|Wake reaches the top four thanks largely to being another one of the Atlantic teams to get both Clemson and Notre Dame. The Deacs can seek solace in getting Clemson at home and the Irish in Charlotte. They also have another difficult noncon game at home against an Appalachian State team that's been a thorn in many a Power Five side. Also, while Clemson might be at home, having to play division rivals like Florida State, NC State and Louisville on the road could prove to be a problem. Overall: 22.34% | ACC: 14.94%|
|North Carolina is the first team in these projections not to have Clemson on its schedule. Nor do the Heels have to deal with Notre Dame. They do, however, have to play at UCF and against Auburn in Atlanta. They also have to play one of the better FCS programs in the country in James Madison. Still, there are cross-divisional draws out there a lot more dangerous than Boston College and NC State. In the Coastal, the Heels will be on the road for Virginia, Duke and Miami (FL). Overall: 9.17% | ACC: 0.52%|
|This is a projection I could see missing by quite a bit. The nonconference slate is buoyed by a good Temple team and a road game against Michigan State. The problem is, based on a late coaching hire and lack of spring practice, I have a hard time believing Michigan State can live up to its projection. As for the ACC schedule, the Canes get Florida State from the Atlantic, but it's at home. The road schedule won't be easy with games against Wake Forest, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech. Overall: 5.88% | ACC: -3.09%|
|The Panthers get Notre Dame at home this year, but the rest of the nonconference (Miami (OH), at Marshall, Richmond) doesn't do a whole lot. In conference play, the Panthers draw Florida State and Syracuse from the Atlantic but avoid Clemson. Inside the Coastal, they'll get Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Duke at home, but have to play Miami (FL), North Carolina and Virginia on the road. Overall: 4.81% | ACC: -4.26%|
|Mississippi State is a solid nonconference game, but Liberty, Delaware and Troy don't do much (though Troy is on the road). The Pack draw Duke and UNC from the Coastal and open the season with Louisville on the road. Still, if it weren't for a road game against Clemson in mid-October, this schedule would be ranked much closer to the bottom in the ACC. Overall: 3.72% | ACC: -5.45%|
|BC's projection isn't all that different than NC State's. The nonconference schedule of Ohio, at Kansas, Purdue and Holy Cross doesn't do much, even with two Power Five opponents. The Eagles do have a tougher cross-divisional draw, however, getting Virginia Tech on the road and UNC at home. Inside the division, they'll get NC State, Wake Forest and Florida State on the road. That will make it more difficult as it joins everybody else in the Atlantic jockeying for position behind Clemson. Overall: 3.57% | ACC: -5.61%|
|Opening the season with Georgia in Atlanta is a huge game, and then the Cavaliers will finish the month with Clemson on the road. As big as those games are, though, they can only do so much for your projected SOS when the rest of the schedule features games against VMI, UConn and Old Dominion. While the back-half of the schedule is a lot lighter than the first, it does include crucial division games at Miami (FL), at home for Pitt and the regular-season finale at Virginia Tech. Overall: 2.78% | ACC: -6.48%|
|The Blue Devils will have to go on the road to face Notre Dame on Halloween, but the rest of the nonconference schedule is light. It consists of three home games against Middle Tennessee, Elon and Charlotte. The cross-divisional draw of in-state rivals Wake Forest and NC State doesn't carry enough weight to balance that out. It should be pointed out, though, that the last five games of this schedule are brutal. It starts with that Notre Dame game, and then after playing Georgia Tech in Atlanta the next week, the Devils have to play Virginia, Virginia Tech and Miami (FL) in consecutive games to finish the season. At least the first two will be at home. Overall: 0.69% | ACC: -8.77%|
|Clemson has no chance to rank highly because it doesn't get to play Clemson. The disparity between Clemson and the rest of the ACC is reflected in seven of the top 10 teams in these projections playing Clemson. Only one team outside the top 10 does. The Tigers have a decent nonconference slate, headlined by a road game against Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the annual game with South Carolina doesn't carry as much weight after a couple of mediocre seasons. Nor does playing Akron and The Citadel. Overall: -0.52% | ACC: -10.09%|
|A home game against Penn State is one of the tougher nonconference games that any ACC team will play this season. The rest of Tech's nonconference schedule doesn't come close to it. The Hokies play Liberty, Middle Tennessee and North Alabama. Virginia Tech also avoids Clemson and Florida State from the Atlantic, though it will have to go on the road to face Louisville. In the division, the Hokies have to face both UNC and Pitt on the road, but get both Miami (FL) and Virginia at Lane Stadium. Overall: -5.23% | ACC: -15.25%|
|Syracuse not only has the easiest projection in the ACC, but the easiest of any Power Five program. The reason is thanks in large part to a nonconference schedule consisting of Rutgers, Colgate, Western Michigan and Liberty. It should be noted that Rutgers and Western Michigan are on the road. There's also a road game against Clemson, but that can only do so much to counter the noncon slate. Outside of the Clemson game, road games in the ACC against Boston College, Wake Forest and Pitt won't be easy but could've been a lot more difficult. All in all, this is a schedule that sets the Orange up for a rebound in 2020. Overall: -6.40% | ACC: -16.54%|