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 look in the Big 12 heading into 2020.
|I've said this every year about Kansas and barring improvement on the field, I'm going to have to keep saying it. Kansas has a huge advantage in the Big 12 when it comes to projecting the strongest schedule. Since the Big 12 plays a round-robin schedule, that means everybody plays Kansas except Kansas. So even with a nonconference slate that isn't particularly daunting (New Hampshire, Boston College and at Coastal Carolina), the Jayhawks overall projection is helped by not having Kansas on it. Of course, that doesn't mean this schedule doesn't have rough spots. Finishing the year with Texas, at Texas Tech, at Oklahoma and TCU in November won't be fun. Overall: 26.26% | Big 12: 10.86%|
|Texas projects to have the No. 11 most difficult schedule in my projections, but if it weren't for Kansas, the Longhorns would be higher and rank No. 1 in the Big 12. This is thanks mostly to a road game against LSU in its nonconference schedule. That's the toughest noncon game any Big 12 team will play this season. Throw in the annual meeting with Oklahoma, as well as getting Oklahoma State in Stillwater, and this has the makings of a tough schedule. What kept it from the top 10, aside from Kansas, was a game with UTEP. Overall: 25.47% | Big 12: 9.91%|
|Baylor had long been pegged as a program that scheduled easy noncon games every season, and there's still some of that visible in a home date against Incarnate Word. The game the next week against Louisiana Tech carries more weight now than it might have a few years ago thanks to an uptick in performance. But there's also the season opener against Ole Miss in Houston. What really gave the Bears a nudge, however, was having to play Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State on the road. The home slate is a bit more manageable. Overall: 21.52% | Big 12: 5.13%|
|An annual game against Iowa always gives Iowa State's nonconference slate a higher floor than a lot of others, but neither South Dakota nor UNLV did much to raise it further. Three of the Cyclones tougher games will all come before a late-October bye. Aside from Iowa on the road, they'll play at Oklahoma State and against Oklahoma in Ames in consecutive weeks in October. Then, after the bye, there are two road dates with TCU and Texas as well as home games with Kansas State, Baylor and West Virginia. Overall: 19.76% | Big 12: 3.00%|
|TCU's schedule gets a bit of a boost to its projected difficulty thanks to some odd bye placement. The Frogs start the season on the road against Cal before a home opener against Prairie View A&M. Then comes the bye and 10 consecutive games. That includes a three-week stretch, starting on Halloween, that sees the Frogs playing Oklahoma, Iowa State and Texas. Only Texas will be on the road. The Big 12 opener comes on the first weekend of October at home against Oklahoma State. Overall: 18.02% | Big 12: 0.90%|
|As Kansas is helped by not having to play Kansas, Oklahoma is hurt by not playing Oklahoma. A home date with Tennessee headlines the nonconference slate. That game doesn't project as well here, though, because Tennessee's recent performance lags behind its projection for 2020. So that game could easily carry more weight in the season. As it stands now, Oklahoma's road game against Army carries more weight in the noncon. In the Big 12, the Sooners get Texas in the Cotton Bowl and Oklahoma State must come to Norman. Also, that Oklahoma State game in late October might be the last true test, the Sooners face, as the back half of the schedule is relatively soft. Only one of Oklahoma's final five games (Kansas State) will be against a team that went bowling last year. Games against TCU, West Virginia and Texas Tech will all be on the road at least. Overall: 14.94% | Big 12: -2.82%|
|This is a soft noncon slate. The season will open with a game at UTEP before the home-opener against Alabama State. Then it's a home date with an Arizona program that's taken a significant step backward in my ratings each of the last two seasons. I don't like the way Tech's Big 12 schedule sets up, either. They get Texas and Oklahoma at home, but odds aren't in favor of the Raiders winning those games anywhere. Meanwhile, more "winnable" games like those against Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and TCU are all on the road. Overall: 14.61% | Big 12: -3.21%|
|The Mountaineers are the only Big 12 team with two Power Five opponents on their nonconference schedule. Unfortunately, neither of those opponents carries a ton of weight these days. Florida State is a bigger opponent in name recognition than actual performance lately, and Maryland struggled throughout the last decade. The toughest stretch of this schedule is November, when WVU will go Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State, Baylor and at Iowa State to finish. Overall: 13.99% | Big 12: -3.97%|
|It's just not an exciting nonconference schedule, as the Wildcats will host three home games against Buffalo, North Dakota and Vanderbilt. The Cats are at a bit of a disadvantage in having to play five of their Big 12 games (West Virginia, TCU, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Baylor) on the road, but at least they're spaced out. Both TCU and Iowa State are consecutive games, but there's a bye between them. Overall: 13.47% | Big 12: -4.60%|
|While Oklahoma State's projected SOS difficulty is still above the national average (the Big 12 is the only conference that doesn't feature a below-average projection), there's a sizable gap between it and Kansas State. This is thanks mostly to the Cowboys' nonconference slate. They start the year against an Oregon State team that had its best season since 2013, but those five seasons between were bleak. Even last year, the Beavers finished only 5-7. Then there's a Tulsa team that has finished outside the top 80 in my ratings seven times in the last eight years. Top that with some Western Illinois, and well, what you get is the schedule that projects to be the least difficult in the Big 12. Overall: 4.71% | Big 12: -15.19%|