Scheduling matters more than ever before in the College Football Playoff era. As we've seen in the short history of the CFP, it's one of the biggest 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.
Both Ohio State and Alabama made their way into the final four the last two years without winning their conference thanks in large part to the schedule they played. Because of this, I've undertaken the process of attempting to figure out which teams will be playing the toughest schedules in 2018.
Methodology: It's hard to know with any certainty seeing as how the season doesn't start for another few months, and while no process is perfect, this one provides a good overview. I took a look at how every team performed over the last five years in my ranking system. While there are always exceptions, teams tend to find their level over a longer time span, hence the five-year period. I then considered other factors like whether a game is on the road, or if a team is coming off a bye week, allowing them extra time to get healthy and prepare. I put all this information together and came out with a ranking system I believe to be fairly accurate.
So which teams will be playing the toughest schedules in 2018? The weakest? We start with a look at the 14 teams in the Big Ten, conference that missed the CFP last season and is looking to find its way back in.
|If Jeff Brohm's Boilermakers are to surprise us again in 2018, it will be a more impressive feat considering the schedule they'll be facing. According to my metrics, it currently stands as the most difficult in the Big Ten. The season opens with a conference game at home against Northwestern, and the nonconference slate includes two games at home against Power Five opponents in Missouri and Boston College. The Boilermakers also have a tough draw from the East Division, as they get both Ohio State and Michigan State, as well as their annual rivalry date with Indiana. Inside the division, the Boilermakers will be on the road to take on Nebraska, Illinois and Minnesota, so at least they get Wisconsin and Iowa in West Lafayette.|
|The Wolverines are coming off a down season in 2017, and if they're going to improve, it won't be easy. The season begins with a trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame. The rest of the nonconference schedule includes home games against a Western Michigan team that has been one of the best in the MAC, as well as SMU out of the AAC. The killer for Michigan is its B1G schedule. It draws three of the toughest teams from the West in Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin. The silver lining there is that only Northwestern will be a road game. In the division, Michigan has its annual tilts with Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State, but only the Nittany Lions are coming to Ann Arbor. Making life more difficult, the Wolverines have to play Wisconsin, Michigan State and Penn State in consecutive games (though there is a bye between MSU and PSU).|
|As you'll see as we continue to go through these rankings, life in the East is typically tougher than in the West, and Maryland will have to face that reality. The Terps will play both Michigan and Penn State on the road, but do get Michigan State and Ohio State at home. The problem is three of those games will come in November, making it the most difficult month on the schedule. It's not all bad, however, as the draw from the West (Minnesota, at Iowa, Illinois) could have been worse. As far as nonconference games go, Maryland opens the season with Texas (which it beat last year), also plays a tough Temple team and features a road trip to Bowling Green.|
|If Northwestern wins 10 games again this season, it might have a legitimate playoff case to make. The season opens with a road trip to Purdue followed by the home opener against Duke. Then, after a brief respite against Akron, the Big Ten slate opens in earnest with Michigan, at Michigan State, and then back home for Nebraska. A road trip to Rutgers sits ahead of a gauntlet of games that will see the Cats take on both Wisconsin and Notre Dame in Evanston, and then go back on the road for Iowa and Minnesota before finishing the year with their rivalry game against Illinois.|
|While I wouldn't call it easy, Penn State's ranking suffers due to its nonconference schedule not being as difficult as those ranked ahead of it. Appalachian State and a road game against Pitt won't be pushovers, but I don't expect them to be all that difficult either. The hard part will be the B1G schedule. The draw from the West includes Wisconsin and Iowa, as well as Illinois. Then, of course, are the games against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. The silver lining in all of this is that all of what should be Penn State's most difficult games will be at home besides Michigan. The Wolverines will provide the toughest test on a road schedule that also includes Illinois, Indiana and Rutgers.|
|Odds are that transitioning to Scott Frost's offense in Lincoln will provide a few bumps in the road, but there will be even bigger challenges in the opponents. We'll start with the good news. If you're a Nebraska fan with season tickets, there's a decent chance you won't see a loss in Memorial Stadium all season long. The Huskers play Akron, Colorado, Troy, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and Michigan State at home. Odds are they'll be favored in all of those games save for possibly the Spartans matchup. The road will be hell, however as Nebraska's trips include Michigan, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Ohio State and Iowa. In other words, just about every "huge" game is outside of Lincoln.|
|When you're in the B1G East there is no easy schedule, but by and large, things look rather manageable for the Spartans this year. The nonconference slate has a road game against Arizona State, but it's an Arizona State team under a first-year coach who hasn't coached at any level in over a decade. The rest is home games against Utah State and Central Michigan. Inside the division, the Spartans get both Michigan and Ohio State at home but do have to play Penn State on the road. The draw from the West includes home dates against Northwestern and Purdue and a road trip to Nebraska the week after Ohio State.|
|Rutgers doesn't have a nonconference schedule that's going to impress anybody on the CFP committee, but if I were Rutgers, I wouldn't look to make life more difficult for myself, either. The Knights will play Texas State and Buffalo at home and have a road trip against Kansas, which might just be the worst team in all the Power Five. They also have extremely winnable home games against Indiana and Illinois on the schedule. The rest of the home slate's a bit more difficult thanks to games against Northwestern, Michigan and Penn State. The road schedule provides a bigger challenge with games against Ohio State, Maryland, Wisconsin and Michigan State.|
|If Wisconsin wins the Big Ten, it might have to be perfect in conference play to have a shot at a playoff berth. A nonconference schedule featuring three home games against Western Kentucky, New Mexico and BYU isn't going to turn many heads. The good news is the Badgers will have a chance to impress in conference play because they do not have an easy path to Indianapolis. The Badgers will hit the road to take on Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue. On the flip side, I have to think they'll do quite well at home against Nebraska, Illinois, Rutgers and Minnesota.|
|The Hoosiers are in a similar situation as Rutgers in that they don't want to make life more difficult than it already is. That's why we see a nonconference schedule that includes a road game against FIU for some reason, as well as home dates against Virginia and Ball State. The draw from the West could have been a lot worse than Iowa, at Minnesota and Purdue. In the division, the Hoosiers must play Ohio State and Michigan on the road but will get Penn State and Michigan State in Bloomington.|
|Ohio State has the easiest schedule in the B1G East, which is a bad look, but in its defense, it doesn't have a game against Ohio State to boost its schedule. The nonconference includes TCU, which is a huge game, and could provide quite the resume boost if TCU has another outstanding season. The rest of the nonconference slate is dragged down by Oregon State and Tulane, however. In conference, the Buckeyes have to hit the road for both Penn State and Michigan State, but they'll get Michigan at home. What dragged the SOS down was the draw from the West, as Ohio State gets Minnesota, Purdue and Nebraska. No pushovers, but avoiding Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern is a bonus.|
|If Lovie Smith's team is going to take a step forward in 2018, it just might have a schedule that allows it to happen. The nonconference features home games against Kent State, Western Illinois and South Florida. Illinois is one of the few B1G teams with an FCS team remaining on its schedule, which hurts its overall ranking compared to the others quite a bit. The Illini also had as favorable a draw from the East that a West team could hope for. Yes, they have to play Penn State, but at least it's at home, and while road trips to Rutgers and Maryland aren't easy, they're better than road trips to Columbus or Ann Arbor. In the division, Illinois gets Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern on the road while playing Purdue, Minnesota and Iowa at home.|
|Iowa is the other B1G team with an FCS foe on its schedule, as the Hawkeyes will play Northern Iowa as well as Northern Illinois and Iowa State in their nonconference slate, and all three will be at home. The Hawkeyes, like Illinois, also have a favorable East draw. They get Penn State on the road as well as Indiana, while Maryland heads to Iowa City. In division play, they get Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska (the three teams you'd expect to be their biggest challengers) all at home.|
|Both Illinois and Iowa have FCS opponents, which dragged their schedules down. Minnesota does not, yet it still managed to finish last in these rankings. It's thanks in large part to a nonconference schedule that includes New Mexico State, Fresno State and Miami (Ohio) all at home. In B1G play, the Gophers get Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern at home, and have road trips against Maryland, Ohio State, Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin. So it won't be easy, but compared to their Big Ten brethren, it might be easier than others.|