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.
Let's get things started with a look at the Big Ten.
|Mel Tucker's first season at Michigan State was going to be difficult enough because of his late arrival and then spring practice being canceled. Then there's the schedule. There are no pushovers in the nonconference with a road trip to BYU, followed by home dates with Toledo and Miami (FL). In conference play, the Spartans play every team that could reasonably be considered a contender for the Big Ten title not named Wisconsin. October is particularly brutal as it includes Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks sandwiched between games against Iowa, Indiana and Minnesota. At least there's a bye before a road trip to Penn State? Overall: 34.05% | Conference: 21.27%|
|The nonconference schedule here isn't terribly difficult. The Terps open with Towson before Northern Illinois comes to town. A road trip against West Virginia is the most difficult of the three. What makes things difficult is the Big Ten slate. The Terps draw the two best teams in the West from last season with Minnesota and Wisconsin. They also get Northwestern on the road. And then November comes, and please pray for the Terps this November. They start the month at Michigan, come home for Ohio State, go back on the road for Penn State and finish at home against Michigan State. In other words, they play the four programs that have dominated the Big Ten East its entire existence in consecutive weeks to finish the season. Also, Maryland doesn't have a single bye during conference play. Overall: 31.89% | Conference: 18.71%|
|Michigan had the most difficult schedule in my Big Ten projections last season, and doesn't fall far here. The Wolverines will open the season with a tough road test against Washington. Remaining noncon games against Ball State and Arkansas State shouldn't pose a threat. The opening of conference play won't be fun as the Wolverines welcome both Wisconsin and Penn State to Ann Arbor. They follow those two home games with road dates against Michigan State and Minnesota. The load lightens a bit there before finishing with a road game against Ohio State. Overall: 25.68% | Conference: 11.29%|
|Purdue is the first Big Ten West team to show up. It can thank one of the more challenging nonconference slates in the conference for that. After opening the season at Nebraska, Purdue will play Memphis, Air Force and Boston College. Conference play picks back up following a bye, and things could have been a lot worse for Purdue. Its draw from the East includes its annual rivalry date with Indiana, as well as Michigan and Rutgers. In the West, Purdue gets Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern at home, but must go on the road for Minnesota and Illinois. Overall: 25.01% | Conference: 10.49%|
|Is it just me, or has Iowa been playing the same nonconference schedule for a decade? It's Northern Iowa, Iowa State and a MAC team. This year, the MAC team is Northern Illinois. Iowa State gives it added weight. As for conference play, the Hawkeyes don't catch much of a break from their cross-divisional draw. They get back-to-back road dates with Ohio State and Penn State following a home game with Michigan State. They also open conference play with a road game against Minnesota. The good news is that Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin all have to come to Kinnick. Overall: 23.33% | Conference: 8.48%|
|Nebraska opens the season with Purdue at home before nonconference play starts with the highlight being Cincinnati. The Huskers also play five of their first six games at home, which is always nice, as the only road game before late October is Northwestern. The back half of the schedule is stacked. On Halloween, the Huskers will be at Ohio State, and things only get scarier from there. The next week is Penn State in Lincoln, followed by consecutive road tests against Iowa and Wisconsin before the finale at home against Minnesota. Those five teams combined to win 55 games last year. Overall: 17.38% | Conference: 1.38%|
|The Badgers schedule is buoyed by one of the more difficult noncon slates in the Big Ten. Southern Illinois doesn't mean much, but Appalachian State is one of the best Group of Five programs in the country. Then there's a game against Notre Dame at Lambeau Field. That's balanced out a bit by getting Michigan, Indiana and Maryland from the East and avoiding Ohio State and Penn State. In the division, the Badgers get Minnesota, Illinois and Nebraska at home and must play Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa on the road. Overall: 15.92% | Conference: -0.36%|
|The nonconference slate includes interesting games against Florida Atlantic and BYU, as well as a Tennessee Tech game that should be nothing more than a scrimmage. In conference, the Gophers draw Michigan, but at least the Wolverines have to come to Minneapolis. They hit the road for Maryland and Michigan State in the East. In the West, they get Iowa at home but will have to play Wisconsin on the road. Also, the Wisconsin and Michigan games are in consecutive weeks, which won't be a lot of fun. Overall: 12.57% | Conference: -4.37%|
|A road game against Virginia Tech highlights the nonconference schedule, but home dates with Kent State and San Jose State don't do much for the Nittany Lions. In conference play, the Lions have to play Michigan on the road but get Ohio State and Michigan State at home. Also, the draw from the West could've been a lot worse. Both Iowa and Northwestern come to Happy Valley. Overall: 10.96% | Conference: -6.29%|
|The marquee game on Ohio State's noncon schedule is a road trip to Oregon the second week of the season. That game is sandwiched between home dates against Bowling Green and Buffalo. In conference play, the Buckeyes get Iowa, Nebraska and Illinois from the West, and only Illinois will be on the road. The toughest test in conference should be a road trip to Penn State in October, which comes a week after playing Michigan State on the road. The Buckeyes get Michigan in Columbus this year. Overall: 10.27% | Conference: -7.11%|
|If ever a schedule was designed that could lead to wins for Rutgers, this could be the one. The nonconference slate includes Monmouth, Syracuse and a road game against Temple. The Big Ten slate starts on the road against Ohio State and ends with Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State. In between, there are chances for victory. The Knights draw Illinois, Purdue and Nebraska from the West, and those three have been the weakest teams in that division in recent years. Overall: 9.63% | Conference: -7.87%|
|Could this be the year we see #9Windiana? A noncon slate of Western Kentucky, Ball State and UConn provides an excellent chance at three wins. The conference schedule starts with a road game against Wisconsin, but the other two dates against West teams are winnable home games against Illinois and Purdue. In the division, the Hoosiers get Maryland, Michigan State and Penn State at home. Rutgers is a winnable road game, and playing Ohio State and Michigan on the road doesn't make victory in those games all the more likely than they would've been at home anyway. Overall: 8.35% | Conference: -9.40%|
|A nonconference schedule of Tulane, Central Michigan and Morgan State isn't overly difficult, but Tulane could prove tricky. The season starts with Michigan State on the road, but if ever there was a year to open the season against Michigan State, this could be it. The Cats also get Penn State on the road in late September, as well as a home date with Maryland. In the division, Northwestern gets Nebraska and Wisconsin at home but will have to play Iowa and Minnesota on the road. Overall: 3.92% | Conference: -14.69%|
|If Illinois wants to improve on a season that saw it go bowling for the first time in six years, this is certainly a schedule that should help. It's the only schedule in the Big Ten to finish with an SOS below the national average (although barely). This is thanks in large part to a noncon slate with home games against Illinois State, UConn and Bowling Green. While the Illini draw Ohio State from the Big Ten East, they get Rutgers and Indiana balance it out. Overall: -1.82% | Conference: -21.54%|