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 Pac-12.
|So how does Colorado end up with the most difficult schedule in the country in my projections? Well, first of all, the Pac-12 (like the Big Ten and Big 12) is helped by playing nine conference games. What really decided things for the Buffs, though, was the lack of a bottom out on their schedule. Colorado State and UCLA are the only opponents on its schedule to fall outside the top 90 in my rating system. Arizona is the only other opponent outside the top 75. Of Colorado's other nine opponents, six are in the top 25 and eight are in the top 50. There are no elite programs on the schedule (though Oregon, Texas A&M, Washington and USC all have the potential) but there isn't a cupcake to be found, either. Overall: 39.19% | Pac-12: 26.02%|
|USC's home game with New Mexico has a weaker projection than anybody on Colorado's schedule, but its opener against Alabama is easily the toughest game either will play. The rest of their schedules are very similar and feature a lot of the same shared opponents. So what's the difference? Well, USC plays Colorado, a team that ranks 96th in my projections. Colorado, on the other hand, plays USC, a team that is ranked 21st. In the end, that's what kept USC from being No. 1 overall. USC's schedule is tough from the start (Alabama) to finish (Notre Dame), but the most difficult stretch will be in November. That's when the Trojans get Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame over a four-week span, with a rivalry game against UCLA between those last two. Overall: 32.37% | Pac-12: 17.73|
|Unlike Colorado and USC, Oregon has an FCS opponent on its schedule. However, that FCS opponent is North Dakota State, which is the pre-eminent FCS program in the country. It's not much different from playing another mid-tier Power Five opponent. The Ducks also have a home game with Ohio State, giving their projection a major boost. The Ducks will also face Washington and USC in Eugene. The toughest road game on the schedule is either going to be Cal or Wazzu. Maybe Oregon State? Overall: 25.30% | Pac-12: 9.12%|
|Cal's nonconference isn't that daunting. TCU is a quality opponent, but it's had a couple of down years lately dragging its projection down. Then there are games against UNLV and Cal Poly. What gives the Bears a boost, aside from their usual division games, is that they get USC, Utah and Arizona State from the South. Utah has been the best team in the division lately, Arizona State has been solid and USC is USC. Add it all together and you get a sturdy schedule. Overall: 23.91% | Pac-12: 7.44%|
|No Pac-12 program carries a lighter weight in these projections than Oregon State, which gives it a bit of an advantage over other North teams. Still, this schedule does feature a noncon on the road at Oklahoma State. In conference play, the Beavers will have to face Arizona State, Washington, Stanford and Utah on the road as well. The home slate sets up far better, though it finishes with Oregon in The Civil War. Overall: 23.67% | Pac-12: 7.15%|
|The Huskies begin the season with Michigan in Seattle, which is one of the heavier-weighted noncon games in the Pac-12. There's also a game against a Utah State program that's just outside the top 50 helping out. What hurts Washington's overall projection compared to its conference mates is that two of the three games it gets against the South this year are Arizona and Colorado. Neither carries a lot of weight. However, the road slate is a beast with games against Oregon, Utah, Cal, USC and Wazzu. Overall: 19.58% | Pac-12: 2.17%|
|The Bruins dodge both Oregon and Washington this season, and that hurts their overall projection. Still, they do have two respectable noncon games against Hawaii and San Diego State. Why in the world, UCLA is playing two of its three nonconference games on the road is another matter entirely. The road slate in the Pac-12 isn't horrible. The Bruins hit the road for Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon State and Cal. They'll get tougher games like USC and Utah at home. Overall: 15.33% | Pac-12: -3.01%|
|Washington State's nonconference includes two respectable G5 programs in Utah State (on the road) and Houston (at home). It finishes with a cupcake in Idaho. In the Pac-12, the Cougars avoid USC from the South, but their two toughest division games will come in consecutive weeks to finish the season. That's when they'll be playing Oregon and Washington back-to-back. At least both have to come to Pullman? Overall: 14.30% | Pac-12: -4.25%|
|A road game against Notre Dame in October carries more weight than any other game on Stanford's schedule, but it's not the only difficult test. The Cardinal will have to play both Oregon and Washington on the road, which doesn't bode well for their North Division title hopes. They also have USC at home in the third week of the season. Overall: 11.59% | Pac-12: -7.55%|
|The noncon starts with Hawaii and Portland State, and we should not forget that Arizona lost to Hawaii in Honolulu last season. A road game against Texas Tech should prove challenging as well. In the Pac-12, the Wildcats draw Stanford, Washington and Oregon from the North. That's not fun. There are opportunities for wins, though! What lightens Arizona's projection are games against UCLA, Colorado and Oregon State. They're the only three Pac-12 programs that carry a lighter weight right now than the Wildcats do. Overall: 9.35% | Pac-12: -10.28%|
|The Utes open the season at home with games against BYU and Montana State before finishing the noncon on the road against Wyoming. Once conference play begins, they'll get both USC and Washington at home, which is a bonus, and miss Oregon entirely. The rest of the schedule includes the four "lightest" teams in the Pac-12 (Arizona, Colorado, UCLA and Oregon State). Playing all four of them and not playing Oregon is what caused such a large separation between the Utes at 11 and Arizona a spot ahead of it. Overall: 1.06% | Pac-12: -20.36%|
|Arizona State has what can be considered the easiest nonconference slate in the Pac-12. A solid BYU team headlines it, but the Cougars don't carry as much weight as they conceivably could (BYU's 2017 season hurts its overall rating). The other two games are Northern Arizona and at UNLV (The Rebels play two Pac-12 teams this year, and both are coming to Vegas!). The other thing that hurts Arizona State is that while the Devils have to play Oregon in Eugene, they dodge Washington and Stanford from the North. All in all, this is a schedule that makes Arizona State a more appealing darkhorse in the Pac-12 South than it already was. Overall: -2.07% | Pac-12: -24.17%|