Ranking 2016 college football nonconference schedule strength
Our playoff and bowl expert looks at the toughest -- and weakest -- nonconference schedules within each conference entering this season
The College Football Playoff Selection Committee considers strength of schedule to be a significant factor iin the creation of its rankings, which determine the participants in the playoffs. Sometimes the difference between teams is how they scheduled outside their leagues. For example, Baylor was left out of the first College Football Playoff in 2014 mostly because of a terrible nonconference schedule.
With that in mind, here is a conference-by-conference breakdown of this season's nonconference schedules of the teams in the Power Five conferences. An overall ranking of the top 10 nonconference schedules can be found at the end.
The Big Ten has not been able to dethrone the SEC on the field, but there is one area of SEC dominance that now belongs to the Big Ten - scheduling home nonconference games. No league schedules more home nonconference games year in and year out than the SEC, and it's rarely close, but this season, the Big Ten will play a whopping 81 percent of its 42 nonconference games at home. And that doesn't count the LSU-Wisconsin game in Green Bay, which is considered neutral. Beginning with this season, Big Ten teams are playing one fewer nonconference game, and it appears that most teams cut road games.
You really can't blame teams like Purdue and Illinois for scheduling only home games. They need any advantage they can get. But what's your excuse, Michigan? You too, Iowa. Not only are the Hawkeyes playing only home games, but their toughest foe may be five-time defending FCS champion North Dakota State. In fact, the Bison are arguably better than any of the nonconference opponents of Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota and Purdue.
That doesn't mean there are no marquee games. Ohio State will play at Oklahoma in a game that figures to have major playoff implications, and Michigan State will travel to Notre Dame. Also, while it's not necessarily a big game on the national landscape, Penn State and Pittsburgh are renewing their rivalry, which hasn't been played since 2000.
|1||Ohio State||Bowling Green, Tulsa, AT Oklahoma|
|2||Michigan State||Furman, AT Notre Dame, BYU|
|3||Wisconsin||LSU, Akron, Georgia State|
|4||Penn State||Kent State, AT Pittsburgh, Temple|
|5||Nebraska||Fresno State, Wyoming, Oregon|
|6||Rutgers||AT Washington, Howard, New Mexico|
|7||Illinois||Murray State, North Carolnia, Western Michigan|
|8||Northwestern||Western Michigan, Illinois State, Duke|
|9||Maryland||Howard, AT FIU, AT UCF|
|10||Indiana||AT FIU, Ball State, Wake Forest|
|11||Iowa||Miami (OH), Iowa State, North Dakota State|
|12||Michigan||Hawaii, UCF, Colorado|
|13||Minnesota||Oregon State, Indiana State, Colorado State|
|14||Purdue||Eastern Kentucky, Cincinnati, Nevada|
The league has been temporarily dethroned as the home game scheduling champion, but part of the reason for that is circumstantial. There are four teams that play in-state rivalry games with ACC opponents every season, and this season, three of those are on the road. Outside of those four games, the SEC is only playing six road games.
Another annual characteristic of SEC nonconference schedules is that when teams do play away from home, even in neutral site games, they rarely leave the South. Four of those six road games are being played by the two teams picked at or near the bottom of the division standings, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs will travel out of the South not just once, but twice! Mississippi State will play at both UMass and BYU. The Bulldogs haven't left the South for a regular season game since 2002 (Oregon).
There are a few big games on the slate, including Alabama-USC in Arlington, Texas, and the aforementioned LSU-Wisconsin game.
|1||South Carolina||East Carolina, UMass, Western Carolina, AT Clemson|
|2||Arkansas||Louisiana Tech, AT TCU, Texas State, Alcorn State|
|3||Florida||UMass, North Texas, Presbyterian, AT Florida State|
|4||Alabama||USC, Western Kentucky, Kent State, Chattanooga|
|5||Mississippi||Florida State, Wofford, Memphis, Georgia Southern|
|6||Georgia||North Carolina, Nicholls State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Georgia Tech|
|7||LSU||Wisconsin, Jacksonville State, Southern Miss, South Alabama|
|8||Kentucky||Southern Miss, New Mexico State, Austin Peay, AT Louisville|
|9||Vanderbilt||Middle Tennessee State, AT Georgia Tech, AT Western Kentucky, Tennessee State|
|10||Auburn||Clemson, Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama A&M|
|11||Missouri||AT West Virginia, Eastern Michigan, Delaware State, Middle Tennessee State|
|12||Texas A&M||UCLA, Prairie View A&M, New Mexico State, UTSA|
|13||Tennessee||Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Ohio, Tennessee Tech|
|14||Mississippi State||South Alabama, AT UMass, AT BYU, Samford|
The Big 12 is still jumping through hoops in an effort to solve the problem of the first year of the CFP, which is that the league was left out. The actual problem that year was Baylor's putrid nonconference schedule, but the league is looking for answers in other places. Meanwhile, Baylor's nonconference schedule is still an anchor on the Bears' chances of getting to a playoff if they have a good enough season to get considered.
Oklahoma is making up for that, though. The Sooners will open the season against Houston in Houston, which is easily the biggest game in the recent history of the Cougars program, if not its entire history. Oklahoma will also host Ohio State in Week 3 before entering conference play. That is much more difficult nonconference schedule than most major conference teams will play.
The other teams that are seen as challengers to the Sooners for the Big 12 title have the worst nonconference schedules in the league, so the best chance for the Big 12 to reach the playoff this year rests with Oklahoma.
In fact, it's hard to find another compelling nonconference matchup in the Big 12 this year outside of Oklahoma's schedule. The next best is probably Texas hosting Notre Dame.
|1||Oklahoma||AT Houston, Louisiana-Monroe, Ohio State|
|2||Kansas State||AT Stanford, FAU, Missouri State|
|3||Texas||Notre Dame, UTEP, AT California|
|4||Iowa State||Northern Iowa, AT Iowa, San Jose State|
|5||Texas Tech||Stephen F. Austin, AT Arizona State, Louisana Tech|
|6||West Virginia||Missouri, Youngstown State, BYU|
|7||Kansas||Rhode Island, Ohio, AT Memphis|
|8||TCU||South Dakota State, Arkansas, AT SMU|
|9||Baylor||Northwestern State, SMU, AT Rice|
|10||Oklahoma State||SE Louisiana, Central Michigan, Pittsburgh|
As tough as Oklahoma's schedule is, USC's is probably tougher. The Trojans will start the season playing defending champion Alabama in Texas, and finish it by hosting Notre Dame. Those are two of my projected playoff participants.
As a league, the Pac-12 spends a lot of time on the road compared to most major conferences. They will play 10 road games out of a total of just 36. Among the league's road opponents are Michigan, Notre Dame, Texas A&M, Nebraska and San Diego State, the favorite in the Mountain West.
In fact, Notre Dame's playoff hopes will largely depend on how it does at USC and against Stanford at home. Either of those games could turn out to be CFP elimination games.
The only Pac-12 school that totally wimped out in nonconference play is Washington, the trendy pick to surprise in conference play. We won't find out anything significant about the Huskies when they play Rutgers, Idaho and Portland State at home. Well, nothing good anyway.
|1||USC||Alabama, Utah State, Notre Dame|
|2||Stanford||Kansas State, AT Notre Dame, Rice|
|3||UCLA||AT Texas A&M, UNLV, AT BYU|
|4||California||Hawaii, AT San Diego State, Texas|
|5||Colorado||Colorado State, Idaho State, AT Michigan|
|6||Oregon||UC Davis, Virginia, AT Nebraska|
|7||Oregon State||AT Minnesota, Idaho State, Boise State|
|8||Washington State||Eastern Washington, AT Boise State, Idaho|
|9||Utah||Southern Utah, BYU, AT San Jose State|
|10||Arizona State||Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, AT UTSA|
|11||Arizona||BYU, Grambling, Hawaii|
|12||Washington||Rutgers, Idaho, Portland State|
Nonconference schedules in the ACC go to both extremes. The league will play the lowest percentage of home nonconference games at 60 percent. However, the ACC ties the SEC with the most games against FCS opposition at 14. The ACC also has the only Power Five team playing two FCS foes in North Carolina.
Clemson is considered the favorite to repeat in the league and projected to make the playoff, but unless Auburn and South Carolina have bounce back seasons, the nonconference schedule won't help the Tigers much. They also play Troy and South Carolina State.
While Notre Dame doesn't benefit much, from a strength of schedule perspective, by playing five ACC opponents each season, the ACC strength of schedule is better. This season, Duke, Miami and Virginia Tech will play at Notre Dame, while the Irish will visit NC State and play Syracuse in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
One nonconference game that is flying under the radar of a busy opening weekend is Ole Miss playing Florida State in Orlando.
|1||Florida State||Ole Miss, Charleston Southern, AT South Florida, Florida|
|2||Virginia Tech||Liberty, Tennessee, East Carolina, AT Notre Dame|
|3||Duke||NCCU, AT Northwestern, AT Notre Dame, Army|
|4||Pittsburgh||Villanova, Penn State, AT Oklahoma State, Marshall|
|5||Louisville||Charlotte, AT Marshall, AT Houston, Kentucky|
|6||Georgia Tech||Mercer, Vanderbilt, Georgia Southern, AT Georgia|
|7||Syracuse||Colgate, South Florida AT UConn, Notre Dame|
|8||Virginia||Richmond, AT Oregon, AT UConn, Central Michigan|
|9||Clemson||AT Auburn, Troy, South Carolina State, South Carolina|
|10||North Carolina||Georgia, AT Illinois, James Madison, Citadel|
|11||Miami (FL)||Florida A&M, FAU, AT Appalachian State, AT Notre Dame|
|12||NC State||William & Mary, AT East Carolina, Old Dominion, Notre Dame|
|13||Wake Forest||Tulane, Delaware, AT Indiana, Army|
|14||Boston College||AT UMass, Wagner, Buffalo, UConn|
Group of Five / Independents
The highest-rated conference champion in the CFP Selection Committee rankings gets the golden ticket -- a spot in one of the non-playoff games. That is, unless a team puts together the kind of season that impresses the committee so much that it makes the top four.
Usually, even an undefeated team from one of these conferences will not have a strong enough schedule to contend for a berth in the CFP. It would take an eye-catching win or two in nonconference play to overcome a relatively weak league. The only team that may have the talent and schedule to pull that off this season is Houston.
The Cougars open the season with Oklahoma at NRG Stadium in Houston. They also get Louisville at home later in the season. If Houston runs the table and the Sooners and Cardinals have the kind of season you'd expect other than losses to the Cougars, then the committee should see Houston as a contender for the playoff.
Among the other contenders for a CFP committee bowl spot is Conference USA favorite Southern Miss, which will play at LSU and Kentucky. San Diego State will likely battle Boise State for Mountain West supremacy, but their toughest non-league foes are Northern Illinois and Washington State, respectively, so even an undefeated season wouldn't garner CFP consideration.
Among the independents, obviously Notre Dame is a CFP contender. The Irish have three preseason top 25 teams on the docket (plus Miami, which is 26th) and only USC is away from home.
Army's toughest opponent by far is Notre Dame, although the Black Knights' season will be measured by the games against Air Force and Navy. Army joins North Carolina as the only FBS teams with two FCS opponents on their schedules.
UMass is new to the independent ranks after leaving the MAC. The Minutemen will play games at Florida, South Carolina and BYU.
|Rank||Group of Five Team||Nonconference opponents|
|1||Georgia Southern||Savannah State, AT Western Michigan, AT Georgia Tech, AT Ole Miss|
|2||South Alabama||AT Mississippi State, Nicholls State, San Diego State, AT LSU|
|3||Louisiana-Monroe||Southern, AT Oklahoma, AT Auburn, AT New Mexico|
|4||Rice||AT Army, Baylor, Prairie View, AT Stanford|
|5||SMU||AT North Texas, AT Baylor, Liberty, TCU|
|6||Houston||Oklahoma, Lamar, AT Texas State, Louisville|
|7||Troy||Austin Peay, AT Clemson, AT Southern Miss, UMass|
|8||Appalachain State||AT Tennessee, Old Dominion, Miami (FL), AT Akron|
|9||UTSA||Alabama State, AT Colorado State, Arizona State, AT Texas A&M|
|10||Hawaii||California, AT Michigan, UT Martin, AT Arizona, UMass|
Top 10 (Power Five)
|1||USC||Alabama, Utah State, Notre Dame|
|2||Oklahoma||AT Houston, Louisiana-Monroe, Ohio State|
|3||Florida State||Ole Miss, Charleston Southern, AT South Florida, Florida|
|4||Stanford||Kansas State, AT Notre Dame, Rice|
|5||Virginia Tech||Liberty, Tennessee, East Carolina, AT Notre Dame|
|6||UCLA||AT Texas A&M, UNLV, AT BYU|
|7||Ohio State||Bowling Green, Tulsa, AT Oklahoma|
|8||Duke||NCCU, AT Northwestern, AT Notre Dame, Army |
|9||Michigan State||Furman, AT Notre Dame, BYU |
|10||Kansas State||AT Stanford, FAU, Missouri State |
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