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 SEC.
|What helps put Arkansas at the top aside from being the lowest-rated team in the SEC West, and the only team that doesn't get to play Arkansas, is that it plays at Notre Dame. That's certainly one of the most difficult nonconference games any SEC team will play this season. Its draw from the East isn't horrific, as it gets Tennessee to go with its annual rivalry date against Mizzou. In the West, the Hogs get Alabama and LSU at home, but in consecutive weeks. They also get A&M at a neutral site. The most difficult road game in conference is at Auburn. Overall: 25.47% | SEC: 14.12%|
|Tennessee's game against Oklahoma on the road is more difficult than Arkansas' against Notre Dame by my metric, but the Vols other nonconference games don't quite match up with Arkansas. Also, while the Vols get Alabama, Florida and Georgia, they also get Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Neither appears on Arkansas' schedule (only one can!), and that proved to be the difference in the end. Tennessee must play three teams who have been to the College Football Playoff this year, and two of those (Oklahoma and Georgia) are on the road. It's not going to be easy in Knoxville. Overall: 21.42% | SEC: 9.45%|
|While Vandy's noncon doesn't feature a heavyweight, it's solid. The Commodores will play at Kansas State as well as home games with Colorado State, Louisiana Tech and Mercer. In conference, they draw Texas A&M and Ole Miss from the West while playing Georgia, Kentucky and Mizzou on the road within the division. Also, like Arkansas, Vandy is helped out by not having itself on the schedule. Overall: 19.98% | SEC: +7.79%|
|The most difficult stretch of South Carolina's 2020 schedule stacks up against any other stretch in the country. In November, the Gamecocks get Georgia at home and then play LSU on the road a week later. Then, after a chance to catch its breath against Wofford, South Carolina finishes the year with a road game against Clemson. That means the Gamecocks play both of last season's title game participants. This schedule isn't ranked higher because of other noncon games against Coastal Carolina and East Carolina. Overall: 19.57% | SEC: 7.32%|
|Lane Kiffin's first game with the Rebels will be an interesting test as it's a neutral site game against Baylor. The rest of the noncon should be manageable with Southeast Missouri, UConn and Georgia Southern. Also, there are worse draws from the East than Vandy and Florida. In the division, the Rebels have to face Auburn, LSU and Alabama in consecutive weeks. That won't be fun, and having to play Arkansas on the road a week after facing Texas A&M on the road could make that contest a little more difficult than it looks on paper. Overall: 17.62% | SEC: 5.07%|
|Alabama doesn't get to face Alabama, which hurts, but this schedule still ranks highly thanks to other challenges. The Tide opens the season with USC in Arlington, and they'll also play the rare regular-season game against Georgia. The rest of the nonconference outside USC is nothing to write home about, as Georgia State, Kent State and UT-Martin are all likely to be four-touchdown underdogs at a minimum. Inside the division, there's some relief in getting both A&M and Auburn at home, but they're in consecutive weeks to finish the year. They also come a couple of weeks after LSU on the road, which makes for a difficult November. Overall: 15.56% | SEC: 2.70%|
|Auburn's noncon is highlighted by a game against North Carolina in Atlanta. Alcorn State, Southern Miss and UMass don't do a whole lot to help past that, and North Carolina itself doesn't carry a ton of weight because, while there are high expectations for it in 2020, those expectations don't impact the rankings. The Tigers get Kentucky and Georgia from the East, and while A&M and LSU come to them, they're on the road for both Georgia and Alabama. Overall: 15.38% | SEC: 2.49%|
|The noncon here doesn't do a whole lot either way. At NC State is the toughest of a slate rounded out by home games with New Mexico, Tulane and Alabama A&M. The back-breaker in this schedule is both Alabama and LSU on the road in consecutive weeks. At least the Bulldogs have a bye just before it? Getting Missouri and Kentucky from the East isn't easy, but you'd rather get them than Georgia and Florida. All in all, October is going to suck, but September and November will provide chances for relief. Overall: 14.94% | SEC: 1.98%|
|The defending champions play Texas again this year, but this time it's in Baton Rouge. The only noncon game outside of Tiger Stadium is at a neutral site against Rice. Neither Rice or UTSA score high in my ratings, and Nicholls doesn't do much for the Tigers, either. What carries the weight here are road games against Florida, Auburn and A&M, as well as a home date with Alabama. Overall: 12.38% | SEC: -0.97%|
|The toughest noncon game Kentucky plays is its regular-season finale at Louisville. The rest of it (Eastern Michigan, Kent State and Eastern Illinois) almost feels like a Big Ten nonconference schedule. The draw from the West features a road game against Auburn and Mississippi State. Auburn's tough, obviously, but it could have been worse. In the division, the Cats get Florida, Mizzou and Tennessee on the road, but outside of Georgia, the home slate is quite manageable. Overall: 8.42% | SEC: -5.52%|
|Georgia's 2020 schedule is very top-heavy. The West draw is not fun at all as it features a road game against Alabama and Auburn at home. Then, of course, there's the annual tilt with Florida in Jacksonville. The rest is much more manageable, though, as the Dawgs get some extra credit for facing two Power Five opponents in their noncon slate (Virginia and Georgia Tech). Unfortunately, Georgia Tech doesn't do a whole lot based on its recent history. Overall: 8.36% | SEC: -5.59%|
|Last year, the Aggies had a schedule that included Clemson, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and LSU. That's three recent national champs, a recent SEC title winner and an Auburn team that played for a couple of national titles (and won one) in the last decade. This year's schedule isn't quite as difficult! Georgia and Clemson are gone and in their place are Colorado and Vanderbilt. Finishing the season with Alabama on the road and LSU at home is going to hurt, but a nonconference of Abilene Christian, North Texas, Colorado and Fresno State won't. Overall: 5.04% | SEC: -9.42%|
|The Tigers play one of the weaker nonconference schedules in the SEC this year. They get Central Arkansas, Eastern Michigan, Louisiana and BYU with the Cougars as the only road game. They draw Mississippi State and Arkansas from the West, which is just about as good as you can hope for. In the division, they get Georgia and Kentucky at home but will have to play South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida on the road. Overall: 1.76% | SEC: -13.20%|
|The Gators are the only SEC team with a projected SOS below the national average this year, though it's just barely below it. The reasoning for it is pretty simple: the noncon doesn't carry its normal weight. While the Gators play at Florida State to finish the year, the Noles don't provide as much weight as you'd expect these days. Also, the rest of the noncon is Eastern Washington, South Alabama and New Mexico State. While there's the annual date with LSU, the Gators draw Ole Miss from the West. The Georgia game is a beast, but having it at a neutral site balances things out slightly. Also, Florida will play only four true road games this season. The only time they'll leave the state of Florida is for games against Tennessee, Ole Miss and Vandy. Overall: -0.85% | SEC: -16.21%|