With strength of schedule being a significant, if unquantified, factor in the College Football Playoff Selection Committee's process for putting together its rankings that determine the playoff participants each year, let's take a conference-by-conference look at how teams are scheduling outside their leagues.
These are the toughest and easiest nonconference schedules entering the 2018 season.
The SEC is one of the two power five conferences that still only plays eight league games. That means each team has four nonconference games instead of three, and the SEC knows just what to do with those: play FCS schools. Every single team in the SEC will play at least one game against an FCS opponent, and Auburn and Florida will each play two such games. One of Auburn's games is against Liberty, which is starting a transition to FBS and is competing as an FCS independent this season. Florida is playing Idaho, which just dropped to FCS after last season. No league is playing a greater percentage of its nonconference schedule against FCS opposition.
The SEC is also playing a Power Five-low of just 23 percent of its games against other power five schools and Notre Dame. And in keeping with tradition, even on the rare occasion an SEC team leaves home, it will still play in the South. Only four SEC nonconference games will be played elsewhere, including two in the state of Indiana (Vanderbilt at Notre Dame, Missouri at Purdue).
That is not to say there are no good games to be found. Arguably the biggest game of the opening weekend is Auburn's matchup with Pac-12 favorite Washington in Atlanta. Also, Texas A&M and South Carolina will both get shots at Clemson (TAMU in Week 2). That will be a familiar opponent for new Aggie coach Jimbo Fisher, who coached against the Tigers many times when he was at Florida State.
|Toughest||Missouri|| Memphis, Wyoming, UT-Martin, AT Purdue|
|Weakest||Ole Miss||UL-Monroe, Kent State, So. Illinois, Texas Tech (Houston)|
Dishonorable mention: Georgia
Nobody loves home cooking more than the Big Ten, which ties the SEC for the greatest percentage of games played at home with 79 percent. However, the league's policy against playing FCS schools -- except under special circumstances -- means that there are only two such games this season (Illinois vs. Western Illinois, Iowa vs. Northern Iowa).
The conference will also have a relatively high number of its games against other Power Five competition: 33 percent. A couple of the games to look forward to are Notre Dame hosting Michigan and traveling to Northwestern. The Irish will be facing the Wolverines for the first time since 2014. Also, Ohio State will take on TCU in the "neutral" site of Dallas. Of course, knowing Buckeye fans, it will probably feel more like a home game for OSU.
|Toughest||Northwestern||Notre Dame, Duke, Akron|
|Weakest||Wisconsin||Western Kentucky, BYU, New Mexico|
Honorable mention: Purdue
Dishonorable mention: Indiana, Rutgers
Like the SEC, every team in the ACC will play four nonconference games, at least one of those against an FCS opponent. Virginia will also play Liberty, which is not formally a member of the FBS until 2019. Unlike the SEC, and most of the Power Five conferences, the ACC will play a high percentage of road games. A full 30 percent of their nonconference games are true road games. Duke is playing two Power Five teams, if not powerhouse teams, on the road.
The highlights include the annual SEC-ACC rivalry games between schools in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. Also, Louisville will get a chance to make a statement early when the Cardinals take on Alabama in Orlando to start the season. Notre Dame will host Florida State and travel to Blacksburg to face Virginia Tech.
|Toughest||Pittsburgh|| Penn State, Albany, AT UCF, AT Notre Dame |
|Weakest||Virginia||Ohio, Richmond, Liberty, AT Indiana|
The Pac-12 has some interesting issues in regard to scheduling, primarily because of the geographically isolated nature of the league. The Big 12 is the next closest major conference, and you will see some games between those two leagues, but in order to get games against better opposition, often times Pac-12 teams have to hit the road. So it should come as no surprise that the Pac-12 does play the highest percentage of road games at 31 percent, just edging out the ACC. The league also plays the fewest neutral site games with only two.
Notre Dame is featured prominently in the highlighted games, as it is every year. The Irish play Stanford and USC each season with the Trojans hosting at the end of the season and the Cardinal traveling to South Bend, Indiana, in September. Herm Edwards' debut season at Arizona State will feature a strong, early test when Michigan State comes to visit in Week 2.
|Toughest||USC||Notre Dame, UNLV, AT Texas|
|Weakest||Oregon*||Bowling Green, San Jose State, Portland State|
* This is easily the softest schedule of any major conference team -- and not just this season. It is among the softest in recent memory. Oregon's 2018 nonconference opponents were a combined 4-32 last season and may not do much better this time around.
Big 12: Because of the size of the league and the full round robin conference schedule, the Big 12 has the fewest number of nonconference games at 30. Still, only Oklahoma and Texas are playing a full schedule of FBS teams. Even with that, the league has the highest number of games against other Power Five teams at 37 percent.
The traditional powers of the Big 12 are going to take on the teams from Los Angeles this season. Texas will host USC looking to avenge last season's loss at the Coliseum. Oklahoma will host UCLA in Chip Kelly's second game with the Bruins after his return to college football.
|Toughest||Texas|| USC, Tulsa, AT Maryland (Washington, DC) |
|Weakest||Kansas|| Rutgers, Nicholls State, AT Central Michigan|
The AAC is one of only two of the Group of Five conferences that scheduled more than 50 percent of its non-conference games at home. They were able to do that because they are playing 12 of their 26 home games against FCS schools. Every team is playing one such game, which helps with the task of having enough teams achieve bowl eligibility.
The nonconference schedule is highlighted by the annual game between Navy and Notre Dame, which will be played in San Diego this season. Also, Houston will host Arizona.
Arkansas State, Central Arkansas, AT Texas, AT Arkansas
Georgia Tech, Elon, Illinois (Chicago), AT UMass
Honorable mention: SMU, Navy
Other Group of Five conferences
Not surprisingly, none of these conferences are playing 75 percent of their games at home. Besides the AAC, only the Mountain West managed to schedule more than 50 percent of its nonconference games on home turf. That makes for tough sledding when it comes to trying to build an undefeated season and potential spot in the playoff.
UCF and Western Michigan managed undefeated seasons in 2017 and 2016, respectively, but did not have strong enough regular season schedules to merit playoff consideration. At the start of 2016, Houston looked to have both the talent and schedule to get a playoff look with a perfect season but came up a couple of wins short. The ability to identify a team like that before the season starts will be rare, and I see no such team this year.
FAU could make some noise with wins at Oklahoma and UCF, but I'm not sure the conference schedule would be considered strong enough to push the Owls to the top four at 13-0.
Getting Power Five teams to play road games against teams from these conferences is always a challenge, and this year is no exception. Only 19 games will be played between a Power Five team and a Group of Five team at the home field of the latter program.
No place feels that pain more acutely than the Sun Belt. That league has just 19 nonconference home games and is the only one that will not host a Power Five opponent. In fact, 10 of those 19 games are against FCS teams. Louisiana-Monroe one of eight teams that will not play a nonconference game at home against an FBS opponent. The others are Akron, Kent State, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Navy, New Mexico and Western Kentucky.
My pick for the Group of Five representative in the New Year's Six bowl games this year is Boise State. The Broncos have road games at Oklahoma State and Troy in nonconference play. Those will not be easy but also do not figure to move the needle in terms of playoff consideration.