One of the most significant factors the College Football Playoff Selection Committee considers when putting together its rankings is strength of schedule. Some teams have gaudy nonconference records but build them against creampuffs. Others may suffer early losses against top-tier opponents.
It is hard to say how much impact those gaudy records make on the committee, but when you look at records of a team's conference opponents, their nonconference records carry a lot of weight. That is because each conference game is a wash -- one league team wins and one loses. Unbalanced schedules mitigate that a bit, but nonconference performance is still significant.
With that in mind, here is an evaluation of each league's nonconference schedules as we prepare for the 2021 season. Listed below are the strongest and weakest in each conference along with a ranking of the toughest in the entire FBS this season.
The SEC is one of two Power Five conferences still playing only eight conference games. And SEC teams know exactly what to do with that extra game: Play an FCS opponent. Every team in the SEC has one on the schedule, which is true almost every year. Four of these games are scheduled during the last three weeks of the season. That serves as a nice break before what is likely a big rivalry game for most teams.
The SEC is also one of two conferences playing more than 60% of its FBS games at home (69%) and by far the fewest on the road (21%). When SEC teams do hit the road, they rarely leave the Southeast, but there are a whopping five teams playing such games this season up from typically two or three. Those are led by Auburn traveling to Penn State in Week 3.
Despite all the softies, the biggest game on the entire nonconference slate is arguably the Week 1 showdown between Georgia vs. Clemson in Charlotte, North Carolina. That gives the Bulldogs the toughest nonconference schedule in the league as the only team with two Power Five nonconference opponents. Tennessee's opponents, on the other hand, may not combine for more than 10 wins against FBS teams. Pittsburgh will have most of those, including possibly one against the Volunteers.
|Toughest||Georgia||Clemson (Charlotte), UAB, Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech|
|Weakest||Tennessee||Bowling Green, Pitt, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama|
When it comes to soft schedules, the Big Ten is right on the SEC's heels this season -- except in one notable way. Of the 15 FBS teams that are not playing an FCS team, seven are in the Big Ten. That is because the league only allows those games to be scheduled under certain conditions.
Big Ten teams are playing a relatively high number of Power Five foes (one-third of all nonconference games). Only the ACC, American and MAC play a higher percentage of their nonconference schedules against Power Five teams. There are some pretty good matchups there as well. Wisconsin will face Notre Dame at Chicago's Soldier Field in Week 4. Ohio State also hosts Pac-12 favorite Oregon, and the annual Iowa-Iowa State rivalry will have a little more juice than usual.
Nebraska has the Big Ten's single toughest game when it travels to projected College Football Playoff participant Oklahoma. It also hosts Buffalo, which has been no pushover in recent years. Rutgers, on the other hand, can't be blamed for scheduling down as they try to stack wins any way it can.
|Toughest||Nebraska||Fordham, Buffalo, at Oklahoma|
|Weakest||Rutgers||Temple, at Syracuse, Delaware|
Like the SEC, every team in the ACC will play four nonconference games, and one of those games will be against an FCS opponent. The ACC will play a third of its games on the road, matching the Big Ten. It also has a rare interconference, nonconference game. North Carolina is hosting Wake Forest on Nov. 6 in a game that will not count in the ACC standings.
The ACC has the second-highest percentage of games against Power Five opposition, helped by four in-state rivalries with SEC teams and five games with Notre Dame.
Georgia Tech has it tough finishing the regular season at Notre Dame and home against Georgia, whereas Syracuse has a nonconference schedule that may provide some relief.
|Toughest||Georgia Tech|| Northern Illinois, Kennesaw State, at Notre Dame, Georgia|
|Weakest||Syracuse||at Ohio, Rutgers, Albany, Liberty|
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 Texas is playing a full schedule of FBS teams, which means the Big 12 is playing the greatest percentage of games against FCS opposition (30%). Texas is one of three schools to have not played a lower division opponent since Division I-AA was formed in 1978. Notre Dame and USC are the others.
There's a dearth of big games on the Big 12 nonconference slate. Besides Iowa-Iowa State, Texas hosting Louisiana is the only game featuring two teams ranked in the preseason polls. That certainly bodes well for Oklahoma, which looks to have an especially easy nonconference path.
|Toughest||Texas|| Louisiana, at Arkansas, Rice|
|Weakest||Oklahoma||at Tulane, Western Carolina, Nebraska|
The Pac-12 has some interesting scheduling issues primarily because of the geographically isolated nature of the league. The Big 12 is the next-closest major conference, so you would expect a relatively high number of games against those teams, but that is not the case. Pac-12 teams have more games against teams from the Big Ten (four) and SEC (three) than the Big 12 (two).
The conference also features several games against Mountain West opposition, which has the same geographical issues. There are 10 games between the two leagues, and the Pac-12 team will host nine of them. BYU also appears on the schedules of five Pac-12 teams. Washington visiting Michigan provides a nice dessert after the Oregon-Ohio State matchup on Sept. 11.
|Toughest||USC||San Jose State, at Notre Dame, BYU|
|Weakest||Oregon State||at Purdue, Hawaii, Idaho|
The AAC is again leading the Group of Five in percentage of home nonconference games, including three against SEC foes. There are 16 total games against Power Five opposition this season, but those three are among only five being played at home.
Memphis' game against Mississippi State and Tulsa's trips to Oklahoma State and Ohio State highlight the AAC schedule, except for Cincinnati's back-to-back road trips to Indiana and Notre Dame. If the Bearcats finish 13-0 with the Hoosiers and Fighting Irish not otherwise disappointing, Cincy will receive serious College Football Playoff consideration.
Miami (OH), Murray State, at Indiana, at Notre Dame
Texas Tech, at Rice, Grambling State, at UConn
Other Group of Five conferences
The Mountain West and Sun Belt are approaching a percentage of home games that is getting closer to what the AAC can achieve. Conference USA and the MAC are still lagging behind in that regard. Getting home games against Power Five teams is still a challenge, though, and it's only going to get tougher. The Mountain West only has four such games. Conference USA, the MAC and the Sun Belt have five Power Five home games combined.
Oklahoma State at Boise State and Utah at San Diego State are two of the more meaningful games not already mentioned above.
Toughest nonconference schedules
1. Kent State
at Texas A&M, at Iowa, at Maryland, VMI
at LSU, at Kentucky, Liberty, Jackson State
3. Georgia State
at North Carolina, at Auburn, Army, Charlotte
at Ohio State, at Auburn, Temple, Bryant
5. Georgia Tech
Northern Illinois, Kennesaw State, at Notre Dame, Georgia