Several factors come into play during the College Football Playoff selection process, but one of the most significant is strength of schedule. Measuring by this metric is more difficult for football than basketball because teams only play 12 or 13 games in football while the slate is three times as heavy in basketball. Regardless of how it is measured mathematically, better scheduling will always feature more quality opponents.
Because conference games make up at least two-thirds of a team's schedule in football, it's important for the superior teams in the league to have played league mates with good records. As such, in a sense, it's better for non-CFP contenders to schedule three or four nonconference wins -- depending on the league -- and let the conference games fall where they may. For example: Ohio State's strength of schedule is better if Rutgers is 4-8 with three nonconference wins than 1-11.
Teams feeling they have a chance to make the CFP should try playing at least one good nonconference game to prove their worth to the committee. Everyone else in their league should just try to schedule wins so they have as good a record as possible for their opponents. That's not easy in football, however, because most games are scheduled years in advance.
With that in mind, here is an evaluation of each league's nonconference schedules as we prepare for the 2023 season. Listed below are the strongest and weakest in each conference along with a ranking of the toughest in the FBS this season.
The SEC kicked around the idea of moving to nine conference games as the league prepares for expansion with Texas and Oklahoma joining in 2024. It decided against the nine-game route, but that was a good move for individual teams from a strength-of-schedule perspective.
The SEC is also the only power conference in which every team will play an FCS opponent. Two of these games are scheduled for the week before Thanksgiving -- the day I like to refer to as SEC Sabbatical Saturday. There are seven nonconference games in the league that day, none of which will cause the SEC team to break a sweat.
Like all of the Power Five, the SEC plays most of its nonconference games at home, but it is only one of two leagues that plays more than 75% of its games on home turf.
There are still some great games out there. No. 11 Texas makes a return trip to No. 4 Alabama after nearly upsetting the Crimson Tide in Austin, Texas, a year ago. No. 8 Florida State and No. 5 LSU will rematch to start the season, this time in Orlando, after their thriller in New Orleans to open last season. Unlike last year, though, both teams start the season within the top 10 of the preseason rankings and with hopes of a CFP berth.
Toughest schedule -- Florida: The Gators start the season at No. 14 Utah as the Utes will be looking for revenge after losing at UF last season. Florida also has its traditional season-ending rivalry game at home against Florida State. The only other team playing two nonconference opponents highlighted in the preseason rankings is South Carolina (No. 9 Clemson, No. 21 North Carolina).
Weakest schedule -- Arkansas (just nudging past Mississippi State): Each team is playing four home games featuring an FCS school and a bottom-end MAC team. The Razorbacks get the edge over the Bulldogs, though, because their other games are FIU and BYU, while the Bulldogs get Arizona and Southern Miss.
The Big Ten is still the king of home games. Its nonconference schedule features a whopping 33 home games out of its 42 total. The league still trails the SEC in percentage of road games because the SEC plays four neutral-site games while the Big Ten only has one. Five Big Ten teams are playing all three of their nonconference games at home.
Still, the Big Ten continues to schedule the smallest percentage of games against FCS teams and is second only to the ACC for the most nonconference games against Power Five opponents.
The highlight of the Big Ten's nonconference schedule is No. 3 Ohio State at No. 13 Notre Dame on Sept. 23. A loss would mean the Buckeyes' hopes of making a return trip to the CFP would be damaged before they even get to conference play.
Toughest schedule -- Ohio State: The showdown with the Fighting Irish gives the Buckeyes the nod here. Other than Michigan State's home game with No. 10 Washington and Minnesota at North Carolina, there is little in terms of marquee matchups for the league this season. Honorable mention goes to Purdue for being the only Big Ten team to schedule two Power Five opponents. The Boilermakers' third game is against reigning Mountain West champion Fresno State.
Weakest schedule -- Michigan: The No. 2 Wolverines are not just champions of the Big Ten on the field, they're also champions of soft nonconference scheduling. This season, they host East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. Michigan is the only Big Ten team without a Power Five opponent on its nonconference schedule.
Like the SEC, every ACC team will play four nonconference games with one coming against an FCS opponent. Virginia Tech must have missed the memo, however, because it has games against two Sun Belt and two Big Ten teams.
The ACC again has the highest percentage of nonconference games against Power Five competition among all conferences at the FBS level. That's true pretty much every season because there are four in-state rivalry games with SEC teams and five or six games between ACC teams and Notre Dame. Those games are also a big reason the ACC usually has the highest percentage of road games among the power conferences. This season, however, it is second to the Pac-12.
The schedule is highlighted by Clemson hosting Notre Dame after the two met in South Bend, Indiana, last season. Also, the aforementioned FSU-LSU game could have CFP implications. Last year at this time, we were all looking forward to a big matchup between Miami and No. 23 Texas A&M, but both teams finished the season at 5-7. They'll meet again this season with the Hurricanes hosting in Week 2 as the programs look to get their seasons started on the right track.
Toughest schedule -- Georgia Tech: The Yellow Jackets have the edge thanks to their annual rivalry with Georgia. They get the Bulldogs at home this season, for whatever that might be worth. Apparently, one SEC team was not enough, so they also have to travel to No. 22 Ole Miss.
Weakest schedule -- Boston College: The Eagles managed to avoid playing a Power Five opponent, which is not easy in this league with Notre Dame on so many schedules and in-state rivals in the SEC. They will face Holy Cross, Northern Illinois and UConn at home and also travel to Army.
The Big 12 was once the conference that played the fewest total nonconference games, but the addition of four new members this season means that is no longer true.
One of the quirks of being the smallest conference was that it could play the fewest nonconference games against FCS teams and have the highest percentage of games against that group. The Big 12 still has the highest percentage of games against FCS teams (26.2%), but it no longer has the fewest. It's also tied with the SEC for the smallest percentage of games against other Power Five schools in part because the four new teams only have two such games combined.
The aforementioned Texas-Alabama game is far and away the highlight of the Big 12 nonconference slate. Texas Tech will get an opportunity to make a big splash when it hosts Oregon. West Virginia will visit No. 7 Penn State, renewing a rivalry that was played for 46 consecutive seasons before ending in 1992 prior to the Nittany Lions joining the Big Ten.
Toughest schedule -- West Virginia: The Mountaineers host rival Pitt to go along with the Penn State trip.
Weakest schedule -- Oklahoma: The No. 20 Sooners kick off their final season in the Big 12 with games against SMU and Arkansas State at home followed by a trip to Tulsa.
Because of its geographical isolation from the rest of the Power Five, the Pac-12 tends to have a Western-heavy schedule. That's no different this season. The conference has a whopping 11 of its 36 nonconference games against Mountain West opposition; No. 18 Oregon State and No. 6 USC are playing two teams each from that league, which is almost one-third of the league's nonconference schedule and just one fewer game than it has against Power Five opposition.
Of course, by next season, some of those Pac-12 teams may end up in the Mountain West.
The USC-Notre Dame game highlights the Pac-12 nonconference schedule, as usual. The Utah-Florida rematch in Salt Lake City is also worth a look, and Mountain West favorite Boise State will visit Washington.
Toughest schedule -- Colorado: Deion Sanders and the Buffaloes have the only schedule in the conference with two Power Five opponents and no FCS foes. Colorado will play Nebraska, No. 17 TCU and rival Colorado State.
Weakest schedule -- Oregon State: The Beavers have a team that deserves better tests than San Diego State and UC Davis at home with San Jose State on the road.
Group of Five
Cincinnati carved the path for a Group of Five team to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff back in 2021 when the Bearcats went undefeated -- including a win on the road at Notre Dame -- to secure a historic berth in the four-team field. That was the only loss for the Irish that season, which meant that Notre Dame was a floor for Cincinnati in the CFP Rankings.
This season, the only Group of Five team that seemingly has the potential to win its league and a nonconference game against a preseason top-10 team is Boise State. The Broncos play at Washington in the season opener on Sept. 2. For Boise State to have a shot at the CFP, it would have to win out and Washington would need to finish at 12-1 and Pac-12 champion.
Five toughest nonconference schedules
- Central Michigan -- at Michigan State, New Hampshire, at Notre Dame, at South Alabama
- Tulsa -- UAPB, at Washington, Oklahoma, at Northern Illinois
- Ball State -- at Kentucky, at Georgia, Indiana State, Georgia Southern
- Navy -- vs. Notre Dame (Ireland), Wagner, Air Force, vs. Army (Foxborough, Massachusetts)
- ULM -- Army, Lamar, at Texas A&M, at Ole Miss