Among the factors that the College Football Playoff Selection Committee considers when they put together their rankings each week is strength of schedule. In fact, you could argue that strength of schedule is the single biggest factor, even though they make no attempt to quantify it.
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 along with the top Group of Five nonconference slates. An overall ranking of the top 10 nonconference schedules can be found at the end.
No conference takes it easier in nonconference play year after year than the SEC. Last year, the Big Ten outdid the SEC when it came to scheduling the most home games, but the SEC never stays down for long and has reclaimed that crown. The SEC is playing a full 75 percent of its nonconference games at home.
The league is also playing the smallest percentage of true road games (just nine out of 56 games) and the greatest percentage of games against FCS competition. The SEC just missed playing the smallest percentage of games against other Power Five teams.
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. Only three SEC teams will play games out of its home region: Georgia at Notre Dame, Texas A&M at UCLA and Ole Miss at Cal. The Bulldogs are the only SEC team playing two games away from home, which is also very unusual.
That doesn’t mean there are no big games on the nonconference slate. The biggest game of the entire regular season could be the Alabama-Florida State clash in Atlanta to open the season. Florida will play Florida State in Gainesville in their annual rivalry game, and UF will also face Michigan in Dallas to start the season.
|1||Florida||Florida State, Northern Colorado, UAB, VS Michigan|
|2||Georgia||Samford, Appalachian State, AT Notre Dame, AT Georgia Tech|
|3||South Carolina||Clemson, Louisiana Tech, Wofford, VS NC State|
|4||Alabama||VS Florida State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Mercer|
|5||Auburn||Mercer, UL-Monroe, Georgia Southern, AT Clemson|
|6||Kentucky||Louisville, Eastern Michigan, Eastern Kentucky, AT Southern Miss|
|7||Vanderbilt||Kansas State, Western Kentucky, Alabama A&M, AT Middle Tennessee|
|8||Texas A&M||AT UCLA, UL Lafayette, New Mexico, Nicholls State|
|9||LSU||Syracuse, VS BYU, Chattanooga, Troy|
|10||Mississippi State||Charleston Southern, BYU, UMass, AT Louisiana Tech|
|11||Tennessee||Southern Miss, UMass, Indiana State, VS Georgia Tech|
|12||Mississippi||UT-Martin, South Alabama, UL-Lafayette, AT Cal|
|13||Missouri||Purdue, Missouri State, Idaho, AT UConn|
|14||Arkansas||TCU, Florida A&M, Coastal Carolina, New Mexico State|
The Big Ten is right on the SEC’s heels in terms of playing a lot of home nonconference games with 31-of-42 games on home fields (73.8 percent). However, due to a new scheduling rule forbidding games against FCS teams, there are only two such games this season. Those were grandfathered in when the rule was created. Every other league is playing between 22-25 percent of its nonconference games against FCS opponents.
The league’s nonconference schedule used to feature three or sometimes even four games against Notre Dame. However, with the Irish committed to playing five ACC teams every season, most of those games have gone away. Only Michigan State will face the Irish this year.
It’s a nonconference schedule that does not have a lot of highlights. Besides the aforementioned Michigan-Florida game, Oklahoma will visit Ohio State, and the next best game of the Big Ten’s entire nonconference slate is Nebraska at Oregon.
|1||Nebraska||Northern Illinois, Arkansas State, AT Oregon|
|2||Illinois||Western Kentucky, Ball State, AT South Florida|
|3||Purdue||VS Louisville, Ohio, AT Missouri|
|4||Michigan||Cincinnati, Air Force, VS Florida|
|5||Ohio State||Oklahoma, Army, UNLV|
|6||Wisconsin||Florida Atlantic, Utah St, AT BYU|
|7||Michigan State||Notre Dame, Bowling Green, Western Michigan|
|8||Maryland||UCF, Towson, AT Texas|
|9||Rutgers||Washington, Morgan State, Eastern Michigan|
|10||Minnesota||Middle Tennessee, Buffalo, AT Oregon State|
|11||Northwestern||Bowling Green, Nevada, AT Duke|
|12||Iowa||Wyoming, AT Iowa State, North Texas|
|13||Indiana||FIU, Georgia Southern, AT Virginia|
|14||Penn State||Pittsburgh, Akron, Georgia State|
With four of the five ACC-SEC, in-state rivalry games switching to SEC sites this year, nonconference schedules in the ACC will be road heavier than usual. The league will play the smallest percentage of home games at 62.5 percent. It will also play almost 40 percent of its nonconference games against other Power Five teams, a number that is boosted by the annual slate of five games against Notre Dame, which is counted as a Power Five opponent.
No team has two nonconference opponents tougher than Florida State, which will face Alabama and Florida, and neither of those games is at home. In fact, if you throw in a conference road game with Clemson, no team has three tougher games away from home.
The Tigers will host Auburn in one of the more interesting nonconference games for the ACC. There is also round two of the renewed Pitt-Penn State rivalry at Happy Valley and Notre Dame traveling to Miami to face the Hurricanes. Georgia Tech faces Tennessee at the new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta in what is technically a neutral site game.
|1||Florida State||VS Alabama, Delaware State, UL-Monroe, AT Florida|
|2||Pittsburgh||Oklahoma State, Rice, Youngstown State, AT Penn St|
|3||Georgia Tech||VS Tennessee, Jacksonville State, Georgia, AT UCF|
|4||Syracuse||Middle Tennessee, Central Michigan, Central Connecticut, AT LSU|
|5||Wake Forest||Presbyterian, Utah State, AT Notre Dame, AT Appalachian State|
|6||NC State||Marshall, VS South Carolina, Furman, AT Notre Dame|
|7||Miami (FL)||Notre Dame, Toledo, Bethune-Cookman, AT Arkansas State|
|8||Clemson||Kent State, Auburn, The Citadel, AT South Carolina|
|9||Duke||Baylor, Northwestern, NCCU, AT Army|
|10||Virginia Tech||VS West Virginia, Delaware, Old Dominion, AT East Carolina|
|11||Boston College||Notre Dame, Central Michigan, vs UConn, AT Northern Illinois|
|12||North Carolina||Notre Dame, California, Western Carolina, AT Old Dominion|
|13||Louisville||VS Purdue, Kent State, Murray State, AT Kentucky|
|14||Virginia||UConn, Indiana, William & Mary, AT Boise State|
The nonconference schedule for the Pac-12 stands out in that it has the lowest percentage of games against other Power Five opponents at 27.8 percent. That is largely due to geography as the Pac-12 is relatively isolated from the rest of the major conferences. It also plays the lowest percentage of FCS opponents aside from the Big Ten.
USC is not taking it easy on itself, which is typically the case. The Trojans will host Texas and play at Notre Dame. Even their MAC opponent, Western Michigan, figures to be a pretty good team.
Stanford will host the Irish and travel to Mountain West favorite San Diego State, which will be a good test for both teams. The Aztecs have to be considered a possibility for the Group of Five spot in a New Year’s Six game. UCLA has an interesting schedule as well. The Bruins will host Texas A&M and travel to Memphis to take on the Tigers, which is expected to be one of the better teams in the American conference.
|1||USC||Texas, Western Michigan, AT Notre Dame|
|2||Stanford||Notre Dame, VS Rice, AT San Diego State|
|3||Oregon||Southern Utah, Nebraska, AT Wyoming|
|4||UCLA||Texas A&M, Hawaii, AT Memphis|
|5||Oregon State||Minnesota, Portland State, AT Colorado State|
|6||Arizona State||New Mexico State, San Diego State, AT Texas Tech|
|7||Washington State||Montana State, Boise State, Nevada|
|8||California||Weber State, Ole Miss, AT North Carolina|
|9||Utah||North Dakota, San Jose State, AT BYU|
|10||Arizona||Houston, Northern Arizona, AT UTEP|
|11||Colorado||vs Colorado State, Northern Colorado, Texas State|
|12||Washington||AT Rutgers, Montana, Fresno State|
Due to its size and the fact that it plays a full round-robin conference schedule, the Big 12 has the fewest nonconference game of any league with just 30. One-third of those games are played on the road, which is the highest percentage of any conference.
The highlight of those road games is the Oklahoma-Ohio State game, but Texas will also visit USC. Oklahoma State, which many people feel can win the conference, will play two true road games against Pitt and South Alabama.
The only other nonconference games of note are TCU at Arkansas and West Virginia facing Virginia Tech in Landover, Maryland.
|1||Texas||Maryland, San Jose State, AT USC|
|2||Oklahoma||Tulane, UTEP, AT Ohio State|
|3||TCU||SMU, Jackson State, AT Arkansas|
|4||Oklahoma State||Tulsa, AT Pittsburgh, AT South Alabama|
|5||West Virginia||East Carolina, Delaware State, vs Virginia Tech|
|6||Iowa State||Northern Iowa, Iowa, AT Akron|
|7||Texas Tech||Eastern Washington, Arizona State, AT Houston|
|8||Baylor||Liberty, UT San Antonio, AT Duke|
|9||Kansas State||Charlotte, Central Arkansas, AT Vanderbilt|
|10||Kansas||Central Michigan, SE Missouri State, AT Ohio|
Group of Five / Independents
The highest-rated conference champion by the CFP Selection Committee gets the golden ticket — a spot in one of the New Year’s Six games. That is … unless a team puts together the kind of season that impresses the committee so much that it makes the playoff.
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. Last season, Houston appeared to have a shot with Oklahoma and Louisville on its schedule. However, despite winning both of those games, the Cougars struggled in conference play and didn’t make it. There does not appear to be a team like that this season.
USF is the early favorite to win the American Athletic Conference and the spot in a New Year’s Six game. The Bulls may be favored every time they take the field but finishing 13-0 is never easy. Unfortunately, their nonconference schedule includes Illinois, UMass, San Jose State and Stony Brook, a collection of teams that would do well to win six games against FBS opposition.
Among the other contenders for a CFP committee bowl spot is San Diego State. Besides Stanford, the Aztecs will face Arizona State and perennial MAC contender Northern Illinois. Boise State, another Mountain West contender, will host Virginia and travel to BYU and Washington State.
Among the independents, Notre Dame is trying to bounce back from a disastrous 4-8 season and will have its usual collection of tough games, which were previously mentioned. They will have to play five games on the road this year, which is more than usual.
BYU will be tested with a schedule that includes games against LSU, Wisconsin, Utah and Boise State before we are even two weeks into October. Army’s toughest opponent by far at Notre Dame, although the Black Knights’ season will be measured by the games against Air Force and Navy. Army looks to go to a bowl in consecutive seasons for just the second time ever. Massachusetts will play a couple of SEC teams on the road (Tennessee and Mississippi State) and will host Hawaii, which will have to fly almost 12 hours to get there.
|1||UL-Monroe||AT Florida State, AT Auburn, AT Memphis, Southern Miss|
|2||Fresno State||AT Washington, AT Alabama, BYU, Incarnate Word|
|3||San Jose State||AT Texas, AT BYU, AT Utah, South Florida, Cal Poly|
|4||Kent State||AT Clemson, AT Louisville, AT Marshall, Howard|
|5||Tulsa||AT Oklahoma State, AT Toledo, New Mexico, UL-Lafayette|
|6||Rice||AT Houston, AT Pittsburgh, vs Stanford, Army|
|7||Nevada||AT Northwestern, AT Washington State, Toledo, Idaho State|
|8||UNLV||AT Ohio St, AT Idaho, BYU, Howard|
|9||Toledo||AT Miami, AT Nevada, Tulsa, Elon|
|10||Western Michigan||AT Michigan State, AT USC, Idaho, Wagner|
Toughest nonconference schedules
|1||Florida State||ACC||VS Alabama, Delaware State, UL-Monroe, AT Florida|
|2||USC||Pac-12||Texas, Western Michigan, AT Notre Dame|
|3||Pittsburgh||ACC||Oklahoma State, Rice, Youngstown State, AT Penn State|
|4||Texas||Big 12||Maryland, San Jose State, AT USC|
|5||Florida||SEC||Florida State, Northern Colorado, UAB, VS Michigan|
|6||Oklahoma||Big 12||Tulane, UTEP, AT Ohio State|
|7||Georgia||SEC||Samford, Appalachian State, AT Notre Dame, AT Georgia Tech|
|8||Georgia Tech||ACC||vs Tennessee, Jacksonville State, Georgia, AT UCF|
|9||Stanford||Pac-12||Notre Dame, VS Rice, AT San Diego State|
|10||Nebraska||Big Ten||Northern Illinois, Arkansas State, AT Oregon|