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College Football's Top 25 Toughest Non-Conference Schedules for 2018

Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi

Pittsburgh Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi

Even among conference counterparts, non-conference schedules can vary dramatically. Non-conference slates can be changed as a result of previously brokered matchups being cancelled -- which happened to Oregon, a team playing a shockingly easy docket in 2018.

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Other programs, particularly in Power 5 conferences, schedule down as a philosophy. Avoid the potential for disaster out-of-conference, be prepared for league.

Then there are those programs that face gauntlets in the non-conference, opting to challenge themselves; perhaps position themselves for the College Football Playoff; reward their fans with marquee competition. Meanwhile, some Group of 5 programs face daunting non-conference competition to raise their national visibility and earn needed paydays.

Whatever the motivation, certain teams will take on challenging dockets in the coming campaign. For the sake of ranking the most difficult, independent programs like Notre Dame, Army and BYU -- all of which play tough slates -- are excluded, since their schedules are technically all non-conference dates.

1. Pittsburgh

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Sept. 1 vs. Albany

Sept. 8 vs. Penn State

Sept. 15 at UCF

Oct. 13 at Notre Dame

After easing in with a matchup against Albany, Pitt's non-conference schedule is a beast. The Panthers see in-state rival Penn State then travel to UCF in back-to-back weeks; both are coming off New Year's Six Bowl victories a season ago. Pitt also travels to Notre Dame in another daunting task midway through ACC play.

2. Northern Illinois

College Football Rankings: NIU

Sept. 1 at Iowa

Sept. 8 vs. Utah

Sept. 22 at Florida State

Oct. 27 at BYU

Outside of Boise State, Northern Illinois is the most consistently successful Group of 5 program dating back to the latter portion of the BCS era. The Huskies have established a recognizable brand, with a Heisman finalist and Orange Bowl appearance. In 2018, they'll look to build on their national reputation with a whopper non-conference schedule. Northern Illinois goes on the road three times, and sees opponents from three of the five power conferences -- all of which appeared in bowls last year, and should be improved in 2018.

3. Florida State

Sept. 8 vs. Samford

College Football Top 25 Rankings: FSU

Sept. 15 vs. Northern Illinois

Nov. 10 at Notre Dame

Nov. 24 vs. Florida

A new era at Florida State kicks off in historic fashion, with Willie Taggart (above, right) coming on as the program's first head coach outside of the Bobby Bowden coaching tree in more than four decades. Taggart's debut campaign is a gauntlet, back-loaded with a road trip to Notre Dame 25 years after a landmark meeting between the two programs. A revamped Florida Gators club closes out Florida State's slate, as always.

4. Louisiana

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Sept. 1 vs. Grambling

Sept. 15 at Mississippi State

Sept. 29 at Alabama

Oct. 13 vs. New Mexico State

Louisiana ventures into SEC West territory twice, meeting defending national champion Alabama two weeks after visiting what should be a very good Mississippi State squad. And while in recent years facing Grambling and New Mexico State wouldn't be anything noteworthy, Grambling has grown into the powerhouse of the SWAC. The Tigers are no FCS pushover, almost beating Arizona two season ago. New Mexico State is no longer a Sun Belt foe of Louisiana, but the Aggies are coming off their best season since 1960.

5. Tulane

Aug. 30 vs. Wake Forest

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Sept. 8 vs. Nicholls State

Sept. 15 at UAB

Oct. 22 at Ohio State

Tulane's opening-night date against Wake Forest has become something of a tradition. The Demon Deacons come to New Orleans hot off a breakthrough season under Dave Clawson, setting the tone for Tulane's challenging non-conference schedule. The Green Wave's other Power 5 conference matchup is a doozy, sending them to Ohio State. One week prior, Tulane draws surprising UAB. A Nicholls State team that should contend for an FCS playoffs berth rounds out the slate.

6. West Virginia

Sept. 1 vs. Tennessee (Charlotte, N.C.)

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Sept. 8 vs. Youngstown State

Sept. 15 at NC State

West Virginia ranks among the exclusive club of Power 5 programs playing 11 opponents also from power conferences. The Mountaineers' two Power 5 non-conference dates come away from home: First, against a Tennessee program with some mystery about it under Jeremy Pruitt; then, in one of the most fascinating dates on the early-season calendar when they visit NC State.

7. Texas

Sept. 1 vs. Maryland (Landover, Md.)

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Sept. 8 vs. Tulsa

Sept. 15 vs. USC

Texas has embraced one of the most ambitious non-conference scheduling strategies anywhere in college football. The Longhorns kick off the 2018 season with a neutral-field game against Maryland, albeit one that functions more as a road contest. The meeting with a Big Ten opponent serves as a prelude to two weeks later when USC visits Austin for a marquee pairing.

8. Florida Atlantic

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Sept. 1 at Oklahoma

Sept. 8 vs. Air Force

Sept. 15 vs. Bethune-Cookman

Sept. 21 at UCF

Defending Conference USA champion FAU aims to build on the buzz established in Lane Kiffin's first year, drawing a non-conference slate that includes a 2017 College Football Playoff participant and a defending national champion*. The Owls travel to both Oklahoma and UCF in two of the first four weeks, with a home date against the always-tough Air Force Falcons set for the home opener.


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Sept. 1 vs. Cincinnati

Sept. 8 at Oklahoma

Sept. 15 vs. Fresno State

A Week 2 trip to Oklahoma should test the mettle of Chip Kelly's Bruins early in a showdown between an offensive guru of years past, and the new heir to that throne in Lincoln Riley. The trip to Norman is sandwiched between intriguing home dates against Cincinnati, and last year's surprise breakout team from the Mountain West, Fresno State.

10. USC

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Sept. 1 vs. UNLV

Sept. 15 at Texas

Nov. 24 vs. Notre Dame

Fellow college football blue bloods Texas and Notre Dame make for one of the most formidable non-conference schedules. The Trojans travel to Austin in the return match after last year's thriller at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Notre Dame, meanwhile, comes to Los Angeles in the customary Thanksgiving weekend slot.

11. Ohio State

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Ohio State

Sept. 1 vs. Oregon State

Sept. 15 vs. TCU (Arlington, Texas)

Sept. 22 vs. Tulane

Ohio State draws a rare schedule with 11 games against Power 5 competition -- though Week 1 opponent, Oregon State out of the Pac-12, might be the weakest of the Buckeyes' non-conference opponents. A trip to face TCU in an ostensibly road game could have College Football Playoff implications, while a well-coached Tulane team with Willie Fritz at the helm should be a bowl-game qualifier in 2018.

12. Louisville

College football rankings: Louisville

Sept. 1 vs. Alabama (Orlando, Fla.)

Sept. 8 vs. Indiana State

Sept. 15 vs. Western Kentucky

Nov. 24 vs. Kentucky

The honor of being the Week 1 opponent for Alabama goes to Louisville. The Cardinals' first game without quarterback Lamar Jackson should be a rough one. Indiana State in the following week should be a win, but don't overlook Bobby Petrino's first matchup with Western Kentucky since leaving after one season with the Hilltoppers. The Cardinals face an improved rival Kentucky over Thanksgiving weekend, and Louisville could be playing for its bowl lives.

13. Arizona State

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Sept. 1 vs. UTSA

Sept. 8 vs. Michigan State

Sept. 15 at San Diego State

Michigan State's visit to the desert highlights a rigorous non-conference slate for the Sun Devils in Herm Edwards' debut season. The Big Ten vs. Pac-12 showdown sits in between a matchup with UTSA -- which took Arizona State to the wire in 2016 -- and a trip to San Diego State. The Aztecs thumped the Sun Devils a season ago.

14. Stanford

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Sept. 1 vs. San Diego State

Sept. 15 vs. UC Davis

Sept. 29 at Notre Dame

Stanford's opening month features a pair of high-profile non-conference dates. San Diego State visits The Farm after shocking the Cardinal down in America's Finest City a year ago. The roles are reversed for Stanford later in September when it goes to Notre Dame, 10 months after a fourth-quarter romp powered the Cardinal to a big upset win.

15 South Carolina

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Sept. 1 vs. Coastal Carolina

Sept. 15 vs. Marshall

Nov. 17 vs. Chattanooga

Nov. 24 at Clemson

South Carolina's in-state rivalry with Clemson closes out the regular season, as it always does, giving juice to a non-conference slate that also features an intriguing pairing with potential Conference USA championship contender, Marshall.

16. Clemson

Sept. 1 vs. Furman

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Clemson

Nov. 8 at Texas A&M

Sept. 15 vs. Georgia Southern

Nov. 24 vs. South Carolina

A pair of dates against SEC competition highlight Clemson's 2018 schedule. Dabo Swinney aims to continue his winning ways over Jimbo Fisher with a Week 2 trek to Texas A&M, while the Rivalry Week date against South Carolina could be the most competitive installment dating back a few years.

17. TCU

College Football Top 25 Rankings: TCU

Sept. 1 vs. Southern

Sept. 8 at SMU

Sept. 15 vs. Ohio State (Arlington, Texas)

Ohio State's trek down to Texas highlights TCU's non-conference slate. The Horned Frogs can make serious noise on the national scene early with a win over the Buckeyes, but cannot overlook local rival SMU. The Mustangs reached a bowl game last season, and have a proven winning coach in Sonny Dykes.

18. Oklahoma

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Sept. 1 vs. Florida Atlantic

Sept. 8 vs. UCLA

Sept. 22 vs. Army

Oklahoma's non-conference schedule may be one of the most unique in college football. The Sooners face a Pac-12 opponent with plenty of intrigue in Chip Kelly's first season, but the other two dates -- both against non-power conference competition -- could be just as challenging. FAU was a surprise breakout team in Lane Kiffin's first season as head coach, while Jeff Monken has revitalized Army in his tenure there.

19. Texas A&M

Aug. 30 vs. Northwestern State

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Texas A&M

Sept. 8 vs. Clemson

Sept. 15 vs. ULM

Nov. 17 vs. UAB

Clemson's trip to College Station highlights a loaded Week 2 around college football. It's a big opportunity for Jimbo Fisher to stake his claim at Texas A&M -- particularly after Clemson took clear control of the rivalry with Fisher's Florida State program in the ACC over the previous three season. The Aggies also play an interesting game in the typical SEC paycheck weekend spot, drawing the surprise story of last college football season, UAB.

20. Akron

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Sept. 1 at Nebraska

Sept. 8 vs. Morgan State

Sept. 15 at Northwestern

Sept. 22 at Iowa State

After winning the MAC East in 2017, Akron follows up with a tough non-conference schedule that features three Power 5 conference opponents. The Zips ring in the Scott Frost era at Nebraska in Week 1, travel to Northwestern in Week 3, and wrap it up with a road trip to Iowa State. Two of the three went bowling in 2017, and the one that didn't ranks among the most decorated programs in college football history.

21. Navy

College football rankings: NAVY

Sept. 1 at Hawaii

Sept. 15 vs. Lehigh

Oct. 6 at Air Force

Oct. 27 vs. Notre Dame (San Diego)

Navy logs plenty of miles in 2018. The Midshipmen kick off the season at Hawaii before jumping into American Athletic Conference play just one week later. The Mids then host perennial Patriot League contender Lehigh, return to AAC play, then ship out west for the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series against Air Force. Navy heads west one more time for a "home" game in late October against rival Notre Dame.

22. Northwestern

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Sept. 8 vs. Duke

Sept. 15 vs. Akron

Nov. 3 vs. Notre Dame

Should Northwestern beat both Duke and Notre Dame, the Wildcats can claim a mythical academic national championship. Classwork aside, the Fighting Irish could be a top 10 team when they come to the Chicagoland area, and Duke's always well-coached under David Cutcliffe. Meanwhile, Akron comes off a MAC East division title with pieces in place to repeat.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Michigan

23. Michigan

Sept. 1 at Notre Dame

Sept. 8 vs. Western Michigan

Sept. 15 vs. SMU

The restoration of old hostilities between Michigan and Notre Dame sets the tone for 2018. Both Jim Harbaugh and Brian Kelly are under pressure to deliver a College Football Playoff appearance, giving this rivalry game some added oomph early on the slate. While the Wolverines' next two non-conference games are not as flashy, both Western Michigan and SMU have the pieces to be bowl teams in 2018.

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24. Purdue

Sept. 1 at Notre Dame

Sept. 8 vs. Western Michigan

Sept. 15 vs. SMU

After kicking off in Big Ten action against Northwestern, Purdue begins non-conference play with Eastern Michigan, then a double-dip against two Power 5 conference opponents. An interesting twist to the Boilermakers' back-to-back dates against Missouri and Boston College: All three were surprise bowl teams in 2017, and any one of the trio could emerge as a surprise Top 25 team in 2018, making these games important.

25. Eastern Michigan

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Aug. 31 vs. Monmouth

Sept. 8 at Purdue

Sept. 22 at San Diego State

Oct. 27 vs. Army

Eastern Michigan snapped a nearly three-decade bowl drought in 2016, and would have made it two-in-a-row -- were it not for a campaign filled with heartbreaking losses. The Eagles managed to secure their first win over a Big Ten opponent ever, though, and aim to repeat when they travel to resurgent Purdue in Week 2. That marks the first of two road dates with tough opponents, as Eastern Michigan also travels to San Diego State. Army visits The Factory later in the season, coming off its best season in more than two decades.

-- Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45

(Willie Taggart photo by Colin Abbey, courtesy of

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