College Football's Top 25 Toughest Non-Conference Schedules for 2019

Stanford's three non-conference opponents combined to win 33 games last season

Non-conference scheduling is one of the more contentious topics in a sport that feeds on contentious topics. The College Football Playoff has yet to establish a clear guideline when navigating the non-conference terrain, so scheduling continues to wildly fluctuate among the Power 5 conference programs.

 

Meanwhile, Group of 5 conference teams sometimes load up on high-profile dates — as much a testament to the game's economic disparities than trying to prove any playoff point.

 

No matter their motivation, the following programs take on challenging non-conference schedules. Not among the 25 are independents Notre Dame, Army, BYU, UMass, Liberty, and New Mexico State.

 

1. Stanford

Aug. 31 vs. Northwestern

Sept. 14 at UCF

Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame

 

Stanford never shies away from a difficult non-conference schedule, but the Cardinal's 2019 slate sets a remarkably high standard. Combined with the nine-game Pac-12 schedule, Stanford plays 11 games against Power 5 conference competition — and the lone exception is a road game across the continent to face UCF, which hasn't lost a regular-season game since 2016. The other two non-conference dates pit the Cardinal against 2018 Big Ten West champion Northwestern and College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame.

 

2. Rice

Aug. 30 at Army

Sept. 6 vs. Wake Forest

Sept. 14 vs. Texas

Sept. 21 vs. Baylor

 

Rice goes through an absolute gauntlet during the first four weeks of the season. The Owls travel to West Point to open the season on Friday against an Army team coming off its best finish in a half-century. From there, Rice draws three straight Power 5 conference teams, all of which played in bowl games last season.

 

3. USC

Aug. 31 vs. Fresno State

Sept. 14 at BYU

Oct. 12 at Notre Dame

 

USC may be coming off its worst finish in almost two decades, but the Trojans' typically daunting non-conference schedule shows no mercy in 2019. Week 1 opponent Fresno State presents a high upset-alert matchup, with the Bulldogs bringing an aggressive defense that sparked an 11-win finish in 2018. Speaking of aggressive defense, Week 3 keeps the body blows coming when USC visits BYU. The Cougars mark the Trojans' third straight matchup with a hard-hitting, defensive-minded team to kick off the season. USC's non-conference slate concludes with a trip to Notre Dame, where the Fighting Irish rolled in their last meeting there two seasons ago.

 

4. UCLA

Aug. 29 at Cincinnati

Sept. 7 vs. San Diego State

Sept. 14 vs. Oklahoma

 

UCLA's 2018 schedule was an absolute beast, contributing to the Bruins enduring a program-worst start since the 1940s. They run it back in 2019, with two of the same opponents back on the docket. UCLA opens Week 1 with a Thursday night date against Cincinnati's stingy defense and star running back Michael Warren II. Week 2 opponent San Diego State boasts wins over Pac-12 opponents in each of the past three seasons, including Top 25-ranked teams in 2017 (Stanford) and '18 (Arizona State). Then, 2018 College Football Playoff participant and '19 playoff favorite Oklahoma visits the Rose Bowl.

 

5. Houston

Sept. 1 at Oklahoma

Sept. 7 vs. Prairie View A&M

Sept. 13 vs. Washington State (Houston)

Sept. 28 at North Texas

 

The Week 1 Sunday slot features a potential shootout when D'Eriq King leads the newly Dana Holgorsen-coached Cougars into Oklahoma. After what should be a lopsided Week 2 date with Prairie View, another likely shootout awaits with pass-happy Washington State coming to town. Houston's non-conference slate wraps with yet another prolific passing attack. The Sept. 28 road game against Mason Fine and North Texas is quietly one of the most intriguing matchups on the 2019 non-conference docket.

 

6. LSU

Aug. 31 vs. Georgia Southern

Sept. 7 at Texas

Sept. 14 vs. Northwestern State

Oct. 5 vs. Utah State

 

Two teams coming off Top 25 finishes, Texas and Utah State, highlight LSU's challenging non-conference docket. The Texas game is made all the more noteworthy being played on the road, with potential playoff implications (and conference bragging rights). LSU's Week 1 opponent, Georgia Southern, is an always-tough out with its option offense. The Eagles come into Death Valley fresh off a 10-win campaign.

 

7. Duke

Aug. 31 vs. Alabama (Atlanta)

Sept. 7 vs. North Carolina A&T

Sept. 14 at Middle Tennessee

Nov. 9 vs. Notre Dame

 

Duke book-ends its non-conference schedule with matchups against two of the four teams in last season's College Football Playoff. If it's any consolation for the Blue Devils, neither is a road game; Notre Dame visits Wallace Wade Stadium in November, and the season opener against Alabama is in Atlanta (though, to be fair, Mercedes-Benz Stadium is neutral to the Crimson Tide in the same way Madison Square Garden is neutral to Duke basketball).

 

While those two dates highlight Duke's schedule, don't sleep on the other two games. North Carolina A&T has been one of the best teams in FCS the past few seasons, winning back-to-back Celebration Bowls and producing NFL talent like Tarik Cohen. Duke also plays a road game at 2018 Conference USA runner-up Middle Tennessee.

 

 

8. Middle Tennessee

Aug. 31 at Michigan

Sept. 7 vs. Tennessee State

Sept. 14 vs. Duke

Sept. 28 at Iowa

 

Some teams go through their entire non-conference schedules without playing any Power 5 conference opponents; Middle Tennessee plays three. The Blue Raiders travel to Big Ten country twice for road games against Michigan and Iowa, both of which could reach the Big Ten Championship Game at season's end. Middle Tennessee also welcomes the ACC's Duke Blue Devils to Murfreesboro for a rare Group of 5 home game against the Power 5.

 

9. Michigan

Aug. 31 vs. Middle Tennessee

Sept. 7 vs. Army

Oct. 26 vs. Notre Dame

 

Every team on Michigan's 2019 non-conference schedule enjoyed a landmark '18. Season-opening opponent Middle Tennessee reached the Conference USA Championship Game; Army finished ranked in the Top 25 after its best season in a half-century; and historic rival Notre Dame reached its first College Football Playoff.

 

If there's any advantage for the Wolverines, it's that all three contests are in the Big House. However, timing will test Michigan. The Wolverines have just one week to prep for Army's option offense, which nearly ground Oklahoma into submission a season ago. The Notre Dame date falls a week after a marquee Big Ten East date against Penn State.

 

10. Northern Illinois

Aug. 31 vs. Illinois State

Sept. 7 at Utah

Sept. 14 at Nebraska

Sept. 28 at Vanderbilt

 

Northern Illinois played one of the tougher non-conference schedules in the nation a season ago. Although it didn't produce a gaudy record, it prepared the Huskies for a MAC championship. Northern Illinois will try to produce a similar result after another gauntlet in the non-conference in 2019. Three Power 5 conference road games line the slate from the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC. Weeks 2 and 3 pit the Huskies against the preseason favorites to win their respective divisions.

 

11. Pitt

Sept. 7 vs. Ohio

Sept. 14 at Penn State

Sept. 21 vs. UCF

Sept. 28 vs. Delaware

 

The renewal of an in-commonwealth rivalry with Penn State produced one of the most memorable Pitt wins in recent years. The high-scoring 2016 encounter might be an ancient memory to most, but James Franklin's comments about the Panthers in '17 still resonate in '19.

 

One week after the emotional Penn State encounter, Pitt hosts recent Group of 5 standard-bearer UCF. The Panthers' non-conference book-ending games should not be overlooked: Frank Solich has a perennial MAC contender at Ohio, and Danny Rocco coached Delaware to the FCS playoffs in 2018.

 

12. Utah State

Aug. 30 at Wake Forest

Sept. 7 vs. Stony Brook

Oct. 5 at LSU

Nov. 2 vs. BYU

 

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2018 college football season was Utah State's emergence as a Top 25 team. Gone is head coach Matt Wells, but the Aggies return a lineup capable of challenging Boise State for the Mountain West's Mountain division in 2019. Outside of the conference race, however, Utah State faces a daunting calendar. The season opener at Wake Forest is the first of two road games against Power 5 opponents, both of which played in bowl games last year — and the other, LSU, won the Fiesta Bowl.

 

The Aggies draw in-state rival BYU in the final stretch of the regular season. Their fourth non-conference game against Stony Brook shouldn't be a cakewalk: The Seawolves from the FCS ranks are contenders for the CAA Football title in 2019 and likely playoff qualifiers.

 

13. Purdue

Aug. 30 at Nevada

Sept. 7 vs. Vanderbilt

Sept. 14 vs. TCU

 

Purdue's non-conference schedule doesn't feature a date that completely jumps out, but the Boilermakers draw no slouches, either. Credit's due for matchups against SEC and Big 12 opponents, giving Purdue 11 Power 5 opponents in 2019. Both Vanderbilt and TCU are outstanding defensive teams with bowl-quality rosters. The one non-Power 5 date might be the most intriguing, with the Boilers trekking to the Sierra Nevadas for a road game against a dangerous Nevada bunch. The Wolf Pack's potent passing attack will try to pull Purdue into a track meet in the high altitude of Reno.

 

14. West Virginia

Aug. 31 vs. James Madison

Sept. 7 at Missouri

Sept. 14 vs. NC State

 

The nine-game Big 12 schedule might give West Virginia an excuse to skim on its non-conference scheduling, but the Mountaineers instead face opponents from the SEC and ACC. Missouri and NC State both have bowl-quality rosters and each should test West Virginia in the early phases of the Neal Brown era.

 

Sledding against the Tigers and Wolfpack could be even tougher if the Mountaineers drop a Week 1 date with James Madison. The Dukes are prime contenders for the FCS national championship.

 

15. South Carolina

Aug. 31 vs. North Carolina (Charlotte, N.C.)

Sept. 7 vs. Charleston Southern

Nov. 9 vs. Appalachian State

Nov. 30 at Clemson

 

South Carolina's SEC schedule shook out in an especially brutal manner, but the Gamecocks' non-conference calendar isn't exactly easy. They face North Carolina in a battle of Carolinas, and the return of Mack Brown to college sidelines. The element of surprise makes game-planning a challenge. On the flip side, the Gamecocks know what to expect from rival Clemson: The Tigers are one of the most talented rosters in college football history.

 

While the in-state showdown to cap the regular season looms large, the meeting with Appalachian State a week earlier should not be slept on. The Mountaineers won the Sun Belt in 2018 and return a talented lineup.

 

16. Clemson

Sept. 7 vs. Texas A&M

Sept. 21 vs. Charlotte

Nov. 2 vs. Wofford

Nov. 30 at South Carolina

 

Clemson's dream 2018 season was nearly derailed in Week 2 at Texas A&M. On paper, the Aggies team visiting Death Valley in Week 2 should be better than the 2018 squad. One of the most anticipated non-conference games of the 2019 season highlights Clemson's slate, and rival South Carolina often gives the Tigers a handful. Charlotte shouldn't give the defending champs much resistance. In theory, Wofford should not either, but the perennial FCS contenders employ a flexbone offense that can be a pain to defend for even the most talented opponents.

 

17. Florida State

Aug. 31 vs. Boise State (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Sept. 7 vs. ULM

Nov. 16 vs. Alabama State

Nov. 30 at Florida

 

Florida State plays one of the most wildly fluctuating non-conference schedules, both in difficulty and timing. The Seminoles begin the 2019 season with two non-conference dates, and end the season with a pair of non-conference games, as well. ULM of the Sun Belt and Alabama State of the SWAC shouldn't give Florida State much trouble, but the Noles must navigate two marquee matchups to open and close the regular season.

 

Boise State fell an extra frame shy of winning the Mountain West a season ago, and the Broncos will again set the pace in 2019. Florida State rival Florida is projected as Georgia's top contender in the SEC East. The Gators could be dark-horse playoff contenders by the time Rivalry Week rolls around.

 

18. Georgia

Sept. 7 vs. Murray State

Sept. 14 vs. Arkansas State

Sept. 21 vs. Notre Dame

Nov. 30 at Georgia Tech

 

Georgia eases into its non-conference schedule with FCS Murray State and the Sun Belt's Arkansas State. Neither is likely to derail Georgia's march to an anticipated showdown with Notre Dame, one of two teams that Bulldogs faithful dismissed as unworthy of the playoff berth they felt Georgia deserved. A win over the Fighting Irish should set up Kirby Smart's squad nicely heading into SEC play, and the playoff could again be a topic of conversation when the Dawgs face longtime rival Georgia Tech to cap the regular season.

 

19. Cincinnati

Aug. 29 vs. UCLA

Sept. 7 at Ohio State

Sept. 14 vs. Miami (Ohio)

Sept. 28 at Marshall

 

Cincinnati kicked off its surprising 2018 season with a road win over UCLA. The Bruins visit the Bearcats to open 2019 with what should be a much-improved team compared to Chip Kelly's first-year squad. No matter how improved the Bruins are, however, Week 1 pales in comparison to a Week 2 date that sends the Bearcats to Columbus to face Ohio State. It's a homecoming for head coach Luke Fickell, a former Buckeyes defensive coordinator and one-year interim head coach in 2011.

 

Before a potential American Athletic Conference East division-deciding showdown with UCF, Cincinnati goes on the road to face a strong Marshall team.

 

20. Texas

Aug. 31 vs. Louisiana Tech

Sept. 7 vs. LSU

Sept. 14 at Rice

 

Texas' non-conference schedule might look like a one-game ticket on its surface. Make no mistake, that one game is a biggie. Chatter about the Longhorns returning to national prominence hinges largely on LSU's visit to Austin in Week 2. But Texas can't look ahead to the Tigers with Louisiana Tech in town Week 1. Skip Holtz has a perennial Conference USA contender in Ruston, with rosters never lacking for NFL talent.

 

21. Boise State

Aug. 31 vs. Florida State (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Sept. 6 vs. Marshall

Sept. 14 vs. Portland State

Oct. 19 at BYU

 

Boise State's peak came in the latter half of the 2000s into the early '10s. During that time, the Broncos routinely beat power-conference competition in games that were neutral site in name only. The 2019 season opener is a throwback to those days of knocking off Virginia Tech in the D.C. area and Georgia in Atlanta, as the Broncos draw Florida State in a virtual road game.

 

Boise State's home opener is against a good Marshall team, and the Broncos travel to BYU midway through the season.

 

22. FAU

Aug. 31 at Ohio State

Sept. 7 vs. UCF

Sept. 14 at Ball State

Sept. 21 vs. Wagner

 

FAU returns from a disappointing 2018 with two marquee games to open 2019. The Owls open at Ohio State, serving as the first opponent of the official Ryan Day era. In Week 2, FAU gets UCF at home after having had the Knights on the ropes at halftime of last year's meeting in Orlando (though UCF bombarded FAU after intermission). Those two games won't make or break FAU's efforts to rebound but will set the tone. Few teams in the nation open with such a daunting one-two docket.

 

23. Nevada

Aug. 30 vs. Purdue

Sept. 7 at Oregon

Sept. 14 vs. Weber State

Sept. 21 vs. UTEP

 

Nevada opens its 2019 season with an opportunity to plant the program's flag against an up-and-coming Purdue squad. The home date against a Big Ten visitor proceeds a Week 2 trip to Oregon to face one of the Pac-12's preseason picks to contend for the conference title. Although the schedule lightens up thereafter, Week 3 opponent Weber State reached the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs a season ago. Josh Davis, last season's Jerry Rice Award winner in the FCS ranks, is one of the most electric running backs in college football.

 

24. Louisville

Sept. 2 vs. Notre Dame

Sept. 7 vs. Eastern Kentucky

Sept. 14 vs. Western Kentucky

Nov. 30 at Kentucky

 

Notre Dame's affiliation with the ACC means its Louisville's time to face the Fighting Irish, which the Cardinals do on Labor Day to close Week 1. The meat of Louisville's non-conference slate is front-and-back-loaded; the rivalry game against a Kentucky team that enjoyed a banner season concludes Scott Satterfield's first season at UL. Bowl eligibility may be at stake for the Cardinals.

 

25. North Texas

Aug. 31 vs. Abilene Christian

Sept. 7 at SMU

Sept. 14 at Cal

Sept. 28 vs. Houston

 

With stat sheet-stuffing Mason Fine back behind center in 2019, North Texas has the foundation to win a Conference USA championship. The Mean Green should be plenty battle-tested once they get into the C-USA slate. After a Week 1 tune-up against FCS Abilene Christian, the Mean Green face a bowl-quality SMU team. Expect plenty of points in that northern Texas showdown. North Texas goes from facing Sonny Dykes' current team to his former, traveling to the Bay Area to face a physically imposing Cal team. A Lone Star State showdown with Houston in Denton promises another offensive eruption.

 

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

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