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Ranking the Big 12's Toughest Non-Conference College Football Schedules in 2016

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The quality of non-conference schedules in the Big 12has received significant attention in recent years. The philosophies vary dramatically throughout the conference: Some programs opt for high-profile, home-and-home series against notable teams around the country; others have reputations for scheduling pillowy-soft slates to ease into the conference run.

Related: Ranking the Big 12's Toughest College Football Schedules in 2016

Here’s a ranking of all 10 Big 12 programs’ non-conference schedules this season from toughest to easiest. Although the difficulty levels follow predictable patterns, there is at least one surprise near the top.

1. Oklahoma

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Sept. 3 vs. Houston (Houston, Texas)
Sept. 10 vs. ULM
Sept. 17 vs. Ohio State

When we last saw Houston and Ohio State, they were dismantling quality opponents in marquee bowl games. The Sooners have the pleasure of squaring off with them in two of the first three weeks of the season. Catching the Buckeyes in Norman is a nice break, but the opener at NRG Stadium effectively means starting the season on Cougar turf. A visit from ULM in between shouldn’t pose much of a threat.

2. Texas

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Sept. 3 vs. Notre Dame
Sept. 10 vs. UTEP
Sept. 17 at California

Texas has a very similar non-conference slate to Oklahoma, except the two headline matchups are slightly easier if last season is any indication. The Longhorns also get to open the season at home.

3. Kansas State

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Sept. 2 at Stanford
Sept. 17 vs. Florida Atlantic
Sept. 24 vs. Missouri State

Bill Snyder built Kansas State up in part by feasting on weak non-conference lineups similar to what the Wildcats faced a year ago. This year, however, the Wildcats start off with a trip to Palo Alto for a Friday night game against Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey and the Cardinal. A win there would do wonders for the reputation of the conference. Florida Atlantic and Missouri State should be walkovers.

4. Iowa State

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Sept. 3 vs. Northern Iowa
Sept. 10 at Iowa
Sept. 24 vs. San Jose State

The highlight for the Cyclones is the annual date with their in-state rivals in Iowa City. Even when Iowa State is struggling, that always seems to be a competitive game. Given the state of the program that he’s inheriting, new head coach Matt Campbell probably shouldn’t overlook Northern Iowa or San Jose State, either.

5. TCU

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Sept. 3 vs. South Dakota State
Sept. 10 vs. Arkansas
Sept. 23 at SMU

It’s the Horned Frogs’ turn to carry the banner for the Big 12 against Arkansas, which just finished up a home-and-home series with Texas Tech. The Razorbacks might be thirsty for some revenge by proxy after falling last year to the Red Raiders. TCU should expect SMU to be up for the game on Sept. 23, which should make for a nice litmus test for the Mustangs’ progress in head coach Chad Morris’ second season.

6. Texas Tech

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Sept. 3 vs. Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 10 at Arizona State
Sept. 17 Louisiana Tech

The Red Raiders shouldn’t have much to worry about in week one against Stephen F. Austin. A trip to Sun Devil Stadium a week later is another matter, though. Hangovers are hard to avoid in Tempe, but Kliff Kingsbury will need to have his team focused a week later in what could be a trap game versus Louisiana Tech, which is historically one of the more dangerous mid-major programs.

7. Oklahoma State

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Sept. 3 vs. Southeastern Louisiana
Sept. 10 vs. Central Michigan
Sept. 17 vs. Pittsburgh

On the plus side, the Cowboys catch all three of their non-conference opponents in Stillwater this season. On the other hand, one of those opponents is Pitt, which looks to be on the upswing under hard-nosed head coach Pat Narduzzi. Consider that contest a referendum on the Big 12 and ACC. 

8. West Virginia

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Sept. 3 vs. Missouri
Sept. 10 vs. Youngstown State
Sept. 24 vs. BYU (Landover, Md.)

The Missouri game probably looked much tougher back when it was scheduled. The Tigers could be in for a painful rebuild now, making the Mountaineers’ season opener less daunting. BYU is never a pushover, although a change at head coach has the Cougars in a similar transition phase to Mizzou. West Virginia should count on feisty Bo Pelini having his Youngstown State squad ready in week two.

9. Kansas

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Sept. 3 vs. Rhode Island
Sept. 10 vs. Ohio
Sept. 17 at Memphis

Not much to see here. The Jayhawks’ recent string of futility does make these games more interesting, but none will have more than the most dedicated of Kansas fans tuning in.

10. Baylor

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Sept. 3 vs. Northwestern State
Sept. 10 vs. SMU
Sept. 17 at Rice

This looks familiar: No opponent from a Power Five conference; three games in the state of Texas; three opportunities to rack up gaudy statistics and enter Big 12 play fresh. Hopefully, the rest of the Big 12 will shame Art Briles into stepping his program’s non-conference slate up soon.

— Written by Allen Kenney, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Kenney is founder and editor of BlatantHomerism.com and host of the Blatant Homerism Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BlatantHomerism.