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Ranking College Football's Top 25 Toughest Schedules for 2016

College Football Playoff contenders face some of the most daunting schedules in the nation in 2016

The true measure of a college football team's strength of schedule cannot be determined until the regular season approaches its end. That said, some schedules stand out as obviously better than others before a game is ever played.

 

The 2016 college football season opens with one of the best single days in the sport's history, which sets a fitting tone for the fall to follow. Some of the most likely College Football Playoff contenders face the sport's most difficult schedules.

 

1. USC

The most difficult schedule in the 2016 college football season, if not one of the single most treacherous slates in recent memory, welcomes Clay Helton to his first campaign as USC's full-time head coach.

 

The Trojans open with defending national champion Alabama, end with rival Notre Dame and draw the most challenging of all Pac-12 Conference slates. USC sees North division opponents Stanford and Washington both on the road.

 

2. Oklahoma

Bob Stoops has ample opportunity to reinforce his "Big Game" nickname in 2016. The docket opens with a bang in H-Town, where the Sooners face reigning Peach Bowl champion and likely preseason top 20 opponent Houston in an in-name-only neutral-field contest at NRG Stadium in Houston.

 

The Houston game may not get the buzz it deserves by virtue of the Sooners hosting Ohio State a couple weeks later, but the Cougars are dangerous. Just ask Florida State.

 

One of the two best non-conference slates in all of college football is simply a prelude to the Big 12's nine-game round-robin.

 

3. Wisconsin

The Badgers could call it a season at the midway point, and would have already played a more taxing schedule than most of the nation. Wisconsin opens with LSU at Lambeau Field, gets 2015 bowl participants Akron and Georgia State to round out non-conference play, then jumps into the Big Ten season with Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State and Iowa all in succession.

 

Three of those games are on the road.

 

It eases up ever-so-slightly on the back-half of the Badgers' schedule, but not before dates with Nebraska and Northwestern in Big Ten West competition.

 

4. Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish open 2016 on the national stage with a rare Sunday game at Texas.

 

Notre Dame will rarely exit that stage, playing high-profile dates against historic rivals Michigan State, Stanford, Navy and USC, and drawing Duke and Miami as part of its ACC affiliation.

 

5. Stanford

Stanford's played some of the more ambitious schedules in college football of late, and 2016 is no exception. After opening with the Big 12's Kansas State, the Cardinal jump into Pac-12 Conference action immediately.

 

Customary California crossovers against USC and UCLA highlight Stanford's matchups with the South, while trips to both Oregon and Washington should be for North supremacy. Tucked amid the drive to repeat in the Pac-12 is the annual contest against Notre Dame.

 

6. Ohio State

A trip to Oklahoma in the non-conference schedule looms large, but Ohio State draws quality teams from the Group of Five in Tulsa and Bowling Green. The latter beat two Big Ten opponents a season ago.

 

The Big Ten East looks to be loaded, and the Buckeyes must travel to both Michigan State and Penn State. Divisional crossovers with Nebraska and at Wisconsin only add to a meaty schedule.

 

7. Florida State

Juxtapose Florida State's recent run of success out of the ACC against the oh-so-prevalent chest-thumping emanating from SEC country. It's only right these two, proud sides would meet in a collision course.

 

Florida State opens with the SEC's Ole Miss, then concludes the regular season against the conference's defending East division champion, Florida. Upstart South Florida also looms on the non-conference slate.

 

In the ACC, Florida State draws Miami and Louisville on the road, and hosts Clemson in a late-season showdown that could have College Football Playoff implications -- again.

 

8. Rutgers

A cross-country trek to face a rising Washington team opens Rutgers' challenging 2016 season appropriately enough.

 

The Scarlet Knights have just five road games, but they are doozies. In addition to the visit to Husky Stadium, Rutgers goes to Ohio State and Michigan State. The Buckeyes and Spartans headline an all-around deep and challenging Big Ten East, wherein Rutgers looks to be the low team heading into 2016.

 

9. Kansas State

Opening at defending Rose Bowl champion Stanford kicks off K-State's grueling road itinerary. In Big 12 Conference play, the Wildcats travel to Oklahoma, Baylor, West Virginia and TCU.

 

That's one of the most brutal road schedules in college football, and demonstrates the true challenge of the Big 12's round-robin schedule.

 

10. Nebraska

Oregon's visit to Lincoln highlights the Nebraska non-conference season, but the real fun of the Cornhuskers' 2016 slate begins in the back half.

 

Nebraska draws one of the nation's most brutal stretches, going to Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa in three of its final five contests.

 

11. Alabama

The Crimson Tide's season opener against USC headlines a loaded Week 1, and sends Alabama into a schedule dotted with several tough tests away from Tuscaloosa.

 

While the rest of the non-conference schedule is truly meh -- Nick Saban's alma mater, Kent State, and customary late-season FCS opponent Chattanooga join Western Kentucky -- the SEC schedule more than makes up for it.

 

The rematch with Ole Miss comes on the road early in the season, the road game at Tennessee is back on the third Saturday in October, and the always difficult trip to LSU kicks off November.

 

12. Auburn

Auburn doesn't leave the Plains until Oct. 8. In that time, however, the Tigers host Clemson, LSU and Texas A&M.

 

After that challenging, early-season stretch, Auburn gets to spend much of its second half of the campaign on the road. The Tigers go to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama all in the final weeks of the regular season.

 

13. Texas

Return dates against Notre Dame and at Cal make for one of the nation's better non-conference dockets. If the Longhorns open with two losses, as they did against the same two opponents a year ago, the nine-game Big 12 schedule gets especially vexing.

 

Texas benefits from drawing some of the more daunting conference foes at home -- Baylor and TCU, for example -- but opening with Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could send the Longhorns into a tumultuous final half of the campaign.

 

14. California

A trek to Australia to play Hawaii kicks off Cal's 2016 football odyssey.

 

The Golden Bears host Texas later in the non-conference season, but a trip to defending Mountain West Conference champion San Diego State offers plenty of intrigue.

 

Cal's Pac-12 slate starts with an unknown in Arizona State, but ramps up on the back end over a stretch that includes Oregon, USC, Washington, Stanford and Washington State.

 

15. BYU

Credit BYU athletic department brass for cultivating a schedule not only worthy of a power-conference program, but one more daunting than that which most power teams will face.

 

BYU opens with Arizona, the first of three Pac-12 South opponents on the slate in September. The Cougars mix it up with foes from the SEC (Mississippi State), Big Ten (Michigan State) and Big 12 (West Virginia) -- not to mention quality Group of Five matchups with Boise State, Toledo and Cincinnati.

 

Even Southern Utah, the lone FCS opponent on the docket, made the playoffs a season ago.

 

16. UCLA

UCLA hits the road twice for major, out-of-conference tests, first at Texas A&M, and later at BYU. Jim Mora's Bruins will certainly be battle-tested entering a wide-open Pac-12 South race -- and they'll need it.

 

Though UCLA misses out on tough crossovers like Oregon and Washington, the Bruins must travel to Washington State. They get Stanford, Utah and USC at home, but don't sleep on a road trip to Colorado late in the season.

 

17. Texas A&M

Texas A&M played some thoroughly unimpressive non-conference schedules its first few years after joining the SEC, but ramped it up last year with a neutral-field date against Arizona State. This year, UCLA visits the Lone Star State from Pac-12 country.

 

These Pac-12 crossovers add an element of intrigue to an Aggie schedule already posing challenges inherent in the SEC West. Texas A&M goes to Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State this year, and draws SEC East favorite Tennessee in a cross-divisional showdown at Kyle Field.

 

18. Virginia Tech

Virginia Tech's non-conference schedule ranks among the nation's very best. The Hokies travel to Notre Dame in November for the marquee matchup in this year's ACC affiliation for the Fighting Irish, but a September date with Tennessee promises to command even more attention -- record-setting attention, even.

 

Virginia Tech's matchup with Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway is expected to draw an American attendance record. The Hokies' performance against a Volunteer bunch expected to contend for the SEC crown will set the tone for Justin Fuente's first season succeeding legendary Frank Beamer.

 

In the ACC, Virginia Tech avoids both Florida State and Clemson, but draws North Carolina, Duke and Pitt on the road.

 

19. Ole Miss

Opening in Orlando against Florida State, Ole Miss dives headlong into arguably the most difficult September in all of college football.

 

The Rebels see Florida State and Alabama in the span of just three weeks. That's a College Football Playoff-caliber docket before the summer officially ends.

 

The meat of Ole Miss' road itinerary comes midway through the campaign, with trips to LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M all tucked into the SEC slate from October to mid-November.

 

20. Michigan State

The renewal of Michigan State's historic rivalry with Notre Dame highlights the reigning Big Ten champion's non-conference schedule, but don't overlook an intriguing date with BYU.

 

Around two dates against independent opponents (Notre Dame, BYU), Michigan State also plays a tough league docket. Michigan State benefits from drawing many of its more challenging dates at home; Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan all visit East Lansing.

 

21. Clemson

Clemson's Week 1 visit to SEC country for a tiger-tastic showdown with Auburn kicks off last year's national runner-up's new campaign in style.

 

Clemson's performance on the Plains will set the tone for its pursuit of another College Football Playoff berth. With Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson back in the mix, the Tigers will be preseason favorites to do just that. However, they have to navigate a map that includes road trips to Georgia Tech and Florida State.

 

22. LSU

Like many of its SEC West brethren, LSU plays three non-conference games that are less than awe-inspiring. The one that is, however, is truly so. The Tigers' journey to Green Bay to face Wisconsin in Big Ten country is landmark.

 

LSU bookends its season opener, which is effectively a road game, by visiting Texas A&M in Week. The road contest to close out vs. the Aggies comes just a few weeks removed from a double-dip of Alabama at home and Arkansas on the road.

 

23. Syracuse

Several decades ago, Syracuse had an intense rivalry against Week 1 opponent and 2015 FCS Playoffs participant Colgate. The Raiders and Orange are in much different places now, and the reigning Patriot League champions are likely the least challenging team on Syracuse's tough schedule.

 

The rest of the non-conference slate includes a neutral site game against Notre Dame (in East Rutherford, N.J.) and a home date with South Florida, which should contend for the American Athletic East division crown in 2016.

 

Syracuse travels to Clemson in conference play, the start of a daunting, four-game stretch to close out the campaign. NC State, Florida State and Pitt also are tap for the Orange in November.

 

24. Iowa State

Matt Campbell gets to see plenty of the Big 12 in his first half-season as Iowa State head coach. The Cyclones play away from Jack Trice Stadium against TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas before their bye week in mid-October.

 

In that same, first-half stretch, Iowa State travels to Iowa and gets Baylor at home. Even Week 1 opponent, FCS counterpart Northern Iowa, has been a problem for the Cyclones in recent years. It could be a rocky first two months for the new regime.

 

25. Houston

Houston has a prime opportunity to make the Group of Five's first case for the College Football Playoff, opening the season in an ostensible home game against reigning Big 12 champion Oklahoma.

 

Of course, the Cougars have zero margin for error if they're to crash the Playoff party. That means winning a late-season showdown with what should be an improved Louisville team, and drawing American Athletic Conference contenders Cincinnati and Navy on the road.

 

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

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