DJ Durkin and the Maryland Terrapins have the toughest slate of any team this fall
Scheduling remains one of the most high-profile controversies surrounding college football, particularly in the new Playoff era. Like most college football controversies, it's not one the sport is likely to resolve any time soon, with anything resembling a consensus. The question for national title-aspiring programs remains: Do you schedule down in the non-conference and hope to pile wins ahead of league play, or do you test yourself against the best the nation has to offer?
The 25 teams with the nation's toughest schedules, ranked below, seem to adhere to the latter philosophy. In addition to challenging conference schedules, each of these squads also play some marquee dates outside of the conference. While not enough evidence exists to answer the question surrounding Playoff approach, these tougher schedules are certainly a win for spectators.
No one can accuse the Terrapins of hiding in their shells. Head coach DJ Durkin's second season in College Park pits Maryland against one of the most brutal schedules any program has faced in recent memory. Playing the Big Ten East is bad enough, with games against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State. The Terps also draw road games at Minnesota and Wisconsin in cross-divisional competition — all that after opening the season at Texas.
2. Florida State
A Week 1 dream matchup with Alabama sets the tone for Florida State's challenging 2017 schedule. The Seminoles book-end their campaign with non-conference dates against SEC competition, closing with the customary rivalry game vs. Florida. ACC play offers no reprieve: The conference proved to be the best in college football a season ago, with the Atlantic Division specifically setting the tone. The Seminoles have to deal with defending national champion Clemson on the road, as well as Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville in Tallahassee. Jackson solidified his case for the nation's top individual honor by running roughshod over Florida State a season ago.
Michigan enters 2017 with lofty aspirations, and a difficult schedule that kicks off in Texas against an SEC opponent. The last time the Wolverines saw such a scenario was 2012, a disappointing campaign that started on the sour note of losing a blowout to Alabama in the Cowboys Classic. Florida presentes a more manageable Week 1 opponent for Jim Harbaugh's team this time around, but the Gators set a fitting tone for a challenging docket. Michigan's other non-conference dates are against an always-tough Cincinnati, now with former Ohio State assistant Luke Fickell at the helm, and against the unorthodox offense of Air Force.
In the Big Ten, Michigan draws Penn State and Wisconsin on the road, mixed in with the tough Big Ten East slate.
Oklahoma plays 10 games against Power Five competition, which isn't rare for teams in the conferences that opt for nine league games. What differentiates the Sooners' slate from other 10-game Power Five dockets is a road trip to fellow powerhouse Ohio State. Just two weeks later, Oklahoma opens Big 12 competition away from home with a date against Baylor. That contest sets an interesting tone for the Sooners in conference, as they do not get back-to-back weekends in Norman at any point in the season. Games against contenders West Virginia and TCU are in Norman, but the Sooners travel to always-treacherous Manhattan, where Bob Stoops' mentor, Bill Snyder, awaits.
A first-year head coach tasked with rebuilding a program always faces an arduous job. When that job requires facing the national champion and Heisman Trophy winner, as well as an annual powerhouse, it's especially challenging. Such was the fate of Dino Babers, now in his second year at Syracuse. Babers' team again draws Clemson, Louisville and Heisman quarterback Lamar Jackson, and Florida State, while the Orange also travel to LSU in non-conference play.
Florida's scheduling has been a target for derision some in recent years — not because the Gators don't see competition in the SEC, nor for playing an annual date with Florida State. However, UF has built a reputation for not leaving the Sunshine State unless the conference mandates that. Jim McElwain's club refutes that in 2017, opening the season in Texas for the Cowboys Classic against Michigan.
Michigan and Florida State book-end a tough, but not overly cumbersome schedule. Florida avoids SEC West heavyweight Alabama, and gets each of Texas A&M, LSU and Tennessee at home.
Timing of games can be as taxing on a team as the quality of opponent. Such is the case for USC. The Trojans face an unusual slate in 2017 on two fronts: First, they play 11 games against Power Five opponents. The only deviation is Week 1 foe Western Michigan, which won 13 games a season ago. And while USC avoids defending Pac-12 champion Washington in league play, the Trojans have no bye week. That means 11 straight weeks of Power Five games for the presumptive preseason favorite in the Conference of Champions.
8. Ohio State
Ohio State dives head-first into the season with a road game in Big Ten play. Indiana has given the Buckeyes fits in recent years, and the Hoosiers get Urban Meyer's bunch in Week 1 — a week before the Buckeyes play Oklahoma in Columbus. Ohio State's Big Ten schedule is somewhat more manageable than some of its league counterparts, with Wisconsin missing from cross-divisional competition.
However, the Buckeyes play Michigan on the road in the East, and go to both Nebraska and Iowa in matchups with the West. Two of the three come in the final month of the regular season.
9. Penn State
We should learn within the first month if 2016 Big Ten champion Penn State is ready to compete for its first national championship in 30 years. James Franklin embarks on a surprising, breakout campaign with his best roster yet, and it will be challenged right out of the gate with games against Pitt and at Iowa in September. The first game of October takes the Nittany Lions to Northwestern, as well. The back half isn't much easier: Michigan and Nebraska are home dates, but Penn State must travel to Ohio State and Michigan State in consecutive weekends.
Nick Saban's juggernaut never shies from impressive Week 1 dates — even if they're played exclusively on neutral field sites. The opener against Florida State in 2017 joins recent Week 1 contests against Michigan, Virginia Tech, West Virginia and USC in the pantheon of Crimson Tide tone-setters. The rest of the non-conference slate is unimpressive, including a late-November tilt with Mercer, but the SEC West presents its share of potential pitfalls. An October trip to Texas A&M and the annual Iron Bowl are the two road dates to watch.
First-year (and first-time) head coach Justin Wilcox won't exactly ease into his new job. Cal travels across the continent to North Carolina Week 1, the first of 11 games against Power Five competition on the Golden Bears' slate. FCS Weber State is the lone deviation, with Ole Miss making a rare SEC-to-Pac-12 trip in Week 3. From there, Cal juggles a conference schedule that includes USC, Washington and Oregon in consecutive weeks, with the latter two on the road. The Golden Bears also finish on the road with back-to-back away games vs. Stanford and UCLA.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown — and heavy is the 2017 schedule for defending national champion Clemson. The Tigers play a couple of SEC foes outside of the ACC, drawing traditional rival Auburn at home in September, and travelling to South Carolina to close the regular season. In between is an arduous ACC schedule, featuring Atlantic Division challengers Florida State and Louisville, as well as cross-divisional heavyweight Virginia Tech on the road.
13. Notre Dame
Notre Dame mixes its traditional rivalries like USC and Stanford, as well as brings back Michigan State, with a modified ACC schedule to face one of the more challenging regular seasons in college football. Among this year's ACC offerings are road trips to North Carolina and Miami, the latter of which is sure to bring up renewed conservation about Catholics vs. Convicts (whether you want it or not). Constant thorn-in-the-side Navy lingers late in the season, shortly after a favorable run of three straight home games.
New Texas head coach Tom Herman sees 11 Power Five opponents in his debut campaign, including a marquee non-conference showdown with USC 12 years in the making. The Longhorns' trip to Los Angeles highlights an early slate that also includes Maryland. In the Big 12, Texas draws a five-week stretch of Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU that will likely determine whether Herman's team goes bowling or spends the holidays in Austin.
15. Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets always close the season with out-of-conference rival Georgia, guaranteeing Georgia Tech at least one marquee non-conference date. This year, it's one of two big-time matchups with the SEC on the docket. Tech welcomes Tennessee to Atlanta on Labor Day evening for a "neutral" field game, kicking off a challenging slate that includes home games against Pitt, North Carolina and Virginia Tech; and a cross-divisional road test at Clemson.
Reigniting an old rivalry with Clemson marked a victory for college football fans nationwide. Better yet, Auburn plays it Tiger counterparts home-and-home. A trip to Death Valley Week 2 is the definite highlight of Auburn's non-conference schedule, which is otherwise unimpressive. Still, that's one big-time date to draw outside of the tough SEC West.
The Tigers play LSU and Texas A&M on the road in conference, but close the season with three straight at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Among them are games against Georgia and Alabama, which — if Auburn's in the hunt — could determine the Tigers' SEC Championship Game credentials.
Chris Ash went through a veritable meat-grinder in his first season as Rutgers head coach. Not only was the Big Ten East loaded, but the Scarlet Knights traveled to Pac-12 champion Washington. In total, that's games against Rose (Penn State), Fiesta (Ohio State) and Peach (Washington) Bowl representatives. All three are back on the Scarlet Knights' docket in 2017, as well as Michigan and Michigan State. In cross-divisional competition, the Scarlet Knights travel to Nebraska.
One of just three FBS programs to have never played an FCS opponent, UCLA has a longstanding tradition of challenging itself both in and out of conference. The latter slate this season includes Texas A&M's visit to the Rose Bowl, the return half of a Week 1 date last year that ended in overtime. The Bruins also travel to Memphis for a high upset-alert contest.
In the Pac-12, the Bruins see Stanford and Colorado early on in the schedule. Back-to-back road games at Washington and Utah highlight the post-bye week slate.
Upset-minded BYU awaits in Week 1 for LSU, kicking off a challenging first portion to the schedule in Ed Orgeron's first full season as head coach. The new era in Baton Rouge also gets going with games at Mississippi State, Florida and Ole Miss. The back half doesn't get much easier, with road trips at Alabama and Tennessee looming.
Stanford will have no shortage of frequent flyer miles racked up before September ends. The Cardinal open 2017 in Australia to face Rice. Two weeks later, they see USC in Los Angeles and San Diego State on Montezuma Mesa. Keep an eye on that trip to America's Finest City for a possible upset. Stanford won't play on the Farm until Sept. 23, when UCLA comes to town. The Bruins join defending Pac-12 champions Washington and Notre Dame as the Cardinal's marquee home games, with road contests at Utah and Washington State highlighting the rest of the slate.
21. Virginia Tech
The Hokies open 2017 on the national stage, facing off with border and former Big East rival West Virginia in an ACC vs. Big 12 showdown on Labor Day Sunday. The primetime affair kicks off an opening month of non-conference-exclusive dates, none of which jump off the page — unless you consider regional counterpart Old Dominion is coming off a 10-win season and looks like an early favorite in Conference USA. Don't sleep on upset potential for the Monarchs. Miami and Georgia Tech are road games in the Coastal, while the crown jewel of cross-divisional competition is a home date against Clemson.
Purdue plays 11 games against Power Five opponents, beginning Week 1 in Indianapolis against Lamar Jackson and Louisville. The Boilermakers also travel to Missouri before playing Michigan in cross-divisional competition, and traveling to each of Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa in the Big Ten West.
It's a challenging slate to be sure, but to paraphrase first-year Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm: Is this or is this not the Big Ten? Let's play some football.
Big Ten East heavyweights Ohio State and Penn State both loom on Nebraska's difficult 2017 schedule, which also includes a non-conference road trip to Oregon. The Ducks may be coming off a down year, but Autzen Stadium remains one of the most inhospitable environments in the country — particularly for a team not familiar with the venue. The Cornhuskers do benefit from seeing Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin all at home in Big Ten West play, but those cross-divisional games could vex Nebraska's divisional title aspirations.
A Week 2 date with Penn State looms large, but Pitt cannot overlook 2016 FCS runner-up Youngstown State Week 1. The Penguins stunned Pitt to open the 2012 season, and head coach Bo Pelini has a much more talented roster now. Those two games lead into a Week 3 home date with Oklahoma State. All told, the Panthers may play the most intriguing first three weeks of any team in college football.
The ACC Coastal lacks the star power of the Atlantic, and the Panthers manage to miss out on each of Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. However, they draw three of the Coastal's best in conseuctive weeks to close the regular season: vs. North Carolina, at Virginia Tech and vs. Miami.
25. North Carolina
North Carolina draws two Power Five opponents in the non-conference schedule, opening the season at home against Cal and hosting Notre Dame midway through the campaign. A third non-conference date against Old Dominion looms with upset possibility. The Tar Heels see just one of the Atlantic Division's top three teams, but Louisville appears early on the schedule in Week 2. In ACC Coastal play, North Carolina travels to each of Pitt, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.