First-year head coaches Willie Taggart and Scott Frost face gauntlets in the 2018 season
College football scheduling lacking complete uniformity is one of the sport's beautiful quirks, or a frustrating point of contention, depending on your perspective. The fact that teams within the same conference can play very different slates might not be ideal for determining the College Football Playoff, but it does contribute to the variety that differentiates college football from other sports leagues.
While programs try to feel out if the College Football Playoff selection committee values strength of schedule or pure win-loss record, some have opted to go all-in on difficulty. Teams with legitimate aspirations for making the playoff rank among the toughest schedules in 2018. Others will have to navigate brutal calendars just to get to bowl eligibility.
1. Florida State
Just about everything on Florida State's 2018 schedule is potentially hazardous, save a Week 2 Bowden Bowl matchup with FCS Samford. The rest of the non-conference docket includes the customary rivalry showdown with Florida, a rematch of the 2013 Orange Bowl with always-tough Northern Illinois, and a road trip in November to Notre Dame.
The Notre Dame contest is the first of three games against preseason playoff contenders. The Seminoles play at rival Miami and host national powerhouse Clemson. That Clemson showdown is sandwiched between dates against physically tough and upset-minded ACC Atlantic Division counterparts Wake Forest and NC State, which head coaches Dave Clawson and Dave Doeren have built into legitimate threats. Their combined ascent, as well as the defensive physicality customary at Boston College and talent at Louisville, have made the Atlantic arguably the best top-to-bottom division in football.
Couple that with Florida State drawing what should be the Coastal's two best teams -- Miami and Virginia Tech -- and this is no doubt the toughest schedule in 2018.
One could call Scott Frost's (above, right) return to Lincoln inhospitable, at least in terms of the schedule. The Big Ten's divisional crossovers worked against the Cornhuskers in this transitional year, pitting them against East heavyweights Ohio State and Michigan on the road, and Michigan State one week before seeing Iowa on just six days' worth of rest. Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin are all road dates in divisional play.
The non-conference slate features an Akron team that played in last year's MAC title game, reigning Sun Belt champion Troy, and former Big 8/12 rival Colorado.
3. Notre Dame
A unique quirk of Notre Dame's typically rigorous schedule in 2018 is that the Fighting Irish travel to Southern California twice on the back-half. Once is for the every-other-year rivalry game at USC's Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the other a special "home" game against Navy in San Diego.
The Irish will be afforded little time to enjoy the sunshine or California burritos; USC and Navy both present serious challenges to Notre Dame's playoff aspirations. The same is true for Michigan, Stanford and Florida State, all of which visit Notre Dame Stadium. Road trips to Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Northwestern are all the kind of physical games that the Irish might win, but could prove to be body-blows in the following week.
Coming off a wildly disappointing 2017, Pitt tries to rebound against one of the most difficult schedules in college football. The Panthers play a pair of non-conference opponents that won New Year's Six bowl games: regional rival Penn State, and the national champion* UCF Knights.
Were that not enough, the Panthers also draw a road game with Notre Dame smack-dab in the middle of ACC competition. If there's any reprieve, it's that Pitt misses Clemson, Florida State and NC State in cross-divisional games.
A schedule book-ended with opponents harboring serious playoff aspirations, late-season showdowns against each of last year's national championship game participants (both of which the Tigers beat in 2017), and the general grind of the SEC West await Auburn in 2018.
Drawing Washington in Week 1 sets the tone, with Georgia and Alabama accounting for two of the final three dates on the calendar. Auburn also draws Mississippi State on the road in what stands out as a quintessential upset game.
The only demerits on Auburn's schedule come from playing two paycheck games: One against FCS member Alabama A&M, the other in the penultimate week against FBS transitional member Liberty, coincidentally coached by one-time rumored Auburn target Turner Gill.
6. Arizona State
Herm Edwards' debut as a college football coach puts his Arizona State program through the wringer. The Sun Devils face a difficult slate, which features three bowl teams in non-conference, including potential top 10 Michigan State and a road trip to San Diego State.
In Pac-12 play, the Sun Devils draw Stanford, Oregon and Washington in cross-divisional competition, with the latter two on the road. Arizona State also travels to USC in Pac-12 South action, while the 2018 edition of the Territorial Cup returns to Tucson.
The Big Ten East has grown into arguably the most top-heavy division in college football, with each of Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State having the pieces to beat the other. That gauntlet in and of itself makes for a difficult schedule, though Michigan also adds a cross-division showdown against a Wisconsin team that could be the favorite to win the conference championship.
Michigan's non-conference docket is no joke, either. The Wolverines renew tensions with Notre Dame in Week 1, and face what should be solid Group of 5 teams in Western Michigan and SMU.
Playing one of only three schedules completely bereft of FCS matchups often leads to UCLA facing a difficult road. The 2018 season is no exception, and actually one of the more difficult for the Bruins in recent memory.
Kicking off with a rebuilding, albeit typically solid Cincinnati program leads into a veritable mine field with trips to Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington, and a high upset-potential pairing against Mountain West championship contender Fresno State.
9. NC State
NC State's non-conference schedule is about as tough as a four-game slate with just one Power 5 opponent on it gets. The Wolfpack open with James Madison, which won the FCS national championship in 2016 and played for the title in '17; play a Marshall team that will contend for a Conference USA title on the road; and host 2017 bowl game participant Georgia State.
Amid that run is a matchup with Big 12 opponent West Virginia. Both could be ranked in the Top 25 when the Mountaineers arrive in Raleigh, and this might be Dana Holgorsen's best team since arriving in Morgantown seven years ago.
The inherent difficulty of the ACC Atlantic contributes to the Pack's placement in this top 10, but the full story is in the details. For example, State travels to Syracuse sandwiched between games at Clemson and vs. Florida State. The Wolfpack see a physical Wake Forest bunch on just five days' rest after hosting the Seminoles.
10. Texas A&M
A high-profile showdown Week 2 against Clemson -- an opponent first-year Aggies head coach Jimbo Fisher knows well -- is the highlight on an otherwise so-so non-conference slate (though overachieving UAB in the SEC's customary November body-bag date could be interesting).
However, the SEC West grind makes for an inherently difficult autumn, compounded with one of the most absurd three-game stretches any team will face in the coming campaign. The Aggies travel to South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn in consecutive weeks. Were that not bad enough, that three-date set comes just one home date removed from a back-to-back road trip of Alabama and Arkansas.
Kicking off Week 1 with College Football Playoff contender Miami sets the tone for LSU's challenging slate in 2018. A second potential playoff front-runner, Auburn, welcomes the Tigers to Jordan-Hare Stadium just two weeks later; that's two possible final four matchups before the summer season even officially ends.
LSU also draws last season's national championship game participants Alabama and Georgia -- though if it's any consolation, both are at home. So is a game against Louisiana Tech, which falls on the schedule around the same time as the Bayou Bengals' home loss to Troy occurred in 2017. Keep that in mind.
12. West Virginia
Fulfilling some modest hype as a playoff dark horse in 2018 requires West Virginia to make it through a gauntlet of 11 Power 5 conference games. The Mountaineers tackle the nine-game Big 12 slate, which this year includes high trap-potential road trips to Texas Tech and Iowa State early on in the docket, as well as a November gauntlet: at Texas, vs. TCU, at Oklahoma State and vs. reigning Big 12 champion Oklahoma.
Before that, West Virginia opens with what should be a revitalized Tennessee bunch, then travels to NC State in Week 3 for one of the most low-key fascinating games of the non-conference season.
Stanford's campaign begins with some challenges right out of the gate, including two opponents that accounted for three of the Cardinal's five losses a season ago: San Diego State and USC. Those two September home dates lead into another difficult stretch early on, with the Cardinal traveling to Oregon and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks, then finishing it off hosting Pac-12 South contender Utah.
While it gets somewhat easier on the back-half, three of Stanford's final four games are on the road -- most noteworthy among them, a trip to Washington that could decide the Pac-12 North.
14. Georgia Tech
The possibility of two New Year's Six bowl competitors shaping Georgia Tech's non-conference schedule is very real. Defending SEC champion and national runner-up Georgia is an obvious one, with the Bulldogs hosting this year's edition of Clean Old Fashioned Hate. However, the Yellow Jackets also travel to USF much earlier in the campaign, and Charlie Strong's Bulls look capable of snagging the Group of 5's New Year's Six invite this year.
Georgia Tech's schedule also includes a Thursday night road trip to Virginia Tech in October, a Friday night visit to Louisville on six days' rest, and a showdown with Miami late in the season.
Mapping out a strong schedule might have been an issue for BYU early into its independent foray, but the Cougars have faced rigorous slates pretty consistently every year since 2013. This year is more of the same, with BYU facing four different opponents from the Pac-12 -- three of which are on the road, and all teams that made bowl games in 2017 (Arizona, Washington and rival Utah).
Washington is one of two opponents likely to be ranked in the preseason top 10 that BYU plays on the road, also visiting Madison for a date with Wisconsin. Add a road trip to Boise State, continuing what has steadily become a heated rivalry in recent years, and BYU could very well face three different New Year's Six bowl teams in 2018.
It's pretty well established that opening the season against Alabama is an exercise in futility. The Crimson Tide tend to roll over Power 5 opponents in neutral-field dates Week 1; this year, it's a Lamar Jackson-less Louisville with honors.
The defending national champions* are one of two SEC opponents book-ending the Cardinals' schedule, which also includes the ACC Atlantic gauntlet. Louisville gets Florida State, Wake Forest and NC State all at home, but a cross-division game against Georgia Tech on short rest one week ahead of a trip to Boston College could determine the Cardinals' ACC standing.
The annual rivalry series with Notre Dame, coupled with the Pac-12's nine-game league slate, ensures USC plays 10 Power 5 opponents per season -- at minimum. This fall marks a second straight year in which the Trojans draw 11 Power 5 games, facing Texas in the second-half of a home-and-home series. The Longhorns will have revenge in mind after losing last year's instant classic in double overtime -- and this time, it's in Austin.
USC's visit to Texas comes one week after the Trojans meet budding rival Stanford in the rematch of last December's Pac-12 Championship Game. Another early-season rematch, this time with USC the one seeking payback, brings Washington State to Los Angeles. USC benefits in its divisional crossovers, missing both Oregon and Washington. But playing both Utah and Arizona on the road could have huge ramifications on the Trojans' bid for a repeat Pac-12 title.
Texas ranks among the programs facing 11 Power 5 opponents in 2018, with two such dates in non-conference play. USC's visit to Austin in Week 3 is the biggie, but don't sleep on the season opener at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland's backyard. While technically a neutral-site game, it's ostensibly a home game for a Terrapins squad that, when still healthy, ran up 51 points in a win at Texas last September.
The Big 12 schedule is inherently challenging, kicking off with a doozy of a stretch: TCU, at Kansas State, and Oklahoma in the Red River Showdown follow immediately after the USC game.
Missouri emerged as one of the bigger surprises among the Power 5 conferences a season ago, but taking that momentum into 2018 will take some effort. The Tigers ease in with likely wins over FCS member UT Martin and Wyoming, then hit the hard for an intriguing road date at Purdue. Another interest-piquing non-conference game features Missouri hosting the dangerous Memphis Tigers in late October.
The Missouri Tigers draw back-to-back games likely to shape their standing in the SEC East early, first hosting defending conference champion Georgia before traveling to South Carolina. Missouri follows that up, drawing the unfortunate task of playing at Alabama in cross-divisional action.
Utah plays at home just twice before Oct. 12, and one of those dates is a showdown with Washington that could be a preview of the Pac-12 Championship Game. The Utes draw the likely preseason Pac-12 favorite Huskies one week after a trip to Northern Illinois that has massive trap-game potential. The same goes for Utah's regular-season finale against bitter rival BYU. The Holy War is always competitive, and the Cougars' pursuit of bragging rights could be heightened if Utah's spending the following week in Santa Clara for the Pac-12 title.
For that to be the case, Utah must navigate a docket that includes Oregon, Stanford and Washington all in the divisional crossover. Utah also faces fellow Pac-12 South contender Arizona on a short turnaround of six days.
Had Tulane not left the SEC in 1966, it's reasonable to assume the Green Wave would be in the SEC West. But, no, that does not mean SEC West honks get to claim Tulane's tough 2018 schedule as further evidence of the division's strength. Instead, a non-conference matchup with reigning Big Ten champion Ohio State leads into a marquee matchup with reigning American Athletic Conference West division champion Memphis on short rest, which is something of a theme for Tulane in 2018.
The Green Wave also must travel to Houston late in the season just five days removed from playing East Carolina. The ECU home date follows a cross-division road game against a good USF bunch.
TCU gets a marquee home date in non-conference play that could establish the Horned Frogs not just for 2018, but as a top-tier program in college football. They host Ohio State in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, to begin a four-game stretch that includes a road trip to Texas and home dates with Iowa State, Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
Making through that stretch could have the Horned Frogs destined for a second consecutive Big 12 Championship Game, but a road trip to face West Virginia looms one week after the potential body-blow matchup with Kansas State.
23. San Diego State
Two Pac-12 opponents with revenge in mind await San Diego State early into the 2018 season. The Aztecs -- winners of 32 games over the last two seasons -- kickoff against Stanford and host Arizona State, two teams they beat a season ago.
However, a pair of games in which San Diego State will seek redemption fall in Mountain West play -- and both are on the road. The Aztecs travel to Boise State and Fresno State, each of last season's conference division winners, and the only two teams that beat San Diego State in the regular season. Both did so at SDCCU Stadium.
Oklahoma's non-conference schedule is fascinating. The Sooners host FAU to open the season in a game that wouldn't have piqued too many curiosities when originally schedule, but has since garnered significant buzz with Lane Kiffin leading the Owls to relevance. The defending Conference USA champions are brimming with talent, and while they'll be significant underdogs in Norman, they should put up a fight.
It's difficult to gauge what Oklahoma should expect from Week 2 opponent UCLA, but the recruiting success enjoyed throughout former head coach Jim Mora's tenure stockpiles the roster for Chip Kelly -- and Kelly's always got tricks in store for opponents. Oklahoma then faces a Big 12 schedule rife with upset potential, and that starts right away with a road trip to Iowa State. The Cyclones are one of five Big 12 games away from Norman, all against quality opponents (Texas, Texas Tech, TCU and West Virginia).
Evaluating the difficulty of a schedule for every FBS program begets some questions: For example, is difficulty relative to the conference in which a program plays? Or, does one determine difficulty strictly by talent level of the competition? By either criteria, Louisiana takes on a bear of a schedule in Billy Napier's first season as head coach.
The Ragin' Cajuns draw each of Arkansas State, Appalachian State and Troy in Sun Belt action, the latter two on the road, making theirs one of the more challenging roads just in the league. Add road games in non-conference play against both Mississippi State and Alabama, and the degree of difficulty increases no matter your criteria.
Lest we overlook the possibility for upset, Louisiana opens with a feisty Grambling bunch that appeared in each of the past two Celebration Bowls.
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(Top photo by Colin Abbey, courtesy of Seminoles.com)