Will Muschamp's South Carolina team draws the top three national championship favorites
Strength of schedule is a contentious point among college football commentators. I know, I know — imagine a largely subjective topic causing disagreement among the college football community!
Shocking, yes, but unavoidable all the same. Projecting a team's strength of schedule is especially difficult, given the emergence of unexpected teams like last year's 10-win Syracuse bunch, and the regression of others (Hello, Miami).
Nevertheless, some of the slates laid out for the 2019 season are undoubtedly challenging. A few share common themes, such as loaded divisions and ambitious non-conference scheduling.
1. South Carolina
Westgate Las Vegas' strongest odds for the 2019 national champion belong to Alabama, Clemson and Georgia — by comfortable margins over the next-closest options. South Carolina faces all three.
The Gamecocks host both Alabama and Clemson, as if that's any consolation. Georgia's a divisional road game, tucked between tough matchups with Kentucky and Florida. Winnable games against SEC East counterparts Missouri and Tennessee are on the road. Even the Gamecocks' late-November non-conference date, typically reserved for cupcake matchups, pairs them against an opponent that's anything but: reigning Sun Belt Conference champion Appalachian State.
Stanford's scheduling is often ambitious, but the 2019 slate takes it to another level. The Cardinal play 11 games against Power 5 conference competition, including non-conference dates with 2018 Big Ten West champion Northwestern, and College Football Playoff participant Notre Dame.
Were that not impressive enough, Stanford's lone reprieve from power-conference opponents is a road trip to face UCF. The Knights have not lost a regular-season game since 2016. The cross-country trek sits behind a road trip to face Pac-12 rival USC and a marquee home date against Oregon that could shape the early-season Pac-12 North race.
USC never shies from a rigorous schedule, and 2019 may be the Trojans' most ambitious in years. The Trojans kick off with a Fresno State team coming off a program-record 11 wins, setting a fitting tone.
Pac-12 play starts in Week 2 with the customary, early-season Stanford showdown. The Trojans travel to BYU a week later, the first of two non-conference roadies. They also head to South Bend, where they have not won since 2011. The BYU date is a prelude to a showdown with Pac-12 South favorite Utah just six days later. USC also sees defending conference champion Washington on the road, 2019 Pac-12 favorite Oregon at home, and a tough Cal bunch in Berkeley.
Consider Auburn college football's Max Rockatansky in 2019, because these Tigers are Road Warriors. Auburn does not play a single home game in the month of October, drawing SEC dates away from the Plains against Florida, Arkansas, and LSU. While the Razorbacks look to still be in rebuilding mode that matchup bookends one of the more difficult stretches on any calendar — and it's not even the toughest bookend on Auburn's slate. In November, the Tigers face FCS opponent Samford between games against College Football Playoff favorites Georgia and Alabama.
In a similar vein, the Tigers' 2019 is bookended with matchups against conference championship and playoff hopefuls. The annual Iron Bowl matchup is the conclusion to a campaign that opens with a neutral-site date Week 1 against Oregon, a veteran team consistently picked to contend for the Pac-12 title. That the marquee date on Auburn's non-conference slate is played away from Jordan-Hare Stadium is only fitting.
A low-key contender for the toughest non-conference schedule in the nation, LSU opens with Georgia Southern and its always-difficult-to-defend option offense, coming off an FBS-best 10-win season. Just a week later, the Tigers visit Austin for a high-profile (and high-stakes) road date against Texas. In the first week of October, LSU welcomes to Death Valley Utah State, which last season had its best campaign since joining the Mountain West Conference.
Oh, and that's on top of the SEC West docket, which includes a stretch of three road games in a month — Mississippi State, Alabama and Ole Miss. The one home reprieve is against Auburn. In cross-divisional competition, LSU plays its customary game against Florida.
A breakdown of non-conference games based solely on the degree of difficulty for the defense just might rank Houston at the top of the list. The Cougars face the No. 1 (Oklahoma), No. 15 (Washington State), and No. 26 (North Texas) scoring offenses of the 2018 campaign. While the former two break in new starting quarterbacks, the Sept. 28 matchup with North Texas dynamo Mason Fine could be appointment television.
Houston's American Athletic Conference schedule offers little in the way of a reprieve. League play opens on Sept. 19, just six days after the Washington State game, when the Cougars travel to face an intriguing Tulane bunch. The cross-divisional matchups are doozies; Houston sees a Cincinnati team coming off an 11-win season at home, and travels to face UCF in Orlando on Nov. 2.
7. Texas A&M
Texas A&M's four-game non-conference schedule can be best described as a one-match show; but what a matchup it is. The Aggies travel to Death Valley to face Clemson in Week 2, the rematch of last season's instant classic at College Station. The Clemson showdown is the first of three against the trio of playoff favorites heading into 2019. The Aggies also host Alabama on Oct. 12, with the benefit of a bye week preceding it, and travel to Georgia in the first of two hellacious SEC dates to cap the season.
One week after facing the Bulldogs in Athens, A&M ventures to a different Death Valley to close things out at LSU.
After its brutal 2018 slate — which featured games against a trio of 11-game winners out-of-conference, as well as Pac-12 champion Washington in cross-division play — just about anything was going to be more manageable for UCLA this season. But that doesn't mean 2019 is exactly a stroll to Diddy Riese for a scoop of ice cream, either.
The Bruins kick off the campaign at Cincinnati, one of two return matchups from last year's daunting docket. The other is a Week 3 home date against Oklahoma. While UCLA misses both Washington and Oregon in cross-divisional competition, the Pac-12 opener sends the Bruins to Pullman, Washington, for a showdown with a team won — you guessed it — 11 games in 2018, Washington State. UCLA must also travel to meet reigning and favored Pac-12 South champion Utah.
Before the fall equinox even arrives, Michigan will have played two of the most physically draining games imaginable. The Wolverines open with Middle Tennessee, which played in last season's Conference USA Championship Game, before welcoming Army to the Big House in Week 2. The Black Knights are coming off their best season in more than a half-century, a campaign that included taking playoff participant Oklahoma to overtime. Michigan gets a week off to recover from defending the Flexbone, and the Wolverines will need every bit of rest they can get ahead of an expected slugfest with Wisconsin.
The latter portion of the schedule includes games against Iowa, Notre Dame, Michigan State and Ohio State — a difficult foursome, to be sure, but Michigan has the luxury of welcoming them all to Ann Arbor.
10. Notre Dame
Its assortment of historic rivalries and scheduling agreement with the ACC, as well as being one of only three FBS programs to never play an FCS opponent, typically gives Notre Dame's schedule some bite. This year is no exception. The Irish open the campaign on the road at Louisville, kicking off a series of marquee away games for the 2018 playoff participants. They also travel to Georgia in Week 3; Michigan in Week 8; and Stanford to close the regular season.
Home games include USC, Virginia Tech and Navy, a trio of teams that should be improved from lackluster 2018 campaigns. Notre Dame also faces longtime rival Boston College in late November.
11. West Virginia
West Virginia finds itself in rare company this season, playing 11 games against Power 5 conference competition. The Mountaineers draw a road game with Missouri and host NC State outside of the nine-game Big 12 docket — and, because of the uneven amount of conference dates, West Virginia's left playing more league contests on the road than at home. Among those away trips are Oklahoma, Kansas State and TCU.
As for West Virginia's sole non-Power 5 date, the Mountaineers kick off 2019 on high upset alert when they host FCS championship contender James Madison.
12. Ohio State
Big Ten East competition is often fierce, but it's the cross-divisional play that gives Ohio State's schedule in coach Ryan Day's first full season some bite. Yes, the Buckeyes face East contenders Penn State, Michigan State and Michigan as always, with two coming at home. But Ohio State also draws reigning West champion Northwestern, preseason West favorite (according to Athlon Sports, among others) Nebraska, and Wisconsin. The former two are both on the road. Meanwhile, in the East, marquee dates against Penn State and at Michigan fall on back-to-back weeks to conclude the regular season.
Ohio State's non-conference slate isn't particularly head-turning outside of Week 2, but that matchup should be fun. It pits the Buckeyes against Cincinnati, fresh off an 11-win 2018, and with the last coach before Urban Meyer, Luke Fickell, facing the man who replaced Meyer.
Like the SEC West, the Big Ten East has established itself as a routinely tough division. It's difficult for a team to have a weak schedule just by virtue of being in one of those divisions. Add some challenging non-conference dates, which Maryland draws with Syracuse in Week 2 and a road trip to face a feisty Temple bunch, and the slate gets especially challenging.
The Terrapins see Ohio State and Michigan State both on the road in divisional play, and both near the end of the season. They bookend a cross-division matchup with a Nebraska team that's a trendy pick to win the West. Maryland's treacherous November kicks off with a home date against Michigan, one week after traveling to face a dark-horse West contender, Minnesota.
Georgia fans and SEC honks made an impassioned case for the Bulldogs to leapfrog either Oklahoma or undefeated Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff last season. It didn't happen, but Georgia does get to state its case on the field with one of the most highly anticipated non-conference games of 2019 when Notre Dame visits Athens on Sept. 21.
The Notre Dame game precedes a bye week, from which the SEC slate gets rolling. Georgia's November is a gauntlet, opening in Jacksonville against rival Florida, with cross-divisional games at Auburn and Texas A&M to cap conference play. The rivalry game Thanksgiving weekend at Georgia Tech concludes an impressive stretch of nine straight games against Power 5 opponents.
Props to Purdue for opening its 2019 season in a fittingly challenging fashion. The Boilermakers take a rare Power 5-at-Group of 5 road trip to Nevada, where the Sierra Nevada altitude is unlike anything they'll experience for the rest of the campaign. Nevada's the sole non-Power 5 date on the calendar; Purdue's other two non-conference matchups are against Vanderbilt and TCU.
Purdue's cross-division games in the Big Ten aren't insurmountable; a road date at Penn State is daunting, but the Boilers miss Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State. However, Purdue travels to three possible contenders in a wide-open Big Ten West race: Iowa Oct. 19; Northwestern Nov. 9; and Wisconsin Nov. 23.
Northwestern's run to the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game, and subsequent victory in the Holiday Bowl, was paved with raucous rallies and fortuitous bounces. The Wildcats must lean on a veteran lineup to have learned and grown from last season's good fortunes — and to navigate a difficult schedule.
Northwestern travels to Stanford in Week 1, setting the tone for what's an absolute gauntlet in the season's first two months. The Wildcats host Michigan State and travel to Wisconsin and Nebraska on back-to-back weeks, leading up to a Friday night affair against Ohio State. One week later, Northwestern caps October at home against Iowa. Should it endure those first two months at no worse than .500, Northwestern will be set for a bowl bid.
So, it has to be stated up front: Florida's schedule loses some credit by virtue of the Gators hosting two FCS opponents in the first month. Bylines dictate an FBS team can only count one toward bowl eligibility. However, Florida does offset that with season-bookending matchups against Miami and Florida State, setting up a de facto round-robin state championship for 2019. The Hurricanes and Seminoles should both be improved after disappointing 2018 campaigns.
In SEC play, a home game with Auburn leads into a brutal stretch that sees the Gators play away from Gainesville for three consecutive weeks: Oct. 12 at LSU; Oct. 19 at South Carolina; and Nov. 2 in Jacksonville against divisional favorite, Georgia.
18. Boston College
Few schedules around the country are as brutal in the final month or so than Boston College's. Steve Addazio's team concludes October traveling to Clemson, is at Syracuse the following week, then travel to Notre Dame for the penultimate Saturday of the regular season. That's 37 wins in 2018 for those keeping score at home.
Tucked in the middle of that run is a home game against Florida State, which — despite missing out on a bowl game a season ago — is not a program one should ever anticipate being down for long.
Expectations for Texas are sky high heading into 2019. Where have we heard that before? So maybe you have understandable Texas-is-back-fatigue; we should know relatively early into the slate how genuine the sentiment is, with the Longhorns hosting LSU in Week 2. College football fans everywhere are eager for that, but Texas — which opened each of the last two seasons with upset losses — should not overlook Louisiana Tech. The Horns' Week 1 opponent is a perennial contender in C-USA, and always features its share of NFL draft gems on the roster.
The Big 12 slate has Texas playing some of its higher-profile games away from Austin: West Virginia, TCU and Iowa State are all on the road, with Oklahoma played at the customary Cotton Bowl locale.
Iowa's collection of road games in 2019 offer an exercise in quality over quantity. The Hawkeyes play more games in Kinnick Stadium than away from it, the result of coming up on the good end of the imbalanced Big Ten schedule and playing two paycheck non-conference games against Miami (Ohio) and Middle Tennessee. However, the road games are at rival Iowa State; at the Big House to face Michigan; at defending Big Ten West champ Northwestern; at perennial West contender Wisconsin; and the year-end rivalry game at preseason darling, Nebraska.
Meanwhile, the home docket includes Penn State in cross-divisional competition.
Most teams will go the entire 2019 season without seeing a team that played in the last College Football Playoff. Duke draws half of the field just in non-conference play. The Blue Devils open the campaign, appropriately enough, with Alabama. The unofficial Wallace Wade Bowl in Atlanta is the first of three games for Duke against teams coming off double-digit-win seasons, with back-to-back dates against Notre Dame and Syracuse late in the season.
And while the Blue Devils avoid Clemson in cross-divisional competition, ACC Coastal counterparts Virginia Tech and Miami should rebound from disappointing 2018 seasons to provide stiff challenges.
Beginning Week 1 in a home game vs. UCLA, then traveling to Ohio State in Week 2, Cincinnati begins 2019 with the first 2-of-10 games against "Power Six" opponents. OK, so that designation may not count outside of the American Athletic Conference, but there can be little doubt that the American has acquitted itself well on the big stage with multiple teams ranked in the final AP Top 25 three of the last four years. Cincinnati contributed to that distinction last season with its 11-win finish.
The Bearcats face hurdles to replicating last season's success, let alone unseating UCF atop the conference. Cincinnati sees the Knights on Oct. 4 after just six days rest, hosting the two-time defending conference champions a week removed from a sneaky-tough game against Marshall (a nine-game winner in 2018). Cincinnati immediately travels to Houston the following week for a cross-division showdown, and also sees defending West champion Memphis on the road.
Credit BYU athletic brass, the department did not take the easy route of piling up wins upon going independent. The Cougars play a demanding schedule in 2019, opening at home with rival Utah — the first of three home games against Pac-12 opponents. USC and Washington come to Provo in Weeks 3 and 4, with a road trip to Tennessee in Week 2.
The back-half of BYU's schedule is odd, which is a recurring theme for the program in its independent era. The Cougars have two October bye weeks surrounding a road game at USF and home date vs. Boise State, two Group of 5 programs that have finished ranked in the Top 25 in recent seasons. There's a three-game, November stretch of Liberty, Idaho State and at UMass, but around those are road dates at Utah State and San Diego State.
Colorado has the unique privilege of opening its season with two rivalry games: Week 1 in Denver against Colorado State, and Week 2 hosting Nebraska. The Cornhuskers' merit as a breakout Big Ten contender will be more clear after the trip to Boulder. Week 3 presents an upset alert with Air Force in town; the Falcons' option-oriented offense is difficult to prepare to face in just one week, particularly after what should be a physical game the week prior.
Colorado's Pac-12 slate doesn't do many favors either with the majority of games on the road this year, including a brutal back-to-back against cross-division foes Oregon and Washington State. As for the home games, two are against Stanford and Washington out of the North.
25. Middle Tennessee
A Week 1 trip to Michigan kicks off a non-conference slate in which 2018 Conference USA Championship participant MTSU plays three Power 5 opponents. The Blue Raiders are twice in Big Ten country, also traveling to Iowa, and they face Duke at home. It's no coincidence all of these teams appear in this top 25.
In C-USA play, MTSU draws the most challenging slate it can among the field, in the most difficult way possible. Rick Stockstill's team emerged from a crowded East division last year over Marshall and FIU teams that both won nine games (the mark was a program high for FIU). The Thundering Herd and Panthers bookend an October that also sees the Blue Raiders on the road for back-to-back dates with Lane Kiffin's talented FAU squad, and a cross-division matchup with Mason Fine and high-scoring North Texas.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.