Ranking College Football's Top 25 Toughest Schedules for 2020

A season of uncertainty awaits but assuming games are played, Clay Helton's USC Trojans have a brutal slate awaiting them

In a sport where non-conference agreements are brokered two decades into the future, uncertainty looming less than two months before college football's scheduled kickoff feels so unsettling. Indeed, the global COVID-19 pandemic has shrouded so much of our lives in the unknown, and it might dramatically alter the college football season. Until then, however, the schedules are made and we can proceed with what is known at present.

 

[Editor's note: This article was posted before the Big Ten (July 9) and Pac-12 (July 10) announced they would play conference-only schedules for all fall sports, including football. Several of the games mentioned below are no longer on the schedule and additional changes are likely.]

 

1. USC

Likely preseason No. 1 Alabama opens USC's brutal schedule, marking the first of three matchups pitting the Trojans against leading contenders for the College Football Playoff. Two are in the non-conference, including Notre Dame — the only such meeting at home. USC draws Alabama in Arlington, Texas, and must travel to Autzen Stadium to face Oregon. In addition, USC hosts Washington and Cal in Pac-12 crossovers and must travel to two-time defending divisional champion Utah.

 

2. Michigan State

Opening the season with a dangerous Big Ten crossover matchup against Northwestern sets the tone for a treacherous slate in Mel Tucker's debut campaign. The Spartans follow up with their three non-conference games, which include a road trip to BYU and home date against a talented Miami squad. Couple that with the always-difficult Big Ten East docket, which has Michigan State playing Michigan and Ohio State in consecutive weeks, and a road date with Iowa, and this is one of the more challenging schedules in the nation.

 

3. Oregon

Defending Pac-12 and Rose Bowl champion Oregon might be the conference's best hope for earning a College Football Playoff berth since Washington in 2016 — and if the Ducks make the field, they will certainly have earned it. Oregon opens the campaign against FCS juggernaut North Dakota State, the first of two marquee non-conference dates. The other? Perrenial national championship contender Ohio State. Add a conference crossover slate that includes Pac-12 South favorite USC, and Oregon's 2020 schedule is no duck walk.

 

4. Georgia Tech

Georgia Tech endured serious growing pains in Geoff Collins' first season as head coach. Year Two may not be any easier, with the Yellow Jackets drawing one of the toughest schedules in the nation. Clean Old Fashioned Hate caps the season, placing a playoff-contending Georgia bunch as one bookend on a season where the other is Clemson. In between is a date with UCF on six days rest, North Carolina and Virginia Tech as back-to-back road contests, and a late-season matchup with Notre Dame.

 

5. BYU

No team faces a more difficult opening month than BYU, which plays away from home three times, all against Power 5 competition. In fact, all four of the Cougars' games in September are against Pac-12 and Big Ten opponents: at Utah, Arizona State and Minnesota, and home vs. Michigan State. With Missouri on the docket in October and a season finale at Stanford, half of the BYU slate is against Power 5 competition. The Group of 5 games on BYU's docket may be just as challenging, with Utah State, Houston, Boise State, and San Diego State all having reached the Top 25 in at least one of the past two seasons. Add a date with Northern Illinois (in Bridgeview) to the mix, and it's a top-to-bottom loaded slate.

 

6. Arkansas

The always-rigorous SEC West schedule can land any of the division's teams in a countdown like this, but Arkansas' 2020 slate is especially daunting. The Razorbacks open with Nevada and after losing to San Jose State a season ago, Arkansas knows that Mountain West Conference competition shouldn't be taken lightly. The Wolf Pack offer a prelude to the Lou Holtz Bowl between two of the Hall of Fame head coach's former programs, with Notre Dame on the opposite side. The Fighting Irish are one of the few looming heavyweights the Razorbacks have to face on the road, but drawing Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee at home isn't exactly a boon for a rebuilding program.

 

7. Nebraska

A pivotal Year Three in the Scott Frost era kicks off with an intriguing Big Ten date against Purdue. After setting the tone in what should be a wide-open West division race, the Cornhuskers draw a deceptively tough non-conference schedule with Nick Saban coaching-tree product Jim McElwain bringing a Central Michigan team to Lincoln that played for last year's MAC championship; FCS playoffs mainstay South Dakota State; and a Cincinnati program that has been outstanding under Luke Fickell. From October on, Nebraska faces Ohio State, Iowa, and Wisconsin on the road over a four-game stretch. And the Huskers' two home games in the final month of the regular season? Penn State and Minnesota.

 

8. South Carolina

Last season, the Gamecocks took on an absolute gauntlet. The 2020 campaign isn't much easier, if at all. South Carolina plays road games against both of last year's College Football Playoff finalists, built-in SEC crossover opponent LSU and in-state rival Clemson. The overall improvement of the SEC East, particularly at the top with Georgia coming on strong under Kirby Smart and Florida expected to break out this season under Dan Mullen, makes those conference matchups especially daunting. The home date against Georgia will be circled in red on calendars in Athens after last season's playoff-denying upset.

 

9. Iowa

The Big Ten's divisional crossover hits Iowa hard, sending the Hawkeyes on the road to both Penn State and Ohio State. The top two finishers in last year's East division and surprise top-15 finisher Minnesota make for a treacherous road schedule, but the home dates are not exactly easy, either. Iowa faces a dangerous Iowa State bunch in the early-season rivalry game and Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium.

 

10. Purdue

Purdue's non-conference schedule includes two Group of 5 teams that combined for 23 wins, Memphis and Air Force. Both reload in 2020. The Boilermakers also travel to Boston College to fill out the out-of-conference dates, pay a visit to both Minnesota and Michigan in Big Ten play, and open with a tone-setting conference affair at Nebraska.

 

11. Texas

LSU's win last September in Austin helped propel the Tigers to their first national championship since 2007. The Longhorns head to Death Valley in the return match, the highlight of Texas' non-conference schedule. A week earlier, the Longhorns welcome USF to town with no Charlie Strong but a talented roster that could be a sneaky Week 1 challenge. Every Big 12 team plays each other, a cool throwback to a bygone era in college football that's no longer the norm. While that may seemingly level the playing field, the breakdown of Texas' road conference games — including at Kansas State and against an intriguing Oklahoma State bunch just six days after facing Iowa State — presents a higher degree of difficulty.

 

12. TCU

The surprise breakout team of 2019, SMU, and a potential breakout in 2020, Cal, are both on TCU's non-conference schedule. Both games are also on the road, along with Big 12 trips to West Virginia, Baylor, and Texas. The Baylor and Texas dates bookend a difficult four-game stretch that pits the Horned Frogs against Oklahoma and Iowa State on the two Saturdays between.

 

13. Florida State

The Mike Norvell era begins Week 1 in Atlanta for the Bowden Bowl against West Virginia, but the real fireworks on Florida State's non-conference schedule may well come from a Week 3 rematch with Boise State. The Broncos and in-state rival Florida to close out the campaign highlight the Seminoles' non-conference schedule, while ACC juggernaut Clemson comes to Tallahassee one week after a quintessential trap game at NC State.

 

14. Notre Dame

Notre Dame's independence lends itself to criticism, but the Fighting Irish reliably load up on marquee games thanks to this flexibility. A combination of historic rivalries this year — culminating with a trip to USC — and the ACC crossover agreement, which brings Clemson to South Bend in 2020 guarantee Notre Dame plenty of great matchups. This year also includes an intriguing date with Wisconsin at Lambeau Field.

 

15. Alabama

Two of Alabama's first three games on the 2020 schedule are among the most intriguing of college football's first month. The Crimson Tide play USC to kick off the campaign, four years after and at the same site they decimated the Trojans in 2016. USC comes into the new campaign with a revamped offense and one of, if not the best wide receiving corps in the nation. In an ironic twist, Alabama has played Week 1 opponent USC more recently in the regular season than it has Week 3 foe Georgia — though their last two encounters produced two of the most memorable games of the 2010s, including the best game of 2018. From there, Alabama takes on the usual SEC West schedule, including a road trip to LSU to open a final stretch also featuring Texas A&M and Auburn.

 

16. Ohio State

A Week 2 trip to Oregon marks Ohio State's only trip away from Columbus until mid-October, but the Buckeyes make up for the lack of road dates on the back half of the docket. They must travel to Michigan State and Penn State in consecutive weeks, and that comes off a homestand against an always-dangerous Iowa bunch. Ohio State makes its first trip to Maryland since barely escaping an ostensible Big Ten East elimination game there in 2018. That's the first of two late-season road trips ahead of The Game, the other on Nov. 21 at Illinois for the amazing Illibuck Trophy.

 

17. Michigan

Michigan's opening month will determine the identity of this team, with three of the Wolverines' highest-profile dates falling on Oct. 3 or earlier. Michigan travels to Washington for what should be a defensive slugfest in Wek 1, then after hosting Ball State and Arkansas State in successive weeks, Wisconsin comes to Ann Arbor. Getting through the first month unscathed sets up a potential top-15 battle when Penn State comes to the Big House. The following weeks feature road trips to Michigan State and Minnesota, where a pair of rivalry trophies are at stake.

 

18. Stanford

Stanford has consistently played one of the more challenging schedules in college football each year of the David Shaw era. The 2020 campaign is no exception. The budding rivalry with Notre Dame takes the Cardinal to South Bend this season, kicking off a one-month stretch starting Oct. 10 in which Stanford also travels to Oregon and Washington. In between is a Washington State program Stanford has not beaten since 2015. As a result of playing one non-conference in October and another against BYU to close out the regular season, Stanford also plays three Pac-12 games in September while still getting a roster that was decimated by injury a season ago back up to speed.

 

19. Kent State

Kent State's non-conference schedule may well be the most brutal in college football, with the Golden Flashes play three of four on the road, all against Power 5 opponents. Two of those three are leading contenders for the College Football Playoff — opening with a talented Penn State bunch and heading to Tuscaloosa for a meeting with Kent State alum Nick Saban and Alabama. The third, Kentucky, is no slouch either. Meanwhile, Kent State's lone home non-conference game is against budding FCS powerhouse Kennesaw State, a program that launched just five years ago yet has already appeared in three playoffs. In the MAC, the Golden Flashes face a gauntlet in crossover play with last year's West division champion Central Michigan; perennial MAC contender Northern Illinois; and Western Michigan.

 

20. Colorado

An unusual spring season for all of college football may have been the most difficult for Colorado. The surprising departure of Mel Tucker for Michigan State in February prompted the hire of former Buffaloes assistant Karl Dorrell, who was only at the helm for two weeks when COVID-19 shutdowns swept the nation. Colorado's learning curve is steep heading into matchups with Mountain West opponents Colorado State and Fresno State, before the Buffs play their first true road game at Texas A&M. The renewal of an old Big 12 series is the prelude to a crossover matchup with Oregon. Colorado's other opponents from outside the division include Washington and Stanford, both on the road, and the Buffs must also play at USC in South division play.

 

21. Wisconsin

Despite leaving the state of Wisconsin just once before Oct. 24, the Badgers' first half of 2020 is a doozy. They open in their customary Friday night spot Week 1, hosting an Indiana team coming off a quietly excellent 2019. The Hoosiers are the first of three visitors to Camp Randall in the season's first month and a half who enjoyed historic campaigns last year, along with Appalachian State and Minnesota. The rivalry matchup against the Golden Gophers concludes a three-game stretch in which the Badgers travel to Michigan then face Notre Dame in a highly anticipated tussle at Green Bay's Lambeau Field.

 

22. Auburn

The SEC West is always a gauntlet, but Auburn gets an especially difficult task to close 2020 with LSU and Alabama in back-to-back weeks. The Tigers could well be in conference championship contention for that dual-finale, but they must first weather a trip to cross-divisional rival Georgia in October one week before hosting dark-horse Texas A&M. In non-conference play, a North Carolina squad that has been at the forefront of breakout team conversations waits in a Week 2 showdown in Atlanta.

 

23. Hawaii

Just call Hawaii the 13th member of the Pac-12. Three of the Rainbow Warriors' first few games come against opponents from the conference, including road trips to Arizona and Oregon. First-year head coach and former Arizona State head man Todd Graham should feel right at home. UCLA visits Honolulu in Week 1, with Week 2 open after FCS Fordham dropped out due to COVID-19. The Mountain West Conference docket sends defending West division champion Hawaii on the road to Air Force, Fresno State, and San Diego State, with Boise State visiting the Island in cross-divisional play.

 

24. Washington

Maligned for its schedule on ESPN just a few years back, there's nothing to sneer at with Washington's 2020 slate. The Huskies welcome Michigan to Montlake in Week 1 for perhaps the most interesting season-opening date. The Huskies also host Utah State in non-conference play before a bye week setting up the annual rivalry affair with Oregon. The Ducks are the first in a tough October, which also sees the Huskies travel to both Utah and Cal. The final month doesn't get much easier, sending Washington to USC for the first time since a pivotal win early in the Chris Petersen era.

 

25. Navy

As a result of COVID-19 rendering the scheduled trip to Ireland in Week 0 out of the question, Navy kicks off its 2020 with Notre Dame visiting Annapolis for the first time in almost a century. The historic rivalry meeting sets up Navy for a challenging first month, which also includes a road trip to face a feisty Tulane bunch and the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy against Air Force. In American Athletic Conference play, Navy draws both Houston and Memphis at home but must travel to SMU on Halloween.

 

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

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