Rugged roads or easy street? Breaking down college football’s most and least challenging schedules

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We know all schedules aren’t created equal.

Another truism in college football is the perceived difficulty of a schedule can vary wildly depending on your vantage point. Let’s just say Alabama’s schedule is probably viewed differently in Birmingham, Alabama, than it is in Columbus, Ohio. The same goes for the perception of Ohio State’s schedule in Atlanta, TCU’s schedule in Baton Rouge and Clemson’s schedule in Los Angeles.

You get the idea.

It’s worth noting that 2023 will provide our first taste of the new-look Big 12 with BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF joining the league. It’s also the last season Oklahoma and Texas will compete in the Big 12 before jumping to the SEC in 2024. In addition, the ACC will move away from divisions in 2023, leaving the Big Ten and SEC as the only Power 5 conferences still using that format.

As we do every year at this time, we’ll recognize some schedule superlatives for the 2023 season — some flattering and some not so flattering. All rankings referenced are from ESPN’s latest Way-Too-Early Top 25. And yes, preseason rankings aren’t always the best guide. Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas A&M all were in the AP’s preseason top 10 a year ago, and all three finished with losing records.

On to the selections:

Toughest overall Power 5 schedule

After an uneven first year at Florida, things don’t get any easier for Billy Napier and the Gators. David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

How would you like to play the nation’s toughest schedule as a second-year coach coming off a losing season in Year 1? Welcome to Billy Napier’s world. Florida opens the season on the road against two-time defending Pac-12 champion Utah and closes at home against bitter rival Florida State, which is ranked No. 3 and is one of the favorites to win the ACC. In between, the Gators have trips to Kentucky, South Carolina and LSU. They face No. 11 Tennessee at home two weeks after opening the season at Utah, and there’s also the annual clash with No. 1 Georgia in Jacksonville — two weeks before visiting LSU on Nov. 11. If you’re counting, that’s six preseason top-25 opponents, with four in the top 15.

Ole Miss isn’t far behind Florida on the challenge meter. The Rebels are the only SEC team playing both Alabama and Georgia on the road.

Easiest overall Power 5 schedule

Jeff Hafley could use a breakthrough season after Boston College’s the 3-9 finish a year ago, and the good news is the schedule sets up the Eagles to make a run at their most successful season since Hafley arrived in 2020. There are no nonconference games against Power 5 opponents; the Eagles will stay in the Northeast for all four games, and the only road contest is at Army. Four of the Eagles’ first five games are at home, and their toughest ACC matchup is at home against Florida State. Clemson and North Carolina aren’t on the schedule, meaning BC will face just one preseason top-25 team.

The honorable mention in this category goes to two-time defending national champion Georgia. The only game the Dawgs play away from home against a preseason top-25 team is at Tennessee in the next-to-last week of the season on Nov. 18.

Toughest Power 5 nonconference schedule

This was a close one between Pittsburgh and Louisville, both of whom face three Power 5 opponents (including Notre Dame). The Panthers get the nod based on having to play back-to-back games against Cincinnati and West Virginia on Sept. 9 and 16, an especially difficult assignment given how heated the “Backyard Brawl” rivalry is and that it shifts to Morgantown for the first time in the series’ renewal a year ago. In addition, following their trip to Notre Dame on Oct. 28, the Panthers host No. 3 Florida State the next week.

Toughest Group of 5 nonconference schedule

Entering its second season in the Sun Belt Conference, Southern Miss isn’t fleeing from stiff competition outside the league. The Golden Eagles play at Florida State on Sept. 9, then return home to face Tulane on Sept. 16, a pair of preseason top-25 teams being picked to win their respective leagues. Then, on the next-to-last week of the season, Southern Miss visits SEC foe Mississippi State on Nov. 18.

Easiest Power 5 nonconference schedule

For the second straight year, Jim Harbaugh and Michigan are facing one of the weakest nonconference schedules in the country. Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports

We have a repeat winner. For the second season in a row, Michigan has earned the “honor” of playing the nation’s cushiest nonconference schedule. The two-time defending Big Ten champion doesn’t face a single Power 5 opponent. This was also the case a year ago, marking the first time in 78 years the Wolverines didn’t play a nonconference game against a current Power 5 member or Notre Dame. Michigan opens this season with three straight home games against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green. It originally had a home-and-home series with UCLA set for 2022 and 2023, but canceled it in 2019 to guarantee at least seven home games each season.

The only team rivaling Michigan in this category is Georgia, which plays UT Martin, Ball State and UAB at home and closes the regular season against in-state rival Georgia Tech on the road. The Bulldogs were originally scheduled to play Oklahoma, but the SEC dictated that game be scrapped with the Sooners joining the league in 2024.

Toughest open to the season

West Virginia athletic director Wren Baker said this summer he wanted to see Neal Brown and the football program build some momentum as the Mountaineers are coming off back-to-back losing seasons. That’s going to be a challenge to start the season. West Virginia opens on the road against No. 8 Penn State, and after a home game against Duquesne, plays rival Pittsburgh at home and then starts Big 12 play against Texas Tech at home and TCU on the road, both preseason top-25 teams. Talk about a five-week gauntlet to open a season that is critical for Brown and the program.

Toughest close to the season

It’s always nice to have the reigning Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, and USC is going to need Caleb Williams at his best in October and November. Four of the Trojans’ last six games are against preseason top-25 teams, as they face Notre Dame, Utah, Cal, Washington, Oregon and UCLA. Lincoln Riley’s Men of Troy will also play nine straight weeks without a break to end the season.

Cushiest open to the season

A toss-up here between Kentucky and Michigan. The Wildcats win in a photo finish with their first three games coming at home against Ball State, Eastern Kentucky and Akron, with a road game against Vanderbilt to follow. Four of Kentucky’s five games in September are at home. The schedule bites back to end the season, as the Wildcats play three of their last four on the road, and the only home game in that stretch is Alabama.

The Wolverines, meanwhile, play four in a row at home to open the season: three nonconference “buy” games against East Carolina, UNLV and Bowling Green before the Big Ten opener against Rutgers. Yawn.

Falcons taking flight

Air Force hasn’t received nearly the love it deserves under Troy Calhoun after posting at least 10 wins in each of its past three full seasons and winning three straight bowl games over teams from the Big 12, ACC and Pac-12. The Falcons’ 2023 schedule will be interesting, to say the least. They play three Friday games, and only once in the last six weeks of the season will the Falcons play a true home game. With Falcon Stadium undergoing renovations, the Nov. 4 game against Army will be played in Denver at Empower Field at Mile High.

Rocky road

Arkansas’ road schedule is brutal. The Hogs, who played one of the toughest overall schedules in the country a year ago, play true road games against three preseason top-25 teams — LSU, Ole Miss and Alabama — and also travel to the Swamp to face Florida. Arkansas goes four straight weeks without playing a home game, starting with the Sept. 23 game at No. 7 LSU and ending with the Oct. 14 game at No. 6 Alabama. At some point, Sam Pittman has to be wondering what he did to the people putting together these backbreaking schedules.

Road of least resistance

As Luke Fickell takes over at Wisconsin, he inherits a road schedule that looks more than manageable. The only nonconference road game is at Washington State in Week 2, and the Cougars aren’t picked to be among the Pac-12’s elite this season. The Badgers avoid Michigan and Penn State altogether in 2023 and get Ohio State at home Oct. 28. It doesn’t hurt, either, that Ohio State faces Penn State the week before making the trip to Madison. There are only two road dates the last five weeks of the season — at Indiana and at Minnesota — and no back-to-back road games all season for the Badgers.

Oregon State also is in the conversation here. The Beavers’ only nonconference road game is at San Jose State to open the season. In the Pac-12, they’re on the road at Washington State, Cal, Arizona and Colorado, in addition to a tough one at Oregon to close the season Nov. 24.

Toughest three-week stretch

Michael Penix Jr. and Washington have a challenging November ahead. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

The criteria here are three games in three consecutive weeks with no byes. Rutgers, Syracuse and Florida could all make strong cases, but we’re going with Washington. The Pac-12 should be as strong as it has been in years with excellent quarterback play across the league. The Huskies have their own star quarterback in Michael Penix Jr., and he and his teammates will have their hands full in November. Washington plays at USC on Nov. 4, home against Utah the next week and then back on the road against Oregon State on Nov. 18. That three-game stretch is preceded by a road game against Stanford. That’s three Pac-12 road games in four weeks.

Must-see nonconference games

The caveat here is that to be considered, these games are played on campus, not at a neutral site:

• Florida at Utah, Aug. 31 (Thursday)

• Colorado at TCU, Sept. 2

• Texas at Alabama, Sept. 9

• Oregon at Texas Tech, Sept. 9

• Ole Miss at Tulane, Sept. 9

• Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Sept. 16

• Washington at Michigan State, Sept. 16

• Ohio State at Notre Dame, Sept. 23

• Notre Dame at Clemson, Nov. 4

• Clemson at South Carolina, Nov. 25

Going back-to-back

Colorado, Pittsburgh, Purdue, Utah and Virginia Tech are the only Power 5 teams that will play nonconference games against Power 5 opponents in back-to-back weeks. Colorado travels to TCU to open the season Sept. 2, then comes back home to face Nebraska in coach Deion Sanders’ Boulder debut on Sept. 9. Pitt plays Cincinnati at home Sept. 9, then travels to West Virginia the next week. Purdue plays at Virginia Tech on Sept. 9, then at home against Syracuse the next week. Utah opens the season with games against Florida at home Aug. 31 and Baylor on the road Sept. 9. Virginia Tech plays Purdue at home Sept. 9 and at Rutgers the next week.

Clash of cultures

The culture shock game of the year has to be Auburn traveling to Cal on Sept. 9, the first meeting ever between the teams. At Auburn, they’ve been known to roll trees with toilet paper after big wins. At Cal, they’ve been known to strip naked and climb trees to save them. It’s a 2,438-mile trip for the Tigers and only Auburn’s third regular-season game ever on the West Coast. The Bears are 9-1 at home in nonconference games under Justin Wilcox. The hardwoods will be watching.

Farewell to Bedlam

This could be it for Bedlam, at least for the foreseeable future, with Oklahoma moving to the SEC in 2024. Longtime rivals Oklahoma and Oklahoma State meet Nov. 11 in Norman, and neither side has seemed too interested in continuing the rivalry. Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said last year that OU and Texas “took the money and ran” by joining the SEC and “took a lot of history out of college football with them.” With the Big 12’s new look this season, Oklahoma State’s schedule will be virtually Texas free. The Cowboys don’t face Baylor, TCU, Texas or Texas Tech (they do travel to Houston on Nov. 18).

No napping for the Vols

Which Power 5 teams could get tripped up at home by a Group of 5 team, a la Appalachian State winning at Texas A&M last season? One game to watch is UTSA at Tennessee on Sept. 23. The Vols have an away game with Florida the week before and a home date the week after with South Carolina, which torched Tennessee 63-38 a year ago and ruined the Vols’ playoff chances. UTSA brings back 15 starters, including record-setting quarterback Frank Harris, after going 11-3 and winning two straight Conference USA titles.

What a welcome

BYU, moving to the Big 12 from independent status, has a bye week Oct. 7 after facing Cincinnati at home, then plays seven conference games in seven weeks. The Cougars are the only Big 12 newcomers to play both Oklahoma and Texas this season. In that seven-game stretch are three road games in four weeks — TCU on Oct. 14, Texas on Oct. 28 and West Virginia on Nov. 4. And talk about frequent flier points: The Cougars make a “short” 1,258-mile trip to Austin, Texas, then travel nearly 2,000 miles the next week to Morgantown, West Virginia.

Loving the Lone Star State

Another Big 12 newcomer, Houston won’t leave Texas to play a game until the final weekend of October when the Cougars travel to Kansas State. Houston’s only other game outside the state is the regular-season finale against UCF on Nov. 25. Six of Houston’s first seven games are in the city of Houston.

Rhule on the road

In his first season at Nebraska, Matt Rhule and the Huskers will play their first two games on the road against Minnesota on Aug. 31 and Colorado on Sept. 9. Not counting the 2020 COVID-interrupted season, it’s the first time since 1995 the Huskers have opened the season with two true road games. For what it’s worth, that 1995 Nebraska team is widely considered to be one of the greatest in college football history. Those Huskers went 12-0, won their second straight national championship and had an average margin of victory of 38.7 points per game. Just saying.

Hartman’s ACC encore

Sam Hartman, one of the country’s highest-profile transfers this offseason after leaving Wake Forest for Notre Dame, will face familiar ACC foes Clemson, Duke, Louisville, NC State and Pittsburgh in 2023, not to mention his old team, the Demon Deacons, on Nov. 18 in South Bend. Hartman, the ACC’s all-time leader with 110 touchdown passes, finished 4-11 against those five ACC teams during his time at Wake Forest.

Conference chaos

There’s always that one weekend in conference play that shakes things up, provides some clarity for the rest of the season and maybe even produces a few surprises. Week 8 has definite possibilities:

Editor’s Picks

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• Tennessee at Alabama

• Ole Miss at Auburn

• Michigan at Michigan State

• Penn State at Ohio State

• Wisconsin at Illinois

• Utah at USC

• Clemson at Miami

• Texas Tech at BYU

• TCU at Kansas State

• Texas at Houston

They’re playing where?

Seeing Power 5 teams playing on the road at Group of 5 venues is always entertaining, especially when it’s Alabama traveling to South Florida for a Sept. 16 game. Some of the others: UCLA at San Diego State on Sept. 9, Ole Miss at Tulane on Sept. 9, Cal at North Texas on Sept. 2, Oregon State at San Jose State on Sept. 3, Oklahoma at Tulsa on Sept. 16, Miami at Temple on Sept. 23, NC State at UConn on Aug. 31 and Virginia Tech at Marshall on Sept. 23.

Power outages

Only seven Power 5 teams do not have a nonconference game against another Power 5 team or Notre Dame — Boston College, Houston, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon State, UCF and UCLA.

Powering up

Louisville, with Jeff Brohm returning to his alma mater as coach, will play three Power 5 schools (including Notre Dame) in the nonconference part of its schedule — at Indiana on Sept. 16, home against Notre Dame on Oct. 7 and home against in-state rival Kentucky on Nov. 25 to close the season. Colorado, Pittsburgh, Utah and West Virginia are the only other FBS schools playing 11 Power 5 opponents in 2023.

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