Every season, we're inevitably left with splitting hairs between top teams trying to determine who deserves a shot at the national championship.
Part of the equation each year is the nebulous “strength of schedule.” While completely subjective, the strength of schedule is what we've relied on for years, and it doesn't show any signs of fading into history.
As we dig deeper and deeper into each program's schedule for 2012, part of the eventual analysis will depend on not only who the team is playing, but where.
So who has the toughest road schedules in the nation? We've complied a list of 13 programs who face seemingly insurmountable obstacles in 2012 as they try to cope with an impossible road schedule.
Road Games: South Florida, NC State, Miami (FL), Virginia Tech, Maryland
We'll begin with the Seminoles.
At first glance, FSU doesn't appear to have a difficult schedule in 2012.
After all, the 'Noles really look foolish starting the season against two FCS programs.
Are you kidding? What a complete joke.
Even if Florida State runs the table this season, they'll likely still need some help to get to the BCS National Championship Game. Two FCS teams on the docket has to seriously kill strength of schedule.
But Florida State does make up a little bit (probably not enough) of the lost ground with a fairly wicked road schedule.
The first road venture is on September 29 when the Seminoles travel a few hours south to Tampa to face South Florida. FSU should win this game, but USF can be a very dangerous team that sneaks up on you in a hurry.
After than, Florida State will make road trips to NC State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Maryland.
While FSU should be favored in many of these games, it's still one of the toughest road challenges in the ACC this season, so we thought Florida State was worthy of at least a mention on our list.
Road Games: Michigan*, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, LSU
Anytime LSU appears on the road schedule, it has to be considered a potential loss, even by the likes of the Crimson Tide.
It the midst of the BCS National Championship Game victory celebration, it was easy to lose sight of the fact that we had our first conference non-champion bring home the BCS hardware.
In fact, Alabama was only the third non-champion to make the game (the others being Nebraska after the 2001 season and Oklahoma after 2003), and the first non-divisional champion ever to get an invite.
And while Crimson Tide fans are certainly pleased to have their ninth major national championship, it won't be lost on Nick Saban and his players that they failed to bring home the SEC title last season.
Add in the rest of the nation's reaction to the all-SEC title game, you can bet that we likely won't be seeing that again anytime soon.
That means an SEC title will be at a premium this season, and if the Tide have any hope of repeating, they will need to secure a victory in Atlanta on December 1.
But just getting to Atlanta won't be a foregone conclusion.
Saban has a defense to rebuild, as only five starters return. The offense remains in decent shape with seven starters, including quarterback AJ McCarron and outstanding offensive tackle Barrett Jones returning for 2012.
But even the slightest misstep this season could spell disaster for the Tide.
This year's “warm-up” non-conference game for Alabama is certainly a doozy. Michigan and Alabama will tangle in Dallas in a Week 1 neutral road game for both teams. While Alabama should be favored in this game, it's important to remember that this isn't the Michigan team we all laughed at under Rich Rodriguez.
New head coach Brady Hoke has reinvigorated this program, and the Maize and Blue are ready to take on all comers—including Alabama.
The game could be a lot closer than Alabama fans will find comfortable.
The Tide won't have long to rest after Week 1. The following week is a laugher against Western Kentucky before it's right back on the road for the start of the SEC schedule.
And you can expect Arkansas to be ready for the Tide this year.
The road schedule finishes up with games at Missouri and Tennessee before the Tide get their much-anticipated rematch with LSU in Baton Rouge.
If everything goes as planned for both of these teams up to this point, we could again see this November 3 game as an SEC-West title showdown with the winner earning a trip to Atlanta.
Tuscaloosa is a difficult place for road teams to win, but LSU managed to slip one past Alabama last season. Can the Crimson Tide return the favor in 2012?
(*Neutral site game)
Road Games: Boston College, Kansas State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame*, Virginia, Duke
Miami is still a top-drawing program in the nation, so it's a little unusual to see a team of this class take on a six-game road schedule.
The Hurricanes could be an interesting team to watch in 2012. Al Golden returns seven defensive starters to his squad that finished 6-6 last season. And while only four offensive starters return, that may not be such a bad thing.
Many of the now-graduated (or otherwise departed) offensive starters from 2011 never really lived up to their potential—or hype. Some new blood could be just what the doctor ordered.
Technically, the game against Notre Dame is at a neutral site. But that “neutral” site is in Chicago. A car ride from Notre Dame takes less time than a flight from Chicago, so you can bet this game will feel much like a road game for the 'Canes—which is why we included it as such.
(*Neutral site game)
Road Games: Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas
The SEC is not without its impossible road schedules, and despite all of the success the Tigers had last season, the defending conference champions will have everything they can handle in 2012—and maybe more.
The SEC-West was unquestionably the toughest conference division in the nation last season, and it's going to be a bear again this year.
While LSU does get Alabama at home, the Tigers will face Auburn, Florida, Texas&M and Arkansas on the road.
Before the LSU faithful fly completely off the handle, it's important to note that these games are well within LSU's capability to win.
But with Alabama and South Carolina on the home schedule for 2012, it would be pretty shocking to see LSU run the SEC table yet again.
Road Games: Louisiana-Monroe, West Virginia, Texas, Iowa State, Oklahoma
Under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult for the Baylor Bears to match last season's success.
Considering Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III is gone and the Bears have to face Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia all on the road, that task becomes impossible.
Texas, Oklahoma and West Virginia represent three likely contenders for the Big 12 title this season, and each of those three teams will get Baylor at home this season.
Given Baylor's overall schedule, any bowl invitation at season's end should be considered a success.
Road Games: LSU, Oregon, Arizona, California, Colorado, Washington State
Washington is the only Pac-12 team to make our list, and the Huskies just barely did so.
The overall road schedule isn't too terrible, but the first two away games are what make perfection on the road impossible.
Both LSU and Oregon will begin the season in the top 10, and Washington will be facing the Tigers and Ducks both within the first half of the season.
While we've yet to see exactly how Oregon's personnel losses will change the Ducks, you can bet that they won't fall so far as to lose in Eugene to a middle-of-the-road conference foe like Washington.
And the Huskies have almost no chance of getting by LSU.
Road Games: Kansas, SMU, Baylor, Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Texas
Texas Christian is taking a step up in class this fall, having finally joined the ranks of the BCS by entering the Big 12.
Don't expect the transition to pass without a few growing pains. The Horned Frogs have proven in the past that they are capable of beating any team in the nation on any given day. But facing those top teams week in and week out in some of the most hostile environments in the nation is something TCU hasn't had to deal with for a very long time.
While many are hopeful TCU can make a run at the conference title this season, don't be surprised if the Horned Frogs don't have the staying power in the Big 12.
Road games against Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Texas should be more than enough to knock TCU out of the Big 12 title hunt this season.
Road Games: Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern
The Leaders Division of the Big Ten is certainly the weaker of the two, top to bottom. But that doesn't mean a team like Illinois has an easier path to the conference title game.
After becoming the first team in forever to start 6-0 and finish 6-6, the Fighting Illini finally fired Ron Zook, and have moved on to hopefully bigger and better things.
But as weak as the Leaders appears to be, the top two teams in the division—Wisconsin and Ohio State—appear on Illinois' road schedule this season. On top of that, the Illini get some of the best the Legends Division has to offer when they travel to Ann Arbor to take on the Wolverines.
Coaching transitions are never really easy. And when you have a tough Big Ten road schedule staring you in the face, it can be even more difficult.
Road Games: Alabama*, Notre Dame, Purdue, Nebraska, Ohio State
A program like Michigan rarely ventures far from home when playing non-conference games. But the Wolverines will have all they can handle when they hit the road in Week 1 to take on the Crimson Tide in Dallas. While technically not a road game, it's easily far enough away from Ann Arbor for us to include it.
And considering the opponent and how well they travel, it's certainly going to feel like a road game.
Beyond Alabama, Michigan also has to take on Notre Dame on the road, along with a couple of the top teams in the Big Ten.
Last season, Michigan and Notre Dame went back-and-forth down to the final seconds in one of the most entertaining games of the 2011 football season.
While we might not see the same kind of fireworks this season (last season's showdown would be hard to match), you can bet that U-M will get Notre Dame's best shot in South Bend.
Nebraska is also looking to make amends after being completely humiliated in Ann Arbor last season, and the always great season finale against Ohio State will move back to the (very) unfriendly confines of the Horseshoe for 2012.
All of this doesn't preclude Michigan from a Big Ten title in 2012, but any fantasies of a national championship run are probably out of the question for the time being.
(*Neutral site game)
Road Games: Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, Auburn
Is the West Division's dominance of the SEC at an end?
Probably not. But if there's one team that has a better-than-average shot at finally ending the snickering directed at the East Division, it has to be Georgia.
The Bulldogs are returning nine defensive starters to a team that was pretty darn good on defense last season.
Georgia ought to send a big thank-you card to the scheduling folks at the SEC, as this season neither LSU or Alabama appear on the Bulldogs' schedule.
Still, Georgia will have to face newcomer Missouri, co-East Division contender South Carolina and Auburn on the road this season.
While it could be much, much worse, it's a difficult road draw for Georgia, and it could make a national championship run nearly impossible.
But an SEC title is by no means out of the question.
Road Games: Navy*, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Boston College, USC
Brian Kelly is entering his third season at Notre Dame, and despite back-to-back eight-win seasons, the Irish fans are looking for something more.
But with Notre Dame's schedule in 2012, that may be a tall order.
The season gets underway in style as the Irish travel to Ireland to take on Navy in their annual showdown.
While Navy has had some success against Notre Dame over the past few years, given the direction of each team, it's safe to assume that Notre Dame has begun a new, lengthy win streak over the Midshipmen.
We're still mentioning this “road” game as difficult, mainly because the Irish are crossing an ocean just to get to the stadium. With all of the distractions and intangibles this game provides, it might be more difficult than many expect.
The Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry has been one of the best non-conference rivalries in the nation, and it doesn't look like it will be slowing down anytime soon.
The great thing about the Battle for the Megaphone these days is that the traditional early-season showdown is usually featuring two ranked teams. That should be the case again this year as Notre Dame travels to East Lansing.
The final three road games for the Irish include a pair of absolute disasters-in-waiting.
Norman, Oklahoma is one of the most difficult places for road teams to win games, and the Sooners will relish the opportunity to take out some of 2011's frustration on a program like Notre Dame.
Finally, the November 24th season closer at USC could see Notre Dame facing a team that's playing for more than bragging rights. By the time we get to the end of November, it's entirely possible that USC will be playing for a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.
(*Neutral site game)
Road Games: Notre Dame*, Penn State, Air Force, Central Michigan, East Carolina, Troy, Army*
Navy has had a remarkable run of success over the past decade-plus. The Midshipmen have defied common sense and knocked off teams packing far more size, speed and talent—including the likes of Notre Dame.
Navy's brand of fundamentally sound football combined with an at-times lethal triple-option attack has led to bowl game after bowl game—until last season.
Navy finally ran aground last season, finishing 5-7 and missing a bowl game for the first time since 2002.
The 2012 campaign gets underway in Ireland when Navy takes on Notre Dame in this “neutral” site game. But you can bet the Irish from Ireland will be strongly behind the Irish from Indiana.
And while Navy has won three of the last five meetings, the upward trend of Notre Dame football will put an end to the days of Navy victories over the Irish.
The road slate doesn't get any easier for the Midshipmen moving forward. After taking on Penn State in Happy Valley, Navy has to travel to the thin air of Colorado to take on two-time defending Commander-in-Chief's Trophy winner Air Force.
The Army-Navy-Air Force series is one of the best in college football, and Navy is anxious to bring the trophy back to Annapolis after a two-year hiatus. Navy won the C-in-C's Trophy seven straight years from 2003 to 2009 before the Falcons ended the streak.
The final three games of the Navy road schedule—Central Michigan, East Carolina and Troy—are all winnable games, but Navy does have a habit of dropping at least one winnable game on the road per season.
Given all the available information on Navy and its recent slide, it's hard to picture anything better than a .500 mark on the road this season.
(*Neutral site game)
Road Games: Tulane, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU
Talk about impossible.
Even the best teams in the nation wouldn't be able to hand the onslaught Ole Miss will face in 2012. The Rebels will take on what amounts to the top four teams in the conference this season, and all four of those games will be on the road.
Even if Ole Miss were somehow better than their 2-10 record in 2011 belies, the Rebels still wouldn't stand much of a shot against these teams.
And because Ole Miss was 0-8 against the SEC last season, you can bet that this year's road schedule will define impossible.