College Football Teams with the Toughest Nonconference Schedules in 2014
Nonconference schedules are a hot topic in college football right now, in large part because of the SEC's new mandate for each of its teams to schedule at least one opponent from a power conference.
That rule, however, did not take effect for this season, which is how we ended up with with SEC nonconference slates such as Vanderbilt's (Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern, Old Dominion) and Mississippi State's (Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama, UT-Martin).
On the flip-side of those creampuff schedules are a group of teams that will challenge themselves. Whether by stratagem or by bad luck, their schedule features numerous teams that can beat them.
In order to make this list, a team had to have at least two quality opponents. Michigan State, for example, has the hardest nonconference game in the country—at Oregon on Sept. 6—but no other power conference teams. It was bypassed for that reason.
Beyond that, it was a judgement call.
Based on the case, I sometimes preferred a team with two very hard games over three modestly hard ones. Other times, I preferred the opposite. Context was the key.
Let me know what you disagree with in the comments.
The following five teams barely missed the list, but none of them has a nonconference schedule to be envious of:
Indiana: Indiana State, Bowling Green, Missouri, North Texas
Iowa State: North Dakota State, Iowa, Toledo
Michigan: Appalachian State, Notre Dame, Miami (OH), Utah
USC: Fresno State, Boston College, Notre Dame
Virginia: UCLA, Richmond, BYU, Kent State
Opponents: vs. Oklahoma St. (Arlington); vs. Citadel; vs. Notre Dame; vs. Florida
Florida State is a popular pick to make the College Football Playoff, and with good reason. It is, after all, the national champion. Getting back to the summit will be difficult, however, because of a nonconference slate that ranks up with anybody in the country.
Oklahoma State is poised to take a step back but is still capable of giving FSU a scare in the season opener, and in-state rival Florida is poised to take a step (or several steps) forward after last year's disastrous 4-8 campaign.
Meanwhile, ACC partial-newcomer Notre Dame will travel to Tallahassee in the middle of the conference schedule, giving the Seminoles three nonconference opponents that have made a BCS bowl game in one of the past three seasons.
How many teams can say that?
Opponents: vs. Clemson, vs. Troy, vs. Charleston Southern, vs. Georgia Tech
Georgia has the usual two cream puffs—an unspoken requirement, it seems, on SEC schedules—but bookends the season with two annual threats from the ACC.
First comes Clemson, which this year travels to Athens for the season opener. The Tigers beat Georgia in Death Valley last season but will be replacing all of their most important offensive weapons.
Georgia has owned its in-state rival, Georgia Tech, since the start of the new millennium, winning all of the last five and 12 of the last 13 meetings. But the Yellow Jackets are still a legitimate team and led the Bulldogs for most of last year's game, so it's not like they're exactly a pushover.
Opponents: vs. Florida A&M, vs. Arkansas State, at Nebraska, vs. Cincinnati
Other than Florida A&M, every nonconference opponent on Miami's schedule is capable of winning its conference in 2014.
The strength of those conferences may differ, but the principle remains the same. And even though Arkansas State comes from the lowly Sun Belt, it and new head coach Blake Anderson should continue to have an offense that gives all opponents trouble.
Cincinnati is a perennial sneaky contender and this year has Gunner Kiel eligible at quarterback, while Nebraska is…well, Nebraska and will have a distinct home-field advantage in Lincoln.
Miami should be favored in three of these four games, and the line at Nebraska might be short. But at least two of them could very well end in a loss, and a third is nothing to gloss over.
Opponents: vs. Liberty; vs. San Diego State; vs. East Carolina; vs. Notre Dame
Like Miami, North Carolina makes this list because it has three games against teams that are annually competitive (as opposed to having more than one true heavyweight opponent).
San Diego State has quietly won 34 games the past four seasons—alternating between eight wins and nine wins per year—and doesn't back down from a challenge. East Carolina, meanwhile, is one of the best mid-major programs in the country and put a 55-31 whooping on the Tar Heels just one season ago.
And then, as a coup de gras, UNC draws Notre Dame in its first year of partial ACC membership, capping off its nonconference slate with a team one season removed from a trip to the national title game.
Not an easy path for a team that's expected to be a sleeper.
Opponents: at Navy; vs. Virginia Tech; vs. Kent State; vs. Cincinnati
Navy and Virginia Tech are difficult opponents for obvious reasons.
The first will test Ohio State's run defense out of the gate, showing Urban Meyer immediately if his front seven has College Football Playoff-level toughness. Virginia Tech will answer him the same question about an offense that's replacing a good amount of talent.
The biggest question, however, will not be answered until the Buckeyes host in-state rival Cincinnati. Last year's Ohio State secondary was a disaster, and although defensive backs specialist Chris Ash was brought in to fix it and appears to be doing a good job, it will be hard to say for sure until (potentially) Gunner Kiel and a capable Bearcats passing attack come to town.
If OSU makes it to Big Ten play unscathed, it will have earned it. If not, it better hope real hard that the team it lost to keeps winning.
Opponents: vs. Utah State; vs. Arkansas State; at Oklahoma; vs. Chattanooga
There is perhaps no more underrated game in Week 1 than Tennessee vs. Utah State.
Not only will that mark the debut of UT's much-touted freshman class, it will also mark the return of Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton, whom Adam Kramer of B/R calls the most exciting player in college football. (And for what it's worth, I agree.)
"This is a known name, and being able to play a program like Tennessee is a big deal," Keeton said, per Kramer. "It’s also going to set the tone for our season."
But that's just the start of the Vols' difficult schedule. Also down the line sits Arkansas State, which was discussed on an earlier slide and remains one of the best teams in the Sun Belt, and a true road game at Oklahoma, which beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and is a legitimate threat to make the College Football Playoff.
Unlike some of its brethren in the SEC, Tennessee schedules hard.
Opponents: vs. North Texas; vs. BYU; vs. UCLA (Arlington)
So…about that BYU game.
Texas fans will hold their breath when Taysom Hill and the Cougars return to Austin, one year removed from rushing for 550 yards in a blowout victory that got defensive coordinator Manny Diaz canned on the spot—a move that would come to be known as Kiffin-style—and essentially sealed Mack Brown's fate of departure.
And that's not even the hardest game on the schedule!
UCLA has legitimate College Football Playoff aspirations this season and no other nonconference game worth circling besides its trip to play Texas in Arlington. The Longhorns are likely to be underdogs in Jerry's World against a team from Los Angeles that isn't USC.
Man, how things have changed.
Opponents: vs. Alabama (Atlanta); vs. Towson; at Maryland
Right off the bat, West Virginia plays America's most fearsome team, Alabama, in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. Two weeks later, the 'Neers head to College Park to play a Maryland team that beat them 37-0 in 2013 and returns almost its entire two-deep roster.
In between, Dana Holgorsen's team plays FCS Towson, which would seem on the surface a brief respite from high-level FBS competition. But the Tigers made the FCS championship game last season, besting Jimmy Garoppolo and Dino Babers' Eastern Illinois team before losing to North Dakota State.
All in all, this is a difficult slate in a must-win season for Holgorsen. If he wants to keep his job into 2015, he'll either have to have his team playing well early (i.e., go 2-1) or surprise against his Big 12 foes.