Ranking College Football's 25 Hardest Schedules for 2015
In the new College Football Playoff era, scheduling is more important than ever. Baylor and TCU found that out the hard way last fall, when the two Big 12 teams combined for 22 wins but found themselves on the outside of the playoff looking in.
A big reason why? Their best nonconference win between the teams came against Minnesota. While the Gophers were improved and an eight-win team, it ultimately wasn’t enough for TCU to make its way into the playoff.
So scheduling matters. If the schedule is too soft, you’ll be punished by college football’s power brokers. If the schedule is too tough, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself out of a job. It’s a fine line, indeed.
Multiple teams face a daunting road to get to the College Football Playoff (or even become bowl-eligible) in 2015. Here’s a look at the 25 toughest schedules in college football. Factors such as nonconference foes, strength of league schedule and difficult home-road balance were all considered for this feature.
Jim Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor last month as the anointed savior of a Michigan football program that has fallen on hard times following the disappointing tenures of Rich Rodriguez and Brady Hoke. Wolverines fans think that Harbaugh can walk on water, but he might need a lifeline following the 2015 season.
Michigan begins with a tough Thursday night opener at a Utah team that won nine games last fall (and rolled the Wolverines in Ann Arbor) and returns to play Oregon State. Following a breather against a bad UNLV team, a BYU team that will have talented quarterback Taysom Hill back from a broken leg visits the Big House. That’s no easy mark.
The Wolverines avoid Nebraska and Wisconsin from the Big Ten West but do draw a trip to Minnesota. They’ll host rival Michigan State but finish the season with a trip to Penn State before hosting defending national champion and archrival Ohio State at home. It’s a challenging slate.
Kyle Whittingham and Utah had a resurgent 2014, following a pair of 5-7 seasons with a nine-win season capped by a Las Vegas Bowl blowout of Colorado State. Repeating the feat won’t be easy, thanks to a schedule that features challenging nonconference games and a Pac-12 schedule that has its toughest tests on the road.
Michigan and new coach Jim Harbaugh visit to start the season, and while BYU isn’t on the schedule in 2015, the Utes do get in-state rival Utah State, which just learned that quarterback Chuckie Keeton will receive another season of eligibility. The Utes follow that game with back-to-back trips to Fresno State (never easy) and Oregon.
They get Cal and Arizona State at home but must travel to Southern California and then take back-to-back trips to Washington and defending Pac-12 South champ Arizona. UCLA comes to Rice-Eccles, but getting back to nine wins against this slate could be difficult.
Al Golden will begin 2015 on the hot seat, with good reason. The Hurricanes were once one of college football’s elite teams. But they’ve sunk into mediocrity, with 2014’s 6-7 record the latest example. They’re finding it hard to get fans in South Florida to care, and making progress won’t be easy against a tough 2015 slate.
The slate begins easily enough with FCS foe Bethune-Cookman and fellow south Florida team Florida Atlantic. But it gets much tougher when a Nebraska team that beat the ‘Canes last fall visits. Following a bye week, Miami must travel to face an improving Cincinnati program led by quarterback Gunner Kiel, no easy task. And that’s followed by a trip to rival Florida State, which has left Miami in its dust en route to national-power status. Tough three-game stretch, eh?
It gets little easier with a two-game homestretch against Virginia Tech and ACC Atlantic power Clemson. The season wraps up with a visit from defending ACC Coastal champion Georgia Tech and a trip to Pitt. Overall, nine 2014 bowl teams are on the schedule. Getting to a bowl game again could prove a tough task.
Bobby Petrino’s Louisville team had an impressive ACC debut. Although national observers might remember the Belk Bowl whipping that Georgia laid on the Cardinals, Louisville fans will remember nine wins and playing ACC Atlantic powers Clemson and Florida State very tough. Moving toward true ACC contention will be tough against a difficult 2015 slate.
Louisville opens 2015 with a brutal Georgia Dome opener against what should be an improved Auburn team, and even a visit from former AAC foe Houston and new coach Tom Herman won’t be an easy mark. That’s followed by a Thursday night visit from the Tigers’ high-powered offense piloted by star quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Louisville must travel to an improved N.C. State team and then Florida State, although a bye week between will help. The Cardinals end the season with trips to Pitt and then in-state rival Kentucky, which could be playing for its own bowl bid. Last season showed that Louisville shouldn’t be discounted, but will it show improvement against this slate?
21. Michigan State
Michigan State has established itself as one of the nation’s elite programs. Over the last two seasons, the Spartans are 24-3 with Cotton and Rose Bowl victories, the only losses coming to Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oregon. Mark Dantonio’s group wants to take the next step toward the College Football Playoff, but it is hardly guaranteed against a tough 2015 slate.
A season-opening trip to Western Michigan won’t be challenging, but the following week against Oregon (even minus Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Marcus Mariota) will be a very difficult challenge. That’s followed by a visit from Air Force. The Falcons’ flexbone option has been known to flummox foes.
The Spartans must travel to rival Michigan, travel to Nebraska and finish the regular season with a trip to Ohio State and a visit from what should be an improved Penn State program. Michigan State will be one of the nation’s best teams, but potential minefields abound.
Last fall, Sonny Dykes’ Cal program was one of the most improved teams in the Pac-12. The Bears won four more games than they did in 2013, going from 1-11 to just outside the bowl picture at 5-7. Taking the next step, however, won’t be easy.
Following winnable games against FCS Grambling State and San Diego State, the Bears undergo a brutal stretch. They travel to Texas and Washington back-to-back, and following what will be an offensive shootout against Washington State, the slate gets even tougher.
Cal travels to Utah, and following a bye week, the Bears travel to UCLA, host Southern California and travel to Oregon. Ouch. What’s more, they close the season with a trip to archrival Stanford and then host Arizona State. Are there six wins in this schedule? We’ll see.
Following four consecutive 10-win seasons, Clemson hopes to take the next step in 2015 and compete for the College Football Playoff. Dabo Swinney’s team has the talent to do so, especially with standout quarterback Deshaun Watson on the mend from a torn ACL that cut his freshman season short. But it won’t be a simple task.
"There is no doubt this will be as challenging a schedule as we have ever had, with some great home games and tough games in road venues," Swinney told Scott Keepfer of The Greenville News. "We are already preparing for the challenge and can't wait to get started with spring practice."
After starting the past two seasons with marquee games against Georgia, Clemson goes a bit lighter with games against Wofford and Appalachian State. But that leads into a tough stretch from mid-September to mid-October. The Tigers open the ACC slate on a Thursday night at Louisville, always a daunting task for visitors.
Following a bye week, Notre Dame visits for one of the season’s most anticipated nonconference matchups. The Fighting Irish are followed by Georgia Tech, which whipped the Tigers last season in Atlanta.
Back-to-back trips to Miami and an improving N.C. State team are followed by the ACC’s game of the year when Florida State (which has won three consecutive games over the Tigers) comes calling on Nov. 3. Games against Syracuse and Wake Forest are very winnable, but Clemson finishes the season with an always-nasty rivalry game at South Carolina, which has beaten the Tigers five of the last six seasons.
Despite a disappointing College Football Playoff National Championship loss to Ohio State, Oregon has established itself as one of the nation’s best teams. Mark Helfrich’s group now must take the final step toward true elite status by winning a national championship.
Following an opener against FCS foe Eastern Washington, Marcus Mariota’s replacement at quarterback faces a tough task in a trip to inhospitable Spartan Stadium for a game against Michigan State.
The Ducks’ Pac-12 home slate is amenable, with visits from top league teams like Utah and Southern Cal.
However, Oregon must travel to Washington, Arizona State and Stanford, with the trip to the Farm looming particularly difficult if the Cardinal improve as much as expected. How quickly the Ducks’ new quarterback adjusts could determine just how tough this schedule really is.
17. Southern California
Last fall, Steve Sarkisian’s debut as Southern Cal’s head coach was good, not great. The Trojans won nine games, capped with a Holiday Bowl victory over Nebraska. Despite the loss of standout talent like defensive end Leonard Williams, wideout Nelson Agholor and tailback Buck Allen to the NFL, more is expected from USC this fall. Is it possible, given a daunting schedule?
2015 begins easy enough with home dates against Arkansas State and Idaho, but the difficulty ramps up quickly. Stanford visits, followed by a trip to an Arizona State team coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons.
Home dates against Washington and an improved Utah team are sandwiched around a trip to South Bend for one of college football’s best rivalries against Notre Dame. The Irish will return 19 starters from a year ago and will certainly be eager to repay the Trojans for last season’s ugly loss.
The season ends with a home date against Arizona, trips to Colorado and Oregon and the cross-town rivalry game against UCLA. The Trojans will be College Football Playoff contenders, but they’ll be challenged nearly every week.
Last season, Arkansas and Bret Bielema broke through with a 7-6 record that was capped by a Texas Bowl rout of former Southwest Conference rival Texas. Expectations will be high in Fayetteville, particularly since Arkansas returns all of a powerful backfield that fueled the surge. It won’t be easy, though, against a tough schedule that features difficult SEC road tests.
A nonconference slate with home games against UTEP and Toledo and a Texas Tech team coming off a 4-8 season is manageable enough, but the league slate gets tough quickly.
It begins with a neutral-site game in Arlington, Texas, against Texas A&M and continues with back-to-back road games against an improved Tennessee team and Alabama.
Following an open date, games against SEC West foes Auburn and Ole Miss are sandwiched around FCS foe UT-Martin. Arkansas also must travel to LSU before finishing the season with tough home dates against Mississippi State and Missouri. Improving from seven wins could be a tough task.
Minnesota quietly had a very good season in 2014. Jerry Kill’s reclamation project took another step as the Gophers won eight games and stayed in contention for the Big Ten West title until losing in the regular-season finale at Wisconsin. Can they repeat the feat and move forward minus workhorse back David Cobb?
It could be tough against a deceptively difficult schedule. The Gophers will open against national title contender TCU and follow that with a tough trip to Mountain West foe Colorado State and new coach Mike Bobo.
Minnesota does draw both Nebraska and Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium but follows that with back-to-back trips to Ohio State and rival Iowa. The season ends with home games against Illinois and rival Wisconsin at TCF Bank. It’ll likely need to beat the Badgers to have any shot at the West title, but Paul Chryst’s team won’t be in a giving mood.
14. South Carolina
2014 was beyond disappointing for South Carolina. Following a trio of 11-win seasons, the Gamecocks hoped to take the next step and compete for a College Football Playoff berth and national title. Instead, they never really recovered following a 52-28 season-opening blowout to Texas A&M, finishing 7-6.
2015 opens with a neutral-site game against border rival North Carolina in Charlotte, and USC comes home to face Kentucky (which beat the Gamecocks in Lexington last fall). That’s followed by a trip to archrival Georgia, and a dangerous Central Florida team visits Williams-Brice Stadium the following week.
That’s followed by a pair of SEC Tigers (a trip to Missouri and a visit from SEC West titan LSU). Back-to-back trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee aren’t easy, either, and that’s chased by a visit from Florida and new coach Jim McElwain. And, of course, in-state rival Clemson visits to finish the season. Are double-digit wins possible against this slate? Perhaps.
Following the disaster that was the Will Muschamp tenure, Jim McElwain has been hired to pick up the pieces in Gainesville and restore the glory days experienced under Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer. It will not be easy in the nation’s toughest league, and wins could be hard to come by in the first year of the McElwain era.
The opener against New Mexico State will be easy enough, and a rematch against Birmingham Bowl foe East Carolina is easy enough. But following a trip to Kentucky, the SEC slate gets tough in a hurry. Tennessee and Ole Miss visit, and then the Gators tangle with a pair of Tigers, traveling to Missouri and LSU.
Following an open date, the traditional neutral-site showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville looms. And facing South Carolina and archrival Florida State in two of the final three games is daunting, too. So is the idea of significant improvement on 2014.
2014 was disastrous for Oklahoma. The Sooners began the season as College Football Playoff contenders and finished it with a disappointing 40-6 Russell Athletic Bowl loss to Clemson, leading veteran coach Bob Stoops to revamp his offensive staff and hire East Carolina’s Lincoln Riley to run the Air Raid system.
Sooner fans hope Riley can breathe life into the offense, but he has a tough task against a typically difficult schedule.
The Sooners open against Akron but must travel to an improved Tennessee team the following week. They open the Big 12 slate at home against a potent West Virginia team and follow that with the traditional Red River Shootout against Texas and a trip to always-tough Kansas State. A three-game stretch against Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State is easy enough, but a season-ending kick at Baylor, vs. TCU and at rival Oklahoma State for Bedlam is brutal.
11. Texas A&M
Minus Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M took a step back last fall but finished strong after finally finding a quarterback in freshman Kyle Allen. The Aggies hope a young team can find maturity against what will be a typically tough SEC schedule that also includes a difficult nonconference opener.
2015 begins with a tough neutral-site opener in Houston against high-powered Arizona State, coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons. Games against Nevada and Ball State are easy enough, but the SEC slate starts in rough fashion with a neutral-site game against Arkansas (who pushed the Aggies to overtime a year ago) and a visit from Mississippi State.
Following an open date, the schedule looks like this: home vs. Alabama, at Ole Miss, home vs. South Carolina, home vs. Auburn. There isn’t a gimme in the bunch, there, by any means. And the season ends with a trip to Death Valley against emerging rival LSU.
10. Ole Miss
2014 was a season to remember for Ole Miss, despite ending with a 42-3 Peach Bowl loss at TCU’s hands. The Rebels won nine games, beat Alabama and Mississippi State and captured the nation’s attention. Doing so again in 2015 will be a challenge, for certain.
The season begins with a soft opening for Bo Wallace’s replacement at quarterback: FCS foe UT-Martin and Fresno State. But the SEC schedule is much tougher, opening with a daunting road test at Alabama. Following a visit from Vanderbilt, Ole Miss must travel to the Swamp to face off with Florida.
A trip to 10-win Memphis in mid-October won’t be easy, and it’s followed by consecutive games with Texas A&M, at Auburn and home vs. Arkansas (which whipped the Rebels a year ago). Following an open date, the Rebels host LSU before going to Mississippi State for the Egg Bowl. Nine wins will be even tougher against this schedule.
Georgia and Mark Richt are coming off a disappointing 10-win season, given that the Bulldogs didn’t win the SEC East and lost to rivals South Carolina, Florida and Georgia Tech. UGA’s demanding fans will expect more this fall, and the Bulldogs’ schedule will, once again, be challenging.
It starts simply enough with an opener against Louisiana-Monroe and an SEC opener at Vanderbilt. But the SEC home opener against South Carolina is always fraught with emotion.
Two weeks later, Georgia draws Alabama from the SEC West, and that’s followed by a trip to Neyland Stadium to face an improving Tennessee team and a homecoming date with Missouri. Halloween brings the annual neutral-site showdown with Florida in Jacksonville, and two weeks later, the Bulldogs must travel to rival Auburn. The season ends with a trip to Atlanta to face Georgia Tech, which will be looking for its second consecutive win over the Bulldogs.
8. Georgia Tech
Last fall was a bounce-back year on the Flats. With many wondering if his Georgia Tech tenure had gone stale, Paul Johnson responded with an ACC Coastal Division title, 11-win season and Orange Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Can the Yellow Jackets build on that? It will be anything but easy.
2015 opens easily enough with home games against FCS foe Alcorn State and Tulane. But a home game against Notre Dame (on the schedule thanks to the ACC’s scheduling arrangement with the Fighting Irish) will be difficult. That’s followed by a trip to Duke and a home game against North Carolina.
Then, Tech must travel to Clemson and host Florida State in a three-week span, with only a game against Pitt in between. The season closes with a home game against Virginia Tech, a trip to Miami and a home game against a Georgia team that will be out for revenge following Tech’s upset win of a year ago.
Eleven wins against this slate would be cause for a statue of Johnson outside Bobby Dodd Stadium.
2014 was a memorable year on Rocky Top. Following the embarrassing tenures of Lane Kiffin and Derek Dooley, Tennessee turned a corner under Butch Davis' watch. A team that played 23 freshmen squeezed into a bowl game at 6-6 and rolled Iowa for a rousing TaxSlayer Bowl victory. Now the challenge is building on that. In the SEC, that's never an easy proposition.
The Vols open with a winnable game against Bowling Green, then host Oklahoma. It might be hard to remember, but the Sooners rolled UT a year ago in Norman. Then comes the always-tough SEC slate: at Florida, vs. Arkansas, home vs. Georgia and, following an open week, a trip to archrival Alabama.
Survive that stretch, and we'll know a lot more about the Vols' status as league contenders. Facing off with South Carolina and a trip to Missouri in November won't be easy, either.
6. Notre Dame
As an independent, Notre Dame typically plays one of the nation’s most challenging schedules, and 2015 is no different. Thanks to a scheduling arrangement with the ACC, the Fighting Irish will play at least five games against ACC foes per season. This season, it’s actually six.
The season begins with one of 2015’s most eagerly anticipated nonconference matchups when Texas visits South Bend. A visit to an improving Virginia team won’t be easy, and neither will be a visit the following week from Orange Bowl champion Georgia Tech.
On Oct. 3, Notre Dame visits one of college football’s most intimidating environments when it travels to Clemson. Two weeks later, the Irish host Southern California in an annual rivalry matchup, and the Trojans should be one of the nation’s best teams this fall.
The season ends with four of five on the road: at Temple, at Pitt, home vs. Wake Forest, a “neutral” game vs. Boston College at Fenway Park and at what will be an improved Stanford team to end the regular season. Notre Dame returns 19 starters this fall, but nothing will come easy.
This fall, Auburn is focused on improvement following an 8-5 season. With new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp on board, a defense that was leaky against SEC foes last fall should be much better. But once again, the schedule is anything but forgiving.
The Tigers start with an intriguing Georgia Dome matchup against Louisville and former Auburn assistant Bobby Petrino, and following a visit from in-state FCS foe Jacksonville State, the real fun starts. The Tigers travel to LSU, which will be expected new starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson’s first SEC road game. That’s followed by a visit from Mississippi State and Heisman Trophy candidate Dak Prescott.
Another tough stretch starts in mid-October. Auburn visits Kentucky for a Thursday night game, followed by a trip to Arkansas. Halloween brings a visit from Ole Miss, followed by a trip to Texas A&M and the annual rivalry game with Georgia. And, of course, the season ends with the Iron Bowl. Luckily for Auburn, Alabama does visit this fall. But room for error will be tiny against this slate.
Following a pair of Pac-12 championships, Stanford took a step back in 2014 with an 8-5 record. However, the Cardinal finished strong with a Foster Farms Bowl rout of Maryland and look to get back to their status as a Western power this fall. Against a typically ambitious schedule, that won’t be certain.
There’s no real easy mark on the nonconference schedule. The season begins with a trip to Big Ten foe Northwestern, and Central Florida visits the following week. The Pac-12 season begins with a two-game road trip to Southern California and Oregon State, followed by the league home opener against defending Pac-12 South champion Arizona.
An open date is followed by visits from UCLA and Stanford, and the season ends with a tough three-game homestand vs. Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame. Stanford fans will expect improvement this fall, but the Cardinal will be challenged nearly every week.
Despite an improvement to 5-7 in 2014, the heat is on for Mike London at Virginia this fall. Take one look at the Cavaliers’ schedule, though, and London must wonder if his athletic director hates him. Just look at the way UVA’s slate begins: at UCLA, followed by a home game against Notre Dame. Ouch. And following a visit from FCS foe William and Mary, Fiesta Bowl champion Boise State comes to town.
Virginia is fortunate that it will miss Clemson and Florida State in the ACC schedule rotation, but the league slate has its moments, too. In late October, Virginia goes to North Carolina, then hosts Georgia Tech on Halloween. That’s followed by back-to-back road games at Miami and at Louisville, and the season ends with home games against Duke and rival Virginia Tech. For a program fighting for a bowl and its head coach’s future, that’s a mighty ambitious schedule, indeed.
Following a 6-7 debut season, Texas fans are hoping for more from Charlie Strong and the Longhorns in 2015. One look at their schedule, however, might temper their expectations. (OK, probably not).
Texas opens with one of the marquee nonconference games on the national slate when it travels to South Bend for a rare matchup with Notre Dame. It's listed by Bill Bender of the Sporting News as one of the nation's best non-league games in 2015.
That’s followed by a pair of potentially tough home games against Rice and an improving Cal program.
The Big 12 slate, of course, isn’t easy. Oklahoma State visits, and that’s followed by a trip to national title contender TCU and the annual Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. Following an open date, Kansas State visits Austin, which is then followed by the only easy stretch of the league slate: at Iowa State and a home game against Kansas.
The final three games (at West Virginia, home vs. Texas Tech, at Baylor) won’t be easy, either. If the Longhorns improve their record this fall, they’ll have earned it.
This fall, Alabama should be one of the nation’s best teams, again. That’s no surprise, given Nick Saban’s track record with the Crimson Tide, which includes a trio of national title rings. But if the Tide are to make another trip to the College Football Playoff, they will have earned the right given a tough schedule.
The Tide open with a potentially tough neutral-site game against Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium. And following a home opener against Middle Tennessee, Ole Miss (which upended ‘Bama last season in Oxford) comes calling for the SEC opener.
This year, Alabama draws Georgia from the SEC East and must travel to Athens for what will be a difficult environment. That’s followed by a visit from improving Arkansas and a trip to Kyle Field to face off with Texas A&M, followed by the annual rivalry showdown with Tennessee.
Following an open date, Alabama hosts LSU for what is annually one of the season’s hardest-hitting games and then must travel to Starkville to face off with Mississippi State. And, of course, the season ends with the Iron Bowl in Auburn. Alabama is a talented bunch, but this is the nation’s most challenging schedule.