Which Teams Have Hardest Paths to 2016 College Football National Championship?

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystMarch 3, 2016

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield
Oklahoma QB Baker MayfieldStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

The road to the College Football Playoff National Championship is filled with plenty of obstacles for college football's top contenders, from the massive roadblocks of high-profile games to the sneaky but damaging potholes of trap games.

Last year, a few teams were able to take full advantage of a clearer path to the national title. Iowa stormed out to a 12-0 start to the season, and Clemson cashed in on a home-friendly slate on its way to the national championship game.

These following five teams, though, won't have that luxury in 2016.

As spring practice gets into full swing across the country, let's take a look at some realistic championship contenders that have the toughest paths to a national title this fall—one for each Power Five conference.

All five of these teams are projected to be in the Top 15 or so in many preseason polls, including ESPN's Mark Schlabach's, but they all have dangerous 2016 schedules that will stand in their way. 

ACC: Florida State

Florida State HC Jimbo Fisher (left)
Florida State HC Jimbo Fisher (left)Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
2016 Florida State Seminoles Schedule
DateOpponent2015 RecordLocation
Sept. 5Ole Miss10-3Orlando, Florida*
Sept. 10Charleston Southern(FCS)Tallahassee, Florida
Sept. 17Louisville8-5Louisville, Kentucky
Sept. 24USF8-5Tampa, Florida
Oct. 1North Carolina11-3Tallahassee, Florida
Oct. 8Miami8-5Miami, Florida
Oct. 15Wake Forest3-9Tallahassee, Florida
Oct. 29Clemson14-1Tallahassee, Florida
Nov. 5NC State7-6Raleigh, North Carolina
Nov. 11Boston College3-9Tallahassee, Florida
Nov. 19Syracuse4-8Syracuse, New York
Nov. 26Florida10-4Tallahassee, Florida
FBSchedules.com (*neutral site)

Florida State is set for a strong 2016 after making it to a "New Year's Six" bowl in what was widely considered to be a "rebuilding" season in Tallahassee. The Seminoles return 17 starters, per Phil Steele, including all 11 on offense, and should be a lock for a Top 10 spot in preseason polls.

Jimbo Fisher's team is going to need all that returning firepower in order to fight through a tough front portion of the schedule with its national championship hopes still intact. 

Florida State will open with Ole Miss on Labor Day night in front of what should be a pro-FSU crowd in Orlando's Citrus Bowl. While the Rebels need to replace several key faces from last year's team that won the Sugar Bowl, they still have one of the nation's top returning quarterbacks in Chad Kelly and some rising stars on defense.

A loss to Ole Miss wouldn't shatter FSU's title dreams, but it would make the next few weeks even harder. After a breather against FCS team Wofford on a short week, the Seminoles must go on the road to face a Louisville team that returns even more starters, including electrifying dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook (center)
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook (center)Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

An improved USF team will host FSU the next weekend, and the Seminoles drew the toughest Coastal opponent for 2016 in the high-powered offense and improving defense of defending division champion North Carolina. An always-intense rivalry meeting at Miami—Mark Richt's first shot against the Seminoles—follows.

"Florida State will have to make it through a pretty brutal first half of the season just to get to the Clemson game in position for a playoff run," Dan Wolken of USA Today wrote. "If the Seminoles make it through 6-0, they’ll have earned it."

Florida State will get a much-needed off week before facing Clemson on October 29, which should once again determine who goes to the ACC Championship Game. After that must-win matchup, the Seminoles have a couple of potential November landmines in a road game against NC State and a home game against rival Florida.

The Seminoles have all the pieces to compete for a national championship again, but their schedule won't do them any favors. In addition to the all-important clash against Clemson, they have to get past plenty of teams that took steps forward in 2015.

Big Ten: Ohio State

Ohio State HC Urban Meyer
Ohio State HC Urban MeyerCarlos Osorio/Associated Press
2016 Ohio State Buckeyes Schedule
DateOpponent2015 RecordLocation
Sept. 3Bowling Green10-4Columbus, Ohio
Sept. 10Tulsa6-7Columbus, Ohio
Sept. 17Oklahoma11-2Norman, Oklahoma
Oct. 1Rutgers4-8Columbus, Ohio
Oct. 8Indiana6-7Columbus, Ohio
Oct. 15Wisconsin10-3Madison, Wisconsin
Oct. 22Penn State7-6University Park, Pennsylvania
Oct. 29Northwestern10-3Columbus, Ohio
Nov. 5Nebraska6-7Columbus, Ohio
Nov. 12Maryland3-9College Park, Maryland
Nov. 19Michigan State12-2East Lansing, Michigan
Nov. 26Michigan10-3Columbus, Ohio

Ohio State's schedule was a preseason punchline among rival fans last season, but that shouldn't be the case anymore. A Buckeyes team that has to replace more starters than anyone else in the country has to face a stronger nonconference slate and an improved cast of foes in the Big Ten this year.

Doug Lesmerises @DougLesmerises

Ohio State's far more difficult 2016 football schedule is the one the 2015 team should have played https://t.co/xk99AGlGfY

Bowling Green and Tulsa won't be total pushovers for these new-look Buckeyes, especially considering they both had top-15 offenses last season. Tulsa could be especially tricky in its second season under head coach Philip Montgomery, as the Golden Hurricane return eight starters from an offense that put up 603 yards on Oklahoma last year.

And on the subject of Oklahoma, Ohio State will have to hit the road to face the defending Big 12 champions in the third week of the season. Both teams are elite powerhouses, but OU will have the clear experience advantage in front of its home fans.

Of course, Ohio State knows that an early-season loss against a nonconference team won't completely derail a playoff push. But after back-to-back home games against Rutgers and Indiana to open Big Ten play, the Buckeyes will face an intriguing quartet of foes.

Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett
Ohio State QB J.T. BarrettChristian Petersen/Getty Images

Ohio State drew both Wisconsin and Northwestern—two teams that won 10 games last season—out of the Big Ten West. OSU must go to Wisconsin and division foe Penn State in back-to-back weeks, which will be more tough tests in front of hostile environments for a team filled with new starters.

An additional Big Ten West team, Nebraska, will follow up the home game against Northwestern. The Huskers could be dangerous in 2016, as they return most of their starters from a squad that beat Michigan State and lost mostly close games.

The season will end with the one-two punch of a road game against Michigan State and a home game against Michigan. This is where the Big Ten East will be won, and the Buckeyes' margin for error in the playoff race will be razor-thin if they fall early in the season.

Ohio State's schedule is no laughing matter this year, as half of the teams it faces won double-digit games last season. Two of them—both road opponents—made it to the College Football Playoff. While rival Michigan has a road-heavy finish to 2016, there isn't a tougher top-to-bottom schedule among Big Ten contenders than this one.

Big 12: Oklahoma

Oklahoma RB Samaje Perine and HC Bob Stoops
Oklahoma RB Samaje Perine and HC Bob StoopsSue Ogrocki/Associated Press
2016 Oklahoma Sooners Schedule
DateOpponent2015 RecordLocation
Sept. 3Houston13-1Houston, Texas*
Sept. 10UL-Monroe2-11Norman, Oklahoma
Sept. 17Ohio State12-1Norman, Oklahoma
Oct. 1TCU11-2Fort Worth, Texas
Oct. 8Texas5-7Dallas, Texas
Oct. 15Kansas State6-7Norman, Oklahoma
Oct. 22Texas Tech7-6Lubbock, Texas
Oct. 29Kansas0-12Norman, Oklahoma
Nov. 3Iowa State3-9Ames, Iowa
Nov. 12Baylor10-3Norman, Oklahoma
Nov. 19West Virginia8-5Morgantown, West Virginia
Dec. 3Oklahoma State10-3Norman, Oklahoma
FBSchedules.com (*neutral site)

With more than half of its starters returning from a team that won the Big 12 and made it to the College Football Playoff, Oklahoma should be in the thick of national championship contention once again in 2016.

This year's schedule, though, will do the Sooners absolutely no favors.

Oklahoma will play one of the hottest programs in the entire country, Houston, in a "neutral-site" game that is being played at a larger in-city venue than the Cougars' on-campus stadium.

Dual-threat quarterbacks gave Oklahoma trouble last season, and Houston has one of the best around in Greg Ward Jr., who scored more touchdowns on the ground in 2015 than all but four FBS players. OU will look to exploit a rebuilding Houston defense early, but its own D will have its hands full containing Tom Herman's attack.

Ohio State comes to Norman two weeks later, and while the Buckeyes will be breaking in a lot of new starters for their first road game, the elite talent Urban Meyer's staff brings in each year should make this a well-contested matchup between blue bloods.

Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield (left)
Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield (left)Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

A road game against TCU, which only lost by one in Norman last year despite a huge number of injuries, will continue this brutal start to the season. Then there's the annual unpredictability of the rivalry game with Texas, the only team to beat OU in the regular season last year.

"Oklahoma had that same two-game stretch in 2014 and lost to TCU, then struggled to put away an inferior Texas team," Jason Kersey of the Oklahoman wrote. "And don’t forget that this two-game stint in DFW comes after a nonconference slate that includes Houston and Ohio State."

Kansas State and Texas Tech, with their contrasting styles, won't be pushovers as the Big 12 slate starts rolling. The strength of schedule will ease off with games against Kansas and Iowa State, but it cranks back up again with a home game against title-contending Baylor and a road game against West Virginia.

Bedlam comes back to Norman this season after the Sooners' style-point blowout of Oklahoma State last season in Stillwater. The game will also return to the first weekend of December, giving it an added boost for the College Football Playoff committee.

It's good Oklahoma is familiar with overcoming early adversity after last season's run to the final four. This is one of the most front-loaded schedules in the country, and the back half won't be a breeze for a team striving to stay on top in the wild Big 12.

Pac 12: USC

USC HC Clay Helton
USC HC Clay HeltonThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
2016 USC Trojans Schedule
DateOpponent2015 RecordLocation
Sept. 3Alabama14-1Arlington, Texas*
Sept. 10Utah State6-7Los Angeles, California
Sept. 17Stanford12-2Stanford, California
Sept. 23Utah10-3Salt Lake City, Utah
Oct. 1Arizona State6-7Los Angeles, California
Oct. 8Colorado4-9Los Angeles, California
Oct. 15Arizona7-6Tucson, Arizona
Oct. 27California8-5Los Angeles, California
Nov. 5Oregon9-4Los Angeles, California
Nov. 12Washington7-6Seattle, Washington
Nov. 19UCLA8-5Pasadena, California
Nov. 26Notre Dame10-3Los Angeles, California
FBSchedules.com (*neutral site)

There's no denying USC has the talent in place to compete for a national championship thanks to several star-studded recruiting classes. The Trojans are also returning 15 starters, and they brought back Clancy Pendergast, who excelled in his last stop in Los Angeles as the team's defensive coordinator.

However, all those positives for USC are about to walk into a buzz saw of a schedule—one that Bleacher Report's Brian Pedersen called the toughest in all of college football for 2016:

It's a good thing for Clay Helton that USC didn't choose to keep his interim tag intact for the 2016 season, because the lineup he and his team will face this year isn't the kind you want as part of the audition. The Trojans are set to face more teams that appeared in bowl games last season than any other team in the country and only because Colorado is on the schedule as a Pac-12 South Division opponent. The Buffaloes went 4-9 in 2015, while every other USC foe had at least six wins and four reached double digits.

Lisa Horne @LisaHorne

Doing scheduling analysis and my goodness, USC should get No. 1 SOS. BRUTAL SCHEDULE.

A USC team with a new starting quarterback and a new-look defense will face perhaps the toughest possible challenge in Week 1 with a neutral-site game against defending national champion Alabama. 

USC could take that loss to the Tide and still roll onto big things in 2016, but the schedule doesn't have much of a drop-off after that. Following a home game against Utah State, USC has back-to-back games against defending conference champion Stanford and 10-win Utah. 

A home-heavy month of October should be better for the Trojans if they can keep their title hopes intact after September, as Arizona State, Colorado, Arizona and California are all beatable. 

But the intensity increases again in November with a home game against the always-dangerous Oregon Ducks, followed by a road trip to a Washington team many are predicting to contend for the Pac-12 North title in 2016.

USC CB Adoree Jackson (right)
USC CB Adoree Jackson (right)Ben Margot/Associated Press

The Trojans will be on the road again the next weekend after the visit to Seattle with the rivalry game against UCLA, which has won its last two meetings with USC inside the Rose Bowl. 

And if USC manages to navigate that Pac-12 slate with eyes still on the College Football Playoff, a home game against Notre Dame will be the last major test before conference championship weekend. Depending on how the rest of the season goes, this could be a playoff elimination game.

The top-to-bottom quality of the Pac-12 played a role in keeping the conference from getting into the final four last season, and one of its premier programs will have to deal with that in addition to a nonconference slate that features a pair of projected Top 10 teams.

USC has by far the toughest path to the national championship of any team, especially when you throw in a possible rematch with either a Stanford, Oregon or Washington in a Pac-12 title game.

SEC: Ole Miss

Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly (left)
Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly (left)Rob Foldy/Getty Images
2016 Ole Miss Rebels Schedule
DateOpponent2015 RecordLocation
Sept. 5Florida State10-3Orlando, Florida*
Sept. 10Wofford(FCS)Oxford, Mississippi
Sept. 17Alabama14-1Oxford, Mississippi
Sept. 24Georgia10-3Oxford, Mississippi
Oct. 1Memphis9-4Oxford, Mississippi
Oct. 15Arkansas8-5Fayetteville, Arkansas
Oct. 22LSU9-3Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Oct. 29Auburn7-6Oxford, Mississippi
Nov. 5Georgia Southern9-4Oxford, Mississippi
Nov. 12Texas A&M8-5College Station, Texas
Nov. 19Vanderbilt4-8Nashville, Tennessee
Nov. 26Mississippi State9-4Oxford, Mississippi
FBSchedules.com (*neutral site)

By beating Alabama in back-to-back seasons, Ole Miss has proved it has the quality to compete for championships under Hugh Freeze. The Rebels just need to get over that hump, and their 2016 schedule will make it difficult for them to do that this fall.

Ole Miss must reload from a 10-win season and a good-sized departure of talent to the NFL quickly, as it opens the season in a neutral-site game against Florida State. The Rebels have the firepower to keep up with the Seminoles, but they'll be playing a virtual road game with plenty of new starters.

One glance at the Ole Miss schedule shows that it's home-heavy, but the opponents coming to Oxford this season are of high quality. 

After getting a breather against FCS school Wofford, Ole Miss must play Alabama and Georgia at home in back-to-back weeks. The Crimson Tide are going to be focused on revenge again, and the Bulldogs will be looking for that first huge win under new head coach Kirby Smart. 

"The Rebels could be at risk of starting the season 1-3," David Collier of SEC Country wrote. "If that were to happen, how will this team respond? That’s what sets that stretch apart. Ole Miss needs to start strong and if it does, the back part of the schedule sets up for a nice run."

The nonconference schedule Ole Miss faces outside of Wofford won't be the cakewalk that other SEC schools get this season. Memphis beat Ole Miss last year—albeit with the departed Justin Fuente and Paxton Lynch—and Georgia Southern has had the nation's No. 1 rushing offense two years running.

In the SEC slate, Ole Miss pulls a pair of back-to-back road sets, with the first one against Arkansas and LSU looming large. Arkansas has won the last two meetings with Ole Miss—with last year's coming by way of a miracle play—and LSU has the look of a national title contender.

The schedule eases off at the end, but the final trio of Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State could be quite dangerous for a team with its sights set on a championship. 

Life in the SEC West is always tough, and defending national champion Alabama faces most of its toughest tests away from home this year. 

But from beginning to end, the Rebels have a tougher road ahead of them this year as they face a handful of fellow title contenders and several classic trap-game opponents. 

Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR. 


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