Ranking College Football's 25 Hardest Schedules for 2017
As we prepare for the fourth year of the College Football Playoff, one thing has become clear; schedules matter.
After the College Football Playoff selection committee excluded Baylor and TCU from the first playoff after they excelled against soft non-conference schedules, teams across the Power Five leagues have made a point of improving their slates.
That means neutral-site games have improved and expanded, and high-profile home-and-home nonconference series have proliferated as well. That's good news for fans who love important college football games, but not all schedules are created alike.
Some teams have far tougher roads than others, thanks to their out-of-league scheduling and the quirks of league schedule rotations.
Which teams face the hardest roads to success and the College Football Playoff? Here's a look at the 25 hardest college football schedules in 2017.
David Cutcliffe has done a tremendous job at Duke. In 10 seasons, he is only 52-61, but the Blue Devils have had four bowl trips in the last five seasons. Duke slipped to 4-8 in 2016, but the hope is that the blip is only temporary. Can the Devils rebound this fall?
The nonconference schedule features home games against Northwestern and Baylor, and the ACC slate begins with a Sept. 23 trip to rival North Carolina, followed by a home date with Miami.
Three of the last four games are on the road (at Virginia Tech, at Army, home vs. Georgia Tech, at Wake Forest). That's difficult in its own right, as all four teams made bowl games a year ago. In fact, 10 foes qualified for postseason play.
In four seasons at Arkansas, Bret Bielema has yet to truly get the Razorbacks' program humming the way fans would hope. The head coach has three consecutive bowl trips but is just 25-26, including last fall's 7-6 mark. Rabid fans expect more, but improving in a big way could be tough in the SEC West.
The Razorbacks will have a typically difficult schedule. TCU finished 6-7 but pushed Arkansas to overtime in their 2016 meeting. On Sept. 23, the Hogs will face Texas A&M in a neutral-site clash at AT&T Stadium.
And October features three of four games on the road, with Oct. 21's home game against Auburn the only exception. South Carolina, Alabama and Ole Miss are all on the road.
Can the Razorbacks break away from the SEC's middle class? They have only four true road games but will be pushed hard.
When Georgia parted ways with Mark Richt and hired Kirby Smart, Bulldog fans hoped for an upgrade on the field. They didn't get it in 2016. Georgia was inconsistent in the head coach's debut season, going 8-5 with losses to Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech.
With Jacob Eason returning for a second season as the starting quarterback and a talented roster around him, improvement will be expected. Will it occur? Even the opener against Appalachian State could be tough (ask Tennessee, whom the Mountaineers took to overtime last fall). That's followed by a much-anticipated trip to Notre Dame, which will surely be better than its 4-8 mark in 2016.
A Tennessee two-step at Tennessee and Vanderbilt will also be problematic, and the Dawgs close the season with two of their last three on the road at Auburn and Georgia Tech, with a home game versus Kentucky sandwiched between. Nothing will come easy in Athens for Smart's second go-round.
22. Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente's first season at Virginia Tech was an unqualified success.
Fresh off winning 19 games in his last two seasons at Memphis, the head coach took the Hokies to an ACC Coastal Division title and a 10-win season. Repeating that could be tough. Tech returns 12 starters but must replace star quarterback Jerod Evans, who bolted for the NFL after one season in Blacksburg.
Will the schedule be forgiving? Not likely. The season opens at FedEx Field against West Virginia, and the Hokies travel to East Carolina (never an easy spot) on Sept. 16. Defending national champion Clemson comes to Lane Stadium on Sept. 30 for what will be a spotlight contest.
Tech plays three of its final four games on the road, heading to Miami and Virginia Tech before hosting Pitt and traveling to rival Virginia to close the year. If Fuente can't find a quarterback, regression is quite possible.
When the bottom fell out for Mark Helfrich, it did so in a hurry.
Two years after guiding Oregon to a national runner-up finish, Helfrich was fired after the Ducks slipped to 4-8. Willie Taggart was hired away from South Florida to get the program back on track, but his inaugural season will be a big test.
On Sept. 9, the Ducks host Nebraska, a team that dealt them a 35-32 defeat in Lincoln last fall. That's followed by a tough trip to a much-improved Wyoming team and the Pac-12 opener at Arizona State.
October will be difficult, too: an Oct. 7 home date with Washington State, consecutive road trips to Stanford and UCLA and a visit from Utah to close the month. Oregon fans surely hope for a quick turnaround, but this could be a slightly longer-term project for Taggart.
Under coach David Shaw, Stanford has become one of the most consistent winners in college football.
The Cardinal started slow last fall but still finished on a six-game winning streak to finish 10-3. They'll enter 2017 without do-everything tailback Christian McCaffrey, but they still return 16 starters and should be one of the Pac-12's best teams.
Big tests will come in September. On Sept. 9, the Cardinal travel to Southern California and follow that with a trip to San Diego State, one of the best Group of Five programs coming off an 11-3 season.
After home games with UCLA and Arizona State, Stanford has a difficult road game at Utah. The season ends with a three-game homestand that features Washington, Cal and Notre Dame.
There are no easy games in this season beyond perhaps the opener against Rice in Sydney, Australia, which has its own set of variables.
19. Georgia Tech
Believe it or not, Paul Johnson is one of ACC football's elder statesmen. He enters his 10th season in Atlanta on a high, rebounding from a 3-9 2015 season with a 9-4 2016 campaign. Will Year 10 be special? It will test the Yellow Jackets, without question.
The year opens on Labor Day just miles from campus in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and the first road game is Sept. 16 against a Central Florida team that made a bowl in Scott Frost's first season.
Mid-October brings a stretch of three road trips in four games, with Tech headed to Miami, home versus Wake Forest and then at defending national champion Clemson and at Virginia.
The year ends with a visit from rival Georgia, which is always fraught with emotion. The ACC Coastal is the weaker of the league's divisions, but this schedule will push the Jackets to be their best.
With Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, Louisville was one of college football's biggest revelations in Bobby Petrino's third season. The Cardinals started 9-1 and flirted with the College Football Playoff, but they bottomed out with a three-game losing streak to end the season, including routs by Houston and LSU.
Jackson is back for his junior year, and the Cards won't fly under anyone's radar this time around. September will be challenging. Following a winnable neutral-site game vs. Purdue, Louisville travels to North Carolina before hosting Clemson in a rematch of 2016's 41-36 instant classic CU win.
In October, the Cardinals travel to N.C. State, host Boston College and then head to Florida State and Wake Forest in consecutive weeks. They close the regular season with a trip to Kentucky, which stunned the Cards with a season-ending upset.
The ACC has emerged as one of the nation's toughest leagues, and it will test this group.
Suggesting Darrell Hazell's Purdue tenure didn't work out is an understatement. He was finally fired after putting up a 9-33 record in three-plus seasons, and the Boilermakers hope that Jeff Brohm, who enjoyed tremendous success at Western Kentucky, can replicate it in West Lafayette.
Just don't expect it to happen immediately. The Boilermakers welcome him with a brutal 2017 schedule. Brohm's debut? It's at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium against Louisville and returning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. A 2016 bowl team in Ohio visits next, and after a road trip to Missouri, powerful Michigan comes to town.
That's followed by nine-win Minnesota heading to Ross-Ade Stadium and a trip to defending Big Ten West champ Wisconsin. Ouch. In all, nine of 12 opponents made bowls last fall. Brohm's success will likely need to be measured incrementally.
Interim college football coaches earning full-time roles is a rare but growing trend. Clemson and Dabo Swinney proved it can work in the right situation, and following a slow start, Clay Helton finished strong with Southern California in 2016.
Now, LSU hopes it has found gold in Ed Orgeron. The ragin' Cajun won the job with an excellent finish, and he must now prove he's the right man for the job in the long term.
LSU handed him a tough debut slate with only six home games and a neutral-site faceoff with BYU in Houston. The SEC schedule opens with trips to Mississippi State and Florida (three weeks apart). Florida is followed by a home date with the other Tigers in the SEC West (Auburn) and consecutive road trips to Ole Miss and Alabama.
As always, the SEC West will be a meat grinder, and the Tigers need to be fully ready. Orgeron has fans' support, at least for now.
After 35 years, Clemson is back atop the college football world. Dabo Swinney's Tigers scaled the mountain and took down Alabama for the program's second national championship (and first since 1981).
Swinney's staff has recruited exceedingly well, but repeating will be a major challenge. Star quarterback and Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson led a raft of graduation and NFL draft departures that also included tailback Wayne Gallman, wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, tight end Jordan Leggett and linebacker Ben Boulware.
However, Clemson does return 12 starters and a beastly defensive line keyed by tackles Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins. There could be some bumps in the road with a new starting quarterback who will face Auburn and a trip to Louisville in consecutive games in early September. Virginia Tech will also be ready for revenge for an ACC title game defeat when Clemson visits Sept. 30.
"We will have a challenging first month with three games against teams that finished in the top 25 last year. And we will play that schedule with a quarterback in his first year as the starter," Swinney said in a statement released to reporters, per the Charleston Post and Courier.
And don't forget about Nov. 11, which will likely play a huge role in the ACC Atlantic race when Florida State comes to Death Valley. Clemson has earned national respect, and the Tigers will have to be on their toes to keep it against this schedule.
In Dino Babers' first season, Syracuse made some strides despite a 4-8 record.
The Orange upset eventual ACC Coastal champ Virginia Tech and scored 61 points against Pitt (and, um, gave up 76). A fast-paced offense brings reason for optimism, although a really tough slate could hamper upward mobility.
September nonconference games against bowl teams Middle Tennessee and Central Michigan won't be easy, and on Sept. 23, the Orange travel to LSU. A three-game stretch vs. Clemson, at Miami and at Florida State could also test morale. Oh, and throw in a Nov. 18 trip to Louisville for good measure.
The ACC Atlantic is quietly unforgiving, as Syracuse could find out this fall.
It was somewhat surprising when Cal fired coach Sonny Dykes a week into 2017, even though the Bears were coming off a 5-7 record.
Former Wisconsin and Southern California defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox was hired to, in his vision, turn Cal into "Wisconsin of the West," a big departure from Dykes' wide-open air-raid offense-fueled style.
Wilcox's first Cal team will have few certain victories. The Bears open with a trip to North Carolina and welcome Ole Miss to Berkeley on Sept. 16. They begin Pac-12 play by hosting Southern California and then hit the road for consecutive road trips to Oregon and College Football Playoff qualifier Washington.
They close the season with visits to Stanford and UCLA. Can Wilcox succeed at Cal? Yes, but Bears fans should have some patience in 2017.
Charlie Strong was brought to Austin to instill toughness into a program lacking it under Mack Brown. But after a 16-21 record and three losing records in as many seasons, Texas officials lost patience.
They made an excellent hire in Houston coach Tom Herman, but you'd better believe fans will expect more (and quickly) from the 41-year-old.
A typically tough debut schedule will await him. The Longhorns open with a returning bowl team in Maryland and travel to Southern California on Sept. 16. Even the Big 12 opener at Iowa State on Sept. 28 won’t be easy; the Cyclones shut out Strong in Texas' last visit there two years ago.
October features a home game with Kansas State, the annual neutral-site showdown with Oklahoma at Dallas' Cotton Bowl, a home match with Oklahoma State and a trip to Baylor.
The Longhorns should be improved under Herman, but how much and how quickly will be hard to gauge with this schedule.
11. Penn State
Last fall, Penn State and James Franklin broke through in a big way.
With a new fast-paced offense, the Nittany Lions took the Big Ten by storm, winning the league title, putting together an 11-win season and narrowly missing the College Football Playoff. Can they build on that success? It will be tough.
The Lions host archrival Pitt (who defeated them) on Sept. 9 and travel to Iowa for the Big Ten opener on Sept. 23. On Oct. 21, they host Michigan (who routed the Lions 49-10 last fall) and follow that with trips to Ohio State and Michigan State.
Another Big Ten East title, much less a back-to-back league title run, will be a tall order, even with 16 returning starters.
10. Notre Dame
Notre Dame was one of the biggest disappointments in 2016, going from a preseason Top 10 ranking to 4-8, which ratcheted up the already-significant pressure on coach Brian Kelly.
The Fighting Irish need defensive improvement and will have a new starting quarterback following DeShone Kizer's NFL declaration and Malik Zaire's transfer.
They will have to do so against a typically tough schedule. The combination of traditional foes and Notre Dame's ACC alliance leaves a road with virtually no "gimme" games. Eleven of Notre Dame's 12 opponents went to bowls in 2016, with the lone exception Michigan State, which suffered through a surprising 3-9 season of its own.
The Irish open with Temple and Georgia at home before heading to Boston College and Michigan State. They have road games at North Carolina, Miami and Stanford and host Southern California, which should be one of the nation's best teams with quarterback Sam Darnold at the helm.
Notre Dame fans have high expectations; meeting them will be a challenge this fall.
Oklahoma enjoyed another sterling season with an 11-2 record and a perfect 9-0 Big 12 mark, although nonconference losses to Houston and Ohio State kept the Sooners from a repeat playoff berth.
Bob Stoops must replace key offensive pieces in wideout Dede Westbrook and backfield standouts Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, but he returns 15 starters, led by potent, productive quarterback Baker Mayfield.
They have the schedule to earn another playoff trip this fall. On Sept. 9, OU travels to Ohio State for one of the season's most anticipated matchups.
The Sooners open Big 12 play at Baylor and have Bedlam a little earlier than normal, visiting Oklahoma State on Nov. 4. They also play TCU and West Virginia in November, wrapping up a week earlier than in recent years thanks to the return of the Big 12 title game.
The Sooners will be challenged along the way, complete with a full nine-game Big 12 slate.
D.J. Durkin had a solid debut in College Park, leading Maryland to a bowl game and a 6-7 mark.
It was a step forward, but taking a bigger one will be challenging in 2017. The Terrapins are in the rugged Big Ten East, and they open the season by facing off with Texas in Tom Herman's lid-lifter as Longhorns head coach.
They begin the league slate with consecutive road games at Minnesota (coming off a 9-4 record) and—gulp—Ohio State. Maryland also draws a trip to Wisconsin as a Big Ten West crossover and finishes the season with Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State, although the Wolverines and Nittany Lions are at home.
Gimme games are few and far between, which could make repeating postseason eligibility tough.
Two seasons in at Florida, Jim McElwain is 19-8 with a pair of SEC East titles, but he hasn't fully won over Gator fans.
McElwain is winless against Florida State and has absorbed a pair of SEC title game blowouts, and the Gators might not even be in the preseason Top 25 in August.
They have a tough road ahead, too. Florida will open at AT&T Stadium against Michigan, and will close the year at home versus Florida State. In between, they'll host rival Tennessee on Sept. 16 and host LSU and Texas A&M in consecutive weeks due to 2016's hurricane-related postponement and movement of the LSU game to Baton Rouge. That's followed with the annual neutral-site clash against Georgia in Jacksonville.
Can the Gators win a third consecutive SEC East title? Sure. Will it satisfy Florida fans? That's questionable.
Following a 23-16 record (11-13 in SEC play) over the last three seasons, Gus Malzahn faces a crucial season at Auburn.
Playing in the difficult SEC West and the shadow of Alabama and Nick Saban, Malzahn has pressure to succeed (and quickly) on the Plains. It's the kind of year where one could use a forgiving schedule.
This is not that schedule. In the second week of the season, Auburn travels to national champion Clemson for the latest installment in a budding ACC-SEC rivalry. And the SEC schedule is difficult, too.
Check out this stretch from October into mid-November: At LSU, at Arkansas, open week, at Texas A&M, home versus Georgia. And, of course, Alabama at home to close the season in the Iron Bowl. Can Gus keep his job with this slate? We'll see.
5. Florida State
Will this be the year that Florida State returns to the College Football Playoff and the national spotlight? The Seminoles are coming off consecutive 10-win seasons, which are down years by the high standards that head coach Jimbo Fisher has set for his program.
But FSU returns 16 starters, and with Clemson losing multiple key offensive pieces, there's an opening for the Seminoles to return to the top of the ACC. They must navigate a challenging schedule, though. That starts with one of the most highly anticipated season-opening games in recent memory against Alabama in Atlanta. The ACC schedule starts with a rivalry visit from Miami on Sept. 16. On Oct. 21, Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson (who dealt FSU a 62-20 whipping last fall) come to Doak Campbell Stadium.
On Nov. 11, Florida State must find a way to beat the Tigers at one of college football's most intimidating environments, and the regular season ends with a trip to Florida.
There are multiple opportunities for success, but there are also multiple stumbling blocks. How will FSU handle them?
Chris Ash inherited a difficult situation at Rutgers, and the Scarlet Knights took their share of lumps in a 2-10 2016 season.
Will 2017 be easier? Not really. Rutgers begins the season on Sept. 1 by hosting a returning College Football Playoff team in Washington, and it opens the Big Ten schedule with a road trip to Nebraska on Sept. 23 and welcoming Ohio State, Ash's former employer and another playoff team, on Sept. 30.
The Scarlet Knights also travel to Michigan and Penn State and host Michigan State in the season finale. This is a difficult job, and bowl eligibility against 2017's schedule would be truly notable.
3. Ohio State
A young Ohio State team might have overachieved to make the College Football Playoff, but the Buckeyes suffered the most humbling defeat of Urban Meyer's tenure in a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl defeat to Clemson.
Don't worry, though; this program isn't falling off the map anytime soon. Ohio State will return 15 starters and a talented roster to chase another national championship.
Ohio State opens up against new offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson's former employer, Indiana, and then welcomes Oklahoma to Ohio Stadium for the return game in a sterling home-and-home series. A four-game stretch at Nebraska, home versus Penn State (which handed OSU its only regular-season defeat last fall), at Iowa and home versus Michigan State will be tough. And Ohio State also must travel to Ann Arbor for what will surely be another nasty edition of the rivalry.
This isn't an easy slate by any means.
Alabama's quest for a second consecutive national title ended with a thud when Deshaun Watson connected with Hunter Renfrow, handing Clemson a wild 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide in the national championship game.
The Tide signed an excellent recruiting class and will return 11 starters, including sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, but if Nick Saban and Co. make it back to another title game, they will have earned it.
Alabama opens the year with a must-see showdown against Florida State in Atlanta's new Mercedes-Benz Stadium; the Seminoles should be one of the nation's top teams and a strong playoff contender.
A midseason stretch consisting of games at Texas A&M, home games against returning bowl teams Arkansas and Tennessee and Ed Orgeron-led LSU will build Alabama's profile, and the season ends with an Iron Bowl trip to archrival Auburn.
There should be no questions about the Tide's strength of schedule come December.
Jim Harbaugh has done an excellent job returning Michigan football to national relevance.
The Wolverines are 20-6 with a pair of 10-win seasons in his first two seasons back in Ann Arbor, and Harbaugh has shown that he is an excellent recruiter and a masterful self-promoter, especially via Twitter.
However, taking the next step toward a College Football Playoff berth in 2017 won't be easy. Michigan returns just five starters, and an inexperienced but talented team will face a difficult slate from start to finish.
The Wolverines begin the season with a neutral-site battle against Florida, winner of the last two SEC East titles, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. On Sept. 16, they welcome Air Force, coming off a 10-3 season, to Michigan Stadium.
Michigan must travel to Big Ten champion Penn State on Oct. 21 and finishes the season with a trip to Wisconsin and the annual rivalry clash with nemesis Ohio State on Nov. 25.
Harbaugh's group will win its share of games, but they will face significant tests along the way.