Ranking College Football's 10 Hardest Schedules for 2019

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystDecember 12, 2018

Ranking College Football's 10 Hardest Schedules for 2019

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    USC head coach Clay Helton
    USC head coach Clay HeltonKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

    Both the USC Trojans and the USC Gamecocks have brutally difficult schedules for the 2019 college football season, which could keep them from even going .500 next year.

    Bowl season hasn't begun yet, but it isn't too early to start looking ahead to next seasonespecially for programs that aren't playing in bowl games. Given the difficulty of these schedules, these teams should already be prepping for the treacherous journey ahead.

    In ranking these 10 toughest schedules, the full 12-game slate was considered. However, nonconference challenges were worth a little extra since programs went out of their way to schedule those games.

    Teams are ranked in ascending order of how many losses an average team would acquire against that schedule. For instance, a schedule with one easily winnable game, nine coin-flip games and two next-to-impossible challenges (estimated 5.5 wins) would rank as tougher than a schedule with five easy wins, five nightmarish opponents and two 50-50 battles (estimated 6.0 wins)—even though the second schedule seems tougher at first glance due to the sheer number of almost-definite losses.

10. Duke Blue Devils

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    Duke RB Deon Jackson
    Duke RB Deon JacksonGerry Broome/Associated Press

    The Schedule: vs. Alabama (in Atlanta), North Carolina A&T, at Middle Tennessee, Notre Dame (Nov. 9), Georgia Tech, Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, at North Carolina, at Virginia, at Virginia Tech, at Wake Forest

    The ACC has not yet released its conference schedule for next season, so we do not know the order of Duke's games beyond the first three nonconference contests. However, we do know the matchups, and that's enough to declare that the Blue Devils are in for a rough ride in 2019.

    They get to avoid Clemson, Florida State and Boston College in the cross-division games, which is a big reason why this schedule almost missed the cut. It's almost the exact schedule Pittsburgh just turned into an ACC Coastal Division title, right down to the Atlantic Division games at home against Syracuse and on the road against Wake Forest.

    However, Duke has to open the season as a sacrificial lamb to Alabama in SEC country, and it has to face Notre Dame late in the season. Good luck finding any other instance of a team that plays multiple nonconference games against opponents that were in the College Football Playoff the previous season.

    Don't sleep on the road game against Middle Tennessee either (this isn't the last time we'll point out this team). Duke could easily go 1-3 in its four non-ACC games with two losses in blowout fashion. If Miami and Virginia Tech can bounce back to their usual levels of excellence, Duke is going to be hard-pressed to get to seven wins for a sixth time in seven years.

9. UCLA Bruins

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    UCLA head coach Chip Kelly
    UCLA head coach Chip KellyMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Schedule: at Cincinnati, San Diego State, Oklahoma, at Washington State, at Arizona, Oregon State, (idle), at Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado, (idle), at Utah, at USC, California

    In the Pac-12, every team has to face nine of the other 11 teams each season. This year, the Bruins are lucky that the two teams they get to avoid are Oregon and Washington.

    But don't go congratulating UCLA on snapping its three-year streak of losing seasons just yet, because this schedule is still a doozy.

    The Bruins open at Cincinnati, which defeated them in Los Angeles this past September. The Bearcats went 10-2 and might be even better next year, given how young their roster is.

    After that, it's a home game against San Diego State, which only went 7-5 but finished the regular season on a 10-game streak of contests decided by nine points or fewer. The Aztecs are also a young team that should improve in 2019.

    And then there's the rematch with Oklahoma, which is going to be one of the top candidates for the College Football Playoff yet again.

    Follow that nonconference schedule with a road game against Washington State, and it's not hard to imagine UCLA could start 0-4 again. Beyond that, the Bruins still have road games against Stanford, Utah and USC, so it's going to be difficult to get to six wins.

8. Florida Gators

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    Florida QB Feleipe Franks
    Florida QB Feleipe FranksScott Halleran/Getty Images

    The Schedule: vs. Miami (in Orlando), Tennessee-Martin, at Kentucky, Tennessee, Towson, Auburn, at LSU, at South Carolina, (idle), vs. Georgia (in Jacksonville), Vanderbilt, at Missouri, (idle), Florida State

    If Florida State and Miami are as good in 2019 as they were supposed to be in 2018, this schedule could be a nightmare for the Gators.

    The home games against Tennessee-Martin and Towson are virtually guaranteed wins, and Florida should be favored by a wide margin in the home games against Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

    But everything else on the calendar is a bit of a toss-up.

    The Gators have to be thrilled thatfor the fifth consecutive yearthey get to avoid Alabama during the regular season. But drawing Auburn and LSU from the SEC West Division in back-to-back weeks isn't much better.

    The game at LSU is the start of a five-game stretch in which the Gators play four away from home. They might be able to start the season 6-0 only to have it all go up in smoke with multiple losses to LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and/or Missouri.

    The season-opening and season-ending games against the ACC teams won't impact Florida's chances of winning the SEC East, but they could damage the Gators' postseason potential.

7. Maryland Terrapins

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    Maryland RB Anthony McFarland
    Maryland RB Anthony McFarlandScott Taetsch/Getty Images

    The Schedule: Howard, Syracuse, at Temple, (idle), Penn State, at Rutgers, at Purdue, Indiana, at Minnesota, Michigan, at Ohio State, (idle), Nebraska, at Michigan State

    It's not a fun time to be a fan of Indiana, Maryland or Rutgers, because you know you've got four likely losses against Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State every year. Those three members of the Big Ten East Division are a combined 0-24 against the other four over the past two seasons, and both Maryland and Indiana fell one win shy of bowl eligibility this year because of it. (Indiana also went 5-7 last season.)

    At least the Hoosiers and Scarlet Knights are scheduling conservatively out of conference, but the Terrapins apparently haven't gotten the memo yet.

    Both the home game against Syracuse and the road game against Temple are potential September 2019 losses for Maryland. The Terps lost a home game against Temple this season, and there's no question Syracuse was better than Maryland this year.

    Moreover, Maryland has cross-division road games against Minnesota and Purdue, as well as a late-season home game against a Nebraska team that was already showing substantial growth over the latter half of Scott Frost's first season at the helm.

    It could be a rough first year for former Alabama offensive coordinator/new Maryland head coach Mike Locksley. A 3-9 campaign is a strong possibility.

6. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher
    Texas A&M head coach Jimbo FisherSean Rayford/Associated Press

    The Schedule: Texas State, at Clemson, Lamar, Auburn, Arkansas, (idle), Alabama, at Ole Miss, Mississippi State, UTSA, (idle), South Carolina, at Georgia, at LSU

    This isn't the wall-to-wall nightmare that many of the teams on this list need to endure, but Texas A&M isn't in a position to cruise to a 10-win season.

    The Aggies always face Alabama, Auburn and LSU since they share a division, but the nonconference road game against Clemson and the cross-division road game against Georgia are what make this schedule such a bear.

    For the most part, the brutal games are spread out nicely. Getting Lamar between Clemson and Auburn should help soften the blows. A home game against Arkansas and a bye week before Alabama will once again give the Aggies a bit of a cushion to prepare for a grueling affair.

    But, goodness gracious, can it get any worse than having to finish the season with back-to-back road games against Georgia and LSU? At least Auburn had the gift of destroying Liberty between its November road games against Georgia and Alabama in 2018. No such luxury for Texas A&M.

    If the Aggies happen to be excellent next year and they enter the home stretch in the running for the College Football Playoff, their path to win it all would be five consecutive games away from home against elite teams. Good luck with that.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh
    Michigan head coach Jim HarbaughTony Ding/Associated Press

    The Schedule: Middle Tennessee, Army, (idle), at Wisconsin, Rutgers, Iowa, at Illinois, at Penn State, Notre Dame, at Maryland, (idle), Michigan State, at Indiana, Ohio State

    Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan usually opens the season with a serious test. This season, the Wolverines started the year at Notre Dame. Last year, it was a neutral-site game against Florida. In 2015, they played (and lost) at Utah. But don't write off Middle Tennessee as an easy win. That program has finished .500 or better in seven consecutive seasons and has wins over Missouri and Syracuse in the past three years.

    That said, it is the least difficult of Michigan's three nonconference games. The Wolverines also have to face an Army team that is 28-10 over the past three seasons, as well as Notre Dame. Taken collectively, this is arguably the toughest nonconference schedule Harbaugh has had to contend with.

    In Big Ten play, the Wolverines have to play at Wisconsin and host Iowa in the cross-division gameson top of dealing with the usual Penn State-Michigan State-Ohio State trifecta. Illinois, Maryland and Indiana haven't been great lately, but all three of those road games are potential traps.

    Aside from the home game against Rutgers, it's going to be tough sledding all season long. The worst part, though, will be the back-to-back weeks against Penn State and Notre Dame. If the Nittany Lions and Fighting Irish are anywhere close to as good as they have been for the past two seasons, there's a good chance at least one of those games turns into an L.

4. Auburn Tigers

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    Auburn RB JaTarvious Whitlow
    Auburn RB JaTarvious WhitlowKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Schedule: vs. Oregon (in Dallas), Tulane, Kent State, at Texas A&M, Mississippi State, at Florida, (idle), at Arkansas, at LSU, Ole Miss, (idle), Georgia, Samford, Alabama

    One thing you have to respect about Auburn is that it's going to play a quality nonconference opponent, even though its conference schedule is always a beast. The Tigers played a home-and-home with Clemson in 2016-17, opened this past season with a neutral-site game against Washington and will wage war with Oregon in Texas to begin the 2019 campaign.

    That game against Oregon is the first of at least six that the Tigers will play against teams that figure to be ranked in the preseason AP Top 25. The rest of that list includes road games against Texas A&M, Florida and LSU and the November home games against Georgia and Alabama. Auburn also has home games against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, each of which will probably get some votes.

    The Tigers do have a few gimmes on the schedule, which keeps them from ranking in our top three. The other nonconference games (all at home) against Tulane, Kent State and Samford will likely be blowout wins.

    But it is almost impossible to imagine that this team goes undefeated against this schedule. That's no disrespect to Auburn or its potential for next season. Even Clemson in its current, elite state would have slim-to-none odds of running this table.

3. USC Trojans

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    USC QB JT Daniels
    USC QB JT DanielsMark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Schedule: Fresno State, Stanford, at BYU, Utah, at Washington, (idle), at Notre Dame, Arizona, at Colorado, Oregon, at Arizona State, at California, UCLA

    USC just had its first sub-.500 season since 2000, and the next one might not be far behind.

    The Trojans should be better next year. Aside from a senior-heavy secondary, this was an exceptionally young team that battled minor injuries all season long and never seemed to jell. The defense might still be nothing special, but the offense should improve with age.

    But that improvement may not show up in the standings because the Trojans still might go 5-7 against this schedule.

    Each of USC's three nonconference games is going to be tough. The first is against a Fresno State team that Jeff Tedford has quickly turned into a legitimate threat. The second is a road game against a BYU team that won at Arizona and Wisconsin this year and probably should have won at Boise State and Utah. And the third is the annual showdown with Notre Damethis one taking place in South Bend.

    It's not unthinkable that USC could go 0-3 in those games, and a 1-2 record is the most likely outcome.

    Then there's conference play, where the Trojans don't get to face Oregon State this year and have tough road games against Washington and California. Home games against Oregon, Stanford, UCLA and Utah won't be walks in the park either. They might be able to find five wins on that nine-game docket, but it won't be easy.

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp
    South Carolina head coach Will MuschampRichard Shiro/Associated Press

    The Schedule: vs. North Carolina (in Charlotte), Charleston Southern, Alabama, at Missouri, Kentucky, (idle), at Georgia, Florida, at Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Appalachian State, at Texas A&M, (idle), Clemson

    The first two weeks here don't seem too bad. A neutral-site game against what was one of the worst power-conference teams in the country this year followed by a home game against an average-at-best FCS squad isn't tough.

    But buckle up, because it's a bumpy ride after that.

    The Gamecocks host Alabama as the first of their two SEC division cross-over games, and the other game at Texas A&M in year No. 2 under Jimbo Fisher might be the tougher one. And their in-division schedule reads like some sort of American Ninja Warrior obstacle course, destined to knock them down before long.

    Following the cushy two-game start, South Carolina's next five games are against the teams that finished first, 23rd, 14th, fifth and 10th, respectively, in the final College Football Playoff rankings. While we're on the subject, the Gamecocks finish the season against No. 19 and No. 2, giving them seven games against Top 25 teams.

    Don't look past that early November game against Appalachian State either. Heaven knows the Mountaineers have put up serious fights against better teams than this, and they might be game to pull off the road upset.

    Even if this team has top-40 talent, it's going to have a hard time becoming bowl-eligible against this slate.

1. Stanford Cardinal

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    Stanford head coach David Shaw
    Stanford head coach David ShawJohn Hefti/Associated Press

    The Schedule: Northwestern, at USC, at UCF, Oregon, at Oregon State, Washington, (idle), UCLA, Arizona, (idle), at Colorado, at Washington State, California, Notre Dame

    Talk about playing the game on the hardest difficulty setting.

    While most major-conference programs have at least one (usually more than one) cream-puff game on their nonconference schedules, Stanford is playing two of the four teams that went undefeated this season (UCF and Notre Dame) and the Big Ten West Division champ (Northwestern).

    In particular, the back-to-back road games against USC and UCF are brutal. Not only does Stanford have to play a rival in a hostile setting, but it also then needs to fly across the country to take on a team in a permanent state of "Small Guy Syndrome," desperate to prove it belongs with the big dogs. Even if the Cardinal win those games, their "reward" is Oregon and Washington in the next three weeks.

    That six-game gauntlet until the first bye week is unreal. If the Cardinal can come out of that with a 4-2 record, it'll be impressive. If they happen to go 6-0, they should get an automatic spot in the College Football Playoff no matter what happens during the second half of the season. (They wouldn't, of course, but that's how tough the schedule is.)

    Finishing the season against Notre Dame is one final gut punch at the end of a 12-round fight. Best of luck to the Cardinal if they need that last game to get to six wins.

                     

    Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.