Ranking College Football's Most Difficult Schedules for 2021 Contenders
Every program in the nation will enter the 2021 season fixated on the College Football Playoff. While the schedules are different, the final goal is ultimately the same.
But that schedule can become a major obstacle.
Earlier in the offseason, we identified the most favorable schedules among the contending group. This time, we're looking at the opposite side of the spectrum.
Any number of challenges may appear on a team's slate. Whether it's a difficult set of road games, playing on short rest or, quite simply, bad luck of the draw in the conference rotation, these championship hopefuls—the 20 teams with +8000 odds or better, according to DraftKings—have a difficult path to navigate in 2021.
7. Oregon Ducks
This pursuit of a third consecutive Pac-12 title will require Oregon to earn the "Road Warriors" title in 2021.
From a national title perspective, heading to Ohio State (Sep. 11) is a massive game. Upset the Buckeyes on their home turf, and the Ducks will immediately be viewed as a championship threat.
Even if that doesn't happen, Oregon must be comfortable away from Autzen Stadium. Trips to Stanford (Oct. 2), Washington (Nov. 6) and Utah (Nov. 20) are scattered across the schedule, and anything worse than 2-1 puts the Pac-12 streak in jeopardy.
The remainder of the slate is typical, but a road-heavy outlook in the toughest games presents a major challenge.
6. Florida Gators
Florida, too, has an ordinary slate in 2021. Simple nonconference, regular SEC East games—including Georgia in Jacksonville—LSU in a permanent crossover and a season finale with Florida State.
The problem is location. And, in short, Nick Saban.
After the Gators host Alabama (Sep. 18) in their marquee game of the regular season, they head to Kentucky (Oct. 2). Florida hasn't lost in Lexington since 1986, but Florida's last three wins at Kentucky were by a combined 14 points.
Two weeks later, Florida travels to LSU (Oct. 16). In another two weeks, Georgia (Oct. 30) awaits for the Cocktail Party.
November is much kinder, which prevents the Gators from holding a worse ranking. But the every-other-weekend stretch with Alabama, Kentucky, LSU and Georgia is full of potential pitfalls.
5. Michigan Wolverines
The first half of Michigan's season includes a prime-time showdown against Washington (Sep. 11) and a trip to Wisconsin (Oct. 2). While not easy, it's not an overwhelming stretch, either.
But if the Wolverines struggle early, the nonstop hot-seat talk surrounding Jim Harbaugh will only be more prevalent.
After an idle weekend in mid-October, Michigan closes the regular season with Northwestern (Oct. 23) and five more divisional games. The schedule reads at Michigan State (Oct. 30), vs. Indiana (Nov. 6), at Penn State (Nov. 13), at Maryland (Nov. 20) and vs. Ohio State (Nov. 27).
Northwestern won the West last year. MSU is always up for the rivalry game, no matter its record. Maryland is no longer an easy win. Indiana and Penn State are comparable to Michigan—if not better—and Ohio State is a national title contender.
Harbaugh has much to prove in 2021, and this slate isn't helping his cause.
4. Texas Longhorns
Sometimes, a first-year coach receives a little extra forgiveness because of a nightmarish schedule. That's not entirely the case for Steve Sarkisian's debut at Texas, but 2021 isn't kind.
The opener is against Louisiana (Sep. 4), which upset Iowa State last season and returns a strong majority of its roster. The next weekend, the Longhorns head to Arkansas (Sep. 11). Texas will be favored in both games, but they're not guaranteed wins.
And Texas doesn't have an overwhelming benefit of the doubt.
TCU, which is 7-2 against the Longhorns since joining the Big 12, hosts the matchup on Oct. 2. Following that game, Texas meets Oklahoma (Oct. 9) at the Cotton Bowl and hosts Oklahoma State (Oct. 16).
The closing stretch has Texas traveling to Baylor (Oct. 30), Iowa State (Nov. 6) and West Virginia (Nov. 20). Plus, the finale opposite Kansas State (Nov. 26) is on short rest. Sarkisian has a complicated itinerary in his first season.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
First, the good news! The schedule is evenly split into six-game portions, and the Nittany Lions always play on regular rest.
That, uh—that about covers it.
On a scale of one to 10, Penn State's luck is approximately negative-two. Not only are Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois their crossover games in Big Ten play, but the Nittany Lions head to Wisconsin and Iowa—the exact combination they wouldn't prefer.
The only bright side is Auburn (Sep. 18), Indiana (Oct. 2) and Michigan (Nov. 13) all travel to Penn State.
Between that quintet and a midseason trip to Ohio State (Oct. 30), Penn State potentially has six games against top-25 teams. And three are in very unwelcoming environments.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
If the Crimson Tide repeat as national champions this season, it should be a hard-earned accomplishment.
Even beyond personnel losses, Alabama has an arduous path. The opener is a neutral-site clash with Miami. Provided that D'Eriq King truly is healthy after a right ACL tear—and he says he's ready—he's the nation's most electric dual-threat quarterback. Alabama should win, but King is a harsh matchup for a new-look defense.
Alabama also travels to Florida (Sep. 18), hosts Ole Miss (Oct. 2) and heads to Texas A&M (Oct. 9) before its first idle weekend. That's already a demanding stretch, yet both LSU (Nov. 6) and a trip to Auburn for the Iron Bowl (Nov. 27) await in November.
Because of what Nick Saban has accomplished in his tenure, the college football world has come to expect the Tide will avoid disaster. This, nevertheless, is a rigorous schedule.
1. LSU Tigers
September is pretty manageable for LSU, which begins the season with a trip to UCLA. After that, the Tigers host McNeese State and Central Michigan before looking for a little revenge at Mississippi State. In all likelihood, they'll be 4-0 to start the season.
October might as well be called Landmine Month.
Alternating home and road contests from Oct. 2 forward, LSU faces Auburn, Kentucky, Florida and Ole Miss. Auburn hasn't won in Baton Rouge since 1999 but smoked LSU 48-11 last season. Kentucky has a sneaky-good home-field advantage, while Florida is the reigning SEC East winner and Ole Miss is expected to have a dynamic offense.
If the Bayou Bengals manage to make it through October, the reward might just be their toughest games of the year. The final month features a trip to Alabama (Nov. 6) and home showdown with Texas A&M (Nov. 27) to cap the regular season.
LSU's hopes of a second national title in three years will be thoroughly tested in the fall.
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