In the era of the College Football Playoff, a high-quality win in non-conference play can mean the difference between breaking into the national semifinals and being one of the top teams left on the outside of the top four.
As you move down the conference standings, a tough slate of non-league games can mean the difference between reaching six wins and falling short of bowl eligibility.
When it comes to the Power Five conferences, several teams shunned the path of least resistance to embrace the challenge of facing two or more high-profile opponents outside of conference play. These 10 teams have it tougher than everyone else:
1. Georgia Tech: vs. Northern Illinois, vs. Kennesaw State, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Georgia
It doesn't matter that they come at home: Tech's non-conference games against Notre Dame and Georgia are the most brutal combination for any team in the Power Five. (Overall, the Yellow Jackets take on four of the top nine teams in the preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll, which seems unfair.)
2. Florida State: vs. Notre Dame, vs. Jacksonville State, vs. Massachusetts, at Florida
The Seminoles open with the Irish and close against the rival Gators, ensuring the regular season will begin and end in disappointment. And Jacksonville State is no pushover: The Jaguars went 10-3 during the 2020-21 Football Championship Subdivision season and have reached the FCS playoffs six times under coach John Grass. JSU pushed the Seminoles to the limit when the two played in 2009, a 19-9 FSU win, and led 14-0 in last season's meeting before losing 41-24.
3. Georgia: vs. Clemson (in Charlotte), vs. Alabama-Birmingham, vs. Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech
Georgia-Clemson is one of the premier non-conference games of the past several years, with the winner holding a very strong case for being No. 1 and the loser still very much in the mix for the College Football Playoff. There's also that season finale against the rival Yellow Jackets and a matchup with one of the top teams in Conference USA in UAB.
4. Miami: vs. Alabama (in Atlanta), vs. Appalachian State, vs. Michigan State, vs. Central Connecticut
Alabama's going to be pretty good. Appalachian State is again viewed as one of the top three teams in an underrated Sun Belt and Michigan State could be noticeably improved in coach Mel Tucker's second season, though the Spartans are probably another year away from reaching the postseason.
5. Stanford: vs. Kansas State (in Arlington, Texas), at Vanderbilt, vs. Notre Dame
Three games, three teams from the Power Five (even if one is Vanderbilt), two away from home. This type of non-conference schedule is pretty common for Stanford, which has faced only two FCS opponents in David Shaw's decade-long tenure.
6. Southern California: vs. San Jose State, at Notre Dame, vs. Brigham Young
The Trojans' three non-conference foes went a combined 28-4 in 2020. SJSU brings back almost every starter from last year's Mountain West champs. Pretty substantial losses will keep BYU from matching last year's No. 11 finish in the Coaches Poll but the Cougars will still be a tough out, especially after already playing six games against Power Five competition — with four coming from the Pac-12 — before meeting the Trojans in the season finale.
7. Virginia: vs. William & Mary, vs. Illinois, at Brigham , vs. Notre Dame
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall will return to BYU for the first time since leaving Provo in 2015. (His 99 wins are the second-most in program history.) Notre Dame is a leading playoff contender and Illinois is still a fellow member of the Power Five, even if the Illini are picked to finish dead last in the Big Ten.
8. Texas: vs. Louisiana-Lafayette, at Arkansas, vs. Rice
Louisiana is an unfriendly way for the Steve Sarkisian era to begin in Austin — the No. 23 Ragin' Cajuns avoid errors, can dominate up front and have a powerful running game, three positive qualities that have largely eluded the Longhorns for more than a decade. One week later, Texas travels to Fayetteville in a gathering of two former Southwest Conference rivals.
9. Clemson: vs. Georgia (in Charlotte), vs. South Carolina State, vs. Connecticut, at South Carolina
The Tigers have a chance to notch two SEC wins, which might be as many as the rival Gamecock post in coach Shane Beamer's first season. Georgia is 42-18-4 against Clemson but the series has been much more competitive since the programs stopped meeting on annual basis in 1987.
10. Virginia Tech: vs. Middle Tennessee State, at West Virginia, vs. Richmond, vs. Notre Dame
All four non-conference games come on the heels of Tech's opener against North Carolina, raising the possibility the Hokies are sitting at 2-3 as they near the midpoint of the regular season. Even if the schedule is easier in October and November, would anything but a 6-1 finish be enough to buy more time for coach Justin Fuente?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: 10 hardest non-conference schedules in Power Five