Which championship contenders have the easiest, hardest schedules?

Not all schedules are created equally. Due to the combination of non-conference games set far in advance and the quirks of conference draws from year to year, some championship contenders have easier paths to Pasadena and the BCS title game than others. This isn’t about the hardest overall schedules (we see you and empathize, Cal and Arkansas), but only those belonging to teams pegged as championship contenders at this point in the preseason.

So, which teams have their work cut out for them and which have an easier walk to the title? Let’s take a look at five from each category.

Five contenders whose schedules help

Alabama – Not that the two-time defending champs need a lot of help, but they’re getting it this fall. Yes, the trip to Texas A&M, the home game against LSU and the potential SEC championship opponent will all be tough, but after that, the next hardest game is either hosting Ole Miss or the neutral site opener against Virginia Tech, both teams that went 7-6 last year. The Tide’s good fortune comes from the fact they miss Florida, Georgia and South Carolina out of the East (until the title game, at least) and two of their rivals (Auburn and Tennessee) are breaking in new coaches.

Oregon – Much like the Tide, the Ducks have one imposing road test against the only team that beat them last year, theirs being a Thursday night game at Stanford. Their non-conference schedule of Virginia and Tennessee might be imposing in a couple years, but both the Cavaliers and Vols would be happy to just make a bowl in 2013. Oregon also misses Arizona State and USC out of the Pac-12 South, and while you can laugh at Lane Kiffin all you want, the Trojans did win in Autzen in 2011. The Ducks do have to face UCLA and Oregon State at home and must travel to rival Washington in addition to a potential Pac-12 title game against one of the Arizona or Los Angeles schools, but overall, rookie Mark Helfrich will take this slate.

Texas A&M – For those predicting (or just wishing) doom and gloom on Johnny Manziel this season, look at the schedule and ask yourself: Where are the losses coming from? Yes, you’ve got the home game with Alabama and a trip to Baton Rouge, but when the third toughest game on your schedule is at Ole Miss, that’s not bad. The Aggies get lucky with their draw from the SEC East (they play Vanderbilt and Missouri, missing Florida, South Carolina and Georgia) and their non-conference is not particularly imposing, to put it kindly (Rice, Sam Houston State, SMU, UTEP). Upset Bama and even with a loss at LSU I think the Aggies would be playing in the SEC Championship for a trip to Pasadena.

Ohio State – The Buckeyes have two tricky road trips in the conference, having to travel to Northwestern and Michigan, but other than that? 13-0 seems very attainable. They miss Nebraska and Michigan State out of the Legends division, their “marquee” non-conference game against California doesn’t look as good as it did when it was scheduled and the rest of the Big Ten is so blah that it’s difficult to pick a loss out. They would have to play Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska or Northwestern in the Big Ten Championship Game, but compared to some overall schedules, theirs just isn’t that tough.

Louisville – The 2013 Cardinals might actually fall under the “Schedule hurts” category, because theirs is so weak that they could actually go undefeated and get passed over by a one-loss team from the SEC or Pac-12 North. As the Cardinals serve their year in AAC purgatory before hopping over to the ACC (really happy The American picked an acronym that was original and not at all confusing), their toughest game is one of the following: Home against Ohio or Central Florida or on the road at Cincinnati or Kentucky. Those first three teams should all be decent and the Wildcats are a rivalry game, but the lack of a big-time opponent could prove costly to the pursuit of both the BCS title and a Heisman for Teddy Bridgewater.

Five contenders whose schedules hurt

Stanford – The Cardinal have established a culture of salty, hard-nosed football that should help them survive a major talent loss at the skill positions, but it’s not going to be easy. Yes, they get Oregon at home, but they also must travel to Oregon State in addition to drawing the three best Pac-12 South teams (UCLA, USC and Arizona State). On top of that, their non-conference games include the opener against San Jose State (who has likely first round pick David Fales at quarterback) and Notre Dame (who beat the Cardinal last year and should be tremendously stout on defense again). And, oh yeah, if they do beat Oregon and make it to the Pac-12 Championship Game, they’ll have to knock off the Bruins, Trojans or Sun Devils a second time. Tough sledding for David Shaw’s group.

LSU – Credit LSU for almost always making it interesting out of conference. The last few years they’ve played Oregon, Washington, West Virginia and now they face a potentially great TCU team in Dallas to open the season. On top of that, they draw both Florida and Georgia out of the East, a brutal one-two punch that includes a trip to Athens. They also must go on the road to Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State, although they do get Texas A&M at home. Considering the margin for error in the SEC West, the Bayou Bengals are going to be treading on very thin ice all season long.

Florida – The Gators could easily have a better team than their 11-2 squad from 2012 but finish with a worse record. In addition to the SEC East round robin o’ death with South Carolina (on the road) and Georgia (neutral site), they must travel to LSU and Miami (Fla.) before hosting Florida State, all teams with talent levels capable of matching up with Will Muschamp’s loaded roster. And, oh yeah, if they do win the division crown, it’s a likely date with Alabama, Texas A&M or LSU in Atlanta.

Georgia – Other than possibly Arizona State and maybe Notre Dame, I don’t think any team comes close to having as tough an opening month as the Bulldogs. Yes, they get a bye week and North Texas in there, but that’s sandwiched between games against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU. The schedule is easier as the season progresses, but not a walk, as they have the Cocktail Party against Florida and road trips to Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Auburn and Georgia Tech. And just like the Gators, if the Bulldogs do survive the carnage and win the division, they’ll have to take on the Tide, Aggies or Bayou Bengals in the SEC title game.

Clemson – The difference between Clemson and the other contenders is that the Tigers, due to the low opinion of the ACC, cannot afford a single loss if they want to get into the BCS title game (barring some sort of 2007-level chaos, at which point all bets are off). Clemson’s schedule doesn’t feature many marquee games, but the three they have are tough: Georgia, Florida State and at South Carolina, all teams that could easily finish in the top ten. In addition to that, they would still have the ACC Championship Game against whoever survives the Miami/Virginia Tech/Georgia Tech/North Carolina royal rumble. This schedule isn’t as tough as some of the others, but considering Clemson’s margin for error (zero), it is a challenge.

A few additional notes:

  • I don’t know who you would label as a national championship contender out of the Big 12, which is why no team from that conference is featured above. Neither Andy Staples at SI or Mark Schlabach at ESPN had a Big 12 team in their way-too-early top 10s, and other than Phil Steele’s love of Texas, no analyst has really thrown their support behind any of the teams from the league as a top five unit. That’s not to say there aren’t good teams in the Big 12, just that deciding which one might breakout and make a run at an undefeated record is really tough at this point.

  • If you consider Notre Dame a contender, then their schedule would fall into the second category. They have road trips to Michigan and Stanford, a neutral site game with Arizona State and home dates with USC, Oklahoma, BYU and Michigan State.

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