Opinion: Ranking the toughest non-conference schedule among Power 5 college football teams in 2021

·9 min read

Ranking the 64 Power 5 teams’ non-conference schedules in 2021:

1. Stanford: Kansas State, at Vanderbilt, Notre Dame. Wow. No mid-majors. That’s revolutionary in 2021.

2. Georgia Tech: Northern Illinois, Kennesaw State, at Notre Dame, Georgia. Excellent schedule. Northern Illinois is down from its Orange Bowl days of 2012, but still. The Fighting Irish and Bulldogs are as good of a 1-2 scheduling punch as you’ll find.

3. Georgia: Clemson in Charlotte, Alabama-Birmingham, Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech. Outstanding schedule. A national power. An in-state arch-rival. Even the mid-major UAB is decent.

4. Virginia: William & Mary, Illinois, at Brigham Young, Notre Dame. Wonderful schedule by the Cavaliers. When a Big Ten opponent is your third-best game, you’ve got a schedule.

5. Florida State: Notre Dame, Jacksonville State, Massachusetts, at Florida. Seminoles’ typically play two powerhouses and two rumdums. This is no exception. And that’s no criticism. ‘Twould every school scheduled like this.

Coach David Shaw and Stanford don't shy away from a tough non-conference schedule.
Coach David Shaw and Stanford don't shy away from a tough non-conference schedule.

6. Miami: Alabama in Atlanta, Appalachian State, Michigan State, Central Connecticut. Rough road for the Hurricanes. Michigan State is down, but Appalachian State is a rugged mid-major.

7. Colorado: Northern Colorado, Texas A&M in Denver, Minnesota. Excellent schedule for the Buffaloes. Two Power 5 Conference opponents, including an old Big 12 matchup in A&M.

8. Virginia Tech: Middle Tennessee, at West Virginia, Richmond, Notre Dame. Good swing by the Hokies, playing both the Mountaineers and the Fighting Irish.

9. Southern Cal: San Jose State, at Notre Dame, Brigham Young. Super schedule. Most teams, San Jose State would be the second-toughest opponent of three. BYU would be first. But that’s not the Trojans’ way.

10. Purdue: Oregon State, at Connecticut, at Notre Dame. Oregon State is no power, but the Beavers are getting better, so that’s one easy game on the Boilermakers’ non-conference slate.

11. Clemson: Georgia in Charlotte, South Carolina State, Connecticut, at South Carolina. Kudos to Clemson for playing two Power 5 opponents, particularly a behemoth like Georgia.

12. Wisconsin: Eastern Michigan, Notre Dame in Chicago, Army. As OU can testify, you can’t sleep on Army.

13. Ohio State: Oregon, Tulsa, Akron. The Buckeyes generally disdain I-AA foes. Oregon won the Pac-12 last season, and TU rose up to be a mid-major force.

14. Oregon: Fresno State, at Ohio State, Stony Brook. Hard to find a knock against a schedule that includes a trip to the Horseshoe.

15. North Carolina: Georgia State, at Notre Dame, Wake Forest, Wofford. Wake is a non-conference game for the Tar Heels, since they’re in-state rivals who aren’t scheduled annually as a cross-division game.

16. Louisville: Ole Miss in Atlanta, Eastern Kentucky, Central Florida, Kentucky. Very nice schedule. Two middle-of-the-road Southeastern Conference teams, plus Central Florida, usually a mid-major power.

Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield, middle, and his Cardinals have a pretty challenging schedule in 2021.
Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield, middle, and his Cardinals have a pretty challenging schedule in 2021.

17. Nebraska: Fordham, Buffalo, at Oklahoma. The Cornhuskers had a schedule of Fordham, Buffalo and OU, and tried to get rid of OU?

18. South Carolina: Eastern Illinois, at East Carolina, Troy, Clemson. A good schedule in Shane Beamer’s inaugural season as the Gamecock coach. Clemson is a powerhouse, Troy is a decent mid-major and East Carolina is a road game.

19. Mississippi State: Louisiana Tech, North Carolina State, at Memphis, Tennessee State. Not bad. N.C. State is a middle-of-the-road Power 5 program, but Memphis has become an American Conference force, and Louisiana Tech usually is solid.

20. West Virginia: Virginia Tech, at Maryland, Long Island. As usual, WVU is the only Big 12 team playing two fellow Power 5 opponents in non-conference. And one of them is Virginia Tech, probably the second-best non-conference foe among all Big 12 schedules.

21. Iowa: at Iowa State, Kent State, Colorado State. Good schedule by the Hawkeyes. Colorado State is a decent mid-major.

22. Iowa State: Northern Iowa, Iowa, at Nevada-Las Vegas. A dud-free schedule. Iowa appears to be the best non-conference opponent on a Big 12 schedule, Division I-AA Northern Iowa almost always is a tough out for ISU or Iowa, and UNLV is a road game.

23. Washington: Montana, at Michigan, Arkansas State. Hard to find a knock against a schedule that includes a trip to the Big House.

24. Wake Forest: Old Dominion, Norfolk State, at Army, at North Carolina. Not a bad slate. No trip to West Point is easy, and Carolina is billed a potential top-10 team.

25. UCLA: Hawaii, Louisiana State, Fresno State. Like usual, the Bruins don’t play a Division I-AA opponent. LSU and two decent mid-majors.

26. Texas: Louisiana-Lafayette, at Arkansas, Rice. UT’s avoidance of I-AA opponents lifts the Longhorns over most Big 12 schedules, and ULL showed last season that it is not an easy mark.

27. Auburn: Akron, Alabama State, at Penn State, Georgia State. The Tigers in Happy Valley doesn’t happen often. Enjoy it. Not much else on this bone.

28. Utah: Weber State, at Brigham Young, at San Diego State. Gutsy move by the Utes, making road trips to both Provo and San Diego. Come out unscathed, and that’s impressive.

29. Arizona: Brigham Young, San Diego State, Northern Arizona. Same general schedule as Utah, but ‘Zona gets BYU and San Diego State in Tucson.

30. Ole Miss: Louisville in Atlanta, Austin Peay, Tulane, Liberty. Mississippi-Louisville doesn’t move the needle a ton, but Liberty-Ole Miss is a fun game. Hugh Freeze has coached Liberty into mid-major status, and now the Flames take Freeze back to Oxford, where he coached the Rebels from 2012-16 before NCAA and personal scandal cost him his job.

31. Penn State: Ball State, Auburn, Villanova. Fun game, Penn State-Auburn.

32. Arkansas: Rice, Texas, Georgia Southern, Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Texas-Arkansas is no Big Shootout. It’s been 52 years since that historic Longhorns-Razorbacks game in the Ozarks. But in the 2021 SEC, it passes for high quality.

33. Oklahoma State: Missouri State, Tulsa, at Boise State. The game at Boise is one of the more intriguing games, and the OSU-Tulsa game last season was an old-fashioned pitcher’s duel.

Head coach Mike Gundy will take his Oklahoma State Cowboys on the road to Boise State in 2021.
Head coach Mike Gundy will take his Oklahoma State Cowboys on the road to Boise State in 2021.

34. Duke: at Charlotte, North Carolina A&T, Northwestern, Kansas. Northwestern carries the freight with this group.

35. California: Nevada, at Texas Christian, Sacramento State. TCU is a fun game; Berkeley goes to Cowtown. But a rather pedestrian schedule.

36. Kansas: South Dakota, at Coastal Carolina, at Duke. Give the Jayhawks credit. Two road games, one against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent, and the other against a program that would have made the 2020 College Football Playoff had there been a 12-team bracket. Coastal was scheduled to host KU last September, but the dates were swapped because of the Big 12’s Covid policies.

37. Indiana: Idaho, Cincinnati, at Western Kentucky. No Power 5 opponent, but that’s OK. Cincinnati is plenty enough to challenge the Hoosiers.

38. Michigan: Western Michigan, Washington, Northern Illinois. Some like Washington a lot.

39. Washington State: Utah State, Portland State, Brigham Young. Not terrible. Not all that good.

40. Michigan State: Youngstown State, at Miami, Western Kentucky. There was a time when I-AA Youngstown State was no pushover. This is not that time.

41. Illinois: Texas-San Antonio, at Virginia, Charlotte. The Illini avoid a I-AA opponent. Not a bad schedule.

42. Minnesota: Miami-Ohio, at Colorado, Bowling Green. You never know when one of these MAC teams will rise and pull the upset. So give the Gophers (and Michigan) credit for playing two MAC squads.

43. Kansas State: at Stanford, Southern Illinois, Nevada: Not a terrible schedule, but Stanford appears down. And Nevada last season was not on the mid-major level of Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulsa or Coastal.

44. Alabama: Miami in Atlanta, Mercer, Southern Mississippi, New Mexico State. Miami-Alabama is not a bad game, but the rest of this schedule is dreadful.

Defending national champion Alabama have a pretty weak schedule other than a matchup against the Miami Hurricanes in Atlanta.
Defending national champion Alabama have a pretty weak schedule other than a matchup against the Miami Hurricanes in Atlanta.

45. Baylor: at Texas State, Texas Southern, Brigham Young. Interesting schedule. BYU-Baylor is a cool game, and the Bears make the 131-mile trip down Interstate 35 to San Marcos.

46. Oklahoma: at Tulane, Western Carolina, Nebraska: The Sooner schedule is about the same as K-State's and Baylor’s. But Nebraska isn’t only down, the Cornhuskers tried to get out of the game. If they’re not excited, why is anybody?

47. Florida: Florida Atlantic, at South Florida, Samford, Florida State. The Seminoles are down, so the UF-FSU game isn’t what it once was. But the Gators playing USF in Tampa is at least interesting.

48. Arizona State: Southern Utah, Nevada-Las Vegas, at Brigham Young. Hard to forge a schedule using only Nevada and Utah teams, but ASU did it. The Sun Devils rarely are on the cutting edge of scheduling.

49. Texas Christian: Duquesne, California, Southern Methodist: Decent schedule, but no road games and no marquee games. I suppose SMU could make this schedule better.

50. Maryland: West Virginia, Howard, Kent State. This schedule doesn’t raise the Terrapins’ profile.

51. Oregon State: at Purdue, Hawaii, Idaho. The Beavers in West Lafayette is at least interesting.

52. Texas Tech: at Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Florida International: The game at Houston isn’t bad, but FIU went winless last season, and SFA is Division I-AA.

53. Louisiana State: at UCLA, McNeese State, Central Michigan, Louisiana-Monroe. Those final three games aren’t much, but LSU playing at UCLA is rare – the Tigers have played road games at Pac-12/10/8 schools only three times. Washington in 2009, Arizona in 2003 and Southern Cal in 1984.

54. North Carolina State: South Florida, at Mississippi State, Furman, Louisiana Tech. The Wolfpack rarely steps out for adventure, and that’s certainly true this season.

55. Northwestern: Indiana State, at Duke, Ohio. The Wildcats often schedule better than this.

56. Missouri: Central Michigan, Southeast Missouri State, at Boston College, North Texas. Back in the 1970s, Mizzou often would play four non-conference opponents better than its marquee game, at BC.

57. Rutgers: Temple, at Syracuse, Delaware. The Scarlet Knights are just trying to build.

58. Boston College: Colgate, at Massachusetts, at Temple, Missouri. BC tries to keep its Eastern independent roots by playing three teams from the Northeast.

59. Vanderbilt: East Tennessee State, at Colorado State, Stanford, Connecticut. Stanford-Vandy is an academic showdown, but the football is lacking. Colorado State probably is better than most SEC mid-major foes.

60. Texas A&M: Kent State, Colorado in Denver, New Mexico, Prairie View. CU moved its home game from Boulder to the Broncos’ stadium at Mile High.

61. Pittsburgh: Massachusetts, at Tennessee, Western Michigan, New Hampshire. Massachusetts and New Hampshire? Sounds like my New England leaf trip from last October.

62. Syracuse: at Ohio, Rutgers, Albany, Liberty. Ugh. But the Orange best be careful. It could lose two of these games.

63. Tennessee: Bowling Green, Pittsburgh, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama. Four home games. Pitt the best, in a Johnny Majors Bowl. South Alabama next best. Not much of a schedule.

64. Kentucky: Louisiana-Monroe, Tennessee-Chattanooga, New Mexico State, at Louisville. ULM and New Mexico State are two of the sport’s least-successful mid-majors.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: College football 2021: Ranking Power 5 non-conference schedules