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To compete for a conference championship, you have to have a great season. To battle for the College Football Playoff, you need to be special. To win a national championship, you have to be exceptional, and it never hurts to have a little luck, too.
One of those breaks, sometimes, is a schedule that shapes up a little easier than expected. Yes, if a team runs a gauntlet of difficult opponents and gets through relatively unscathed, it can make it battle-tested late in the season. But it also doesn’t hurt when you only have to get up for a few games a year.
Sometimes, schedules that look easy on paper don’t always turn out that way and vice versa.
A handful of the contenders for the 2019 conference championships, and, in some cases, the national championship, don’t look like they’ll have to deal with too much drama in the regular season.
Some Power Five teams will benefit from their conferences being shallow, which looks like the case in the Pac-12 and Big 12 in 2019 unless some unexpected teams improve. For others, like Washington State and Alabama, the out-of-conference schedules are filled with cruise-control games.
Let’s take a look at the 10 easiest schedules among college football’s title contenders in ’19. As always, make your own thoughts known in the comments.
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The Ohio State Buckeyes got some massive news this offseason when Georgia transfer quarterback Justin Fields was ruled immediately eligible by the NCAA. That decision makes things a lot easier for coach Ryan Day’s first season, considering they have to replace Dwayne Haskins.
With all the talent in Columbus, it could be a fun year if Fields lives up to the huge hype he brought with him out of high school that never got the opportunity to materialize for the Bulldogs.
He’ll have some opportunities to shine.
The Buckeyes don’t have a particularly difficult schedule in 2019, with an out-of-conference schedule that could use a little more star power. The Cincinnati Bearcats could provide an early-season scare as former assistant Luke Fickell’s team went 11-2 in 2018 and was one of the best stories of the Group of Five.
If they continue improving, they could be a nice test for OSU. That would be good considering Florida Atlantic and Miami Ohio won’t pose a threat.
In the conference, the Buckeyes will face a Big Ten schedule worth at least some substance. Michigan and Penn State are always on the docket, and while the Nittany Lions could be facing a little bit of a rebuilding season, they’ll have plenty of talent.
From the other side of the league, Nebraska, Northwestern and Wisconsin all could be tests for OSU with Day and Fields still getting to know each other and with new coordinators on both sides of the ball.
The Big Ten will be sneaky good in ’19—probably better than it has been in recent memory—and that saves OSU’s schedule a little.
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One look at Florida’s schedule might make a casual college football fan think, “Wow, the Gators play a virtual murderers’ row of opponents.”
A closer look, though, shows that unless things change from the 2018 campaign (which is always possible, if not probable) the schedule isn’t all that tough.
The Gators will renew a longtime rivalry with the Miami Hurricanes to open the season at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, and they’ll close the year (as always) against the hated Florida State Seminoles, so a chance for Sunshine State supremacy is in the cards.
Thankfully for the Gators, the Canes will be breaking in a new coach in Manny Diaz, and the Seminoles are coming off their first bowl-less season in 36 years during Willie Taggart’s first season in Tallahassee. So, while that is certainly two “name” programs, neither should be very good.
UF’s other two out-of-conference games are against Tennessee-Martin and Towson, so that’s laughable. Yes, the Gators will have to play LSU and Auburn from the SEC West, which isn’t an easy stretch, and Georgia looms in the SEC East. But the rest of the conference schedule looks manageable.
Tennessee should be better in the second year of the Jeremy Pruitt era, but Florida should be favored. Missouri will enter the post-Drew Lock era, and Kentucky should suffer a dip after Benny Snell Jr. and Josh Allen and Co. left.
Florida’s schedule isn’t easy, but it also isn’t as difficult as it looks, either.
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One of the biggest storylines entering the College Football Playoff a season ago was how undefeated Notre Dame hadn’t played a schedule that should warrant consideration to be in the sport’s final four.
A 30-3 loss in the national semifinals to Clemson fanned those flames. As it turned out, though, “mighty” Alabama didn’t have any answers for the Tigers, either, so maybe the Fighting Irish belonged, after all. Maybe coach Dabo Swinney’s team was just that much better than everybody else.
Notre Dame will play a tougher schedule in 2019, but it’s still not a slate rife with land mines, either.
Road trips to Georgia and Michigan are going to be grueling grudge matches, and if they win both of those, they’ll earn plenty of notoriety and national headlines.
After that, though, it’s a lot of teams that, much like Florida, look good on paper but shouldn’t bring a lot of substance unless there’s drastic improvement from last year and this season.
Louisville will be a wreck in Scott Satterfield’s first season. Neither Virginia nor Virginia Tech is going to strike fear in any blue blood’s heart, though both should be better in ’19. Stanford and USC are big-name programs, but neither should even contend for the Pac-12 next year.
Beyond that, perhaps Boston College could make a run with upperclass skill-position players AJ Dillon and Anthony Brown. But the Irish don’t have a lot to worry about after the Bulldogs and Wolverines. Yes, that’s two tough opponents, but there’s not much substance beyond that.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Notre Dame back in contention for the playoff.
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Alabama isn’t known for playing a routinely difficult out-of-conference schedule, even though the Crimson Tide have scheduled some “name” programs in recent years, only to see them fail to live up to the marquee matchups they were expecting.
There are no such potential juggernauts in ’19.
Instead, the best non-SEC team the Crimson Tide face will be coach David Cutcliffe’s Duke Blue Devils, living in a post-Daniel Jones season in which things could be rocky. The rest of the out-of-conference schedule is pathetic, with New Mexico State, Southern Miss and Western Carolina rounding out the group.
Of course, there are in-conference grumbles, too, but that’s because UA’s yearly constant opponent from the SEC East, Tennessee, hasn’t held up its end of the bargain for the past decade-plus.
This season, the Tide play the Vols and the South Carolina Gamecocks, and they’ll be the heavy favorites in both games.
It’s never easy in the SEC West, though, and Alabama will run a rugged slate in that side of the conference having to play Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU and Auburn. If Alabama does what it always expects it will and makes it to the SEC title game, either Georgia or Florida should await.
Playing one of those schools will boost the schedule a little, but it won’t be needed. Alabama will be back in the playoff as long as it wins the conference with one loss or fewer.
Would you bet against the Tide? At this point, it wouldn’t be smart if you did.
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Clemson doesn’t have to play Clemson, and there’s nobody else in the ACC who can give the Tigers a good run.
Last year, they struggled and were fortunate to beat Syracuse, but that was largely because of Trevor Lawrence’s injury. If he’s healthy, it’s going to be tough for the Orange to hang. And nobody in the conference improved enough to match up with Clemson.
Of course, anything can happen, and coach Swinney’s team has experienced some in-conference slip-ups in the past, but this is a veteran group that has played on the biggest stage. So if the focus is there, the wins will be, too.
The Tigers also get a fairly easy draw from the Coastal with rebuilding Georgia Tech and North Carolina on the list.
That leaves the out-of-conference schedule, and there is one massive threat on it. That would be coach Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M Aggies, who put an early-season scare in Clemson a season ago and could do the same with an older, more seasoned team in 2019.
Thankfully for the Tigers, they get them in Death Valley, and they’ll be the heavy favorite despite Kellen Mond’s growth, a star-studded incoming recruiting class to College Station and a young, talented defense.
Charlotte won’t pose any threat, and while you can’t ever count out rivals (especially with a senior signal-caller like Jake Bentley), South Carolina would have to play out of its mind to beat the Tigers.
With two SEC teams on the schedule, this won’t be an easy run, but the ACC looks weak enough next year that there won’t be many potholes.
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Out of the “contenders” on this list, the Syracuse Orange are probably the most fringe team represented.
Can coach Dino Babers’ team contend for a title? The national champion Clemson Tigers are in their same division, so even playing in the conference championship game is a long shot. But if the ACC is going to have another candidate on this list, it should be Cuse.
Babers has the Orange pointing in the right direction, and they proved a season ago they could take the Tigers to the brink. If they somehow broke through, though, big things could follow.
Gone is quarterback Eric Dungey, but the Orange should have a capable disciple in Tommy DeVito. As mentioned in the Clemson slide, the ACC is navigable.
Of course, the September 14 showdown with Clemson in the Carrier Dome is massive, and it’s big for the Orange that they will get that game at home. Florida State, Boston College and Pittsburgh look like the only other ACC pitfalls, and Syracuse should be favored in all those games.
The out-of-conference schedule is a breeze, too.
The only Power Five team on that list will be Maryland, who will be breaking in a new coach in Mike Locksley. Liberty (Hugh Freeze!), Western Michigan and Holy Cross are far from daunting.
So, there’s a chance for ’19 to be special for Babers’ bunch, especially if they can get up for that game in September and shock the world with a win over Clemson. Don’t think it’s impossible, either. The last time Swinney took his team to the Carrier Dome, it was upset 27-24 in 2017.
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The Pac-12 was awful a season ago, and while the league as a whole could be improved in 2019, it may get worse at the top.
In other words, a conference that had no national title contenders a season ago likely won’t again, despite the league potentially being deeper with more improved teams this season.
One of the reasons the top of the league may be worse is coach Chris Petersen’s Washington Huskies are having to replace so much talent. Along with some defensive stalwarts, the conference champions also must move on from four-year starting quarterback Jake Browning and running back Myles Gaskin.
That may not be a bad thing with all the talent (led by Georgia transfer Jacob Eason) at quarterback.
The Huskies could be right back in the mix at the top of the Pac-12, and, if so, it’s because they get to ease into the conference schedule. There is no Auburn looming like there was in ’18. Instead, the Huskies’ out-of-conference schedule includes Eastern Washington, Hawaii and BYU.
The Cougars boast exciting young quarterback Zach Wilson, and the Rainbow Warriors have Cole McDonald and his electrifying abilities leading the way, but neither of those teams should be a match for U-Dub.
Inside the conference, it doesn’t get a whole lot harder. They own the rivalry with Washington State, and while Oregon and Utah should provide important tests, USC and Stanford need to improve to be considered big games for Washington.
Until the Pac-12 proves it’s better on the field, it will populate the top of this list.
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The Oklahoma Sooners need to drastically improve their defense to make any noise in the College Football Playoff.
They’ll have every opportunity to get back there, thanks to a schedule that should be easier than it’s been in recent years.
With transfer quarterback Jalen Hurts and a bunch of exciting new receivers joining CeeDee Lamb and Co., the Sooners look like the class of the Big 12 once again. That is, unless rival Texas doesn’t knock them off. Those two are going to battle it out at the top of the conference again.
After that, there isn’t a lot of substance on the OU schedule.
Whereas the Longhorns play LSU out of conference, Oklahoma has no such contender. The Houston Cougars could be dangerous with D’Eriq King at quarterback and new coach Dana Holgorsen letting them fling the ball around the field, but the depth of talent isn’t there to hang for four quarters.
Beyond the Cougars, it’s the rebuilding UCLA Bruins, who are still trying to find their sea legs under Chip Kelly, and South Dakota, who is, well, South Dakota.
Texas will be tough, but who else in the Big 12 is going to be a problem? Maybe Matt Campbell’s Iowa State Cyclones could be a big test, and Baylor could be a whole lot better in its third year under Matt Rhule, but is either going to be a threat to knock off the Sooners?
Oklahoma State and TCU should be a lot better after down years in 2018, but there are questions with both of those programs, too. This looks like if OU can get past Texas, it will be right back in the mix for the national title.
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Like Oklahoma, Washington State’s best out-of-conference opponent is going to be the Houston Cougars. (Man, what are the schedulers down there thinking in Holgorsen’s first year?)
Unlike the Sooners, there simply isn’t a team as good as Texas left on the Wazzu Cougars’ schedule.
The big question here is just how much of a “contender” coach Mike Leach’s team will be in the post-Gardner Minshew era. The Cougs are banking on dynamic Eastern Washington transfer Gage Gubrud, who is a two-time finalist for the Walter Payton Award (which is the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy).
Gubrud should be able to put up big numbers against a Houston defense that was atrocious a season ago. The other two out-of-conference opponents for the Cougars are New Mexico State and Northern Colorado, so there are no reasons for concern there.
Much like Washington, things could go either way once in Pac-12 play. The Cougars must find a way to solve the riddle against the rival Huskies, something that has become a major stumbling block in recent memory.
Utah, Arizona State, Oregon and Stanford could pose threats. But a schedule like that is navigable, and it’s downright easy compared to to the slate many of the nation’s top contenders play. If the Cougars found another star in Gubrud and if they can take advantage of a regrouping Washington team, it could be another big year.
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John Raoux/Associated Press
Central Florida is not a Power Five program, so the Knights don’t qualify for this list as a conference contender—everybody expects them to win the AAC, anyway.
But they are on the list because it is a national title contender—and the only Group of Five one.
The past two seasons, their lack of a strong enough out-of-conference schedule has kept them out of the College Football Playoff.
Will they be able to do enough in 2019?
The good news is, even though star quarterback McKenzie Milton’s status is up in the air, Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush is coming to Orlando to help bridge the gap until Milton can get back on the field, and Wimbush is good enough to keep the Knights in the conversation.
While the Knights aren’t going to wow anybody with their schedule this year, at least they added a “name” team. That would be the Stanford Cardinal coming to town to play them on September 14.
They need to win that game and then hope the Cardinal have a monster season in the Pac-12. If that happens, it could (finally) be enough to propel UCF into the College Football Playoff. That’s a big stretch, but it’s a possibility, and it’s enough to qualify them as a contender on this list.
Beyond the Cardinal, though, there isn’t any substance, especially since Memphis isn’t on the schedule this year, and the Knights wouldn’t meet the Tigers until the conference title game, if they make it. Houston, Cincinnati and South Florida are the best teams on their conference list.
Other than Stanford, the Knights play Florida A&M, Florida Atlantic and Pittsburgh. No, that isn’t an awful out-of-conference schedule, but is it going to be enough to get them into the final four?
The Panthers played in the ACC title game a season ago, and if they have a similar season, it’ll help UCF’s cause. They also need coach Lane Kiffin‘s Owls to be better than a year ago.
Run the table and have their opponents help out, and UCF can get to the title game, even with a weak schedule.
Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.