The glorious release of Phil Steele’s 2021 College Football Preview magazine means that we get a first look at his “Toughest Schedule” ratings. Steele’s methodology goes way beyond the practice of simply gauging which future opponents were successful last season and considers each foes’ prospects for the current year.
Following is a league-by-league look at the rankings (according to Steele) that highlights extremes. It’s something worth considering, and revisiting, as we gauge each team’s on-field success – in wins and losses – as the season commences and plays out. Again, it’s a testament to how not all schedules are created equally.
Instead of listing the leagues alphabetically, we’ve averaged each conferences’ combined schedule strength and power ranked the field from easiest to toughest.
CONFERENCE USA – average schedule strength rank: 112.2
C-USA collectively has the weakest set of schedules in 2021, failing to place even one team in the upper 50% of the schedule rankings. It’s also home to four of the five easiest slates in the entire FBS.
Easiest schedule: CHARLOTTE: No. 130 in the FBS
Despite having two Power 5 opponents (Duke and Illinois – which combined for a 4-15 record in 2020), Phil Steele has Charlotte’s schedule as the easiest in the entire FBS. Combined, the 49ers’ slate went 39-54 (41.9%) last season, the eighth-worst mark in the nation.
Toughest schedule: UAB: No. 73 in the FBS
Not only do the Blazers (the defending C-USA champions) have a roadie at Georgia – a CFP contender – they host a Liberty team that went 10-1 last season and returns 20 starters this year. They also draw two of the top three teams from across the division in the East – Florida Atlantic (the favorite) and Marshall (last year’s divisional champ and the fourth-most experienced unit in the C-USA).
MAC – average schedule strength rank: 102
Like C-USA, the MAC doesn’t have any members ranked in the top 50% of the FBS in schedule strength. What gives the Midwest contingency the edge in difficulty is having only five schedules (of 12 total) ranked among the bottom 30 nationally where C-USA has 13 (or all but two) such rankings.
Easiest schedule: BOWLING GREEN: No. 124 in the FBS
Like Charlotte, despite having two Power 5 opponents (road games at Tennessee and Minnesota), Steele has BGSU’s schedule ranked as the seventh easiest in the FBS. Not only do the Falcons get Ohio (the favorite in their own East division) at home, but they also draw Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan (the teams predicted to finish last in the West) in cross-division play.
Toughest schedule: AKRON: No. 79 in the FBS
While BGSU’s roadies to Knoxville and Minneapolis ain’t easy, the Zips up the ante with away games at Auburn and Ohio State. To add fuel to the fire, in cross-division play Akron draws Western Michigan and Toledo on the road and hosts Ball State – the top three teams in the West.
MOUNTAIN WEST – average schedule strength rank: 94.3
Even though the Mountain West has seven of its members ranked in the bottom 30 in schedule strength, it’s boosted by UNLV, Boise State and Colorado State – all in the Top 70 nationally.
Easiest schedule: HAWAII: No. 118 in the FBS
Hawaii is yet another “easy” rated schedule that features a pair of Power 5 opponents on the road – UCLA and Oregon State (the two combined for a 5-9 mark in 2020). This challenge is tempered by the remainder of the Warriors’ slate which includes two games (yes, you heard that right) vs. New Mexico State, a program that’s won six total games since 2018.
Toughest schedule: UNLV: No. 59 in the FBS
UNLV’s slate is sandwiched between Washington’s and Georgia’s in Steele’s rankings. First up, the Rebels will have to contend with a roadie at Arizona State and a visit from Iowa State – both of which ought to be in the running for their respective conference titles. Next, they get in-state rival Nevada – which returns 20 starters to a unit that went 7-2 last season – on the road.
SUN BELT – average schedule strength rank: 89.3
It’s quite a thing to have the Sun Belt ranked a solid No. 2 in collective schedule strength among the Group of 5 leagues. Not only does it have only two members in the bottom 30 it boasts four in the Top 80. It’s a testament not only to the individual scheduling practices of each program but the increased difficulty in in-conference play due to the rise of members like Coastal Carolina, Appalachian State and Louisiana.
Easiest schedule: COASTAL CAROLINA: No 128 in the FBS
After finishing 11-1 and No. 14 in the final AP last season (the third-highest mark of any non-Power club), Coastal Carolina has the third-easiest schedule in the land in 2021. The only Power club on the Chanticleers’ slate is Kansas – 18-99 since 2011 – who they beat last year. In cross-division play they draw ULM, Arkansas State, Texas State and South Alabama – completely avoiding (at least in the regular season) top dog Louisiana.
Toughest schedule: ULM: No. 64 in the FBS
Steele has the Warhawks’ slate ranked between Arizona State’s and Cincinnati’s. In non-conference play, they’ll visit Kentucky in Week 1 and LSU in Week 12. Between these two it hosts Liberty – who we’ve already identified as a real threat – in Week 7. If that weren’t enough it draws the combination punch of App State and Coastal Carolina from the East in cross-division play.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC – average schedule strength rank: 71.6
Not surprisingly, the American is the top Group of 5 league in collective schedule strength. Not only does it have a mere two members in the bottom 30, it boasts the highest ranked non-Power club (Tulane) and has two other representatives ranked in the Top 50 (USF and Navy).
Easiest schedule: HOUSTON: No. 121 in the FBS
Houston’s 11 FBS opponents combined for a 41-55 (42.7%) mark in 2020 – the 12th lowest in the entire nation. The Cougars’ only Power 5 opponent is Texas Tech (which it gets at NRG Stadium in Houston) – the Red Raiders haven’t posted a winning record since 2015. In AAC play, it completely avoids Cincinnati and UCF – the top two contenders in the league. With 18 starters back and a very manageable schedule, look for Houston to make a move in 2021.
Toughest schedule: TULANE: No. 20 in the FBS
Tulane opens its 2021 campaign with a visit from powerhouse Oklahoma and then two weeks later hits the road to play Ole Miss. In conference action, it basically draws the entire top tier of the league – Cincinnati, UCF, Houston, SMU, Tulsa, and Memphis. That’s six of its eight AAC games vs. the contenders.
Also of note: UCF: No. 105 in the FBS
First-year head coach Gus Malzahn and UCF will have an easier path to returning to double-digit wins with a schedule that’s ranked between Rice’s and Ohio’s. Only 25 teams in the entire FBS have an easier slate, which may not seem like a big deal – that is unless we start talking about a perfect team that deserves a shot at a CFP bracket spot. The Knights return 17 starters from last season, and though they’ll travel to Cincinnati for a showdown, they avoid Houston and Tulsa.
ACC – average schedule strength rank: 51.9
The ACC has two members represented in the top 20 toughest schedules (Georgia Tech and Florida State), but other than that, the remaining 12 programs are rated no better than No. 40. Five members (Duke, Pitt, Wake Forest, Clemson, and Boston College) are in the bottom half of the FBS in difficulty.
Easiest schedule: BOSTON COLLEGE: No. 83 in the FBS
According to Steele, Boston College has the second-easiest schedule among Power 5 clubs. The only threat in non-league play is a home date with Missouri, which hasn’t gone over .500 since 2018. In cross-division action, the Eagles avoid front-runners North Carolina and Miami – adding a struggling Georgia Tech program to its standing date with Virginia Tech.
Toughest schedule: GEORGIA TECH: No. 3 in the FBS
Only Arkansas and Auburn – both hailing from the nasty SEC West – have tougher schedules than Georgia Tech does in 2021. The Yellow Jackets add a roadie at Notre Dame to its standing dates with in-state rival Georgia and permanent cross-division foe Clemson (an away game). They also get Miami on the road.
Also of note: CLEMSON: No. 72 in the FBS
The second-easiest schedule in the ACC belongs to perennial front runner Clemson. The only obvious threat in the Tigers’ slate comes first – an opening date with big-dog Georgia in Charlotte. After that, it’s fixtures with the rest of the Atlantic (including getting Florida State at home) and the finale at South Carolina (6-16 since 2019), who they’ve beat six-straight times. From the Coastal they add Pitt to their standing date with Georgia Tech, avoiding North Carolina and Miami all together.
SEC – average schedule strength rank: 38.8
What drags the mighty SEC’s average strength rating to a No. 4 finish among the Power 5 leagues are the three member schools (Georgia, Vandy and Kentucky) represented in the bottom half of the rankings. Where on one hand six programs are rated in the Top 25, on the other six are all ranked worse than No. 50.
Easiest schedule: KENTUCKY: No. 84 in the FBS
According to Steele, Kentucky has the easiest schedule of any Power 5 program. While the Wildcats do get in-state rival Louisville on the road, the Cards went 4-7 last season and come into 2021 as the third least-experienced team in the ACC. The balance of the non-league schedule – ULM and New Mexico State – had a single win between them in 2020. On the plus-side, they do add LSU from the West to go along with their standing date with Mississippi State.
Toughest schedule: ARKANSAS: No. 1 in the FBS
The most difficult schedule in the land, Arkansas adds Texas in non-conference play and Georgia as it’s rotating opponent from the SEC East to its standing dates with the slugfest that is the West division. If that weren’t enough, the Razorbacks get Alabama and LSU on the road in back-to-back weekends in November. Ouch.
PAC-12 – average schedule strength rank: 31.8
The Pac-12 boasts five programs in Steele’s Top 25 toughest schedules including three (Arizona, Stanford, and Colorado) in the Top Ten. Eight of its 12 members finished in the top third and none landed in the bottom half of the rankings.
Easiest schedule: ARIZONA STATE: No. 63 in the FBS
Though they do travel to BYU in Week 3, Arizona State won’t play a Power 5 member in non-conference action this season. In cross-division play they draw Washington (many prognosticators have the Huskies in their top two in the North) but avoid Oregon. Additionally, they get USC – the favorite in the South – at home.
Toughest schedule: ARIZONA: No. 7 in the FBS
Like the Sun Devils, the Wildcats have a date booked with BYU this season, only Arizona gets the Cougars in Las Vegas in the opener. Though the Week 2 home date vs. San Diego State might not look threatening, the Aztecs return 17 starters this season and have a habit of knocking off Power programs: they won at UCLA in 2019, vs. (23) Arizona State in 2018, vs. (19) Stanford and at Arizona State in 2017 and vs. Cal in 2016. In cross-division play it draws both big dogs – Oregon (on the road) and Washington.
BIG TEN – average schedule strength rank: 29.8
Eight of the Big Ten’s 14 teams finished in the top third of Steele’s schedule ratings. Only one – Northwestern – landed in the bottom half. Purdue, Nebraska, and Michigan are all ranked in the Top 15.
Easiest schedule: NORTHWESTERN: No. 66 in the FBS
Only one program in the entire FBS (Coastal Carolina) will play a set of opponents that performed worse in 2020 than Northwestern’s did. Combined, the field went 31-49 (38.8%). The only non-conference threat is Duke, which returns 12 starters to a 2-9 product from a year ago. In cross-division play, the Wildcats do draw Michigan on the road but temper that with home dates vs. Michigan State and Rutgers. They avoid Ohio State, Penn State, and Indiana all together.
Toughest schedule: PURDUE: No. 5 in the FBS
Purdue is the only Big Ten member to double up on non-conference Power foes – it opens with a home date vs. Oregon State and then travels to Notre Dame in Week 3. The real fun comes in cross-division action when they host Michigan State and then travel to Ohio State in back-to-back weekends in November and then finish with a home game vs. Indiana. The Hoosiers return 17 starters to their 6-2 product from last season – their only regular season loss was a 42-35 nail biter at (3) Ohio State.
Also of note: OHIO STATE: No. 47 in the FBS
Top contender Ohio State has the second-easiest schedule in the Big Ten. While the Buckeyes do have a Week 2 home booking with Oregon, they draw Minnesota, Nebraska, and Purdue from the West – totally avoiding frontrunners Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska. They also get Penn State at home in Columbus.
BIG 12 – average schedule strength rank: 23.2
Combined, the Big 12 wins the sweepstakes for the toughest average schedule ranking. Six of the ten member schools are ranked in the Top 20 of Steele’s rankings and all but one – Oklahoma – are in the top third.
Easiest schedule: OKLAHOMA: No. 51 in the FBS
Oklahoma’s only real threat in non-conference play is a home date with Nebraska. Though an exciting matchup historically speaking, the Huskers are 16-28 since 2017 and haven’t beaten a ranked opponent since edging (22) Oregon 35-32 early in 2016. The Sooners get fellow Big 12 contenders Iowa State and TCU at home in Norman.
Toughest schedule: KANSAS: No. 4 in the FBS
Kansas hasn’t won more than three games in a season since going 5-7 in 2009. It makes the fact that only three teams – in the nation – have more difficult schedules seem more than a little unjust. The Jayhawks get mighty Coastal Carolina (whom they lost to in 2019 and 2020) and fellow struggler Duke – both as away games – in non-league play. In Big 12 action, they’ll play Iowa State, Texas, TCU, and Oklahoma State on the road. Ugh.