The release of Phil Steele’s preview magazine – the most comprehensive preseason publication – means we’re one critical step nearer the kickoff of the 2023 season.
Among the dizzying array of statistical wizardry on offer is Steele’s strength of schedule rankings. Rather than relying exclusively on upcoming opponents’ win/loss records from the previous season (the NCAA’s methodology), his metrics also include such factors as teams’ power rankings for this season and the mix of home and away games.
What follows are, according to Steele’s calculations, the most and least difficult schedule in each of the ten FBS conferences.
The disparity between each pair of programs’ schedules is significant enough to alter the course of the season.
Toughest: EAST CAROLINA (No. 65 nationally)
Not only does East Carolina have the toughest schedule in the AAC – it has the most difficult slate among all Group of 5 clubs. The Pirates open with a roadie at top-ranked Michigan and visit Appalachian State – predicted to compete for another Sun Belt title – in Week 3. From their own conference they draw four of the five top teams from Steele’s predictions – No. 1 UTSA, No. 2 SMU, No. 3 Tulane, and No. 5 FAU – avoiding only No. 4 Memphis.
Easiest: CHARLOTTE (No. 111 nationally)
While Charlotte does have roadies at Maryland and Florida in non-league play, it meters that by drawing four of the bottom seven teams in the AAC – No. 7 Navy, No. 10 Rice, No. 13 USF, and No. 14 Tulsa.
Toughest: DUKE (No. 22 nationally)
Fresh off its best season since 2014, Duke will have to fight to achieve nine wins again this season. The Blue Devils’ non-ACC slate includes visits from Northwestern and Notre Dame while it’s league schedule – in the new wide-open ACC without divisions – features a season-opener at home vs. mighty Clemson, a roadie at Florida State in October, and another tough away game at North Carolina in November. Add in the finale vs. Pitt and Duke draws all four of Steele’s top dogs in the ACC.
Easiest: BOSTON COLLEGE (No. 70 nationally)
Only one Power 5 club in the entire nation has an easier rated schedule than does Boston College. The Eagles are one of only nine P5 teams not playing a P5 opponent in non-conference play in 2023, instead scheduling the likes of Northern Illinois, FCS Holy Cross, Army (the only road game) and UConn. In ACC action BC does get Florida State (at home) and has a roadie at Pitt, but also draws all its fellow members of Steele’s bottom five – No. 10 (tie) Syracuse, No. 10 (tie) Virginia Tech, No. 13 (tie) Georgia Tech, and No. 13 (tie) Virginia.
THE BIG TEN
Toughest: MICHIGAN STATE (No. 3 nationally)
After posting a 5–7-mark last season, Mel Tucker’s quest to prove he’s the right guy in East Lansing will be made more difficult with the third-toughest schedule in the nation. The Spartans have Washington – which should be a Top 15 team – in non-league play and then get Ohio State on the road in Columbus where they’ve lost four-straight. From the West, MSU draws Iowa and Minnesota, both among Steele’s top three in the division.
Easiest: IOWA (No. 68 nationally)
Iowa has the third-easiest schedule among P5 teams, tied with Oregon (No. 68) and just ahead of Michigan (No. 67). In non-conference play the only threat is a roadie at Iowa State, where they’ve won five-straight while in Big Ten play the only real battles are roadies at Wisconsin and at Penn State. The Hawkeyes totally avoid Michigan and Ohio State in regular-season action.
THE BIG 12
Toughest: IOWA STATE (No. 4 nationally)
Iowa State adds a road game at Ohio (University not State) to its bi-annual visit from Iowa in non-league action. While this might not seem like a big deal did you know that Ohio (also Steele’s top contender in the MAC East) beat a Big 12 visiting team as recently as 2017 when it hosted Kansas and prevailed 42-30? In Big 12 play, the Cyclones draw the entire top tier of the league with games vs. No. 1 Texas, at No. 2 Oklahoma, at No. 3 K-State, vs. No. 4 TCU, at No. 5 (tied) Baylor and vs. No. 5 (tied) Oklahoma State. The only upper team they avoid is No. 5 (tied) Texas Tech.
Easiest: OKLAHOMA STATE (No. 62 nationally)
While Oklahoma State does get a roadie at Arizona State, the Sun Devils are fresh off a 3-9 campaign and are expected to finish among the bottom three teams in the Pac 12. In Big 12 play the Cowboys draw the bottom seven clubs in the league: at No. 8 UCF, at No. 9 Iowa State, vs. No. 10 Kansas, vs. No. 11 BYU, at No. 12 West Virginia, at No. 13 (tied) Houston, and vs. No. 13 (tied) Cincinnati. The only top teams slated are home dates with Oklahoma and K-State.
Toughest: JACKSONVILLE STATE (No. 104 nationally)
Jacksonville State’s first-ever season as an FBS club won’t be made any easier with a schedule that features non-league roadies at South Carolina and Coastal Carolina (31-7 since 2020) along with league games vs. heavy hitters Western Kentucky, UTEP, Middle Tennessee, Liberty, and Louisiana Tech.
Easiest: LIBERTY (No. 133 nationally)
Liberty giving up its independence to become a FBS conference member for the first time in its history might look like a genius move. First up, the Flames don’t play a P5 club in non-league action instead scheduling Bowling Green, Buffalo, Old Dominion, and UMass. If that weren’t enough, they get Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech (both in the top half of the league) at home. It adds up to Steele’s easiest ranked schedule among the 133 programs participating at the FBS level.
Toughest: WESTERN MICHIGAN (No. 74 nationally)
Three of Western Michigan’s four non-conference games come vs. P5 opponents: at Syracuse, at Iowa, and at Mississippi State. Beyond that, the Broncos get the toughest three contenders from their own West division (Toledo, Northern Illinois, and Eastern Michigan) on the road – and – draw the top two dogs from the East in cross-division action – at Ohio and vs. Miami OH.
Easiest: OHIO (No. 131 nationally)
Only two clubs in the entire FBS have an easier rated schedule than does Ohio. The Bobcats do host Iowa State in Week 4 and have additional non-conference challenges at San Diego State and at FAU – both of which will contend for league titles. All of that is counterbalanced by a MAC schedule that includes getting fellow East division contender and rival Miami OH at home and drawing two of the bottom clubs from the West in Central Michigan and Western Michigan. They completely avoid Toledo and Eastern Michigan in regular season play.
THE MOUNTAIN WEST
Toughest: SAN JOSE STATE (No. 71 nationally)
San Jose State opens the season with what may be the toughest two-game combo in the G5 ranks – roadies at USC and at Oregon State, both of which should be ranked at game time. They also have a Week 4 road trip to Toledo – a frontrunner in the MAC – on the books. In conference action the Spartans draw all but one member of Steele’s top tier of the MWC – at No. 1 Boise State, vs. No. 2 Air Force, vs. No. 3 San Diego State, and vs. No. 4 (tied) Fresno State. The only top dog they avoid is No. 4 (tied) Wyoming.
Easiest: AIR FORCE (No. 128 nationally)
Air Force won’t play a P5 opponent outside of conference play this year, adding games vs. FCS Robert Morris and Sam Houston State (a new member of the C-USA) to its fixtures at Army and vs. Navy (in Denver). In MWC action the Falcons draw three of the league’s bottom four in games at No. 7 (tied) Colorado State, vs. No. 7 (tied) UNLV, and at No. 11 Hawaii.
Toughest: CALIFORNIA (No. 9 nationally)
Not only does Cal get Auburn at home in Week 2, but it also gets the entire top half of the league in conference play: vs. No. 1 USC, at No. 2 (tied) Utah, at No. 2 (tied) Oregon, at No. 2 (tied) Washington, vs. No. 5 Oregon State, at No. 6 UCLA, and vs. No. 7 Washington State. The only team it is scheduled to face from the bottom of the Pac-12 is Arizona State, coming in at No. 10 in Steele’s predictions. Yikes!
Easiest: UCLA (No. 72 nationally)
Like Boston College, UCLA is one of only nine P5 teams not playing a P5 opponent in non-conference play instead booking games vs. Coastal Carolina, at San Diego State, and vs. FCS NC Central. In Pac-12 action the Bruins do draw games at USC, at Utah, and at Oregon State but also get all five of the bottom teams in the league: vs. No. 8 (tied) Cal, at No. 8 (tie) Arizona, vs. No. 10 Arizona State, vs. No. 11 Colorado, and at (12) Stanford.
Toughest: FLORIDA (No. 1 nationally)
With the toughest schedule in the FBS, Florida has its work cut out for it to rebound from back-to-back 6-7 finishes. The Gators add a roadie at Utah – which should be in the preseason Top 15 – in the season opener to their regular-season finale vs. Florida State, which may or may not still be a top-ranked team when the dust settles. In SEC action, Florida gets Tennessee at home but will have to knock off both South Carolina and Kentucky on the road. In cross-division play it gets permanent-for-now rival LSU in Baton Rouge (it hasn’t won there since 2016) and then draws a dangerous Arkansas club.
Easiest: GEORGIA (No. 56 nationally)
Only 12 P5 clubs have an easier schedule than do the defending champs. Georgia’s only P5 opponent in non-conference play is its annual fixture at Georgia Tech where it’s won 11-straight, last losing in 1999. Other than that, it’s the sunny shores of home dates vs. FCS UT Martin, Ball State, and UAB. In league action, the Bulldogs do have to travel to Tennessee but get Kentucky and South Carolina at home. From the SEC West UGA adds Ole Miss to its standing date with Auburn (a road game), thereby completely avoiding Alabama and LSU.
THE SUN BELT
Toughest: ULM (No. 75 nationally)
Never shy to over-schedule, ULM goes big in 2023 with games at Texas A&M and at Ole Miss, one of the toughest non-league slates in the land especially given that it’s only posted one winning record since 1980, an 8-5 mark in 2012. In Sun Belt action, the Warhawks draw top-ranked Appalachian State from across the conference in the East and get fellow West division members Louisiana and Southern Miss on the road.
Easiest: LOUISIANA (No. 124 nationally)
Louisiana’s roadie at Minnesota is somewhat metered by the balance of its non-league slate, winnable affairs vs. FCS Northwestern State, at UAB, and vs. Buffalo. In Sun Belt action the Cajuns do get South Alabama and Troy (the other heavy hitters from their own West division) on the road but draw the bottom two clubs – Georgia State and Old Dominion – from across the conference in the East. They completely avoid App State, Marshall, Coastal Carolina, and James Madison in regular season play.
Historical data courtesy of Sports Reference/College Football.