The more that conferences expand, the harder it is to create balanced schedules. While Big Ten and Pac-12 teams play nine conference games now, even in those leagues divisional play ensures that some teams are going to have it easier than others. Schedule luck can play a huge role in championship races.
Which teams have the most favorable draws? Which teams have the least favorable? Let's take a conference-by-conference look at the luckiest and unluckiest schedules. This is not strictly analysis of who has the toughest and easiest schedule in each conference; it will address nonconference play where applicable, but the primary focus is which teams, based on preseason expectations, appear to have the best and worst draws within the conference, in addition to home/road splits.
Favorable: Pittsburgh. The eight-game conference schedule in the 14-team ACC can provide enormous breaks for teams in the Coastal. Last year, Virginia Tech was the most fortunate, as it avoided Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in the regular season, instead drawing Boston College and Syracuse from the Atlantic. The Hokies actually lost to Syracuse, but they ended up winning the division before losing to Clemson in the conference title game. This year, Virginia Tech swaps Syracuse for Clemson in the regular season. Meanwhile, Pitt -- which upset Clemson last year -- avoids the Tigers, Seminoles and Cardinals and instead draws a road game with Syracuse and a home date with N.C. State. The Wolfpack will be a tough out this season, but out of the seven teams in the Coastal, the Panthers are the only squad that gets to avoid the defending national champions, the defending Heisman winner and a likely preseason top-five team. Of course, the scheduling breaks for Pitt apply only to the conference schedule and the conference race: The Panthers play both Penn State and Oklahoma State in nonconference play.
Unfavorable: Florida State. This is where the national championship hype has to be tempered, and this is where we can't help but include nonconference play. The Seminoles play Alabama (in Atlanta), Florida and Clemson away from home. As always, they draw Miami -- finally the presumed Coastal favorite -- from the Coastal, although at least the Hurricanes visit Tallahassee. The other Coastal game is against Duke, so it could be worse, but for a team with national championship aspirations, the schedule doesn't do many favors beyond boosting its case in any playoff arguments. If the Noles lose to Alabama, they have a slim margin for error the rest of the way with a schedule that also includes tricky home dates with Louisville and N.C. State.
The actual most brutal schedule in the ACC? It's Syracuse which isn't a realistic contender. The Orange play Florida State, Louisville, N.C. State, Miami and LSU on the road and host Clemson and Pitt -- plus early traps against Middle Tennessee and Central Michigan.
Favorable: Kansas State. The Big 12 is the only FBS conference that features round-robin play in which everybody plays everybody else, so the scheduling advantages are slighter here than the other leagues. The biggest difference is home/road splits: Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Kansas get five Big 12 home games. TCU, West Virginia and Iowa State have five Big 12 road games. And Oklahoma, Texas, Baylor and Texas Tech play four at home, four on the road and one at a neutral site. Things work out best for Oklahoma State (two of the league road trips are Iowa State and Texas Tech, and it hosts Oklahoma) and Kansas State. The Wildcats trade last year's nonconference road trip to Stanford for a much more winnable trip to Vanderbilt. Two of their road games in the conference are against Kansas and Texas Tech. While they do have to go to Texas and Oklahoma State, they host Oklahoma. Throw in two nonconference home laughers (Central Arkansas and Charlotte), and this is a highly navigable schedule for an experienced team.
Unfavorable: TCU. Oklahoma and Texas have arguments, because they have nonconference road trips to playoff contenders Ohio State and USC, respectively. TCU's schedule isn't terrible -- two of its nonconference games are Jackson State and SMU -- but it gets the nod here because it is the only team in the Big 12 that has to play road games at both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the two conference favorites. The Frogs also travel to Arkansas in nonconference play, and they have a tough road trip to Kansas State. In November, TCU hosts Texas, then goes to Oklahoma, then has to go back on the road for a potential trap at Texas Tech, before a short week leading into the Black Friday game against Baylor.
Favorable: Wisconsin. Things break about as a well as they can for the Badgers. Two of their Big Ten East games are against Maryland and Indiana. The other is against Michigan, but the Wolverines visit Camp Randall Stadium. This is after the Badgers had to play Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State three games in a row last year before facing Penn State in the Big Ten title game. The Badgers will probably see either Ohio State or Penn State in Indianapolis, but the road there is about as easy as it gets, with five Big Ten home games, also including Iowa. Just about the only unfavorable break is having to visit Nebraska, and the nonconference tip to BYU won't be easy.
Unfavorable: Maryland. D.J. Durkin may have the Terrapins heading in the right direction, but that might not reveal itself this season. We know that Maryland already shares a Big Ten East division with Ohio State (road), Penn State (home), Michigan (home) and Michigan State (road). That's bad enough every year. This season, Maryland's cross-division games are Northwestern, at Minnesota and at West favorite Wisconsin. The Terps also scheduled a season-opening road trip to Texas, which has plenty to prove but should be significantly better than last season. Even the nonconference home game against rising UCF is no picnic, after the Terps escaped the Knights in double-OT last year.
Special also goes to Iowa and Nebraska, the two Big Ten West teams stuck playing both Ohio State and Penn State. Nebraska also has to go to Oregon, but at least Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa all visit Lincoln. Iowa gets both Penn State and Ohio State at home, where it stunned Michigan last year.
Favorable: Washington. The only real negative to Washington's schedule is that it has to go to Stanford (and a road trip to Colorado is trickier than it had been in recent years). USC isn't on the schedule. Oregon and Washington State, the other top challengers in the North, visit Seattle. UCLA and Utah also come to Husky Stadium. The nonconference road trip to a Power Five school? At lowly Rutgers. Last year, Washington's only regular-season loss was to USC. This year, Washington won't see the Trojans until the Pac-12 title game. The Huskies have five Pac-12 home games, including only one road trip after the Oct. 14 date with Arizona State. Everything sets up well for Washington to repeat its 2016 success.
Unfavorable: UCLA. There are actually a lot of options here, but no plausible division contender has it worse than the Bruins. They get Stanford, Oregon and Washington from the North, with the Cardinal and Huskies on the road. They also play at USC and Utah, and their nonconference slate includes Texas A&M at home and a scary road trip to Memphis in a massive trap the week before the Stanford game. As long as prized QB Josh Rosen is healthy, UCLA has the talent to bounce back from last year's 4-8 debacle, but things could also spiral out of control because of how tough the schedule is.
Utah is unfortunate to draw the top four teams in the North -- Washington and Oregon on the road, Stanford and Washington State at home -- in addition to going to USC and BYU. Worst of all might be California, which is in for a long first season of the Justin Wilcox era: The Golden Bears host Ole Miss, Washington State and USC and visit Stanford, Oregon, UCLA, Colorado, Washington and North Carolina.
Favorable: Kentucky. If Kentucky is going to achieve a breakthrough -- it has lost at least five games every year since going 9-3 in 1984 -- after last year's bowl appearance, the schedule couldn't set up much better. Last year, Kentucky got to .500 despite having to play Alabama in cross-division play. This year, Kentucky trades Alabama for a winnable home date with Ole Miss. The other game against the West is at Mississippi State. The Wildcats get Louisville, Tennessee and Florida (who they haven't defeated since 1986) at home. Expectations shouldn't get carried away, but the East continues to offer winnable games, and the cross-division draw couldn't be better. With a strong running game and hopefully some progress on defense, there are wins on the table.
Unfavorable: LSU. Last year's LSU-Florida hurricane scheduling controversy has resulted in a dreadful challenge for the Tigers this season. They ended up losing the game that was moved from Gainesville to Baton Rouge last year, and now they have to travel to Florida, giving them five SEC road games and only three at home. To make matters worse, LSU trades Missouri for a road trip to Tennessee from the East. Not only do the Tigers have to play in Gainesville and Knoxville, they also have to go on the road to Alabama. The only SEC home games are against Auburn, Arkansas and Texas A&M. Also look out for the tricky opener against BYU in Houston.
Favorable: South Florida. The schedule is favorable in terms of USF's ability to post a great record. It is unfavorable if the arguments for who should get the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl bid are close. In nonconference play, USF trades Florida State for Illinois, at home on Friday, Sept. 15. The Bulls also play San Jose State, Stony Brook and Massachusetts. While USF does play Houston from the AAC West, it avoids Memphis and Navy, while Houston, Temple and Tulsa all have to visit Tampa. USF's road games in the conference are against UConn, East Carolina, Tulane and UCF. If the team makes a smooth transition to the Charlie Strong era, 12-0 is on the table.
Unfavorable: Navy. The Midshipmen are relatively inexperienced again, and this time they'll face a tougher schedule. They do avoid USF, the AAC East favorite, but they play top division rivals Tulsa, Memphis and Houston all on the road, and they also have a cross-division road game against Temple. They play five games after November begins, only one of which is in Annapolis: at Temple, SMU, at Notre Dame, at Houston and vs. Army in Philadelphia.
Favorable: UTSA. Frank Wilson did a terrific job in his first season as UTSA's coach, guiding the Roadrunners to their first bowl game in their sixth year of football. He returns an experienced roster, led by QB Dalton Sturm, and UTSA doesn't draw either Western Kentucky or Middle Tennessee from the C-USA East Division. Instead, it gets Marshall at home and visits FIU. UTSA does play Houston and Baylor in nonconference ply and has to visit West favorite Louisiana Tech, but ultimately the schedule sets up well for this team to be in the conference title hunt when it visits Ruston on Nov. 25.
Unfavorable: UTEP. The Miners went to a bowl in Sean Kugler's second season in 2014, but they're just 9-17 the past two years and lose star tailback Aaron Jones, who rushed for 1,773 yards in 2016 (nobody else had more than 168 yards). The schedule won't help as they try to bounce back. UTEP draws both Middle Tennessee and Western Kentucky from the East, presumably the two favorites, and it also visits Oklahoma and Army (who it lost to 66-14 last year) and hosts Arizona in nonconference play.
Favorable: Miami (Ohio). The RedHawks had among the strangest seasons in the nation last year. After winning a total of five games in their previous three seasons, they started 0-6. Suddenly, a switch flipped, and they won six in a row to improbably get to a bowl in Chuck Martin's third season. They ended up losing to Mississippi State by one. Seventeen starters return, and once again the RedHawks avoid both Toledo and Western Michigan from the West, drawing Ball State, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan. They do visit Notre Dame and defending MAC East champion Ohio, but they have the type of cross-division slate to give them a chance to win their division.
Unfavorable: Akron. The MAC West has been much deeper than the East, and last year Akron had to face both West heavyweights Western Michigan and Toledo. It lost those two games by a total score of 89-17 and fell one win short of bowl eligibility. This year, the Zips face the same problem: They visit both Western Michigan and Toledo … in back-to-back mid-October games. Akron also has a tricky nonconference schedule featuring Iowa State at home and Penn State and Sun Belt contender Troy on the road.
Favorable: Wyoming. Life is much easier in the Mountain Division than the West right now, but for Mountain teams, the best hope is to avoid San Diego State. The Cowboys do. From the West, they draw Hawaii at home, plus San Jose State and Fresno State -- two teams with new coaches that went a combined 5-19 last year. They do have play at Boise State, Air Force and Iowa, but Oregon actually visits Laramie.
Unfavorable: Boise State. As always -- but specially with Brett Rypien back at QB -- Boise State has major bowl aspirations. The road to that conversation presents plenty of tricky obstacles. The nonconference schedule includes Troy (10-3 last year) and Virginia at home and BYU and Washington State on the road. Inside the Mountain West, the Broncos draw a cross-division road game with defending champion San Diego State, and they have trips to Colorado State and Utah State.
Favorable: Appalachian State. Yes, the Mountaineers open the season with a road trip to Georgia. After that probable loss, they could run the table. In the last year without a Sun Belt title game, Appalachian State does not play the two teams who appear to be its toughest competition for the league title: Troy and Arkansas State. Troy and Arkansas State do play each other, in the season finale. Appalachian State also doesn't play South Alabama, which has gone bowling two of the past three years. Beyond Georgia, the Mountaineers play Wake Forest and Savannah State at home and UMass on the road in nonconference action. Few teams look like they're in better shape for 10 regular-season wins.
Unfavorable: Georgia Southern. UL Monroe is close, and it gets the honor of playing the toughest nonconference schedule (at Memphis, at Florida State, Southern Miss, at Auburn). We'll choose the Eagles because they play all of the favorites in the league: South Alabama and Arkansas State at home, Troy and Appalachian State on the road. They also play at Auburn and at Indiana out of conference, making this season a tough challenge for second-year coach Tyson Summers after a disappointing 5-7 debut.