Bret Bielema's coming off a brutal debut season taking over a program in transition, and while his team figures to be better, with the slate facing the Hogs it's going to be a challenge to do much better than last year's 3-9. They open at Auburn, have a cupcake in Nicholls State and then go to Texas Tech before getting a visit from an NIU program that's won 35 games the past three years.
Texas A&M closes out the month and then it gets really tough with back-to-back visits from Alabama and Georgia. In November, there are trips to Mississippi State and Mizzou sandwiched around games against LSU and Ole Miss. In my estimation, that's four games against Top 15 teams (Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and LSU) and five more against Top 50 caliber teams (Texas Tech, A&M, Miss State, Ole Miss and Mizzou).
Sonny Dykes went 1-11 in his first year in Berkeley, AD Sandy Barbour is on the way out the door and this fall he faces a meat-grinder run. The Bears open at Northwestern, which is coming off a 5-7 season but did go to bowl games the previous five years. There are also road games at Arizona, Washington State, USC and Oregon State, who each are coming off bowl seasons and all four figure to be on the upswing.
Worse still, they also play UCLA, Oregon and Stanford, the three top teams in the Pac-12. And there are also games against good Washington and BYU teams. Given the mix of where some of these games are played, this is 10 challenging games whether you're coming off a 1-11 or 8-4 season.
Will Muschamp enters 2014 on the hot seat, and he's got his hands full with the schedule. The good news is the Gators open up with three cushy looking home games. The bad news in Week Four: They have to go to Alabama, then play a rebuilding Tennessee team before facing LSU, Mizzou and Georgia in Jacksonville.
In November, they face South Carolina before closing at FSU, the defending national champ. Manage all that and somehow get to the SEC title game, and they still have one more big hurdle into the playoffs. My count: five Top 15 opponents, which is more than Arkansas' schedule, but the Hogs' slate has more depth to it.
4. Virginia Cavaliers
Like Muschamp, Mike London's seat is hot and it figures to get even hotter when you open against a UCLA team led by Heisman contender Brett Hundley. Later in September, UVA faces Louisville and visits BYU. In October, they visit a Duke squad that won 10 last year. In November, it gets really nasty with games at Ga. Tech, at FSU and at Va. Tech. The lone home game is against Miami.
I think they'll face eight teams who are Top 50 caliber plus UNC and Pitt, who might be too this year.
Replacing basically the entire O-line is going to be tough enough, much less having three road trips against Top 15 teams: at OU, at Georgia and at South Carolina. In addition, the Vols face two quality teams from mid-majors (Utah State and Arkansas State) before the OU game, and neither is a tune-up. They also have to go to Ole Miss and host Bama, UF and Mizzou.
Two big factors keep the Irish from being higher on this list: They don't play a game in enemy territory until Oct. 18 and unlike everyone else here save for the Big 12 team, there is no conference title game potentially to cope with. Still, the second-half of the season has road trips to FSU, ASU and USC. Combined, those three won 34 games last season.
The Irish also have games against Michigan, Stanford, UNC and Louisville. The worst opponent figures to be Purdue from the Big Ten. There are no FCS opponents. People may knock Rice and Navy, but the Owls did win 10 games last season and the Middies won nine.
Not only do the Tigers have to break in a new QB and get used to life without Sammy Watkins, they have three games against Top 15 opponents: at Georgia in the opener, then later in September at FSU before closing against South Carolina. They also have games against a dangerous Louisville team, at BC, at Georgia Tech and against UNC.
The Noles are on this list, but I still like their chances to make it through this stuff. They open in Texas against an Oklahoma State program that has won 41 games the past four seasons. Three weeks later, they get a visit from Clemson. In late October, they have games against Notre Dame and at Louisville. In November, there are rivalry games at Miami and against Florida
The Hoosiers have as demanding a group of road games from top to bottom as anyone. They go to a 10-win Bowling Green team that is led by the MAC's best QB (Matt Johnson). Then, they visit the defending SEC East champs at Mizzou. Later they go to Iowa, Michigan, Ohio State and also play at Rutgers. They also host Michigan State and have Penn State and Maryland mixed in.
The Gamecocks have two legit tests in their non-conference against a potent ECU team -- led by stud QB Shane Carden -- and at the end of the season at Clemson. The SEC portion isn't any more forgiving: They open with A&M, have Georgia, have to go to Auburn and visit what I think will be a dramatically improved UF team. They also face defending SEC East champ Mizzou at home.
I also considered Texas for this spot but since the Mountaineers have only one home game out of their three non-conference games, and the neutral site game is against Alabama in SEC country, they get this spot. Also, since there is no Big 12 title game for any of the teams in that league to survive, it does make all their paths, relatively speaking, easier.
That said, WVU faces Bama, OU and Baylor -- three Top 15 teams -- all by midseason. They also visit Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and UT.