With spring football basically over, we can officially start to turn the calendar ahead to the 2017 season. My colleague Stewart Mandel even got things rolling with his "post-spring Top 25" last week.
Obviously, a lot is going to change between now and Week 1, but it’s never too early to look ahead and begin projecting who might be a true College Football Playoff contender, and who could fall short.
And when it comes to falling short, few variables are more important than a team’s schedule. Last season, Washington rode a manageable schedule to a Pac-12 title and playoff berth, while others like Oklahoma had their season end before it really began with two out-of-conference losses.
So which teams have schedules that could keep them from competing for college football’s biggest prize? Here are nine:
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The Gators are ranked 17th in Mandel’s post-spring poll, meaning their playoff hopes are dubious at best. And that’s before you factor in that they’ve got a loaded schedule – specifically non-conference.
No one challenged themselves outside their league quite like the Gators in 2017. They open with Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines at Jerry World in Dallas, and close the season with their annual matchup against longtime rival Florida State. That’s two potential losses before we even factor in what could happen in SEC play. Speaking of which, the one saving grace for Florida might be that virtually all of its biggest conference games are either at home (Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M) or on a neutral field (Georgia).
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The poor Sooner Schooner crashed and burst into flames with losses to Houston and Ohio State in the first three weeks of the 2016 season. The good news for Bob Stoops’ club is that Houston is off the schedule this year; the bad news is that the Sooners have a return game against the Buckeyes in Columbus in Week 2. Urban Meyer’s club will likely open the season as a top-three team.
By Big 12 standards, the Sooners’ schedule is a little more daunting than in most years. Oklahoma will have to face arguably the two best teams in the league (besides itself) on the road when it visits Kansas State and rival Oklahoma State in a three-week stretch. And the Sooners close against West Virginia (which went 10-3 last season). Remember, to get to the playoff Oklahoma would also have to play one additional game, with the return of the Big 12 title game.
Like last season when USC started 1-3, we should learn very quickly just how good it is. The Trojans host Stanford – a team that has beaten the Trojans in four of its past five trips to the LA Coliseum – in Week 2. A week later, USC gets a visit from Tom Herman’s upstart Texas Longhorns. The Trojans close September with a Friday night game at Washington State, which has won 17 games over the past two seasons.
If the Trojans can get through September unscathed, their schedule opens up considerably. The most noticeable challenge comes during a stretch when they host Utah (which beat USC last year) and visit Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks. One perk for the Trojans? They won’t have to face defending Pac-12 champion Washington during the regular season.
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Everyone in college football wants to know how Clemson plans to replace Deshaun Watson, and we should start to get an answer early. The Tigers host Auburn (a top-10 team in Mandel’s poll) in Week 2, then visit Louisville the following Saturday. As you may remember, the Cardinals welcome back the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Even if Clemson survives those two games, things won’t necessarily get any easier. The Tigers will play two major upstarts on the road in the following weeks (at Virginia Tech and at NC State, which probably should have beaten Clemson last year). Their last big test will be with some club named Florida State on Nov. 11.
Jim Harbaugh’s biggest problem – outside of finding the right size Jordans for the Pope – might come before Michigan even takes the field in 2017. How will he replace 18 starters from last season's 10-win club? It won’t be easy, although it appears as though strides were made this spring.
Once the Wolverines step on the field, it will be interesting to see how Harbaugh navigates a schedule full of landmines. There is that Week 1 game against the Florida Gators and then two weeks later, Michigan faces Air Force’s difficult-to-prepare-for triple-option attack. The Wolverines also have to visit Penn State in mid-October, and close at Wisconsin and against Ohio State. All three of those teams probably will be ranked in the top 15 when they play.
That trip to Madison could be especially tricky. Michigan is the only one of the “big three” in the Big Ten East that has to face Wisconsin this season.
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Florida State Seminoles
For years, Alabama has opened with a signature game on Labor Day weekend; this year, Florida State has to face the Tide. Although the Seminoles' roster boasts top-five talent, facing Alabama when Nick Saban has more than one week to prepare is a virtual death sentence. Or at the very least, the fastest way to an 0-1 start.
Unfortunately for Jimbo Fisher’s club, things don’t really get any easier from there. The Noles face upstart Miami just two weeks after Alabama, and then play NC State, which will likely start the year in the Top 25. The back half of the schedule isn’t much easier, with Louisville (we all remember what happened at Papa John’s Stadium last year), and trips to Clemson and Florida in the final month of the season.
Florida State has the talent to win it all. But the Seminoles could play themselves out of the playoff picture at several different points of the season.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
After a dismal 4-8 record a season ago, Brian Kelly is on the hot seat – and that heat could get turned up thanks to a brutal schedule. It starts in Week 2 when likely SEC East favorite Georgia visits. After a several manageable games, things really ramp up from there.
On the back-half of the schedule, the Irish face USC, NC State (which beat Notre Dame last year) and Navy at home, and also visit Miami and Stanford to close the season. Of those five games, four will be against teams currently in Mandel’s post-spring Top 25.
Stanford’s schedule seems manageable on paper, but dig deeper and there are landmines everywhere. It starts in Week 1 when the Cardinal open against Rice – in Australia. That’s nearly a 30-hour round trip just to play the opener, and less than two weeks after returning from Australia, Stanford plays at USC (a likely top-five team).The following week, the Cardinal hit the road to play an upstart San Diego State club that won 11 games last season.
Stanford won’t actually play in Palo Alto until Sept. 23 – when it gets Josh Rosen and UCLA. Two weeks later is a trip to face Utah in Salt Lake City (always a tough place to play), and in November there are back-to-back games at Washington State and against Washington, two clubs that beat the Cardinal last year.
The Cardinal close against Notre Dame on Nov. 25 in what is one of the most thankless schedules in college football this season.
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Poor Gus Malzahn could use a break – he just won’t get one from a schedule that might be the toughest in college football.
Just two weeks into the season, the Tigers have to visit defending national champion Clemson in Death Valley. A few weeks after that, they face what you could argue is the toughest three-game stretch in college football this season: at LSU, at Arkansas and at Texas A&M (with a bye mixed in). If it survives that, Auburn then gets likely SEC East favorite Georgia at home, before closing the season against some team named Alabama.
Auburn has all the pieces to make a serious run at a playoff berth. It also has a schedule that could prevent it from getting anywhere close to that goal.
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