There are many ways to assess the strength of a team's schedule, and the method changes from team to team. For example, assume you have two schedules before you:
- Schedule A, which features the 12 most average teams in the country.
- Schedule B, which features the six best and the six worst teams in the country.
It's obvious that Schedule B is the more difficult slate. Right? You've got the six best teams in the country! It's got to be Schedule B, doesn't it? Well, maybe. If you're the 7th-best team in the country, Schedule B is a recipe for a headache-inducing 6-6 season, while Schedule A is a cakewalk to 12-0.
But imagine you're the 120th best team in the country. In that case, Schedule A is clearly the more difficult schedule. Yes, you're going to get blown out by the six best teams in the nation... but you've also got six winnable games staring you in the face. Schedule A is the highway to an 0-12 season. Any coach, fan or administrator would take a 6-6 season with six 45-7 losses over a dozen straight 28-17 defeats.
And then there's the other problem with evaluating schedules: It's only possible to accurately do so after the schedule has been played. That Florida-Michigan game at JerryWorld to open the 2017 season? At the time it was a potential New Year's Six preview between the ninth and 15th-ranked teams in the country. But by the end of the year it was clear that Wolverines-Gators clash was a forgettable game between two teams that went a combined 12-12 on the year.
With all that said, the NCAA has unveiled its strength of schedule ratings for the 2018 season. It's pretty much the most simplistic formula you can find, taking the cumulative winning percentage of a team's 2018 opponents, adding them together and then ranking them.
Here are the five most difficult 2018 Power 5 schedules, as ranked by the NCAA:
1. Florida State -- 97-56 (.643)
2. Nebraska -- 98-58 (.628)
3. Michigan -- 96-57 (.627)
4. Auburn -- 94-58 (.618)
5. Texas A&M -- 95-59 (.617)
Florida State plays a whopping 10 teams that finished with winning records in 2017, which includes FCS Samford but does not include a presumably resurgent Florida, who went 4-7 last year. The 'Noles also face Notre Dame in addition to Florida in non-conference play, and get Virginia Tech as a divisional crossover opponent on top of rival Miami.
Nebraska does not have a top-line non-conference opponent (the Huskers are re-kindling their rivalry with Colorado this year and next) but Scott Frost's first schedule also sees MAC East champion Akron and Sun Belt co-champion Troy come to Lincoln. Oh, and the Huskers face Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State from the Big Ten East, the former two on the road.
Auburn opens the season with Washington in Atlanta and gets Tennessee as its crossover opponent in addition to a finishing kick at Georgia and at Alabama (with a home game against Samford sandwiched in between), while Texas A&M plays Clemson and Alabama in a 3-week September span.
Five most difficult Group of 5 schedules:
1. East Carolina -- 88-60 (.595)
2. BYU -- 90-63 (.588)
3. Air Force -- 91-64 (.587)
4. New Mexico -- 89-64 (.582)
5. Louisiana-Lafayette -- 87-64 (.576)
East Carolina's schedule is not a friendly one for a staff that needs a successful 2018. The Pirates open with MEAC champion North Carolina A&T, then get North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Memphis and Houston are crossover opponents from the AAC West in addition to Peach Bowl champion UCF and 10-game winner South Florida.
BYU's schedule is a murder's row like always: Arizona, California, Wisconsin, Washington, Boise State and Utah, plus bowl teams in Utah State, Northern Illinois and New Mexico State.
Army's resurgence has taken a guaranteed win away from Air Force (the Black Knights shut out Air Force 21-0 in Colorado Springs last year) and the Falcons also visit Florida Atlantic in non-conference play. New Mexico plays Wisconsin and then visits New Mexico State the next week (the Aggies have won two straight Land of Enchantment Bowls), but also faces Incarnate Word and Liberty.
Louisiana-Lafayette visits Mississippi State and Alabama, and also gets all three of the Sun Belt's big dogs -- Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Troy -- in successive weeks, with the first and last games on the road.
Five "easiest" Power 5 schedules:
1. Oregon -- 65-87 (.428)
2. Virginia Tech -- 70-78 (.476)
3. Wisconsin -- 72-79 (.477)
4. Washington -- 73-80 (.477)
5. California -- 76-77 (.497)
Three of the five "easiest" schedules belong to the Pac-12 North, which features 9-game winners Stanford and Washington State, plus 10-game winner Washington and an Oregon team that should be better in 2018. (With the obvious caveat that Oregon and Washington can't play themselves.)
Oregon's non-conference slate Bowling Green, Portland State and San Jose State, while Washington plays arguably the toughest non-conference game in all of college football with the aforementioned Chick-fil-A Kickoff game versus Auburn in Atlanta. (The Ducks and Huskies both miss USC in crossover play.) Cal faces North Carolina and BYU, two name programs that went 7-18 a year ago, but gets USC in Pac-12 play. This is where we see the flaw in this system.
And then there's Wisconsin. The Badgers won't be able to sail all the way to December with legitimate questions about how strong their undefeated record truly is this time around. No, the Badgers visit Michigan on Oct. 13 and visit Penn State on Nov. 10.
Five "easiest" Group of 5 schedules:
1. New Mexico State -- 54-91 (.372)
2. UAB -- 57-91 (.385)
3. Ohio -- 59-88 (.401)
4. Arkansas State -- 59-87 (.404)
5. Colorado State -- 60-87 (.408)
New Mexico State's first schedule as an FBS Independent calls for just one Power 5 opponent, 5-7 Minnesota. Don't take this as a criticism. It's not. UAB only plays one foe that finished above .500 in 2017 in the first half of the year -- also smart scheduling.
Ohio scheduled "up" for two non-conference games, but against Virginia and Cincinnati, a combined 10-15 a year ago. Arkansas State does visit Alabama, but its other non-conference opponents went a combined 10-25. Colorado State faces three Power 5 non-conference opponents, all of whom were down in 2017: Colorado, Arkansas and Florida. Chances are at least one will be much better in 2018.
And that's the NCAA's strength-of-schedule rating system in a nutshell.