The Schedule Really Matters

College Football News ranks and analyzes the toughest schedules in college football for the 2014 season...

The 13-person College Football Playoff committee will put a particular emphasis on strength of schedule when evaluating contenders for the four open slots. As it should. But there’s a very fine line between impressing the judges and scheduling yourself right out of the discussion.

Schools that play three or four non-conference opponents masquerading as palookas could pay the price when playoff bids are doled out in early December. For that matter, so, too, will teams that refuse to turn down an alley fight. Positioning oneself for the postseason is an artfully-crafted blend of showcase games and routs that allow a team to occasionally exhale and empty the bench in the second half.

Auburn’s strength of schedule is among the highest in the country, but might the slate be a little too thorny for a title contender? And while Florida State has a relatively smooth path to another unbeaten season, won’t one loss be absolutely catastrophic to its cause?

Strength of schedule is a fluid metric that won’t stop calculating until the final regular season game is played. But it’s never too early to digest and divulge which playoff wannabes will be aided by their slate, and who’ll be swallowed up by it in the fall.

1. Auburn
Playoff Implications: Across the board, the non-conference schedules of SEC teams are almost comically easy. It doesn’t matter, though, because playing in college football’s nastiest league is more than enough of a measuring stick.

Auburn has one tough out-of-league game, a tricky Thursday night trip to Manhattan to face Kansas State. Otherwise, the Tigers will coast against San Jose State, Louisiana Tech and Samford. In conference, though, the schedule is hellacious, a built-in reality for teams in the West Division. Besides the usual title bouts with LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M, among others, Auburn has drawn South Carolina and Georgia from the East Division. The six-game stretch that begins Oct. 4 and ends Between the Hedges is downright wicked.

If Auburn loses just once with this schedule, it has to be viewed as a very strong playoff contender … with or without the SEC hardware.
Strength of Schedule: 9

2. UCLA
Playoff Implications: There’s scheduling to earn the committee’s respect. And then there’s scheduling to earn a December bowl berth. The Bruins are leaning in the latter direction.

Not only must UCLA run the Pac-12 gauntlet, which includes visits from Oregon, Arizona, USC and Stanford (the latter two in a six-day span) and trips to Arizona State and Washington. But its non-conference slate, a tricky opening day trip to Charlottesville and a Week 3 date with Texas in Arlington, is among the thorniest in the league. Of course, a South Division crown would also mean a likely rematch with the Ducks or the Cardinal in early December.

While Jim Mora has the Bruins playoff-ready, the team’s schedule is liable to grind the team down, with very few breaks throughout the fall. Sure, there’s ample margin for error, but a two-loss league champ could rob the entire Pac-12 of a representative in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Strength of Schedule: 9

3. Stanford
Playoff Implications: All of the Cardinal’s new starters on offense and defense are about to get a crash course in the difficulty of winning on the road.

Stanford won’t leave the Farm until the end of September. But when it does, it’ll set off on a nasty slate of trips that includes games in Seattle, South Bend, Tempe, Eugene and Pasadena. It’s possible that the Cardinal will be the underdog in all five games, with the Oregon and UCLA matchups looming particularly large for the team. Relatively speaking, the home portion of the schedule is far tamer, save for a Week 2 visit from USC.

Whatever scrutiny Stanford faces for a soft non-conference schedule can be quickly dismissed by the toughest in-league slate of any Pac-12 program.
Strength of Schedule: 8.5

4. LSU
Playoff Implications: When the SEC West is home, methodically regrouping is not an option.

The Tigers have a bunch of holes to fill on both sides of the ball, including under center. But they’ll need to retool on the fly, because the schedule is predictably unforgiving. The regular season kicks off with a trip to Houston to play ranked Wisconsin, and ends in College Station versus a young A&M team that should be all grown up at that time. In between, LSU will be challenged by Alabama, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and trips to Auburn and Florida on consecutive Saturdays in October.

As the SEC winner, the Tigers will be playoff-bound. With just a single loss that keeps them out of the league title game, they’d still have the quality wins to challenge a champion from another conference.
Strength of Schedule: 8.5

5. South Carolina
Playoff Implications: Never one to ease into a schedule, South Carolina will once again hit the ground running at the end of August.

The Gamecocks aren’t likely to exhale until Oct.5, the start of their bye week. Leading up to then, they’ve got visits from Texas A&M, East Carolina, Georgia and Mizzou to go along with bear trap trips to Vandy and Kentucky. USC better use its respite wisely, because the second-half of the schedule features three potential backbreaking ventures to the Plains of Alabama, the Swamp and Death Valley for the annual in-state blood feud with Clemson.

A one-loss SEC school that doesn’t capture the conference championship will still have a great case for a playoff spot. South Carolina is one of those contenders that will have plenty of opportunities to impress the committee, especially late in the year.
Strength of Schedule: 8

6. Alabama
Playoff Implications: The Tide is hungry for redemption after the way last season ended. This year, it figures to get cooperation from the schedule.

Bama gets a chance to build a head of steam by opening with West Virginia, Florida Atlantic and Southern Miss. And on the back end, the team won’t leave Tuscaloosa over the final month, including hosting this year’s Iron Bowl. It’s from Sept. 20 to Nov. 8 that the Tide will really learn if it’s ready to represent the SEC in the playoffs. Over that six-game span, it’ll host Florida and Texas A&M, while travelling to Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU. The East Division’s two best teams, Georgia and South Carolina, aren’t on the slate, nor is arch-nemesis Johnny Manziel.

In many respects, Bama has an ideal schedule for making a playoff run. It’s challenging enough to earn respect, yet with just enough breaks to constantly be recharging.
Strength of Schedule: 7.5

7. Georgia
Playoff Implications: If the Bulldogs survive the first two weeks of the season, look out. Even a split with the Palmetto pair, Clemson and South Carolina, won’t dash playoff hopes.

Georgia has a chance to get out of the gate very quickly before regrouping for the stretch run with a more manageable October. Actually, after the first two games, the Dawgs only face one sure-fire Top 25 opponent, Auburn in Athens on Nov. 15. And after the Week 2 trip to Columbia, they only play three true road games, with the Oct. 11 game at Missouri being the toughest one.

With a front-loaded schedule, the Bulldogs must beat the West Division champ in the SEC championship game to regain momentum within the committee. Georgia as the league runner-up will struggle to be a part of the final four.
Strength of Schedule: 7.5

Read more about the College Football Playoff Contender Schedules: No. 8 to 15