- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Which college football teams will truly be tested by their nonconference schedules in 2009? Which teams will have inflated records by the time we reach the heart of the season? Here's an early look at the toughest and softest nonconference schedules from across the country.
Most Difficult Schedules
The Hokies might be a dark-horse candidate to win the BCS National Championship -- if they can win their very difficult Sept. 5 opener against Alabama in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Virginia Tech is one of 16 teams out of the 66 BCS automatic qualifiers that won't play a Football Championship Subdivision opponent this season. The Hokies shouldn't have much trouble against Marshall at Lane Stadium on Sept. 12, but Nebraska's Sept. 19 trip to Blacksburg, Va., will be one of the most anticipated games of the season. And the Hokies can't look past a road trip to East Carolina on Nov. 5, which comes in the middle of ACC play.
2. Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs played arguably the country's toughest schedule last season and their 12-game slate isn't much easier this year. Georgia is one of only three teams from BCS leagues (Georgia Tech and Syracuse are the others) to play three nonconference games against fellow BCS foes. The Bulldogs' Sept. 5 opener at Oklahoma State seems especially treacherous, as they'll face one of the country's most prolific offenses with a pretty young Georgia defense. The Sept. 26 home game against Arizona State at Sanford Stadium is a potential trap; it comes only a week after a road trip to Arkansas and a week before the Bulldogs play LSU. Georgia also hosts FCS opponent Tennessee Tech on Nov. 7. The Nov. 28 game at rival Georgia Tech, which defeated the Bulldogs 45-42 last season, comes at the end of a five-game stretch with no bye.
3. Oregon Ducks
The Ducks play only three nonconference games because of the nine-game Pac-10 schedule, but it couldn't be any more difficult for new coach Chip Kelly. Oregon opens the season Sept. 3 at Boise State, which might be the most anticipated game ever played on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium. The Ducks then return to Autzen Stadium to play four straight home games, starting with a Sept. 12 home game against Purdue. Utah, which finished 13-0 last season, comes to Eugene, Ore., on Sept. 19.
4. Oklahoma Sooners
Even with Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford returning to school, the Sooners will have to play well to navigate their way through a tough nonconference schedule. The defending Big 12 champions open the season Sept. 5 against BYU in Arlington, Texas. After playing FCS opponent Idaho State at home on Sept. 12, the Sooners play Tulsa on Sept. 19. Oklahoma travels to Miami, Fla., on Oct. 3. It will be the first time the schools play in Florida since the Hurricanes won 20-14 in the Orange Bowl to win the 1987 national championship. Oklahoma routed Miami 51-13 in Norman, Okla., on Sept. 8, 2007.
5. Fresno State Bulldogs
Fresno State coach Pat Hill likes to say his team will play an opponent "anywhere and at anytime." Hill followed up that promise when filling out the Bulldogs' aggressive schedule this season. After opening the season against FCS opponent UC Davis on Sept. 5, the Bulldogs play at Wisconsin on Sept. 12. They also play at Cincinnati on Sept. 26 and close the regular season with a road game at Illinois on Dec. 5.
6. Sun Belt Conference teams
Sun Belt Conference football teams have a tougher time paying their bills than day traders in the current economy. Arkansas State plays at Nebraska, Iowa and Louisville. Florida International plays at Alabama, Rutgers and Florida. Troy plays at Florida and Arkansas. Florida Atlantic travels to Nebraska and South Carolina. Middle Tennessee plays at Clemson and Maryland. Louisiana-Monroe goes to Texas, Arizona State and Kentucky. Louisiana-Lafayette plays at LSU and Nebraska. North Texas plays at Alabama, and Western Kentucky goes to Tennessee.
7. Florida State Seminoles
The program that built its reputation on playing difficult road games during the 1980s is returning to its roots this season. The Seminoles play FCS opponent Jacksonville State in their second game, and then travel more than 2,100 miles to play at BYU on Sept. 19. FSU hosts Big East foe South Florida on Sept. 26, which will be the first game played between the intrastate schools. FSU closes the regular season at Florida on Nov. 28.
8. East Carolina Pirates
If the Pirates get off to another sizzling start this season, they'll have earned it. East Carolina opens the season Sept. 5 at home against Appalachian State, which has won three of the past four FCS national titles. Then the Pirates play consecutive road games at West Virginia on Sept. 12 and at North Carolina on Sept. 19. East Carolina also hosts Virginia Tech on Nov. 5 in Greenville, N.C. East Carolina upset Virginia Tech 27-22 and West Virginia 24-3 en route to finishing 9-5 last season.
9. Illinois Fighting Illini
Unlike most of their Big Ten brethren, the Illini are actually playing a very aggressive nonconference schedule this season. Illinois opens the season against Missouri in St. Louis on Sept. 5. After playing FCS opponent Illinois State on Sept. 12, Illinois plays eight consecutive Big Ten opponents. Then the Illini finish the regular season with non-Big Ten games at Cincinnati on Nov. 27 and home against Fresno State on Dec. 5. Scheduling nonconference games so late is a risk, but the Illini might help their bowl chances by winning one or both contests.
10. Rice Owls
Rice apparently isn't too concerned about losing quarterback Chase Clement, receiver Jarett Dillard and tight end James Casey. Because the Owls might have been better off playing this season's schedule last year, when its high-octane passing attack was still intact. Without that trio, Rice will play consecutive road games at Big 12 opponents Texas Tech on Sept. 12 and at Oklahoma State on Sept. 19. The Owls also play home games against Vanderbilt (Sept. 26) and Navy (Oct. 10), two more bowl teams from last season.
1. The little five
Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Wisconsin hail from the Big Ten, but you wouldn't know it by glancing at their nonconference schedules. Combined, they play five FCS opponents, five smaller directional schools and only three opponents from BCS conferences (and that includes Syracuse twice). The five schools combined play only four non-Big Ten road games, and Michigan and Penn State don't play a single nonconference game away from home. Indiana plays at Akron and Virginia. Northwestern plays at Syracuse. Wisconsin plays at Hawaii. No wonder Penn State coach Joe Paterno didn't want Notre Dame in the Big Ten. Why would he want to give up playing Akron, Syracuse, Temple and FCS opponent Eastern Illinois at home?
2. SEC contenders
Florida will be gunning for its third BCS national championship in four seasons. LSU might be a dark-horse candidate after winning a national title in 2007. Alabama and Ole Miss might both be in the BCS hunt, too. But none of those SEC teams' nonconference schedules looks like championship material. Give Alabama credit for opening the season against Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Don't give the Crimson Tide credit for playing Florida International, North Texas and FCS opponent Chattanooga at home. LSU opens the season at Washington, which didn't win a single game last season and probably couldn't beat Appalachian State, which opened the 2008 season in Baton Rouge, La. The rest of the Tigers' non-SEC slate has a distinct Cajun flavor: Louisiana-Lafayette, Tulane and Louisiana Tech (all at home). The Gators open the season against FCS foe Charleston Southern and probably won't have to play much better to beat Troy or Florida International. At least Florida closes the regular season Nov. 28 against rival FSU. Ole Miss opens the season with an 85-mile road trip to Memphis, and plays UAB and two FCS opponents -- Southeastern Louisiana and Northern Arizona -- at home.
3. Big 12 schools in Kansas
Kansas State built its roster by recruiting juco players. The Wildcats probably wish they could schedule games against juco teams, too. Only rival Kansas' nonconference schedule keeps Kansas State from being the laughingstock of the state. The Wildcats play FCS opponents Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech. At least they'll make road trips to Louisiana-Lafayette and UCLA. The Jayhawks play FCS opponent Northern Colorado (home), UTEP (road), Duke (home) and Southern Miss (home).
4. North Carolina Triangle
Someone forgot to tell the football coaches at Duke, North Carolina and NC State that they weren't scheduling basketball games. You can't play two FCS opponents without getting ridiculed. But that's what the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Wolfpack will do this coming season. Duke plays defending FCS national champion Richmond and North Carolina Central. UNC plays The Citadel and Georgia Southern. NC State plays Murray State and Gardner-Webb.
5. Rutgers Scarlet Knights
The schedule maker in Piscataway, N.J., must have thought he was writing the sequel to "The Scarlet Letter." Rutgers' nonconference schedule offers about as much excitement as a poorly written romance novel. The Scarlet Knights play two very bad FCS opponents (Howard and Texas Southern), a struggling service academy (Army) and a woebegone Sun Belt Conference opponent (Florida International). A Sept. 26 road trip to Maryland is the only non-Big East game the Scarlet Knights could possibly lose, and the Terrapins haven't exactly been world-beaters the past few seasons. The Scarlet Knights' five nonconference opponents had a combined record of 21-39 last season.
The Longhorns had better hope the Big 12 doesn't introduce a tiebreaker based on schedule strength. Texas would even lose to Baylor this season. The Longhorns might be a BCS national championship contender, but they probably won't get many breaks from voters after playing a nonconference schedule that includes home games against Louisiana-Monroe, UTEP and Central Florida and a road contest at Wyoming.
7. Nebraska Cornhuskers
Are the Cornhuskers trying to win the Big 12 North or the Sun Belt Conference title? Give Nebraska credit for traveling to Virginia Tech; it's never easy to win at Lane Stadium. But the Cornhuskers' other three non-Big 12 games are against Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State and Louisiana-Lafayette. It's a shame the Cornhuskers couldn't replace Missouri with another Sun Belt Conference team.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks
Somebody at Arkansas did his homework before finalizing this season's schedule. The Razorbacks will play one of the country's most difficult schedules because of their SEC slate, which includes road games at Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU. But the Hogs more than made up for it with a very soft nonconference schedule. Arkansas plays FCS opponent Missouri State at home, along with a neutral-site game versus Texas A&M and home games against Eastern Michigan and Troy.
9. Kentucky Wildcats
I'm guessing new Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari can't wait to watch the Wildcats play football this season. UK's football schedule looks a lot like the ones Calipari's basketball teams played at Memphis every season. The Wildcats open the season Sept. 5 at Miami (Ohio) and then play rival Louisville at home two weeks later. After opening SEC play, Kentucky plays Louisiana-Monroe at home on Oct. 24 and FCS opponent Eastern Kentucky at home Nov. 7.
10. Ball State Cardinals
Want to finish the regular season with an unblemished record? Call Ball State. The Cardinals have the scheduling formula down to an exact science. A year after the Cardinals rode a soft schedule to a 12-0 record during the regular season, they'll once again play one of the country's weaker nonconference slates. Give Ball State credit for playing at Auburn on Sept. 26. But they could have done a little better than North Texas (home), FCS opponent New Hampshire (home) and Army (road).
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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