- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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Choosing which college football team will play the country's most difficult schedule in 2009 is hardly objective.
While sorting through each team's schedule, I tried to weigh which teams played tougher road games and which schools were more aggressive in scheduling nonconference games. Because the Pac-10 and Big East are the only BCS leagues that play a true round-robin schedule, I also had to consider the conference schedule of every school.
One thing is clear: The ACC figures to be a much better conference this season. With Miami, Florida State and Virginia Tech ranking among the top 10 in schedule strength, those teams figure to be much more battle-tested by midseason.
And Oklahoma and USC won't walk back into the BCS National Championship Game, either. The Sooners and Trojans, who are expected to be among the BCS title contenders, play two of the country's most difficult schedules.
1. Miami Hurricanes
After watching Miami go 12-13 in his first two seasons as head coach, Randy Shannon believes the Hurricanes are close to returning to the top of the ACC.
It won't take Shannon long to find out if the Hurricanes will truly be a contender in the ACC race this season. Miami faces seven FBS opponents that won at least eight games last season; overall, its 11 FBS foes had a combined record of 84-58 in 2008.
Miami opens the season with a brutal four-game stretch, starting with a Labor Day night opener at ACC rival Florida State. The Hurricanes host Georgia Tech at Land Shark Stadium on Sept. 17, and then play at Virginia Tech on Sept. 26. Defending Big 12 champion Oklahoma travels to Miami 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.
The Hurricanes also play ACC road games at Wake Forest on Oct. 31 and at North Carolina on Nov. 14. They close the regular season on the road at South Florida on Nov. 28.
Nonconference opponents: Oklahoma (home), Florida A&M (home), Central Florida (road), South Florida (road)
Toughest game: vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 3
Easiest game: vs. Florida A&M, Oct. 10
2. Oklahoma Sooners
If the Sooners are going to defend their Big 12 title -- and win their seventh conference championship since 2000 -- they'll have to navigate their way through one of the country's most difficult schedules. Oklahoma's 12-game schedule includes contests against seven FBS opponents that won eight games or more in 2008, and their 11 FBS foes had a combined record of 90-51 last season.
Oklahoma opens the season Sept. 5 against BYU in Arlington, Texas. After hosting FCS opponent Idaho State on Sept. 12, the Sooners play two more difficult nonconference opponents: home against Tulsa on Sept. 19 and at Miami on Oct. 3.
The Big 12 schedule opens with an Oct. 10 home game against Baylor, followed by the Red River Rivalry game against Texas in Dallas on Oct. 17. The Big 12 slate also includes road games at Kansas on Oct. 24, at Nebraska on Nov. 7 and at Texas Tech on Nov. 21. The Sooners play home games against league foes Kansas State on Oct. 31, Texas A&M on Nov. 14 and Oklahoma State on Nov. 28.
Nonconference opponents: BYU (neutral site), Idaho State (home), Tulsa (home), Miami (road)
Toughest game: vs. Texas, Oct. 17
Easiest game: vs. Idaho State, Sept. 12
3. Florida State Seminoles
If Bobby Bowden is going to bring the Seminoles back to national prominence this season, he'll have to overcome NCAA probation and one of the toughest schedules in the country.
An FSU program that traditionally played several marquee nonconference games is returning to its roots this season. Only one of Florida State's 11 FBS opponents finished the 2008 season with a losing record (NC State went 6-7) and eight of its FBS foes won at least eight games. Florida State's 11 FBS opponents had a combined record of 93-52 in 2008.
FSU opens the 2009 season at home against ACC foe Miami on Labor Day night. After hosting FCS opponent Jacksonville (Ala.) State on Sept. 12, the Seminoles will travel more than 2,100 miles to play at BYU on Sept. 19. FSU returns home to play South Florida on Sept. 26, the first meeting between the intrastate schools.
FSU will play several of its most difficult ACC games on the road, starting with an Oct. 3 road trip to Boston College. The Seminoles host Georgia Tech on Oct. 10 and travel to North Carolina on Oct. 22. NC State plays at FSU on Oct. 31, followed by consecutive road trips at Clemson on Nov. 7 and at Wake Forest on Nov. 14.
After hosting Maryland at Doak Campbell Stadium on Nov. 21, the Seminoles close the regular season with a Nov. 28 road trip at defending national champion Florida on Nov. 28.
Nonconference opponents: Jacksonville (Ala.) State (home), BYU (road), South Florida (home), Florida (road)
Toughest game: at Florida, Nov. 28
Easiest game: vs. Jacksonville (Ala.) State, Sept. 12
4. Georgia Bulldogs
A year after playing what was arguably the country's toughest schedule, the Bulldogs will again play a tough 12-game slate. In fact, Georgia is one of a select few BCS teams that will play three nonconference games against foes from BCS conferences.
And Georgia coach Mark Richt won't have much time to break in a new quarterback and tailback. The Bulldogs open the season Sept. 5 at Oklahoma State and then play their SEC opener against South Carolina at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 12.
After traveling to Arkansas on Sept. 19, Georgia plays consecutive home games against Arizona State on Sept. 26 and LSU on Oct. 3. Consecutive road games at Tennessee on Oct. 10 and at Vanderbilt on Oct. 17 are followed by an off week. Georgia gets extra time to prepare for defending national champion Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 31. The Gators blasted the Bulldogs 49-10 last season.
Georgia opens November with three straight home games -- against FCS opponent Tennessee Tech on Nov. 7, Auburn on Nov. 14 and Kentucky on Nov. 21. The Bulldogs close the regular season at Georgia Tech on Nov. 28. The Yellow Jackets beat Georgia 45-42 in Athens last season.
Nonconference opponents: Oklahoma State (road), Arizona State (home), Tennessee Tech (home), Georgia Tech (road)
Toughest game: vs. Florida, Oct. 31
Easiest game: vs. Tennessee Tech, Nov. 7
5. Arkansas Razorbacks
In terms of talent and skill, the Razorbacks might be one of the country's most improved teams in coach Bobby Petrino's second season at the school. But the Hogs might struggle to make much of an improvement on last season's 5-7 record because they play one of the country's most difficult schedules.
The Razorbacks' SEC road schedule alone would make any coach cringe. The Hogs play at Alabama on Sept. 26, at Florida on Oct. 17, at Ole Miss on Oct. 24 and at LSU in the Nov. 28 regular-season finale. Along with the road trip to Florida, Arkansas plays home games against perhaps the other top two SEC East teams: Georgia on Sept. 19 and South Carolina on Nov. 7.
The Hogs play three pretty soft nonconference opponents -- home games against FCS opponent Missouri State on Sept. 5, Eastern Michigan on Oct. 31 and Troy on Nov. 14. But Arkansas also plays Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, on Oct. 3.
Nonconference opponents: Missouri State (home), Texas A&M (neutral site), Eastern Michigan (home), Troy (home)
Toughest game: at Florida, Oct. 17
Easiest game: vs. Missouri State, Sept. 5
6. Virginia Tech Hokies
The Hokies are a popular preseason choice to win the ACC championship for the third time in five seasons. Virginia Tech got a break from the ACC schedule makers -- it doesn't play Clemson, Florida State or Wake Forest during the regular season -- but coach Frank Beamer put together a pretty arduous nonconference slate.
The Hokies open the season Sept. 5 against Alabama in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, in a game that might quickly determine whether they'll be a dark horse BCS championship contender. Virginia Tech plays consecutive home games against Marshall on Sept. 12 and Nebraska on Sept. 19. The Hokies also play a nonconference game at East Carolina on Nov. 5.
Virginia Tech's ACC schedule includes home games against Miami, Boston College, North Carolina and NC State. It plays road games at Duke, Georgia Tech, Maryland and rival Virginia.
Nonconference opponents: Alabama (neutral site), Marshall (home), Nebraska (home), East Carolina (road)
Toughest game: vs. Alabama, Sept. 5
Easiest game: vs. Marshall, Sept. 12
7. USC Trojans
On paper, at least, USC's upcoming schedule might not seem as tough as that of some of the teams ranked below it. USC's 12 opponents had a combined record of 75-76 last season, but Washington and Washington State were to blame by finishing a combined 2-23 in 2008.
The Trojans, who will be starting a new quarterback and replacing much of their tenacious defense, play most of their difficult games on the road this season. After opening the season against San Jose State at the Coliseum on Sept. 5, the Trojans play at Ohio State on Sept. 12, which might be a BCS title elimination game.
After knocking out the hapless Washington schools -- USC plays the Huskies on the road on Sept. 19 and hosts the Cougars on Sept. 26 -- it greets the meat of its schedule in October. The Trojans play consecutive road games at California on Oct. 3 and at Notre Dame on Oct. 17. After playing Oregon State (remember the Beavers?) at home on Oct. 24, USC plays at Oregon on Oct. 31.
The Trojans open November with a Nov. 7 road game at Arizona State, and then play three straight home games to finish the regular season (Stanford on Nov. 14, UCLA on Nov. 28 and Arizona on Dec. 5).
Nonconference opponents: San Jose State (home), Ohio State (road), Notre Dame (road)
Toughest game: at Ohio State, Sept. 12
Easiest game: vs. Washington State, Sept. 26
8. South Carolina Gamecocks
No wonder Steve Spurrier has struggled to get South Carolina over the hump in the rugged SEC East. The Gamecocks, who averaged seven victories in each of the past four seasons, will once again face a very difficult schedule in 2009. They play eight FBS opponents that finished the 2008 season with winning records, including four that won nine games or more.
The Gamecocks open the season with two potentially hazardous road games: at NC State on Sept. 3 and at SEC East rival Georgia nine days later. South Carolina then plays four straight home games, starting with a Sept. 19 non-SEC game against Florida Atlantic. Ole Miss travels to Columbia, S.C., on Sept. 24, followed by an Oct. 3 home game against FCS opponent South Carolina State.
After playing Kentucky at home on Oct. 10, the Gamecocks play three of their next four contests on the road, including an Oct. 17 road trip to Alabama. South Carolina also plays road games at Tennessee on Oct. 31 and at Arkansas on Nov. 7. The Gamecocks close the regular season with consecutive home games against defending national champion Florida on Nov. 14 and against rival Clemson two weeks later.
Nonconference opponents: NC State (road), Florida Atlantic (home), South Carolina State (home), Clemson (home)
Toughest game: vs. Florida, Nov. 14
Easiest game: vs. South Carolina State, Oct. 3
9. Oregon Ducks
No wonder Mike Bellotti didn't wait until after the 2008 season to hand over the reins of his program to offensive coordinator Chip Kelly. Kelly's honeymoon in Eugene, Ore., certainly won't last long if the Ducks don't play well during the first month of the season.
Oregon opens the season Sept. 3 at Boise State, which figures to be one of the most anticipated games ever to be played on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium. Oregon then returns home for three straight home games: Purdue on Sept. 12, Utah on Sept. 19 and California on Sept. 26.
The Ducks get a break during Pac-10 action by playing California, USC (Oct. 31), Arizona State (Nov. 14) and Oregon State (Dec. 3) at Autzen Stadium. Oregon plays road games at UCLA (Oct. 10), Washington (Oct. 24), Stanford (Nov. 7) and Arizona (Nov. 21).
Oregon's four-game start will determine whether Kelly's first season as head coach is a success.
Nonconference opponents: Boise State (road), Purdue (home), Utah (home)
Toughest game: vs. USC, Oct. 31
Easiest game: vs. Washington State, Oct. 3
10. Minnesota Gophers
The Gophers made tremendous strides in coach Tim Brewster's second season, improving from 1-11 in 2007 to 7-6 last season. Only a five-game losing streak at season's end spoiled what had been a remarkable turnaround.
Even with 18 starters back, the Gophers might struggle to maintain momentum. They open the season with three potentially difficult games against nonconference opponents and play most of the Big Ten's toughest foes on the road.
Minnesota opens the season Sept. 5 at Syracuse, and then returns home to open TCF Bank Stadium against Air Force on Sept. 12. California plays at Minnesota on Sept. 19.
The Gophers open Big Ten play at Northwestern on Sept. 26. They also play league road games at Penn State (Oct. 17), Ohio State (Oct. 24) and Iowa (Nov. 21). Minnesota plays Big Ten home games against Wisconsin (Oct. 3), Purdue (Oct. 10), Michigan State (Oct. 31) and Illinois (Nov. 7).
The Gophers don't play Michigan or Indiana, which isn't exactly a break after both teams finished 3-9 in 2008.
Nonconference opponents: Syracuse (road), Air Force (home), California (home), South Dakota State (home)
Toughest game: at Ohio State, Oct. 24
Easiest game: vs. South Dakota State, Nov. 14
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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