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Ranking College Football’s 15 Most Difficult Schedules In 2016

The 2015 college football season isn't over yet - there are still dozens of bowl games, the College Football Playoff and a national champion to be crowned - but we wanted to get a head start on previewing the 2016 season.

We went through the schedule for every Power 5 team (and the independents) and came up with a list of college football's toughest schedules for 2016. Every team's schedule has basically been set, with the exception of game times and TV channels.

Which teams have the toughest roads to the College Football Playoff? Who has a really hard non-conference slate? Whose conference schedules are the most brutal? 

Find out here. 

Presenting College Football's 15 Most Difficult Schedules In 2016. 

Start With No. 15 ??? >>>

15. BYU 

The Cougars are one of two independent teams to make the list. BYU had a tough schedule in 2015, playing at Nebraska, at UCLA and at Michigan, among others. The schedule doesn't get any easier next season. In fact, it might be even tougher. And BYU will have to navigate it with a new head coach. 

Sept. 3 - @Arizona 
Sept. 10 - @Utah
Sept. 17 - UCLA
Sept. 24 - West Virginia (neutral)
Sept. 30 - Toledo
Oct. 8 - @Michigan State
Oct. 15 - Mississippi State
Oct. 22 - @Boise State
Nov. 5 - @Cincinnati 
Nov. 12 - Southern Utah
Nov. 19 - UMass
Nov. 26 - Utah State

That's a tough one. While there probably isn't a true top 10 team on the schedule, Arizona, Utah, UCLA and Michigan State are all potential top 25 squads. The first month is just brutal, too. It's very possible the Cougars could open with four straight losses, and a three-game skid in October is possible, as well. Thankfully for BYU, the end of the year is pretty manageable, and the Cougars may need it to be to make a bowl game. 

Next: No. 14 ??? >>>

14. Michigan State

The Spartans will have a tough time getting back to the College Football Playoff. Michigan State faced a pretty daunting slate in 2015, playing Oregon in the non-conference and Michigan, Nebraska and Ohio State on the road in-conference. Mark Dantonio's squad got it done, though, winning the Big 10 and getting a chance to compete for a national championship. Here's what they'll have to get through to do the same in 2016. 

Sept. 3 - Furman
Sept. 17 - @Notre Dame
Sept. 24 - Wisconsin
Oct. 1 - @Indiana
Oct. 8 - BYU
Oct. 15 - Northwestern
Oct. 22 - @Maryland
Oct. 29 - Michigan
Nov. 5 - @Illinois
Nov. 12 - Rutgers
Nov. 19 - Ohio State
Nov. 26 - @Penn State

There are three potential top 10-15 teams on this schedule: Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State. Going 2-1 in that stretch would be a big success for the Spartans. The rest of the schedule isn't too easy, either. BYU is a tough non-conference game and it comes in early October, when the Cougars could be getting comfortable with their new coach. Road contests at Indiana, Maryland and Penn State could all prove to be difficult, too. 

Next: No. 13 ??? >>>

13. Texas

Texas faced a fairly difficult schedule in 2015 and did so at a time when it was still trying to find its identity. The Longhorns met five different top 25 opponents in Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor, losing three of the five match ups, and they may have it even worse in 2016. 

Sept. 3 - Notre Dame
Sept. 10 - UTEP
Sept. 17 - @Cal
Oct. 1 - @Oklahoma State
Oct. 8 - Oklahoma (neutral)
Oct. 15 - Iowa State
Oct. 22 - @Kansas State
Oct. 29 - Baylor
Nov. 5 - @Texas Tech
Nov. 12 - West Virginia
Nov. 19 - @Kansas
Nov. 24 - TCU

Opening things up against a hungry Notre Dame team, one that lost two games (Clemson and Stanford) by a combined four points, will be difficult enough. But then the Longhorns will have one weekend against UTEP to prepare for an out-of-conference game against a good Cal team, a road game against Oklahoma State and the Red River Shootout against Oklahoma. Five teams on this schedule are ranked in the top 20 heading into the bowl season. Ending the season against TCU will also be a tough task.

Next: No. 12 ??? >>>

12. Arkansas

The Razorbacks faced four top 25 teams in 2015 in Texas A&M, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, and managed to win half of those games. An Arkansas team that seemed lost early on matured into a dangerous threat to anybody that stepped on the field. But it will have to carry that momentum into next season, as 2016's schedule is slated to be even more difficult.

Sept. 3 - Louisiana Tech
Sept. 10 - @TCU
Sept. 17 - Texas Tech
Sept. 24 - @Texas A&M
Oct. 1 - Alcorn State (neutral)
Oct. 8 - Alabama
Oct. 15 - Ole Miss
Oct. 22 - @Auburn
Nov. 5 - Florida
Nov. 12 - LSU
Nov. 19 - @Mississippi State
Nov. 26 - @Missouri

Louisiana Tech just won a bowl game, but it will be losing record-breaking starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to graduation, so the season opener may not be as concerning as it sounds right now for Arkansas. But that's where the breathing room ends. The Razorbacks have one of the toughest stretches of 2016, starting with the October 8 matchup at home against Alabama and ending with the November 19 road game against Mississippi State. In between those? Ole Miss, at Auburn, Florida and LSU. Yikes. Even if the Razorbacks come out as strong as we expect, it's a difficult road ahead.

Next: No. 11 ??? >>>

11. Ohio State

The Buckeyes didn't face the most difficult schedule in 2015, having to wait until their final two games against Michigan State and Michigan to face ranked opponents, and they won half of those games, ultimately keeping them out of the Big Ten title game and the College Football Playoff discussion. If Ohio State wants to take another shot at a title run, it will have to face a steeper road in 2016. 

Oct. 3 - Bowling Green
Oct. 10 - Tulsa
Oct. 17 - @Oklahoma
Oct. 1 - Rutgers
Oct. 8 - Indiana
Oct. 15. - @Wisconsin
Oct. 22 - @Penn State
Oct. 29 - Northwestern
Nov. 5 - Nebraska
Nov. 12 - @Maryland
Nov. 19 - @Michigan State
Nov. 26 - Michigan

Opening up against Bowling Green and Tulsa should be no problem at all, and the Buckeyes will need it before hitting the road against Oklahoma in week 3. Ohio State will get a much-needed bye week following what's expected to be a physical matchup against the Sooners. From there, the Buckeyes will have a pair of easy games before opening up a difficult stretch on the road against Wisconsin and Penn State, then hosting Northwestern and Nebraska. Oh, and don't forget they still have to end the season against Michigan State and Michigan. 

Next: No. 10 ??? >>>

10. Wisconsin 

The Badgers had another solid campaign in 2015, finishing 9-3 in the regular season and earning a Holiday Bowl bid. For the second year in a row, Wisconsin opened the season against an SEC powerhouse, but received a bit of a breather in-conference thanks to a pair of easy crossover opponents: Rutgers and Maryland. There will be no such good fortune in 2016.

Sept. 3 – LSU (neutral)
Sept. 10 – Akron 
Sept. 17 – Georgia State
Sept. 24 – @Michigan State
Oct. 1 – @Michigan
Oct. 15 – Ohio State
Oct. 22 – @Iowa
Oct. 29 – Nebraska
Nov. 5 – @Northwestern
Nov. 12 – Illinois
Nov. 19 – @Purdue
Nov. 26 – Minnesota 

Look at those first six games. The opener against LSU is a difficult early test, and that three-game crossover stretch (at Michigan State, at Michigan and home against Ohio State) is an absolute bear. Road trips to Iowa and Northwestern aren't much fun either. Wisconsin is one of the most consistent programs in the country, having won at least nine regular season games six of the past seven years. The Badgers are going to have their hands full trying to maintain that level of success in 2016. 

Next: No. 9 ??? >>>

9. Alabama

The Crimson Tide survived the SEC gauntlet in 2015 with one blemish, an early season loss to Ole Miss. After brushing off that defeat, Nick Saban's crew ripped off 10 straight wins to capture the SEC title and earn a College Football Playoff berth. In 2016, the Crimson Tide will be tested right off the bat. 

Nick Saban upset with reporters at a press conference.

Twitter/@SECNetwork

Sept. 3 – USC (neutral)
Sept. 10 – Western Kentucky 
Sept. 17 – @Ole Miss
Sept. 24 – Kent State
Oct. 1 – Kentucky 
Oct. 8 – @Arkansas
Oct. 15 – @Tennessee 
Oct. 22 – Texas A&M
Nov. 5 – @LSU
Nov. 12 – Mississippi State
Nov. 19 – Chattanooga 
Nov. 26 – Auburn

The opener against USC is monumental for both teams. The winner starts its season off with a gigantic resume booster, while the loser finds itself behind the eight-ball early on, and likely needing to run the table to get to the Playoff. In conference, it doesn't get much tougher than road trips to Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. The brightest spots for the Tide? Any opponent with Kent in its name (Western Kentucky, Kentucky and Kent State), and playing four of the last five games in Tuscaloosa. 

Next: No. 8 ??? >>>

8. Florida State 

The Seminoles had a very good season in 2015, going 10-2 and making the Peach Bowl, but some fans were disappointed the team didn't reach the insanely high standards it has set for itself recently. Looking ahead, there is plenty of talent returning to Tallahassee, and 2016 recruiting class currently ranks in the top five less than two months until signing day. 

Sept. 5 – Ole Miss (neutral)
Sept. 10 – Charleston Southern 
Sept. 24 – @USF
Nov. 26 – Florida

Note: The ACC hasn't released the dates for conference games but the Seminoles are slated to play the following opponents:

Home: Boston College, Clemson, Wake Forest, North Carolina
Away: Louisville, Miami (Fla.), NC State, Syracuse

The 'Noles have Ole Miss to kick things off, and will finish the season against arch-rival Florida. While the ACC hasn't set the dates of conference games yet, the opponents and locations are set. Florida State lucks out by drawing Clemson and UNC at home, but road trips to Louisville and Miami will not be cakewalks. 

Next: No. 7 ??? >>>

7. LSU

LSU started 7-0 in 2015 before the roof caved in and the Tigers lost three of their last four. Head coach Les Miles first came under fire, then was nearly fired before the administration decided to stand pat. Miles will likely be under the microscope in 2016 as well, especially since his team will be highly-rated going into next season. 

Sept. 3 – Wisconsin (neutral)
Sept. 10 –Jacksonville State 
Sept. 17 – Mississippi State
Sept. 24 – @Auburn
Oct. 1 – Missouri
Oct. 8 – @Florida
Oct. 15 – Southern Miss
Oct. 22 – Ole Miss
Nov. 5 – Alabama
Nov. 12 – @Arkansas
Nov. 19 – South Alabama
Nov. 24 – @Texas A&M

There really aren't any easy stretches in this 12-game slate. Wisconsin is a formidable opening night opponent, and the Tigers close out September with a trip to Auburn. October appears manageable, though Florida will be tough to take down in the Swamp. The final month is brutal. Yes, South Alabama looks like a cupcake, but Alabama is the polar opposite of that and Arkansas and Texas A&M are difficult places to play. 

Next: No. 6 ??? >>>

6. Notre Dame

Rarely is there a year that Notre Dame, one of the few remaining FBS independents, doesn't have a very difficult schedule. This year, even a game at Temple turned into a tough game, and the site of College GameDay. Notre Dame gets every team's best shot, and this year, the Fighting Irish definitely showed some wear and tear as the season went on, with a number of injuries to important players. Next year's schedule is not much different:

Notre Dame players celebrate a touchdown against Stanford.

YouTube/WatchND

Sept. 3 – @Texas
Sept. 10 – Nevada
Sept. 17 – Michigan State
Sept. 24 – Duke
Oct. 1 – @Syracuse (neutral)
Oct. 8 – @N.C. State 
Oct. 15 – Stanford
Oct. 29 – Miami
Nov. 5 – Navy (neutral)
Nov. 12 – Army (neutral)
Nov. 19 – Virginia Tech 
Nov. 26 – @USC

Notre Dame gets to spend a lot of time at home, and have three neutral site games in which they should have a distinct advantage when it comes to crowd support, but there are very few breaks in this stretch. Logic would dictate that Texas will improve upon a rough 2015, and as they showed in this season's Red River Shootout, the Longhorns can beat anyone.

Rivalry games with Michigan State, Stanford, and USC will all be difficult, and Miami is a bit of a wild card. If Mark Richt can get more out of the talent at The U than Al Golden, that may be a dangerous team, especially with a veteran Brad Kaaya under center.

If Notre Dame gets through this stretch unscathed or with only one loss, expect them to be right in the College Football Playoff picture again.

Next: No. 5 ??? >>>

5. Stanford

David Shaw's Cardinal were extremely close to making the College Football Playoff this season, and next year's schedule will also provide the team an opportunity to build an incredibly strong resume. With a week two bye, October and November will be a serious grind for the defending Pac-12 champions.

Sept. 3 – Kansas State
Sept. 17 – USC
Sept. 24 – @UCLA
Oct. 1 – @Washington
Oct. 8 – Washington State
Oct. 15 – @Notre Dame
Oct. 22 – Colorado
Oct. 29 – @Arizona
Nov. 5 – Oregon State
Nov. 12 – @Oregon
Nov. 19 – @Cal 
Nov. 26 – Rice

The Cardinal open with the generally-strong Kansas State Wildcats, have an early bye that the team probably doesn't love, and then plays 10 straight power conference opponents before easing into the post-season with a November 26 game against Rice.

The home/road breakdown is not all that kind to Stanford either. The six teams that host Stanford each qualified for a bowl this season, and had an average of nearly eight wins heading into bowl play. Stanford has been a dominant team in the Pac-12 in the Harbaugh/Shaw era, but nothing will be handed to it in 2016.

Next: No. 4 ??? >>>

4. Ole Miss

The Wofford Terriers better brace themselves, because Ole Miss is going to be looking to score a big win on September 10, 2016. Outside of that Wofford game, Ole Miss has a ridiculous start to the schedule, facing three of the top programs in college football in September. The SEC West should be among the toughest divisions in the sport once again, so things barely lighten up after that. Even Ole Miss' "cupcakes" were Group of Five powerhouses in 2015.

Hugh Freeze dances in the locker room after Ole Miss's win against Alabama.

Twitter/@EMcCray70

Sept. 5 – Florida State (neutral)
Sept. 10 – Wofford
Sept. 17 – Alabama
Sept. 24 – Georgia
Oct. 1 – Memphis
Oct. 15 – @Arkansas
Oct. 22 – @LSU
Oct. 29 – Auburn
Nov. 5 – Georgia Southern
Nov. 12 – @Texas A&M
Nov. 19 – @Vanderbilt
Nov. 26 – Mississippi State

The one saving grace that Ole Miss has early in the schedule is that its home games are front-loaded. Alabama, Georgia, and Memphis all travel to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Of course, that means that Ole Miss hits the road a lot down the stretch, including back-to-back road trips in both October and November.

Arkansas and LSU are both physical, bruising games, Auburn is likely to improve from a dreadful 2015, and Georgia Southern is never an easy out—ask Florida. Things are a bit easier down the stretch, but it is hard to know what Texas A&M will look like in 2016, Vanderbilt has quietly improved steadily under Derek Mason, and the Egg Bowl is a rivalry game. Never sleep on a rivalry game.

If Ole Miss survives the first two months of the season, it will be in good shape, but the only true cupcake here is Wofford. Such is life in the SEC.

Next: No. 3 ??? >>>

3. Oklahoma 

One of this year's College Football Playoff participants will have to navigate a tough road to get back there in 2016. The Sooners, who will return star quarterback Baker Mayfield, open with Tom Herman's Houston squad, which is currently preparing for a Peach Bowl showdown with Florida State. After what should be a breather against Louisiana-Monroe, Ohio State comes to town. Yikes.

Sept. 3 - Houston (neutral)
Sept. 10 - Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 17 - Ohio State
Oct. 1 - @TCU
Oct. 8 - Texas (neutral)
Oct. 15 - Kansas State
Oct. 22 - @Texas Tech
Oct. 29 - Kansas
Nov. 3 - @Iowa State
Nov. 12 - Baylor
Nov. 19 - @West Virginia
Dec. 3 - Oklahoma State

Oklahoma, like the rest of the Big 12, plays nine conference games. That means that 11 of the team's 12 contests come against "Power 5" teams.

The Sooners have to travel to TCU to kick off the conference slate, and then head to the Cotton Bowl to try to avenge this past year's loss to Texas. They also have tough contests against Kansas State, Texas Tech, Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State.

Oklahoma's entire slate is tough, but that Ohio State game is the reason OU is so high on the list.

Next: No 2 - ??? >>>

2. Auburn

The Auburn Tigers didn't live up to expectations in 2015, finishing with a 6-6 record after being tabbed as a national title favorite before the year began. They'll certainly have the chance to redeem themselves in 2016. Auburn sports one of the game's most difficult schedules.

Sept. 3 - Clemson
Sept. 10 - Arkansas State
Sept. 17 - Texas A&M
Sept. 24 - LSU
Oct. 1 - Louisiana-Monroe
Oct. 8 - @Mississippi State
Oct. 22 - Arkansas
Oct. 29 - @Ole Miss
Nov. 5 - Vanderbilt
Nov. 12 - @Georgia
Nov. 19 - Alabama A&M
Nov. 26 - @Alabama 

Auburn is one of just a few schools that actually has two of this year's College Football Playoff participants on its schedule - Clemson and Alabama. The Tigers open the season against the best the ACC has to offer, and end the campaign against the SEC's finest.

Auburn, by virtue of permanent crossover, gets Georgia on the road. The Tigers also travel to Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Games against Arkansas State, Alabama A&M and Louisiana-Monroe should be victories, but home contests against LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M could go either way.

The Tigers have a tough schedule, but it's not the toughest in the country.

Next: No. 1 - ??? >>>

1. USC

Southern Cal has the toughest schedule in the country in 2016, and it isn't really even that close. Clay Helton, who was just named the program's permanent head coach, has his work cut out for him in his first full campaign as lead man. He'll get started with a non-conference game against Alabama in Arlington, Texas.

Sept. 3 - Alabama (neutral)
Sept. 10 - Utah State
Sept. 17 - @Stanford
Sept. 23 - @Utah
Oct. 1 - Arizona State
Oct. 8 - Colorado
Oct. 15 - @Arizona
Oct. 27 - California
Nov. 5 - Oregon
Nov. 12 - @Washington
Nov. 19 - @UCLA
Nov. 26 - Notre Dame

Why is USC's slate so tough? The Trojans, obviously, get all five Pac-12 South opponents and their two California rivals from the Pac-12 North - Stanford and Cal. But they also have Oregon and Washington. The only two Pac-12 teams they avoid are Oregon State and Washington State.

On top of that, USC plays Alabama, as we mentioned, and Notre Dame. Utah State, a team that qualified for a bowl game in 2015, is the team's weakest non-conference opponent.

Winning nine games against this schedule would be impressive. Getting to 10 would probably warrant playoff consideration.

Next: 5 CFB Teams That Improved Most In 2015 >>>