The college football season is about seven months away, but it's never too early to talk about something that has been on the schedule for years: non-conference games.
Earlier, we ranked the 15 most-difficult schedules in college football for the 2016 season. Non-conference games played in part in those rankings, but with basically 75 percent of teams' schedules being conference contests, the in-league games played a bigger role.
Now, we're just focusing on the aspect of the schedule that teams actually have control over: the non-conference games.
We went through the schedules of every Power 5 team (not including independent squad Notre Dame) and came up with a list of 10 teams with very tough non-conference games. We've limited this list to games that teams scheduled themselves, so games from the ACC's scheduling agreement with Notre Dame are not included. All of these teams have at least one really tough non-conference games and many have at least two. If any of these teams can head into league play undefeated, it'll be a serious accomplishment.
10. Virginia Tech
It's Year 1 of the Justin Fuente era in Blacksburg, Va. and it won't get off to an easy start. The Hokies are playing one of the coolest non-conference games ever (a game at a NASCAR track against a top SEC squad) and hosting a formidable Group of Five team at Lane Stadium.
Sept. 3 - vs. Liberty at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.
Sept. 10 - vs. Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway in Bristol, Tenn.
Sept. 24 - vs. East Carolina at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football)
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) January 15, 2016
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Most will probably expect Virginia Tech to go 2-1 in the non-conference, beating Liberty and ECU and losing to Tennessee, a preseason top 10 team with College Football Playoff aspirations. That contest against the Volunteers is technically a neutral site game, but it's in Tennessee, so a lot of the 100,000-plus people crowd will likely be against the Hokies.
Virginia Tech is certainly challenging itself.
9. Ohio State
The Buckeyes are on this list for one game, basically. Ohio State has probably the toughest non-conference game of any team in college football in 2016. Urban Meyer's squad is traveling to one of the toughest places to play to face a preseason top-five team.
We're, of course, talking about that road game at Oklahoma.
Sept. 3 vs. Bowling Green at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
Sept. 10 vs. Tulsa at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
Sept. 17 at Oklahoma at Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla.
The first two games are gimmes, but the contest at Oklahoma is a probable loss for Meyer's squad. It's easily the toughest non-conference game the Buckeyes have played since the national champion coach took over in Columbus. Ohio State isn't being seen as a College Football Playoff favorite heading into the season, but if it can knock off Oklahoma in Week 3, it could vault all the way up to No. 1 in the polls.
The Ducks usually have a tough non-conference schedule and they do once again this season. Oregon has two games against Power 5 opponents and one of them is on the road at one of college football's best venues.
Sept. 3 vs. UC Davis at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
Sept. 10 vs. Virginia at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore.
Sept. 17 at Nebraska at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
The first two games should definitely be wins, and the third game probably will be, too, but it's far from a guarantee. Nebraska's coming off a disappointing season in 2015, but the Huskers are returning a lot and could be one of college football's biggest surprises in 2016. The atmosphere at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln could be the toughest the Ducks see next fall, too.
7. Michigan State
Many are expecting the Spartans to have a bit of a drop-off after three straight elite seasons, but Mark Dantonio's program can really keep the ball rolling with a strong showing in the non-conference. The Spartans have a game against a College Football Playoff contender and one of college football's best non-Power 5 programs.
Sept. 2 vs. Furman at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
Sept. 17 at Notre Dame at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind.
Oct. 8 vs. BYU at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich.
The Notre Dame game is the big one here, but the early October contest against BYU won't be an easy one, either. If the Spartans can knock off the likely top 10 Fighting Irish in South Bend, College Football Playoff talk could start in East Lansing.
6. North Carolina
The Tar Heels are coming off one of the best seasons in school history, and to repeat that success in 2016 they'll have to win a couple tough non-conference games. UNC will face a talented SEC team led by a first-year head coach and travel to Big Ten country for another contest. That game isn't against a particularly tough opponent, but it's a true road game, which is never easy. They're also facing one of the best FCS programs in the country.
Sept. 3 - vs. Georgia at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Ga.
Sept. 10 at Illinois at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill.
Sept. 17 vs. James Madison at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Nov. 19 vs. The Citadel at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Neither of the big games are at home, which speaks to how much North Carolina is challenging itself in the non-conference. A 3-1 record in these games is probably what is expected, but the Tar Heels could really impress if they can knock off Georgia in Atlanta to open the season.
The national champion runner-ups won't have an easy path back to the College Football Playoff thanks to their non-conference slate. The Tigers have challenged themselves with multiple games against SEC opponents to go along with their ACC slate, with one of those games being a true road contest.
Sept. 3 at Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.
Sept. 10 vs. Troy at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina.
Sept. 17 vs. South Carolina State at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina.
Nov. 26 vs. South Carolina at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, South Carolina.
The Tigers will be the preseason No. 1 team in most polls and they'll get a chance to prove their worth in Week 1. Auburn disappointed in 2015, but should be formidable at-worst in 2016 with a serious chance to really improve. It'll be early, but this could be a Heisman Trophy-moment game for DeShaun Watson, too.
The Bruins are looking to take off in 2016 after a couple years of great recruiting and they'll have multiple chances to show their improvement in the non-conference. Jim Mora Jr.'s program opens on the road in the SEC and later travels to one of the toughest non-Power 5 stadiums in the country.
Sept. 3 at Texas A&M at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas.
Sept. 10 vs. UNLV at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Sept. 17 at BYU at LaVell Edwards Stadium in Provo, Utah.
It's pretty rare to see a big-time program play two true road games in the non-conference, but that's what the Bruins have done in 2016. All three games are surely winnable for Mora's team, but a 1-2 start to the season is not unthinkable with this brutal non-conference slate.
3. Florida State
The Seminoles, a team many think could be the ACC's College Football Playoff team (and not Clemson), will have to get through a brutal non-conference schedule to do it. FSU opens the season against a top SEC team at a neutral site and ends the season hosting another one.
Sept. 5 vs. Ole Miss at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
Sept. 10 vs. Charleston Southern at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.
Sept. 24 at USF at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fa.
Sept. 26 vs. Florida at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.
Two games against SEC-contending teams. One true road game. One game on just four days rest. Every aspect of Florida State's non-conference schedule is difficult.
If Florida State reaches the College Football Playoff, it'll really deserve to be there after going through this non-conference schedule.
We love seeing one of college football's biggest powers really challenging themselves in the non-conference and that's what the Sooners have done. Bob Stoops' program is facing one of the most-successful teams of the last five years and playing perhaps the best Group of Five team in the country.
Sept. 3 vs. Houston at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas.
Sept. 10 vs. ULM at Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla.
Sept. 17 vs. Ohio State at Memorial Stadium in Norman, Okla.
The Sooners will be a preseason top-five team and a College Football Playoff contender heading into the 2016 season. And it's very possible that Bob Stoops' team will have lost two games before even starting Big 12 play. That's how ridiculously difficult this non-conference schedule is for Baker Mayfield and Co. next fall.
1. USC Trojans
Welcome to USC as the Trojans' new head coach, Clay Helton. Here's an insanely difficult non-conference schedule as your welcome present.
I mean, just look at this slate.
Sept. 3 vs. Alabama at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Sept. 10 vs. Utah State at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif.
Nov. 26 vs. Notre Dame at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif.
Alabama. Notre Dame. It really can't get much more difficult than that. The Trojans open the season against the defending national champions (who are a favorite to win it all again) and end the year against a rival that should be contending for the College Football Playoff.
A 2-1 record in these three games would be more-than-acceptable for Helton in his first year leading the Trojans.