- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
Earlier in the week, we previewed the 2013 schedules that could be pitfalls for success. Today, we look ahead toward the favorable autumns, schedules that could lead to big seasons for two representatives -- a primary choice and an honorable mention -- from each of the five major conferences.
This should echo what we said Tuesday about difficulty, only the converse: A relatively easy schedule doesn't necessarily guarantee anything.
Example from 2012: Many believed Florida State was ready to compete for a national title because the Seminoles had Clemson and Florida at home -- but it was so-so North Carolina State, a program that ultimately fired its coach, that initially derailed FSU's plans. So you never know.
Our apologies, in advance, for jinxing the teams that follow.
Let's get this out of the way: Yes, the Hokies open with Alabama, a favorite to win a third consecutive BCS title.
But beyond that? No Clemson in the ACC. No Florida State, either. The new-look conference rotation is kind to a team that will be in rebound mode after it needed overtime in the Russell Athletic Bowl to eke out an uncharacteristic 7-6 season.
The league road quartet of Georgia Tech, Miami, Virginia and Boston College -- the latter two were worst in their respective divisions in 2012 -- doesn't exactly evoke fear.
A quirk to the schedule, too: It features three repeat sites from a year ago, as the ACC attempts to bring in Syracuse and Pitt. The Hokies hosted Duke last year, and they also went to Boston College and Miami. They fell behind big to Duke before rallying, lost big to the Hurricanes, and needed overtime to defeat the Eagles. They'll try to perform better this time.
Honorable mention: Duke Blue Devils
The Atlantic Division has to reckon with Clemson, FSU or both, so the Coastal is the easier side. Duke, like Virginia Tech, also misses the Tigers and Seminoles in the rotation.
Maybe that will help the Devils close stronger in 2013, since losses to FSU and Clemson in consecutive weeks led to a five-game losing streak to end the season. (That bowl loss? Oy. Still haunting to the Devils and those who bet on them.)
Their four away ACC games are at North Carolina, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
Currently scheduled nonconference games against Memphis and Navy are two more possible wins for the Devils. Or they're two more possible defeats. We're still not quite sure when Duke football is concerned.
It's not without a couple of potential road landmines, notably Oct. 5 at Northwestern and Nov. 30 at rival Michigan, but the Buckeyes could potentially ride a soft September to No. 1 in the polls -- or at least close to it.
Buffalo, San Diego State, California and Florida A&M will sort of, kind of, prep Urban Meyer's team for a favorable ride through the Big Ten -- minus the previously mentioned road tests. Wisconsin and Penn State travel to the Horseshoe and the Bucks avoid Nebraska (at least until the conference championship game).
Oh, and don't entirely blame OSU for its September schedule. Vanderbilt -- go figure, a "name" opponent these days -- pulled out of a series with the Buckeyes. Commodores ... or chickens? Buck up, Ohio State says. Northwestern, too; Vandy backed out of that series, as well.
Honorable mention: Nebraska Cornhuskers
It works both ways: Ohio State avoids Nebraska, Nebraska avoids Ohio State. You'd have to think those will be the favorites to eventually meet in Indy, however. Road games at Purdue and Minnesota work to offset tougher tests at Michigan and Penn State. Just hanging around should be enough to get the Cornhuskers back to the B1G title game. Surely avenging whatever the heck happened this past December will be a rallying cry, regardless of the opponent.
Out of conference, keep an eye on the return of the home-and-home with UCLA (Sept. 14). The first meeting, after all, didn't go the Huskers' way. Young Bruins QB Brett Hundley won't sneak up on them this time, you'd imagine.
The Bears were one of the hottest teams to close 2012. They won five of their last six, and rushed for an average of 308.8 yards a game in those wins, in large part due to emerging star Lache Seastrunk. They could remain hot to start 2013 by opening with Buffalo, SMU and Louisiana-Monroe in the nonconference portion of the season.
But really, how long could the win streak go? The Big 12 slate begins with rebuilding West Virginia and Kansas State. Following with Iowa State and Kansas means the Bears could, just maybe, be 7-0 when they host Oklahoma on Nov. 9.
A five-week closing stretch of OU, Texas Tech (at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington), at Oklahoma State, at TCU and Texas figures to be tricky, but the Bears only have three true conference away games, against the Jayhawks, Cowboys and Horned Frogs. Avoiding Lubbock is a deal for Baylor, isn't it? Lubbock is one tough place to play.
Honorable mention: Texas Longhorns
The primary prerequisite for this exercise, at least in the Big 12's case, was finding teams that avoid going to Oklahoma. Even if the Sooners are replacing a number of players on both sides of the ball, nobody enjoys that trip. That's something the Longhorns obviously avoid every year, playing OU in Dallas.
The nonconference schedule isn't as daunting as Big 12 counterparts taking on the SEC in openers (Oklahoma State versus Mississippi State in Houston; TCU versus LSU in Dallas), but Texas will see Ole Miss on Sept. 14 in Austin. A Sept. 7 trip to physical BYU could be a date to watch for the Horns, who could be fringe conference contenders. Should we buy that again this year?
There's a weird road date Sept. 14 at West Point and a dangerous Oct. 26 game at Oregon State, but the overall arc of the schedule seems to only lend additional evidence that the Cardinal can again be a top-10 team despite losing top back Stepfan Taylor, top tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo and top defender Chase Thomas. In fact, an 8-0 start doesn't seem so unreasonable.
Stanford's biggest games, against Oregon and Notre Dame, are both in November and they're both on the Farm. If you have to play the Ducks and Irish (the Oregon game is on a Thursday night, coming off an open date), you can't line it up much better than that.
The Cardinal will receive the benefit that Oregon did last season, avoiding the Palouse by getting Washington State's "home" game in Seattle. Then again, Stanford lost to Washington last season at CenturyLink Field, so maybe it isn't that super a reward. It will be tougher for the Huskies to surprise the Cardinal in Palo Alto, especially given last season's upset, even though I expect U-Dub to be much improved in 2013.
Honorable mention: USC Trojans
Remember when we all made a big deal before last season about the possibility of Oregon and USC playing twice? Well, there's a good chance they won't see each other once in 2013. At minimum, we know they will not in the regular season. The Ducks rotate off the Trojans' schedule, which is probably fine with Lane Kiffin -- with or without Chip Kelly.
Opening with Hawaii, Washington State, Boston College and Utah State should give USC proper tune-up time with a new QB (possibly Max Wittek, who relieved Matt Barkley last season) before the conference season begins in earnest with a Sept. 28 trip to Arizona State. A mid-October road trip to Notre Dame stands out as a tough nonconference test, but the Trojans will get Stanford at home this season (Nov. 16).
It's just too close to split these two up, which is sort of fitting, since some pundits -- including a national writer friend of mine -- have picked them to begin the year 1-2 nationally. If I had to lean toward one having an easier slate than the other, it would have to be A&M, since Bama has to go to College Station on Sept. 14 for the teams' conference opener. But both have caught the same significant break in their conference schedules -- neither has to face any of the SEC East's top three teams from 2012: Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Say this for the Aggies: They seem, very quickly, to have picked up on the SEC's idea of scheduling lightly in the nonconference season. Rice, Sam Houston State, SMU and UTEP? Really? Wow. At least the hurricane-postponed Louisiana Tech game last season had a little sizzle to it.
On the opposite end of that, Heisman winner Johnny Manziel will feel for the first time the full wrath of LSU's Tiger Stadium (Nov. 23). That could be problematic, despite all the talent leaving LSU for the NFL. A&M will also travel to Ole Miss for the second straight season; it had to hold on to win by three in Oxford last season. The Rebels run the closest thing to A&M's offense; no fun facing it, is it, Kevin Sumlin?
After a difficult start for Alabama, Virginia Tech on Aug. 31 in the Georgia Dome and then Kyle Field, the path gets considerably smoother. The remaining SEC road trips are at Kentucky, Mississippi State and Auburn. When Colorado State is the second-toughest nonconference foe, you know those won't be much of a threat to another title run. Another factor in Bama's favor is that the Tide get LSU at Bryant-Denny, coming off an open date.
The interesting thing is that A&M and Bama's head-to-head matchup is so early in the season that the loser of that game could easily work its way back toward the top. Look how quickly the Tide did it after losing in November to Manziel and the Ags.