- Travis Haney, ESPN Staff Writer
It's late January. That's not too early to start thinking about college football schedules, is it? Yeah, we didn't think so. Admit it, you've already gone looking for the slate of your favorite team. So we'll just splash in a little context, laying out some of the country's most challenging 2013 slates.
Will anyone's schedule be prohibitive for success next season? It's certainly possible. Let's look back. We presumed Georgia would get something akin to a free pass to the SEC title game in 2012, which turned out to be accurate in part because the one team that beat the Bulldogs in the regular season, South Carolina, couldn't overcome a three-game stretch of Georgia, at LSU and at Florida.
And then there's Notre Dame, which we presumed wouldn't make it out of September without a loss -- let alone skate through the entire regular season unblemished (never mind what happened in the BCS title game).
Wintry as it might be where you are, here's a look ahead at the most difficult schedules (and an honorable mention) in each of the five major conferences. And we'll include Notre Dame in the ACC section because, frankly, the ACC hasn't demonstrated it's worth having two notably tough schedules. (We'll have no problem Thursday, though, finding two easy ones in the conference.)
The Irish had better enjoy the opener against Temple, because 10 of the final 11 games are against bowl teams from 2012. Not that last season guarantees success for those teams in 2013 (remember, the Irish's 2012 schedule began to look a lot more manageable as the season went on than it did during the summer, after Michigan, Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC all had early stumbles), but it's a reasonably accurate barometer in most cases. The return of the home-and-home against Oklahoma (Sept. 28) is in South Bend, as is the USC game (Oct. 19), but trips to Michigan (Sept. 7) and Stanford (Nov. 30) will be tricky.
Want an intriguing game beyond that? Notre Dame should be prepared for a Jerry World meeting (that's Jerry Jones' Cowboys Stadium, in case you were wondering) with Arizona State on Oct. 5. The Sun Devils improved during Todd Graham's first season and most of the roster returns, including talented D-tackle Will Sutton, who surprisingly turned down a shot at the NFL draft.
Honorable mention: Miami (FL) Hurricanes
The schedule is another reason it was surprising to see the Hurricanes open at 25-1 to win the BCS title in 2013-14. Granted, games against Notre Dame and Kansas State rotated off, but the Canes host Florida in Week 2 and they'll later play at Florida State and South Florida.
They'll get Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech at home -- the ACC has yet to set specific dates, by the way, though it has at least laid out the home-and-away design -- but Miami will additionally travel to North Carolina and newcomer Pitt. Considering their penchant for up-and-down play in 2012, it would be a feat for the Canes to even rep the Coastal in the league's title game. That is, if it's eligible after the NCAA wraps up its investigation.
One of those "barely" bowl teams in 2012 -- Minnesota won two conference games and needed an FCS win to get to 6-6 -- the Gophers are really going to have a rough time getting to a postseason game this season.
They have division games on the road at Michigan (Oct. 5), Northwestern (Oct. 19) and Michigan State (Nov. 30). There's mercifully an open date between the Michigan and Northwestern games, but that only slightly softens the blow from the fact Nebraska will be in Minneapolis the week after the trip to Ann Arbor. An away game at improving Indiana (Nov. 2) and a home game against Penn State (Nov. 9) make for a potentially crippling midsection. There are a number of staunch defenses in that run for a Minnesota team that was 108th in the country in offense in '12.
The only good news schedule-wise is that the Gophers steered clear of BCS-league opponents in the nonconference: UNLV, at New Mexico State, Western Illinois and San Jose State. Although a Spartans team that went 11-2 last season could give Minnesota some trouble.
Honorable mention: Indiana Hoosiers
Even if Kevin Wilson did seem to have the Hoosiers headed in the right direction this past season -- they won four games and were competitive in several others against bowl teams, including a near-takedown of Ohio State (the Buckeyes won 52-49) -- the schedule is a bit stacked in 2013. Penn State, at Michigan State and at Michigan to begin conference play seems almost unfair. Closing in Madison and Columbus isn't far from it, either. And September nonconference games against Navy and Missouri are really tough.
Even if IU is again improved, the final ledger might not suggest it.
It has to be the Frogs in the Big 12 because they've dared to take on one of the SEC's big boys, LSU, in the opener inside Jerry World. It's a good place for it, since TCU's campus is about 15 minutes from Arlington. It's a good time for it, too, since LSU just had an amazing 10 underclassmen declare for the NFL draft.
The difficulty of the opener, vastly supreme to any first-weekend game by the league's other teams, could work in the Frogs' favor if they score a win in the vein of the Rose Bowl victory against Wisconsin. It's possible, with the Tigers in reconstruction mode and TCU welcoming back quarterback Casey Pachall.
The home-away schedule is a bit better this season for Gary Patterson's team, though at Oklahoma State, Texas, West Virginia is a trying three-game swing. TCU does have to travel to Oklahoma in 2013, but the Oct. 5 game does at least fall between home meetings with SMU and Kansas.
Honorable mention: Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys open with another SEC team, but Mississippi State lost five of six down the stretch to take the luster off what could have been a relatively big neutral-field game in Houston. OSU does follow with UT-San Antonio and Lamar, so don't feel too badly for the Cowboys in the nonconference schedule.
The closing stretch begins with TCU at home and then trips to the Big 12's most exotic outposts, Ames and Lubbock. They're as dangerous as they are picturesque in late October/early November. The Pokes will be among the league's favorites in a wide-open year, but they'd better avoid slip-ups (remember 2011 in Ames?).
In an honest moment, fired Cal coach Jeff Tedford might be glad he doesn't have to wrestle with the Bears' 2013 schedule.
On the bright side, first-year coach Sonny Dykes will not have to take his team on the road until the fifth week. On the down side, the Bears open with a 10-win team from the Big Ten, Northwestern. Two weeks later, the only team to go undefeated in 2012, Ohio State, visits the Bay Area. (If you're going to schedule two Big Ten teams, might you want to take a look at the bottom half for at least one?)
The conference season doesn't set up well at all, either. Cal's Pac-12 schedule opens at Oregon on Sept. 28 and ends at Stanford on Nov. 23. There are also trips to UCLA (Oct. 12) and Washington (Oct. 26).
Dykes might eventually level out the program, but there could be some bumps in the initial season.
Honorable mention: Arizona State Sun Devils
Even though we're high on the Devils this fall, a four-week run of Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in Dallas is something straight out of Hades.
At least they'll learn about themselves, easing into that run of games with an open date in Week 1 and Sacramento State the second week. If they survive that stretch, going even 3-1 or 2-2, the rest of the conference slate isn't so bad. There are only three true road dates, at Utah and UCLA in addition to the Farm.
Like Cal's Dykes, Butch Jones is walking into a firestorm of a first season. The Vols' first four conference dates, sprinkled from Sept. 21 until Oct. 26, are at Florida, home against Georgia and South Carolina and then at Alabama. Those all figure to be preseason top-10 teams.
And before the Volunteers even reach the SEC season, they'll have visited Oregon on Sept. 14. Does that game become a little less intimidating without Chip Kelly? Kelly isn't taking Marcus Mariota or De'Anthony Thomas with him to the Eagles, is he? And Kelly himself was once a promoted offensive coordinator; most aren't expecting much fall-off from the Ducks.
So, counting the Oregon game, there's a chance that Tennessee could be playing a top-10 team in five games over a six-game stretch.
On top of that, how much do you think Bobby Petrino would like to stick it to the SEC? Western Kentucky travels to Neyland Stadium in the second week.
Jones likely will not be judged too harshly in his first season, particularly replacing the team's skilled quarterback and receivers, but finding six or seven wins -- getting the Vols back to a bowl game -- would be a nice start. To do that, UT will likely need a win, or wins, against Auburn and Vanderbilt in November. Both games are in Knoxville.
Honorable mention: Florida Gators
Adding in-state rival Miami to a schedule that includes trips to LSU and South Carolina could make it difficult for the Gators to duplicate the one-loss regular season in 2012. Will Muschamp repeatedly said his team had a narrow margin for error in his second season. Even if that gap widens for his third, Baton Rouge and Columbia are two of the more difficult places to play in the league. Add in the rivalry game with FSU on the tail end, and the schedule could keep the Gators from building on a Sugar Bowl season in '12.