One of the many fun features of the old NCAA Football video games was the ability to build your own nonconference schedule in Dynasty Mode. The game defaulted to an offer of potentially thrilling matchups against powerhouses like San Jose State and “Division I-AA East,” but anyone looking for more fun in their season could quickly replace the default opponents and line up an opening schedule that read something like this:
Week 1: No. 2 Alabama
Week 2: Bye
Week 3: No. 5 USC
Week 4: No. 1 Ohio State
No FBS team has ever actually built such a schedule, but the strongest nonconference slates can vault a team into the playoff discussion if navigated successfully ... or leave a team limping into its most important games of the season. Which programs are pulling their weight in keeping every game of the season entertaining for their fans?
The toughest nonconference schedule in the country
Stanford: vs. Northwestern (Aug. 31), at UCF (Sept. 14), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 30)
In addition to their nine Pac-12 games, the Cardinal host the defending Big Ten West champions, travel to play a team that just had a 25-game winning streak snapped and close the season against a team that came closer to beating Clemson (on the scoreboard at least) than Alabama did. Coming off an up-and-down 2018, there will be no free passes for David Shaw’s crew.
Both ends of the spectrum
Duke: vs. Alabama (Aug. 31), vs. North Carolina A&T (Sept. 7), at Middle Tennessee State (Sept. 14), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 9)
In addition to being one of the four ACC teams to draw Notre Dame this year as part of the conference’s rotating schedule of games with the Fighting Irish, the Blue Devils also signed on to be the Alderaan to Nick Saban’s Death Star in one of the more eyebrow-raising matchups in Chick-fil-A Kickoff history. It’s only right that they open September with two more manageable opponents before moving into conference play and gearing up for the Fighting Irish.
Houston: at Oklahoma (Aug. 31), vs. Prairie View A&M (Sept. 7), vs. Washington State (Sept. 13 at NRG Stadium), at North Texas (Sept. 28)
Say a prayer for the Cougars’ defense, which may be in for a track meet against Oklahoma and Washington State. In addition to playing two of the best offenses in the country, Dana Holgorsen’s first team faces a trip to Denton to face a Mean Green squad that won nine games last year.
Florida Atlantic: at Ohio State (Aug. 31), vs. UCF (Sept. 7), at Ball State (Sept. 14), vs. Wagner (Sept. 21)
The last visiting team to walk into the Horseshoe was then No. 4 Michigan, and the 62 points the Buckeyes put on their hated rivals may seem like a low bar for Lane Kiffin & Co. to clear, consider that Ohio State opened 2018 by hanging 77 on Oregon State. The Owls shouldn’t expect any mercy in Ryan Day’s debut as full-time head coach. Kiffin didn’t give his squad an easy bounceback game either, with UCF coming to town just a week later.
Teams that play Notre Dame and another solid team
Louisville: vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 2), vs. Eastern Kentucky (Sept. 7), vs. Western Kentucky (Sept. 14 in Nashville), at Kentucky (Nov. 30)
Michigan: vs. Middle Tennessee State (Aug. 31), vs. Army (Sept. 7), vs. Notre Dame (Oct. 26)
Louisville had little choice in this schedule, given Notre Dame’s ACC tie-ins and the Cardinals’ yearly showdown with Kentucky, but with trips to Florida State, Miami and NC State ahead in addition to a visit from Clemson in ACC play, they chose to fill out the other games in the least creative way possible. Most Big Ten teams are set to take on one power conference team and two cupcakes in nonconference play, and Michigan likely expected their schedule to play out similarly when they scheduled Army back in 2015. But after the Black Knights’ first 11-win season in 2018, including an overtime loss at Oklahoma, there’s no overlooking the nation’s most dangerous option team.
Good enough to get the committee’s attention?
UCF: vs. Florida A&M (Aug. 31), at Florida Atlantic (Sept. 7), vs. Stanford (Sept. 14), at Pitt (Sept. 21)
Florida Atlantic fell back to the pack in Lane Kiffin’s second year, and Pitt was far from an inspiring ACC Coastal champion, but two above-average Power 5 opponents and two road trips are nothing to sneeze at.
Rice: at Army, vs. Wake Forest, vs. Texas, vs. Baylor
UTSA: vs. Incarnate Word, at Baylor, vs. Army, at Texas A&M
MTSU: at Michigan, vs. Tennessee State, vs. Duke, at Iowa
Southern Miss: vs. Alcorn State, at Mississippi State, at Troy, at Alabama
Kent State: at Arizona State, vs. Kennesaw State, at Auburn, at Wisconsin
Miami (Ohio): at Iowa, vs. Tennessee Tech, at Cincinnati, at Ohio State
Any list of the toughest nonconference schedules in the country wouldn’t be complete without these teams, which will surely be handsomely paid for the damage to their point differential. After a two-win season in its first year under Mike Bloomgren, Rice has lined up three power conference teams and one of the best non-power teams. The other five teams here all found at least one FCS team that should eliminate any chance of a winless season, but not the Owls. Of course, scheduling a cupcake doesn’t guarantee a victory: Last year they needed a buzzer-beating field goal in the season-opener to get past Prairie View A&M.