Ranking the 20 toughest college football schedules of 2021
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Ranking the 20 toughest college football schedules of 2021

What's in a schedule? Well, in college football your schedule can mean everything.

It can hold you back from a spot in the College Football Playoff. Not having enough strength in your schedule can validate not inviting a team like Cincinnati into the championship tournament. That's not unique to Group of 5 schools as schools like Texas A&M, Ohio State, and, yes, Alabama felt they were robbed of a spot over the years. Entire conferences, like the Pac-12, can be shut out if the schedule lacks heft.

Let me start by saying that Cincinnati, while not making this list, will bring some added bulk to their American Athletic Conference schedule. The Bearcats will travel to Indiana and Notre Dame in an attempt to prove that if they go undefeated again, they deserve to sit at the championship table. BYU has also cultivated a very nice schedule.

Of course, a list like this is heavy on the big boys in the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, and the ACC. The sheer amount of good games places these teams as the twenty toughest schedules in 2021. So who has it the ... well ... worst?

 
1 of 20

#20 - Michigan State Spartans

Michigan State Spartans
Nick King/Lansing State Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

If this was the early 1990s, this Spartans' schedule would look brutal. Still, road trips to Miami, Indiana, and Ohio State are daunting. Nebraska, Michigan, Maryland, and Penn State will come to East Lansing and are more than capable of being a sleeper team in the Big Ten -- especially the Nittany Lions. Traveling to Northwestern and Purdue is tough and Rutgers is no longer a doormat.

at Northwestern, Youngstown State, at Miami, Nebraska, Western Kentucky, at Rutgers, at Indiana, Michigan, at Purdue, Maryland, at Ohio State, Penn State

 
2 of 20

#19 - Alabama Crimson Tide

Alabama Crimson Tide
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The defending champs open up against a sneaky dangerous Miami team in 'Bama's final kickoff tilt game for at least a decade. After a cupcake smackdown of Mercer, the Tide travels to retooling Florida. Their toughest game will likely be at Texas A&M, before a stretch where they go to Mississippi State and then four straight games in Tuscaloosa. As always, the Iron Bowl at the end of the season is a major landmine, but this is a favorable schedule for Nick Saban.

Miami (Atlanta), Mercer, at Florida, Southern Miss, Ole Miss, at Texas A&M, at Mississippi State, Tennessee, LSU, New Mexico State, Arkansas, at Auburn

 
3 of 20

#18 - Purdue Boilermakers

Purdue Boilermakers
Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Excuse the first two games of the season (even though Oregon State is a Power 5 school), but the rest of the calendar looks rough. Traveling up to Notre Dame highlights the non-conference schedule. In Big Ten West games, Purdue does get Wisconsin and Nebraska at home but has tough dates at Iowa and Northwestern. Where the schedule differs from the rest of the division is their foes from the Big Ten East: Ohio State and Indiana. The Boilermakers get both of the East's best teams with the trip to Columbus as the most daunting.

Oregon State, at UConn, at Notre Dame, Illinois, Minnesota, at Iowa, Wisconsin, at Nebraska, Michigan State, at Ohio State, at Northwestern, Indiana

 
4 of 20

#17 - Colorado Buffaloes

Colorado Buffaloes
Russell Lansford-USA TODAY Sports

The lone Pac-12 team on this list, the Buffs invite Texas A&M to Denver for a game at the Broncos stadium before hosting Minnesota the following week. The Pac-12 may be disregarded as a power of late because of their inability to get a team into the College Football Playoff, but this is a deep league of good teams. The South Division is strong with potential and Colorado drew two of the top North Division teams (Oregon, Washington).

Northern Colorado, Texas A&M (Denver), Minnesota, at Arizona State, USC, Arizona, at Cal, at Oregon, Oregon State, at UCLA, Washington, at Utah. 

 
5 of 20

#16 - Michigan Wolverines

Michigan Wolverines
Kirthmon F. Dozier via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Hot seats are tough to cool down with a schedule like this. Jim Harbaugh will welcome Washington to Ann Arbor in Week 2 as the Wolverines open up with four straight home games. Then Michigan slides into a nightmarish second half of the season highlighted with trips to Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan State, Penn State, and Maryland with Northwestern, Indiana, and Ohio State heading up to The Big House.

Western Michigan, Washington, Northern Illinois, Rutgers, at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, Northwestern, at Michigan State, Indiana, at Penn State, at Maryland, Ohio State

 
6 of 20

#15 - Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia Bulldogs
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia opens the season with a doozy against Clemson in Charlotte and then closes the year against another ACC team, in-state rival Georgia Tech. In between, they do play a dangerous UAB squad before getting into the SEC part of the schedule. The SEC East isn't as tough as the West, but the Cocktail Party with Florida and an emerging Missouri will be must-win games to win the division. The Dawgs got a favorable draw by getting Auburn and Arkansas as their cross-division matchups this year. Still, that opener will set the table for what UGA will have to do the rest of the way.

Clemson (Charlotte), UAB, South Carolina, at Vanderbilt, Arkansas, at Auburn, Kentucky, Florida (Jacksonville), Missouri, at Tennessee, Charleston Southern, at Georgia Tech

 
7 of 20

#14 - Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech Red Raiders
Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Texas Tech will have a difficult time trying to rebuild the Red Raider program with their schedule set up. Technically their opener against Houston is a neutral site game, though it will still be in Houston. Now look at their league slate: they must travel to Texas, West Virginia, Baylor, and Oklahoma and then have a three-game stretch where they'll get the Sooners, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State.

at Houston, Stephen F. Austin, FIU, at Texas, at West Virginia, TCU, at Kansas, Kansas State, at Oklahoma, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, at Baylor

 
8 of 20

#13 - Florida State Seminoles

Florida State Seminoles
Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Under normal circumstances, this is a juicy schedule for the Seminoles to make a run at a national championship. Of course, expectations for a big season are low in Tallahassee as the 'Noles try to rebuild. They host the Fighting Irish at home and then have brutal road trips to North Carolina, Clemson, and Florida with home dates with NC State and Miami nestled in between. Year 2 of the Mike Norvell era may be a bumpy ride.

Notre Dame, Jacksonville State, at Wake Forest, Louisville, Syracuse, at North Carolina, UMass, at Clemson, NC State, Miami, at Boston College, at Florida

 
9 of 20

#12 - Oklahoma State Cowboys

Oklahoma State Cowboys
Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma State travels to the Smurf Turf in Boise early in the season. In the middle is a brutal run of road games (Texas, Iowa State, West Virginia) and a season finale against Oklahoma in the Bedlam Series. Four of the Cowboys' first five games are at home, before a bye week and four of six on the road.

Missouri State, Tulsa, at Boise State, Kansas State, Baylor, at Texas, at Iowa State, Kansas, at West Virginia, TCU, at Texas Tech, Oklahoma

 
10 of 20

#11 - South Carolina Gamecocks

South Carolina Gamecocks
Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Two games jump out immediately when looking at South Carolina's schedule: a trip down to Athens to play Georgia and the season finale against Clemson. Two games against teams expected to be in the national title hunt. The Gamecocks also get to travel to Kyle Field and Texas A&M that starts a run of Florida, at Missouri, Auburn, and Clemson. Good luck in Columbia.

Eastern Illinois, at East Carolina, at Georgia, Kentucky, Troy, at Tennessee, Vanderbilt, at Texas A&M, Florida, at Missouri, Auburn, Clemson

 
11 of 20

#10 - West Virginia Mountaineers

West Virginia Mountaineers
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia-Maryland and Virginia Tech-West Virginia are nice mid-Atlantic affairs, so a cupcake game against Long Island can sort of be excused. As far as league play, the Mountaineers must travel to Oklahoma but do get Iowa State, Texas, and Oklahoma State at home.

at Maryland, Long Island, Virginia Tech, at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, at Baylor, at TCU, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, at Kansas State, Texas, at Kansas

 
12 of 20

#9 - Ole Miss Rebels

Ole Miss Rebels
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ole Miss is one of those sleeper teams this year and there are a lot of opportunities to prove they are a team on the rise. A neutral site game against Louisville and a tricky home game against Liberty highlight the non-conference slate. As for the SEC -- road trips to Alabama, Auburn, and Tennessee, as well as the Egg Bowl against Mississippi State, make for a challenging schedule. That doesn't even mention LSU and Texas A&M coming to Oxford.

Louisville (Atlanta), Austin Peay, Tulane, at Alabama, Arkansas, at Tennessee, LSU, at Auburn, Liberty, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, at Mississippi State

 
13 of 20

#8 - LSU Tigers

LSU Tigers
Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

LSU does have a great opener against UCLA out at the Rose Bowl which should make for a fun inter-sectional game. The other non-conference games aren't as buzzworthy, however. Of course, it is all about the SEC schedule and LSU travels to Alabama and Ole Miss, but get Auburn, Florida, and Texas A&M down in Baton Rouge.

at UCLA, McNeese State, Central Michigan, at Mississippi State, Auburn, at Kentucky, Florida, at Ole Miss, at Alabama, Arkansas, ULM, Texas A&M

 
14 of 20

#7 - Iowa State Cyclones

Iowa State Cyclones
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The difference between Iowa State's schedule and ... say ... the team ranked ahead of it is the fact that the Cyclones don't have to play themselves. Iowa, Northern Iowa, and a trip to UNLV are interesting non-conference games. Iowa State must travel to Norman to play Oklahoma in what could be the biggest game of the Big 12 regular season. The 'Clones do get Texas and Oklahoma State at home but must travel to West Virginia, Baylor, and Texas Tech.

Northern Iowa, Iowa, at UNLV, at Baylor, Kansas, at Kansas State, Oklahoma State, at West Virginia, Texas, at Texas Tech, at Oklahoma, TCU

 
15 of 20

#6 - TCU Horned Frogs

TCU Horned Frogs
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

When you are ranking Big 12 teams (who all play a round-robin schedule) you are judging by where the games are played as well as non-conference opponents. Non-conference isn't very daunting (though Cal should be fun) and none of the games are on the road. However, the conference slate is tough, as the Horned Frogs must travel to Oklahoma, Iowa State and Oklahoma State.

Duquesne, Cal, SMU, Texas, at Texas Tech, at Oklahoma, West Virginia, at Kansas State, Baylor, at Oklahoma State, Kansas, at Iowa State

 
16 of 20

#5 - Texas Longhorns

Texas Longhorns
Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The Longhorns' season opener against Louisiana is a lot trickier than originally thought, and heading to Arkansas isn't a cakewalk, either. There's the Red River Rivalry against Oklahoma and the Horns travel to Iowa State, Baylor, and West Virginia. Not an easy go of things for Steve Sarkisian's first season in Austin.

Louisiana, at Arkansas, Rice, Texas Tech, at TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, at Baylor, at Iowa State, Kansas, at West Virginia, Kansas State

 
17 of 20

#4 - Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas Jayhawks
Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal via Imagn Content Services, LLC

When you are arguably the worst team in the Big 12, every conference game is a tough one. The Jayhawks host Oklahoma and West Virginia but must travel to Iowa State, Texas, Oklahoma State, and TCU. Add in a non-conference game at Coastal Carolina and Kansas has quite a task to crawl out of the Big 12 basement.

South Dakota, at Coastal Carolina, Baylor, at Duke, at Iowa State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, at Oklahoma State, Kansas State, at Texas, at TCU, West Virginia

 
18 of 20

#3 - Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Wow, does Georgia Tech have a tough lineup of games to navigate or what? Let's start with the final two games of the season: at Notre Dame and home against state rival Georgia. Yikes! Georgia Tech also has to travel to Clemson and Miami in ACC play while hosting North Carolina.

Northern Illinois, Kennesaw State, at Clemson, North Carolina, Pitt, at Duke, at Virginia, Virginia Tech, at Miami, Boston College, at Notre Dame, Georgia

 
19 of 20

#2 - Auburn Tigers

Auburn Tigers
Jake Crandall via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Auburn's main rival, Alabama, is always the biggest fish on the Tigers' schedule. While that game will be at home, the Tigers will travel to LSU and Texas A&M in conference and to Penn State in a non-conference oddity -- this will be the first time Auburn has played a Big Ten team in the regular season. Oh, and add a home date with Georgia and this is a tough slate. What a way to welcome Bryan Harsin to Auburn. 

Akron, Alabama State, at Penn State, Georgia State, at LSU, Georgia, at Arkansas, Ole Miss, at Texas A&M, Mississippi State, at South Carolina, Alabama 

 
20 of 20

#1 - Arkansas Razorbacks

Arkansas Razorbacks
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, an SEC West team takes the top spot. The Razorbacks must travel to Georgia, Ole Miss, Alabama, and LSU while hosting Texas and Texas A&M. A brutal schedule to be sure for a program that is trying to get up off the mat.

Rice, Texas, Georgia Southern, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, Auburn, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Mississippi State, at LSU, at Alabama, Missouri

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