Only four teams have the privilege of qualifying for the College Football Playoff each year, and there are several contenders who have tougher schedules than others during the 2018 season.
The good news about having a tough road to the playoffs is if teams can navigate the path well enough, that strength of victory will carry a lot of weight with the selection committee. However, getting those quality wins is far easier said than done.
Read on to find out which teams have the most treacherous slates in their pursuits of CFP berths.
A nice break to start the year sees the Fighting Irish host Michigan in South Bend, which will be a pivotal, tone-setting game for both teams. Four of Notre Dame’s first five games are at home, but the last of those is against Stanford, who should figure prominently into the Pac-12 championship picture.
The closing stretch to the season always presents a considerable amount of pressure, and the quality of opponents does Notre Dame no favors either. In three of the last four games, the Irish travel to Northwestern, host Florida State and Syracuse and then go to USC. Even before that, a neutral-field matchup against Navy won’t be a bargain if recent history is any indication, as Navy lost by only seven last season, and won the year before.
Head coach Brian Kelly is lauded as an offensive guru. He’ll need to make full use of his schematic brilliance considering Notre Dame’s quarterback situation in 2018. Likely starter Brandon Wimbush has a huge arm and ran for over 800 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. However, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, so his accuracy — or the Irish’s ability to overcome Wimbush’s lack of it — will largely determine the team’s ceiling.
One of two Tigers SEC teams that has a tough road to secure its maiden College Football Playoff spot. Baton Rouge is always a hostile environment for even the most formidable conference foes to play in, and the Tigers do get a break in that they have seven of their 12 games at home. Unfortunately, two of those times they play host, it’s against reigning national runner-up Georgia and defending champion Alabama.
Every road trip presents a potential pitfall for LSU, too. Auburn is the first time the Tigers travel in the third game, save for the season opener against Miami at a neutral field. Playing in The Swamp against Florida to begin October is no bargain, nor is a tangle in College Station at Texas A&M, who got a big upgrade at coach in Jimbo Fisher.
LSU lost its leading passer, rusher and receiver to the NFL draft, so there’s a lot of unknown on the offensive side of the ball in particular. Darrel Williams was the team’s second-leading rusher and trailed only D.J. Chark in receiving yards in 2017, and he’s gone too.
The defense will be in good shape under coach Ed Orgeron’s leadership, but LSU fans have to be concerned about having enough playmakers on offense. True freshman receiver Terrace Marshall, a five-star recruit, will likely have to make an immediate impact to give the O a spark under new coordinator Steve Ensminger.
The traditional powerhouse Seminoles will be expected to be competitive for the crown even after a 7-6 season. Florida State did a decent job with a tough 2017 slate, all things considered. The Noles lost to two playoff teams, Alabama and Clemson, and lost by only six to the Wolfpack, who were led by likely future NFL quarterback Ryan Finley.
First-year Seminoles coach Willie Taggart faces an interesting test right out of the gate in a home clash with Virginia Tech. The next few are rather easy and could help Florida State build momentum. However, consecutive trips away from Tallahassee will see the Seminoles take on Louisville and Miami, who they lost to by one possession last season.
After returning home for conference tilts with an improving Wake Forest program and reigning CFP team Clemson, FSU journeys out again to face NC State and Notre Dame in back-to-back weeks. Taggart’s team then ends the season at home against Boston College and Florida.
Running back Cam Akers ran for over 1,000 yards as a true freshman last year despite a lackluster passing attack to complement him. Akers is going to be the focal point of the offense, and his brilliance could help keep the defense off the field and control possession as Florida State seeks to return among college football’s elite.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh recruits hard-nosed players and doesn’t need a lot of talent to help the Wolverines win a lot of games. In addition to returning a stingy defense in 2018, though, he’s getting a huge upgrade at quarterback. Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson is the best signal-caller Harbaugh has had in years, and that gives Michigan a chance as a playoff dark horse.
But the schedule is rather challenging to say the least. Not only is the aforementioned showdown with Notre Dame on the slate, but the Wolverines also take on Nebraska in their first Big Ten contest, and have road trips to Northwestern, Michigan State and Ohio State in the finale. Michigan hosts Wisconsin and Penn State as well, which won’t be easy to pull out.
The Big Ten may well tear itself up and produce a ton of quality, two-loss teams, which will make for a difficult decision for the College Football Playoff committee. Expect the Wolverines to be among those teams thanks to Patterson’s arrival.
Playing in the SEC is never a bargain and the conference schedule is always tough. What it often comes down to is whether the marquee games are on the road or at home. For the Tigers, they have the misfortune of a brutal end to their schedule, with away games at Georgia and Alabama within the last three contests of the 2018 campaign.
A brief reprieve against Liberty at home is sandwiched between those two games against the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide. It’s hardly any consolation, though, because even if the Tigers are undefeated until then, they’re in danger of losing at least one of those. Plus, Auburn opens with a neutral-field battle against Washington, another playoff contender.
At least the Tigers can take solace in the fact that their rushing attack is always in good shape under coach Guz Malzahn, and they also have a formidable thrower of the ball in likely 2019 NFL draft prospect Jarrett Stidham.
Although he’s not the dynamic, dual-threat type of field general Auburn typically deploys, Stidham can sling it and is coming off a season in which he completed 66.5 percent of his passes with an average of over 8.5 yards per attempt. His play under center will give Auburn hope whenever it’s trailing this season.