2022 college football schedule superlatives: Whose slate is hardest, easiest and everything in be...

ByChris Low ESPN logo
Wednesday, July 27, 2022

College football schedules as we've come to know them are about to change forever, potentially multiple times over the next few years.

Who knows how many conferences we'll have, what those conferences will look like and who will play whom after all the jockeying and realignment ends -- if it ever does?

But despite the upheaval -- as we take a deeper dive into examining the 2022 schedules -- keep in mind a phrase that will stand the test of time as long as there's college football: Ain't nobody played nobody.

We'll hand out a few schedule superlatives for the 2022 season, and remember that some superlatives aren't always so "super." All rankings referenced are from ESPN's latest Way-Too-Early Top 25. Also, it's about this time every year we bring out Steve Spurrier's line from his old coach Pepper Rodgers that a coach is "only as good as his players and his schedule."

For what it's worth, the two teams that played for the national championship last year -- Alabamaand Georgia-- combined to face during the 2021 regular season just three Power 5 teams that managed more than eight regular-season wins. The Crimson Tide and Bulldogs also combined to produce 22 selections in the 2022 NFL draft, including 11 players taken in either the first or second rounds. The defending national champion Dawgs had a record 15 players drafted, the most since the draft moved to a seven-round format in 1994.

Now, on to our selections:

A handful of schools can make strong cases here, including Auburn, Georgia Tech, Indiana, LSU, Mississippi State, Stanford and Vanderbilt. But for the second straight year, Arkansas' schedule is brutal, with five games against top-25 teams. The Hogs are one of five Power 5 teams (Georgia Tech, Oregon, Stanford and Texas Tech the others) that have two nonconference games against ranked teams -- No. 23 Cincinnati at home to open the season Sept. 3 and No. 19 BYU on the road Oct. 15. In the three weeks leading up to that BYU trip, Arkansas faces No. 5 Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, No. 1 Alabama at home and Mississippi State on the road. Throw in the trip to Auburn on Oct. 29, and the Hogs have a stretch where they play four of five games away from home.

It's only fair that a couple of first-year coaches draw the easiest schedules. Mike Elko takes over a Duke program that finished 3-9 a year ago and inherits a schedule that includes just two top-25 opponents. But the nod here goes to Virginia, which in Tony Elliott's first season will face just one preseason top-25 foe, and that's No. 15 Pittsburgh at home Nov. 12. The Cavaliers also avoid the ACC's two highest-ranked teams in the preseason (Clemson and NC State) and have a cushy nonconference schedule that features just one road game (at Illinois). Louisville, Miami and North Carolina all have to come to Charlottesville.

BYU's final schedule as an independent is highlighted by an Oct. 8 trip to Las Vegas to take on Notre Dame at Allegiant Stadium. The next week, BYU returns home to face Arkansas. We'll call it the Irish/Hogs swing. A tip of the cap, too, to BYU's travel department. The Cougars open the season Sept. 3 in Tampa against South Florida. They fly back across the country Oct. 22 when they face Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia, while making trips to a pair of Pac-12 venues -- Autzen Stadium to play Oregon on Sept. 17 (a week after facing future Big 12 partner Baylor at home) and Stanford Stadium to play the Cardinal in the regular-season finale Nov. 26. If that's not enough, there's also a Nov. 5 trip to Boise State and its iconic blue turf.

Brutal nonconference schedules are never ideal for a coach who is on the so-called hot seat, but that's exactly what Georgia Tech's Geoff Collins faces in 2022. The Yellow Jackets, coming off three consecutive three-win seasons under Collins, get No. 21 Ole Miss at home the third week of the season, then turn around and play at UCF the following week. The "fun" part is the annual regular-season finale against No. 3 Georgia, which happens to be in Athens this year.

I'll say this for Kent State: The Golden Flashes ain't scared. They play road games at Washington, Oklahoma and Georgia -- all in the month of September. Sean Lewis has done a super job of turning around Kent State's program. The Flashes played in the Mid-American Conference championship game a year ago. But, whew, thank goodness for guaranteed payouts. Kent State will pocket $5.2 million to weather that September gauntlet, and good for Lewis that he has language in his contract stipulating that some of that money goes directly to the football budget.

In a photo finish, Michiganedges out UCLA in their battle of glorified scrimmages to get ready for conference play. Neither team faces a Power 5 opponent, and all their nonleague games are at home. The Wolverines, coming off their first College Football Playoff appearance, aren't exactly diving right back into the fray. They open the 2022 season against Colorado State, Hawaii and UConn. It's the first time in 78 years that Michigan won't play a nonconference game against a current Power 5 member or Notre Dame. Dishonorable mention goes to Ole Miss, which loads up on Troy, Central Arkansas, Tulsa and Georgia Tech before jumping into SEC play.

See the above section on the toughest Power 5 nonconference schedule, and not much of an explanation is needed. Georgia Tech opens the season on Monday, Sept. 5 against No. 13 Clemson. Sure, the game is in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but that place will be splattered in orange. After a short week to get ready for Western Carolina at home, the Yellow Jackets move on to No. 21 Ole Miss at home and Group of 5 power UCF on the road to close out September. They remain on the road as the calendar flips to October to face No. 15 Pittsburgh.

Who could blame them at Hail State if they're saying, "What the hell?" From Oct. 1 on, there's only one breather for Mississippi State, and that's against an East Tennessee State team that beat Vanderbilt last season and went deep into the FCS playoffs. The month of October presents home games against No. 5 Texas A&M and No. 20 Arkansas and road games against No. 22 Kentucky and No. 1 Alabama. After a bye week, it's back home against Auburn and No. 3 Georgia to kick off November. Then it's ETSU at home and a short five-day week before traveling to No. 21 Ole Miss on Thanksgiving night. Cue the cowbells.

Once again, it's Michigan and UCLAcompeting for the grand prize. We'll go with the Bruins this time. The Rose Bowl is going to look mighty empty when Bowling Green, Alabama State and South Alabama come rolling into Pasadena those first three weeks of September. UCLA then opens its conference season on the road against a Colorado team being picked near the bottom of the Pac-12. Bottom line: If Michigan and UCLA aren't both 4-0 to start the season, there's going to be some serious splainin' to do.

Entering his fifth season at Arizona State, Herm Edwards is looking to build off an eight-win season a year ago (6-3 in the Pac-12). The back half of the Sun Devils' schedule looks more than manageable, with road games against Colorado, Washington State and Arizona and home games against UCLA and Oregon State. The front part of Arizona State's schedule is loaded, with away games against Oklahoma State and USC and a home date with Utah, but it's mostly downhill after that.

Bryan Harsin has had smoother offseasons. He resolutely survived as Auburn's coach following an internal inquiry by the school that left him dangling. Surviving the Tigers' road schedule will be equally daunting. Auburn is the only SEC West team that has to visit both No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Georgia. There's also a trip to No. 21 Ole Miss the week after the Georgia game and a Nov. 5 trip to Mississippi State, which rallied from a 28-3 deficit to win on the Plains last season. The good news for the Tigers is that they have eight home games, including their first five, at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Looking to repeat as national champion,Georgiahas the home schedule to do so. The opener against No. 16 Oregon isn't a true home game, even though it's at nearby Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. But after that, only one top-25 team (No. 24 Tennessee) comes to Athens.

The criteria here is three games in three consecutive weeks, but Syracusehas four games against top-25 foes in four consecutive weeks. Holy Dino Babers! The Orange play No. 8 NC State at home Oct. 15, then travel to No. 12 Clemson on Oct. 22, return home to face No. 7 Notre Dame on Oct. 29 and hit the road again to face No. 15 Pittsburgh on Nov. 5. It's not like the following two weeks are breathers, either. Syracuse is home against Florida State on Nov. 12, then on the road against No. 17 Wake Forest on Nov. 19.

Must-see nonconference games

The caveat here is that the games are on campus, not neutral-site games. Part of the fabric of college football is a school and its fan base traveling to a different part of the country and taking on another school in front of its fan base ... on campus. Yes, college football is changing, but here's hoping we never lose this sacred part of the sport.

Utah at Florida, Sept. 3

Notre Dame at Ohio State, Sept. 3

Alabama at Texas, Sept. 10

Miami at Texas A&M, Sept. 17

Michigan State at Washington, Sept. 17

Penn State at Auburn, Sept. 17

Clemson at Notre Dame, Nov. 5

Notre Dame at USC, Nov. 26

Conference chaos

There's always that one weekend in conference play that shakes things up, provides some clarity for the rest of the season and maybe even produces a few surprises.

Week 5 has definite possibilities:

Alabama at Arkansas

LSU at Auburn

Michigan at Iowa

NC State at Clemson

Oklahoma State at Baylor

Texas A&M at Mississippi State

Washington at UCLA

Going Power-less

Only five Power 5 schools this season will avoid playing a nonconference game against another Power 5 school, Notre Dame or BYU. Three of the culprits are in the Big Ten -- Indiana, Maryland and Michigan -- although Indiana gets a pass. The Hoosiers play at No. 23 Cincinnati. The Pac-12 makes up the rest of this dubious list. Oregon State and UCLA are also skipping out on playing any Power 5 foes in the nonconference part of their schedules.

Texasdoesn't play outside the state of Texas until an Oct. 22 trip to No. 11 Oklahoma State, but that's just part of the story for Steve Sarkisian and the Longhorns. The game everyone has circled is No. 1 Alabama's visit on the second week of the season, but the Horns better not sleep on UTSA the next week. The Roadrunners won 12 games and the Conference USA title last season. Then on Sept. 24, Texas hits the road for Texas Tech, and here's betting the folks in Lubbock won't be too kind to the SEC-bound Longhorns. And that's not to mention the Red River Showdown with Oklahoma on Oct. 8 at the Cotton Bowl.

No game in 2022 will be more anticipated than Texas A&M's trip toAlabamaon Oct. 8 after the fireworks this offseason between Jimbo Fisher and Nick Saban. For Alabama, that game will be sandwiched between two tough road trips to Arkansas and Tennessee. For Texas A&M, it will come the week after a road game against Mississippi State, and the Aggies will have a bye week following the Alabama game before traveling to South Carolina on Oct. 22.

West Virginia, which has suffered through losing seasons in two of the past three years, is the only Big 12 team that will play two nonconference games against Power 5 opponents in 2022. Not only that, but both are on the road and both are Thursday night games. The Mountaineers visit Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl on Sept. 1 and visit Virginia Tech on Sept. 22. Once upon a time, West Virginia, Pitt and Virginia Tech were all Big East brethren.

Several Power 5 teams will play true road games against Group of 5 teams, notably three in-state matchups -- Virginia Tech traveling to Old Dominion on Sept. 2, andNorth Carolinaplaying at Appalachian State and NC State opening its season at East Carolina, both on Sept. 3. The Tar Heels actually have two true road games against Group of 5 foes. They play at Georgia State on Sept. 10, marking the first time in history that a Power 5 program has played at Georgia State. Shawn Elliott's Panthers aren't a team to take lightly, either. They're coming off the most successful season in school history (eight wins and a bowl victory) and return most of their key playmakers on offense and defense.

This one always boils the blood of SEC fans. Clemsonis 12-4 against the SEC over the past seven years, and the Tigers get a chance to make it 13-4 when they face in-state rival South Carolina at home Nov. 26. Those four losses have been to teams that won the national championship. Of the 12 wins, six are against South Carolina, but the Tigers have beaten Alabama twice in College Football Playoff games. And over the past 10 years, Clemson has beaten six different SEC teams -- Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

Three of Army's four true road games are in the South, beginning at Coastal Carolina on Sept. 3, where the Black Knights hit the Surf Turf and might even pay a visit to Broadway at the Beach. From there, it's at Wake Forest on Oct. 8 and at Troy on Nov. 12.

Kansas' home game against Dukeon Sept. 24 isn't likely to draw a ton of national interest, although the Jayhawks showed some life last season with their upset of Texas on the road. But if they really wanted to spice this one up, they might think about holding a basketball scrimmage at halftime.