What looks to be the most treacherous path to a successful season next year might be a bit misleading at this point.
Some teams are overrated, and others are underrated. The schedule never quite looks the same approaching November as it does approaching spring practice. So keeping that pearl of wisdom in mind, we take our shot at ranking the 10 toughest nonconference schedules for Power 5 teams in 2016.
Notice which conference is missing from our ranking? Here's a hint: it's the one that's won eight of the last 10 national championships.
1. USC Trojans
Sept. 3: vs. Alabama in Arlington, Texas
Sept. 10: Utah State
Nov. 26: Notre Dame
Finally, we get the Alabama-USC matchup so many have been clamoring for over the years, and it kicks off the season at AT&T Stadium. The defending national champion Crimson Tide will again be loaded and have won eight straight nonconference games against Power 5 foes in the regular season. Taking on Alabama away from home will be daunting enough for the Trojans, but they get a second preseason top-10 foe, Notre Dame, to close out the season at home. And Utah State hasn't exactly been a pushover over the last few years.
Sept. 3: at Houston in NRG Stadium
Sept. 10: Louisiana-Monroe
Sept. 17: Ohio State
It was a tough call between Oklahoma and USC for the top spot on this list. The Sooners will be ranked way up there, almost certainly in the top 10, in all of the 2016 preseason polls, but so will two of their opponents. They go on the road to play Houston to open the season at NRG Stadium, where the NFL's Houston Texans play. Then two weeks later, they get Ohio State at home. Nobody else in college football faces two more challenging nonconference games in September than the Sooners.
Sept. 5: Ole Miss in Orlando, Florida
Sept. 10: Charleston Southern
Sept. 24: at South Florida
Nov. 26: Florida
The Seminoles' matchup with Ole Miss on Labor Day at the Citrus Bowl will be one of the most compelling openers of the season. The Rebels are losing three projected first-rounders from last season's team, but Chad Kelly returns as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC. Don't take that trip to South Florida for granted, either, especially sandwiched between conference games at Louisville and home against North Carolina. And then there's the annual finale against arch-rival Florida, which has lost five of the last six to the Seminoles.
Sept. 3: Liberty
Sept. 10: vs. Tennessee in Bristol, Tennessee
Sept. 24: East Carolina
Nov. 19: at Notre Dame
We're going with the Hokies in the No. 4 spot because they have two games against potential top-10 foes away from home. The first is the second week of the season against Tennessee at Bristol Motor Speedway. The novelty of it all will make this quite an event, but it's also going to be quite a challenge for Justin Fuente's bunch. This should be Butch Jones' best team at Tennessee. The East Carolina game is in Blacksburg, but the Pirates have won the last two against the Hokies, who also have to travel to Notre Dame.
Sept. 3: Villanova
Sept. 10: Penn State
Sept. 17: at Oklahoma State
Oct. 1: Marshall
The Panthers might not have a preseason top-10 opponent on their nonconference schedule, but they have three legitimate tests that could all be losses if they're not on top of their game. They get Penn State at home the second week of the season and then have to travel to Oklahoma State the very next week. Boone Pickens Stadium is an extremely tough place to play. After a conference road trip to North Carolina, Pitt has to come back home to face Marshall to kick off the month of October, one of those games you dread during the league season, particularly with the Herd looking to add a Power 5 triumph to its collection.
Sept. 3: North Carolina Central
Sept. 17: at Northwestern
Sept. 24: at Notre Dame
Oct. 8: Army
The Blue Devils might want to get used to the Midwest during September. They travel to Northwestern on Sept. 17 and then turn around and head back that way a week later to face Notre Dame. The Wildcats are always tough at home. Just ask Stanford from a year ago, and the Irish are likely to start the season ranked in the top 10. Army's not going to be mistaken for a powerhouse, but it's never easy preparing for the Black Knights' version of the triple-option.
7. UCLA Bruins
Sept. 3: at Texas A&M
Sept. 10: UNLV
Sept. 17: at BYU
The Bruins don't have any of the top dogs in the preseason polls on their nonconference slate, but not many people are volunteering to open the season at Kyle Field. It's a pivotal season for Kevin Sumlin and the Aggies, and you can bet they'll be ready that first weekend. After coming back home to face UNLV, the Bruins go back on the road to play BYU the third weekend of the season. Winning at picturesque LaVell Edwards Stadium is never easy, and the Bruins had to rally in the final quarter last season to beat the Cougars in Pasadena. Those are two big-boy road trips in the first three weeks of the season.
Sept. 2: Kansas State
Oct. 15: at Notre Dame
Nov. 26: Rice
We'll have to wait and see whether Kansas State recovers from a disappointing 6-7 season, but Bill Snyder's Wildcats are never an easy out. The Cardinal will open with Kansas State on Friday night in Palo Alto. One thing that's different about Stanford's nonconference schedule as opposed to some of its Pac-12 brethren is that the games are spread out. The trip to Notre Dame comes in Week 6, and a home date with Rice closes out the season on Nov. 26 after all of the conference games have been played.
Sept. 3: Furman
Sept. 17: at Notre Dame
Oct. 8: BYU
The Spartans are faced with having to reload at some key spots. Their Big Ten championship team a year ago was a veteran club, so it helps that some of the toughest conference games (Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin) are at home in 2016. But two tough nonconference games await, including a trip to Notre Dame the third week of the season. Michigan State does get a bye before that game, but comes back home a few weeks later to take on BYU the second Saturday in October.
Sept. 2: vs. Colorado State in Denver
Sept. 10: Idaho State
Sept. 17: at Michigan
The 2016 season should be the Buffaloes' best chance to break through under Mike MacIntyre with 17 starters returning and quarterback Davis Webb transferring in from Texas Tech. Right off the bat, Colorado will be tested with a season-opening game against Colorado State in Denver on a Friday night. The two in-state rivals have split the last four games. Two weeks later, the Buffaloes travel to the Big House to face Michigan, a preseason top-5 team and one of the favorites to win the Big Ten championship next season.