Ranking the toughest three-game stretches in 2018

Steve Spurrier loves to quote one of his old bosses, Pepper Rodgers, who was quick to tell you that a football coach was only as good as his players and his schedule.

So before we dive too heavily into breaking down depth charts, returning starters and key newcomers for the 2018 college football season, maybe we first ought to look at who faces the toughest three-game stretches next season without a bye. You know, the kind of grind that can turn a promising season into a disappointing season in a hurry.

We've ranked the toughest three-game stretches the past couple of years, and it's worth noting that only one of the teams that made the top 10 a year ago managed a winning record during that stretch, and five of the 10 teams went winless during their toughest stretch.

This year, only three teams in our top 10 made it into Mark Schlabach's latest Way Too Early Top 25: West Virginia, USC and TCU.

Here's what we came up with, keeping in mind that tough road games are always weighted more heavily, as well as rivalry games and three-week stretches preceded or followed by difficult tests, particularly if a team has to come back and play on a short week.

1. Oregon State

Nov. 10 at Stanford, Nov. 17 at Washington, Nov. 23 (Friday) vs. Oregon
The Beavers, unfortunately for them, are a repeat selection on this list and were 0-3 a year ago on their way to a 1-11 season. First-year coach Jonathan Smith has his work cut out, and it doesn't help an Oregon State program still looking to build depth that the toughest part of the schedule comes in November. Back-to-back road games at No. 14 Stanford and No. 6 Washington are daunting enough, but then comes a home date with No. 24 Oregon on a short week. The Beavers claimed the top spot on this list because they also open the month of November against No. 17 USC, making for what could be a long month in Corvallis.

2. Oklahoma State

Nov. 10 at Oklahoma, Nov. 17 vs. West Virginia, Nov. 24 at TCU
The Cowboys were the exception last season. They were the only team on this list to avoid a sub-.500 stretch and carved out a 10-3 season. Once again, they face a grueling November and will be doing so without the prolific pass-catch combo of Mason Rudolph and James Washington. It's still weird to see Bedlam not coming at the end of the season, but this tough stretch starts with a trip to No. 5 Oklahoma. Then comes a home game against No. 11 West Virginia and one of the top returning passers in the country, Will Grier. The three-game gauntlet is capped by a trip to No. 20 TCU, which just seems to reload every year under Gary Patterson and won in Stillwater last season when the Cowboys were ranked No. 6 nationally.

3. Tennessee

Oct. 13 at Auburn, Oct. 20 vs. Alabama, Oct. 27 at South Carolina
The month of October has been a house of horrors for the Vols. They're just 4-24 against SEC opponents in October over the past eight seasons, and it doesn't look real promising this season, either. In successive weeks, Tennessee travels to No. 19 Auburn, faces No. 1 Alabama at home and then goes back on the road to face No. 25 South Carolina. The Vols have lost 11 straight to Alabama and six straight to Auburn, two teams that could figure prominently in the national championship conversation in 2018. What's more, this should be Will Muschamp's best team at South Carolina.

4. Rutgers

Nov. 10 vs. Michigan, Nov. 17 vs. Penn State, Nov. 24 at Michigan State
Talk about closing the season with three heavyweights. The Scarlet Knights face three of the top 13 teams in Schlabach's latest Way-Too-Early Top 25 in the final three weeks of the season. Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State won 29 games combined last season, and Rutgers' stretch against them starts with a Michigan team that might have finally found its quarterback in Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. The very next week, it's on to another marquee quarterback in Heisman Trophy hopeful Trace McSorley and the Nittany Lions. The stretch is capped by a trip to face Michigan State, which returns the prolific quarterback-running back duo of Brian Lewerke and LJ Scott.

5. West Virginia

Nov. 10 vs. TCU, Nov. 17 at Oklahoma State, Nov. 23 (Friday) vs. Oklahoma
Before the Mountaineers even dive into their dizzying three-game grind, they open November against No. 22 Texas on the road. Then comes a home game against No. 20 TCU, which has won three of the past four games in this series, followed by a trip to Oklahoma State and a home matchup with No. 5 Oklahoma on a short week to close out the regular season. West Virginia lost four of its final six games in 2017, although Grier was injured and was unable to play in the final two games. This November will be equally challenging for the Mountaineers, who have their sights set on making a run at the Big 12 championship.

6. Arkansas

Sept. 22 at Auburn, Sept. 29 vs. Texas A&M, Oct. 6 vs. Alabama
Any stretch that includes both Alabama and Auburn in a span of three weeks is never for the faint of heart. Both the Crimson Tide and Tigers will again be loaded on defense this season, and with first-year coach Chad Morris taking on a major rebuilding job at Arkansas, finding a way to even get to 20 points against Alabama and Auburn will be a chore for the Hogs, who were 1-7 in the SEC last season. Sandwiched between the Auburn and Alabama games is a home date against No. 23 Texas A&M, which has won six in a row over Arkansas, with three of the past four being overtime games.

7. Boston College

Oct. 26 (Friday) vs. Miami, Nov. 3 at Virginia Tech, Nov. 10 vs. Clemson
The Eagles face the kind of backloaded schedule in 2018 that would test any team's depth. In a span of three weeks, beginning with the final weekend of October, they take on the two teams that played in the ACC championship game last season -- No. 8 Miami and No. 2 Clemson -- and travel to No. 15 Virginia Tech in between. Boston College won five of its final six regular-season games in 2017 to get to seven wins, but when you tack on a trip to Florida State on the heels of the Miami-Virginia Tech-Clemson stretch, another torrid finish could be dicey.

8. Cal

Oct. 27 vs. Washington, Nov. 3 at Washington State, Nov. 10 at USC
Justin Wilcox enters his second season as Cal's head coach trying to return the Golden Bears to respectability in the Pac-12. They've had just one winning season in the past six, and getting to a bowl game in 2018 could prove difficult, particularly when you survey Cal's final few games. The telltale stretch includes the state of Washington double whammy: No. 6 Washington at home and then a trip to Washington State the very next week. The final leg is a trip to No. 17 USC, which last lost to Cal in 2003. If the Bears make it through that gauntlet in one piece, they can look forward to a home clash with No. 14 Stanford the following week.

9. USC

Sept. 8 at Stanford, Sept. 15 at Texas, Sept. 21 (Friday) vs. Washington State
The Trojans got off to a quick start last season, with six wins in their first seven games. Their only loss during that stretch was to Mike Leach and Washington State, and the Cougars close out what will be a challenging three-game spree in September. After opening the 2018 campaign against UNLV, USC travels to No. 14 Stanford and No. 22 Texas in back-to-back weeks. And then on a short week, the Trojans come back home to face Washington State on a Friday. In fact, three of USC's first five games are away from home.

10. TCU

Sept. 15 vs. Ohio State in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 22 at Texas, Sept. 29 vs. Iowa State
One of the biggest challenges for the Horned Frogs will be rebuilding their offensive line, and they won't have much margin for error early in the season. They take on No. 3 Ohio State at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the third week of the season, then travel to No. 22 Texas the next week. TCU has won four in a row over Texas, which will be coming off of a tough game of its own against USC. The Horned Frogs come back home to close out September against an Iowa State team that has the most momentum the Cyclones have enjoyed in ages, particularly with Matt Campbell signing a new deal to stay put as head coach.