Scheduling is going to be a serious issue with the new rules that the ACC and SEC have passed along with whatever changes the B1G might be making to their scheduling rules. The 'Power Five' are doing everything that they can to pinch out the rest of FBS football from relevant football games and a fair shake at a championship. ESPN is on board, advertising sponsors are on board, but at least Steve Spurrier isn't.
It will be more of an issue down the road, as most of the games scheduled this year were arranged years in advance. When South Carolina signed up to play UCF I'm sure they weren't expecting to eek out a 3-point win in Orlando, but that's exactly what happened last year. At any rate, when considering the work the AAC needs to do in order to become the sixth power conference, these games will be some of the most important ones to watch this coming year.
So who's doing the best job this year of challenging themselves against the best in college football? For the purposes of this exercise I omitted FCS teams from this survey. The 2014 non-conference opponents are listed below along with their Fooball Outsiders Final F/+ rating from 2013.
Scheduling info from www.fbschedules.com
1. East Carolina
9/6 - at South Carolina (10)
9/13 - at Virginia Tech (27)
9/20 - North Carolina (38)
The East Carolina Pirates put a 55-31 hurting on UNC last year on the road. The Tar Heels were a pretty good team last year and are expected to be quite good this year as well. What makes the ECU non-con so impressive, though, is that UNC is clearly the easiest team on the slate. Games at Virginia Tech and South Carolina will be huge tests for the Pirates in their first year as members of the AAC. I expect them to beat North Carolina and wouldn't be surprised to see them take both of these road challenges to the wire.
Degree of Difficulty: 10/10
8/31 - at Baylor (7)
9/6 - at North Texas (51)
9/20 - Texas A&M (23)
9/27 - TCU (44)
The SMU Mustangs earn bonus points for having four challenging games in the non-conference datebook. Most of the other schools on this list have a cupcake for a fourth opponent from either the bottom of the FBS barrel or FCS. Baylor was one of the best teams in college football last year even though *Ahem* they couldn't handle the AAC champs in the Fiesta Bowl last year. Texas A&M is expected to take a step back now that Johnny Manziel is stealing headlines in Cleveland. Meanwhile both TCU and North Texas represent very strong challenges for a program still trying to erase the impact of the NCAA's "Death Penalty" in the late eighties.
Degree of Difficulty: 9/10
9/12 - Toledo (62)
9/20 - Miami (OH) (123)
9/27 - at Ohio State (9)
10/11 - at Miami (FL) (36)
Tommy Tuberville's Cincinnati Bearcats were picked to win the AAC in the preseason media poll and expect to build off of last years 9-4 campaign. Toledo is a solid team which is expected to compete for the MAC title, they have a really good offensive line and are typically among the best recruiters in the conference. Ohio State was in the National Championship hunt last year until they lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game. They should still be the class of their conference-- if Cincinnati can pull of this win it would be a major coup for The American. Miami (FL) isn't what it used to be but is still a quality opponent, and a big name, from the ACC.
Degree of Difficulty: 8/10
9/6 - at UCLA (15)
9/20 - Middle Tennessee (85)
9/27 - at Ole Miss (28)
Memphis... wasn't very good last year. They are expected to improve on last years 3-9 mark and actually have a decent out of conference slate. Road games against UCLA and Ole Miss are great challenges and if they could somehow pull of an upset it would be miraculous. Even though that is very unlikely to happen, the mere possibility is more than some other schools have.
Degree of Difficulty: 8/10
8/30 - Penn State (in Dublin, Ireland) (61)
9/13 - at Missouri (14)
10/9 - BYU (30)
George O'Leary's UCF Knights were so close to shocking the world last year against South Carolina. They held a 10-0 lead at the half and after 28 unanswered points from the Gamecocks a late rally fell just short. This year they play Penn State in Dublin, which is cool I guess. They also play the Cotton Bowl Champions and SEC runners-up from Mizzou, who should be really good again this year. They're replacing a lot of starters, but their move to the SEC has gone well from a recruiting standpoint-- they should be able to reload.
Degree of Difficulty: 7/10
Cincinnati, UCF and East Carolina are expected to be the best teams in the conference this year. They have a legitimate chance to win games against Missouri, Penn State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, UNC, Miami and Ohio State. Any of those would be huge for the conference-- we could see multiple representatives in the Top 25 polls if things go well.
Here's a question-- if ECU goes undefeated do they warrant consideration for the CFB Playoff? No seriously, I'm asking I have no idea. What do you think? That would mean they've beaten South Carolina, Virginia Tech, UNC, Cincinnati and UCF. Could they break through under the right circumstances?
Aman Kidwai is the manager of SB Nation's UConn Blog where you can find thoroughly biased commentary on the nations best basketball program and an up-and-coming football program.