In the current BCS system, the national championship game participants are determined both by how well they perform and by which opponents they play. In the seven-year run of SEC national championships, SEC teams with blemished records have reached the title game five times, elevated into a championship opportunity over other power conference contenders due largely to the overall strength of the league.
Schedule strength plays into the national championship conversation in several other ways beyond conference affiliation. On one end of the spectrum, there are teams that won't play any top teams at all. According to our FEI projections, the Boise State Broncos will not face a top-40 opponent this fall and have an overall projected strength of schedule ranked No. 108. The Broncos are the third-most likely team to go undefeated this year according to the FEI projections, but their opportunity to be a BCS title contender is effectively nullified by the lack of a single strong opponent on the schedule.
The Ohio State Buckeyes and Louisville Cardinals have weak overall schedules as well, though not quite to the same degree. Both teams will have a relatively clear path to an undefeated season, and as AQ conference teams, they will be part of the title conversation all year. Without several marquee opponents, however, there is no margin of error for the Buckeyes and Cardinals. Ohio State and Louisville probably won't be in consideration as one-loss contenders.
The sequencing of the top opponents may be a big factor as well. Alabama, Texas A&M and Oregon have projected schedules not ranked as particularly difficult challenges as a whole, and they won't face any difficult two-game swings either. Alabama's top opponents, Texas A&M and LSU, fall eight weeks apart on the schedule, and because the Crimson Tide will dodge any top SEC East foes until the conference title game, the meat of the schedule should be a relative cakewalk. Texas A&M is in the same boat, playing Alabama and LSU 10 weeks apart. Oregon's toughest games project to be trips to Washington, Stanford and Arizona, three games spread over a six-week period.
For other contenders, there are particularly difficult stretches or back-to-back challenges that may be the biggest factor in determining the national championship race. Here are seven teams that can be BCS title game candidates if they can survive the tough segments.
FEI Projection: No. 3
Schedule Strength Projection: No. 33
Toughest Stretch: Oregon Nov. 7, at USC Nov. 16, California Nov. 23, Notre Dame Nov. 30
Stanford elevated itself into a national contender in the Jim Harbaugh era, and David Shaw has kept Stanford on top in his first two seasons. Year 3 should be successful as well, with a more experienced quarterback in Kevin Hogan and a defense that was among the nation's best a year ago.
The Cardinal should have an easy road through October before the tough stretch kicks in beginning with a showdown with the Oregon Ducks on Nov. 7 that will likely decide the Pac-12 North race. It helps that Stanford will play three of its final four regular-season games at home, and if the Cardinal claim a division title, they'll probably host the conference championship game. Our projections give the Cardinal a 23 percent chance of winning all four games in their toughest stretch and a 69 percent chance of winning at least three of them.
FEI Projection: No. 8
Schedule Strength Projection: No. 12
Toughest Stretch: Georgia Nov. 2, Vanderbilt Nov. 9, at South Carolina Nov. 16, Florida State Nov. 30