Ranking college football's toughest 2019 nonconference schedules

Stanford's David Shaw stresses the competitive balance of the conference. Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The most refreshing thing about nonconference scheduling in college football is that we're starting to see more home-and-home series, which have long been part of the sport's fabric, on the horizon.

There are a few of those matchups on the 2019 nonconference slate, and yes, some intriguing neutral-site games as well. But as we examine the toughest nonconference schedules for Power 5 teams in 2019, there's a recurring theme: Notre Dame is a frequent foe.

It was a close call for the top spot between Stanford and Duke, but the Cardinal get the nod based on the possibility that all three of their nonconference opponents could easily be Top 25 teams by season's end. In other words, there are no breathers. Then again, Duke is the only Power 5 team to face two nonconference foes ranked in the top six in ESPN's latest Way-Too-Early-Top 25 -- Alabama and Notre Dame.

For what it's worth, seven of the 10 Power 5 teams we selected a year ago with the toughest nonconference slates finished with six or more losses. Of course, Clemson was also on that list, and all the Tigers did was go unbeaten and win the national title.

The Pac-12 leads the way with three of the top four toughest slates out of conference in 2019. The only Power 5 conference not represented is the Big 12.

1. Stanford
Schedule: Aug. 31 vs. Northwestern, Sept. 14 at UCF, Nov. 30 vs. Notre Dame

Stanford was seventh in this ranking a year ago, and the Cardinal's 2019 nonconference schedule is even more daunting, with three legitimate tests against teams that went a combined 33-7 last season. The opener is at home against Northwestern, which played in the Big Ten championship game in 2018 and has now added Clemson transfer quarterback Hunter Johnson. Two weeks later, Stanford treks across the country to take on UCF and closes the regular season at home against Notre Dame. Both teams are ranked in the top 15 in the latest ESPN preseason rankings.

2. Duke
Schedule: Aug. 31 vs. Alabama in Atlanta, Sept. 7 vs. North Carolina A&T, Sept. 14 at Middle Tennessee, Nov. 9 vs. Notre Dame.

David Cutcliffe and football version of the Blue Devils will open the season against Alabama in Atlanta, and then open the month of November with a home game against Notre Dame. No other Power 5 team has nonconference games against two of the four teams that were in the College Football Playoff a year ago. There's also a tricky road trip to Middle Tennessee State the third week of the season, a third bowl team from a year ago on Duke's nonconference slate. And here's the other thing: You think Alabama will be in a good mood to start the season after being thumped by Clemson in the national title game?