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The toughest three-week stretches in college football

College football’s grind has a way of catching up to even the stoutest of teams.

And depending on your conference and your schedule, in particular pockets of your schedule, it could be the difference in a memorable season and a forgettable one.

We’ve examined the toughest three-game grinds in college football for the 2017 season among Power 5 teams — three games in three weeks without any byes — and ranked the 12 toughest. Only four of the teams in our top 12 made it into Mark Schlabach’s latest Way-Too-Early Top 25 — Oklahoma State, Penn State, Texas and West Virginia — which means the Cowboys, Nittany Lions, Longhorns and Mountaineers could have a hard time crashing the College Football Playoff party for 2017.

Here’s what we came up with, keeping in mind that tough road games were weighted more heavily as well as three-game stretches preceded or followed by difficult tests:

Note: All rankings referenced come from Schlabach’s too-early Top 25.

1. Mississippi State
Sept. 16 vs. LSU, Sept. 23 at Georgia, Sept. 30 at Auburn

It was only three years ago that Dan Mullen blew the top off the supposed ceiling at Mississippi State by leading the Bulldogs to a No. 1 ranking in November. Once again, there’s considerable buzz in Starkville, especially with versatile quarterback Nick Fitzgerald returning, but the Bulldogs have to find a way to survive a brutal September. They get three teams in the top 13 in three weeks. After what’s sure to be a black-and-blue, physical matchup with LSU at home, they go on the road to take on Georgia and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. Good luck finding a tougher or more taxing three-game stretch (without a break) — at least through our June lenses.

2. Penn State
Oct. 21 vs. Michigan, Oct. 28 at Ohio State, Nov. 4 at Michigan State

Perhaps it’s some relief for the Nittany Lions that they have a bye week before tackling this gauntlet. They’re going to need it. No. 14 Michigan, which handed Penn State its only Big Ten loss a year ago — a 49-10 rout — comes to Happy Valley the third week of October. That’s followed by back-to-back Big Ten road trips, the first one to No. 1 Ohio State and then to Michigan State. The Spartans were down last season, but it’s never easy to win in East Lansing, especially a week removed from playing in the Horseshoe.

3. Vanderbilt
Sept. 16 vs. Kansas State, Sept. 23 vs. Alabama, Sept. 30 at Florida

A year after making a bowl game, Derek Mason and the Commodores will find out pretty quickly in 2017 what kind of team they have. They face a grueling September stretch that starts out of conference with a home date against No. 18 Kansas State, then another home date against No. 2 Alabama followed by a trip to No. 21 Florida. If that’s not enough, the very next week, they open the month of October by returning home to take on No. 13 Georgia. Whew!

4. Pittsburgh
Sept. 9 at Penn State, Sept. 16 vs. Oklahoma State, Sept. 23 at Georgia Tech

There won’t be any easing into the 2017 schedule for Pat Narduzzi and the Panthers. In Week 2, they hit the road to face No. 5 Penn State. You think the Nittany Lions will be motivated after losing at Pitt a year ago? Then comes a home game against No. 6 Oklahoma State, which throws the ball all over the park with the returning combo of quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington, and the Panthers open ACC play a week later by going on the road and having to deal with Georgia Tech’s triple-option attack.

5. Kansas
Nov. 11 at Texas, Nov. 18 vs. Oklahoma, Nov. 25 at Oklahoma State

David Beaty already has a hard enough job trying to pump some life into a Kansas program that hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009, when the Jayhawks won five. But he enters 2017, albeit on the heels of a raise and a contract extension, with what looks to be the toughest stretch to end the season in the Big 12. How is that fair? Well, college football isn’t supposed to be fair. The Jayhawks had better load up on some wins early because they close with three straight preseason Top 25 teams, including the Oklahoma double-whammy: No. 8 Oklahoma at home and No. 6 Oklahoma State on the road.

6. Oregon State
Sept. 30 vs. Washington, Oct. 7 at USC, Oct. 14 vs. Colorado

Talk about a defensive coordinator’s nightmare. The Beavers, who were 82nd nationally last season in scoring defense (30.5 points per game), will go from Washington quarterback Jake Browning to USC quarterback Sam Darnold (on the road) to Colorado do-it-all running back Phillip Lindsay in three successive weeks. And all three of those offenses are anything but one-man shows. Among them, Washington, USC and Colorado won 32 games last season, and the Huskies and Trojans are both preseason top-10 teams.

7. West Virginia
Nov. 11 at Kansas State, Nov. 18 vs. Texas, Nov. 25 at Oklahoma

The good news for West Virginia is that quarterback transfer Will Grier is eligible for the 2017 season. But when you look at the Mountaineers’ schedule to close the regular season, those last few weeks of November could be treacherous. Two of their final three games are on the road, against No. 18 Kansas State and No. 8 Oklahoma, and sandwiched in between is a home matchup with No. 23 Texas. Dana Holgorsen’s club could be a sleeper in the Big 12 race, but how the Mountaineers navigate those last three weeks will go a long way toward defining their season.

8. Oklahoma State
Oct. 21 at Texas, Oct. 28 at West Virginia, Nov. 4 vs. Oklahoma

This has a chance to be one of Mike Gundy’s best teams since he took over as head coach at his alma mater in 2005, when Les Miles left for LSU. The Cowboys will need to be at their best to kick off the pivotal second half of the season because they face three preseason Top 25 conference foes in three weeks. The first two are on the road, too, against No. 23 Texas and No. 20 West Virginia, and then to open the month of November, the Cowboys take on in-state rival Oklahoma at home. Making this stretch even more daunting for the Pokes is the fact that they’ve won only twice since 2003 in the Bedlam series.

9. Cal
Sept. 23 vs. USC, Sept. 30 at Oregon, Oct. 7 at Washington

First-year Cal coach Justin Wilcox has a long and impressive defensive background, and he’ll have his work cut out improving a Bears defense that was next-to-last nationally a year ago in scoring defense (42.6 points per game). Then again, a three-game stretch of USC, Oregon and Washington — the last two of those on the road — would test any coach. A year ago, the Trojans, Ducks and Huskies combined to score 160 points against the Bears. And on the back end of this three-game stretch, Cal has to return home on a short week to face No. 25 Washington State on a Friday night.

10. Arkansas
Oct. 7 at South Carolina, Oct. 14 at Alabama, Oct. 21 vs. Auburn

The road in the SEC can get ugly, and the Hogs will spend just about all of October away from their home turf. Their three-game grind will start against what should be an improved South Carolina team on the road. The Gamecocks are always a tough out at home. Then comes another road trip to No. 2 Alabama and a home date with No. 10 Auburn. And just for good measure, it’s back to the airport the very next week to face Ole Miss in Oxford.

11. Texas
Oct. 7 vs. Kansas State, Oct. 14 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 21 vs. Oklahoma State

There are more than a few three-game stretches in the Big 12 this season that look anything but inviting. First-year coach Tom Herman gets a taste of the grind in October when the Longhorns square off with three preseason top-20 teams in three weeks. The Longhorns don’t have to leave the state of Texas for any of the three, with the Oklahoma game being played annually in Dallas, but it’s still the kind of gauntlet that could add up to three straight losses for any team not playing its best football.

12. Virginia
Nov. 4 vs. Georgia Tech, Nov. 11 at Louisville, Nov. 18 at Miami

Sometimes, simply getting to November with some semblance of health is difficult for a football team. For the Cavaliers, the stakes are only raised this season when they get to that final month, a three-game stretch that begins with Georgia Tech and its maddening triple-option offense. From there, UVa goes on the road and gets to deal with 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville followed by another trip to Miami and a Hurricanes front seven on defense that might be their most imposing in years.

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