If you’re going to compete for a national championship, or even a conference title, you have to be able to win on the road. Any team can win at home playing in a friendly environment in front of friends and family, but winning on the road tries you.
It’s not easy to block out raucous fans who want nothing more than to see you get burned for a long touchdown or get hit hard while trying to make a play. That’s what separates the good from the potentially great in the land of college football.
Here are some teams that should excel when traveling in 2017.
1. USC Trojans – Everyone is riding high on USC. That’s typically an indicator of a disappointing season, but this year is going to be different.
USC doesn’t have a bye week in the regular season, but that’s fine considering this slate. Although they do have road games in back-to-back weeks twice, the teams they play in those games aren’t great. The first pair of consecutive road games has the Trojans playing the worst team in the conference, Cal, and a Washington State team they have traditionally dominated.
The second set has USC going on the road against Notre Dame and Arizona State in consecutive weeks. Both of those schools look better on paper than they do on the field, and USC should be able to take care of business against both.
Of course, the key is keeping Sam Darnold healthy. He might be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL Draft and led USC to nine straight wins to close out 2016. The offense scored 40-plus points in six of those nine games and looked like the USC of old.
2. South Florida Bulls – Charlie Strong is expected to pick up right where Willie Taggart left off thanks to this road slate. The Bulls’ toughest road test doesn’t come until they face rival Central Florida on Black Friday.
Their other three conference road games are all against teams that went 1-7 in AAC play last season. East Carolina, Tulane and Connecticut are all expected to be subpar this season as well.
USF kicks off its season a week before most other teams. The Bulls will travel to San Jose State to play a Spartans team that is searching for a new identity under a new coach who is bringing in a new system. Despite having to travel across country, USF is a 19.5-point favorite for a reason.
The Bulls might be the favorites to grab the Group of Five New Year’s Day Bowl bid. The schedule is very manageable with only one minor road test, and the team is loaded with talent. The defense should be even better than it was last year with nine returning starters and Strong calling the shots.
3. North Carolina State Wolfpack – This could be the season that North Carolina State breaks out of its seven- or eight-win rut. Although everyone is picking the Wolfpack to finish fourth in the ACC Atlantic, this team is much better than everyone thinks.
The tag team of Ryan Finley at quarterback and Eli Drinkwitz as the offensive coordinator looked sharp in the first half of 2016, but it struggled to produce points down the stretch. However, with another year to work together and nine returning starters on offense, this unit should take big strides in 2017.
NC State could easily have a better record on the road than at home with how the schedule shakes out. The first road game for the Wolfpack is against Florida State, but NC State will essentially have two weeks to prepare for it. The week before they face FSU, the Wolfpack host FCS foe Furman. Meanwhile, FSU has to play Miami the week before it takes on NC State. That extra preparation will put the Seminoles on upset alert.
NC State could be favored in every other road game. Pittsburgh isn’t as tough this season without Matt Canada and Nathan Peterman, and the team has a bye week before traveling to Notre Dame. The Wolfpack should be favored by at least a touchdown against both Boston College and Wake Forest on the road.
4. Ohio Bobcats – Frank Solich has been one of the most consistent coaches in the country during his time in Athens, but he has yet to win a MAC Championship. That might change this season with a very favorable schedule.
The Bobcats proved their mettle against FBS opponents last year, beating Kansas on the road by 16 and only losing to Tennessee by nine. This season, they face a bad Purdue team in West Lafayette and are only a one-point underdog in that game.
Ohio plays on the easier side of the MAC and only faces one road team that went to a bowl last season: an Eastern Michigan team that is sure to regress.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes – Urban Meyer and Co. should not receive a test on the road until they play Michigan in the Big House at the end of the season. Ohio State doesn’t play any non-conference road games this season, and its first two road games should be easy wins over Indiana and Rutgers.
Nebraska is a paper tiger given its recent results and wildly outperformed its peripherals last year. The Cornhuskers aren’t as good as you may think and will have faced Wisconsin the week before this one.
Ohio State has only lost once on the road during Meyer’s five years in Columbus, and that was last year against Penn State. It was a fluky game, as the Buckeyes dominated the box score. But miscues and special teams killed them. OSU won’t lose on the road this year.