Nonconfence schedules are tricky.

For one thing, they’re put together seasons in advance. So there are no guarantees that the cupcake you thought you’d be opening your season against will still be a cupcake by the time the game is played.

Then you have to weigh your own set of circumstances.

If you’re a championship contender like Florida State or Clemson, maybe you want to challenge yourself with a high-profile (and high-revenue) made-for-TV matchup against LSU, Georgia or someone of equal stature. (We ranked the ACC’s 5 most difficult nonconference schedules on Monday.)

On the flip side, teams in the middle or at the bottom of the standings hoping to find enough wins to become bowl eligible can enhance their chances by scheduling a game against traditional doormat UConn – as Duke, Syracuse and Wake Forest have – or someone from the ranks of the Football Championship Subdivision.

Of those ACC teams, these 5 have done the best job of softening up their nonconference schedules for 2024:

5. Miami

  • Florida
  • Florida A&M
  • Ball State
  • South Florida

There’s always a lot of buzz surrounding the Hurricanes heading into every football season. This year there’s even more than usual, thanks to the arrival of transfer quarterback Cam Ward from Washington State and a manageable nonconference schedule.

How long the hype lasts could depend on the outcome of the opening game against in-state rival Florida. It’s an incredibly important matchup for both teams and their coaches – especially Miami’s Mario Cristobal, whose recruiting victories have yet to produce an abundance of victories on the field.

Win or lose, the rest of the Hurricanes’ nonconference schedule is much less taxing.

Florida A&M did go 12-1 and win the Celebration Bowl last year. But all of its wins came against FCS competition. Ball State went 4-8 with lopsided losses in its only 2 games against power conference opponents. And while South Florida did put a 45-0 hurting on a demoralized Syracuse in the Boca Raton Bowl, the Bulls were only a .500 team heading into the postseason.

As soft as the schedule looks, the Hurricanes’ history of playing down to the competition and Cristobal’s suspect game management skills make every game a potential disaster.

4. Pitt

  • Kent State
  • At Cincinnati
  • West Virginia
  • Youngstown State

Coach Pat Narduzzi’s future with the Panthers could very well depend on his team’s ability to bounce back from last season’s 3-9 disappointment. If that’s the case, this year’s nonconference schedule will give him a realistic shot at accomplishing the goal.

It’s not a total cakewalk. Not only is the Sept. 14 Backyard Brawl against West Virginia an emotionally charged rivalry game, but it’s also against an opponent that won 9 times and finished in the top half of the Big 12 standings a year ago.

Other than that, however, it’s not out of the question for Pitt to equal its entire 2023 win total before it opens conference play on Oct. 5.

Opening week opponent Kent State won just once in 2023, against Central Connecticut State, and should provide the Panthers with an opportunity to get off to a winning start. Week 2 opponent Cincinnati struggled with its transition into the Big 12 in the debut season under coach Scott Satterfield, and Youngstown State is an FCS opponent.

3 North Carolina

  • At Minnesota
  • Charlotte
  • NC Central
  • James Madison

For the 2nd straight year, the Tar Heels begin their season away from home against a power conference opponent.

Playing a true road game at Minnesota will be a challenge. And yet, the degree of difficulty is still lower than it was for last year’s opener against South Carolina in Charlotte, Especially given the circumstance of playing for the 1st time without 1st-round NFL Draft pick Drake Maye at quarterback and with new defensive coordinator Geoff Collins installing a new scheme.

The nonconference schedule lightens up considerably after returning home from Minnesota.

There are 2 in-state opponents in Charlotte, which is coming off a 2-9 season, and FCS foe NC Central. Both in Chapel Hill. And even though James Madison was one of college football’s feel-good stories last year by going 11-2 in just its 2nd season as an FBS program, the Dukes head into the new season amid uncertainty after the loss of coach Curt Cignetti to Indiana.

2. Syracuse

  • Ohio
  • Holy Cross
  • At UNLV
  • UConn

New coach Fran Brown has a lot going for him heading into his rookie season with the Orange.
He has brought in an elite transfer quarterback in Ohio State’s Kyle McCord. Tight end Oronde Gadsden III and linebacker Marlowe Wax, the program’s best 2 veteran players, are back. And he’s inherited an incredibly favorable nonconference schedule.

The most challenging test is the first one, an opening week home game against Ohio. The Bobcats are a Mid-American Conference opponent that won 10 games and went to the Myrtle Beach Bowl last year. But they’re still a Mid-American Conference team that an ACC team should beat at home.

Even though UNLV also went to a bowl in 2023, the odds should still be in Syracuse’s favor when it visits Vegas on Oct. 5.

The Orange went unbeaten against nonconference competition last season. It was the first time since joining a conference in 1991 that they’ve done so. With Holy Cross and UConn filling out this year’s schedule, they have a good chance at repeating the accomplishment. If it happens, Brown can only hope that it works out better for him than his predecessor Dino Babers, who won only 2 more games the rest of the way and ended up getting fired.

1. Duke

  • Elon
  • At Northwestern
  • UConn
  • At Middle Tennessee State

Syracuse’s Brown isn’t the only 1st-year ACC coach blessed with a manageable nonconference schedule. Duke’s Manny Diaz has inherited an even better opportunity for immediate success.

It begins with a home game against Elon, an FCS program located only a few miles west on Interstate 40 in Burlington, NC. There’s also a home game against UConn, the ACC’s favorite nonconference victim – in football, at least – and a trip to Middle Tennessee State, a team that fired long-time coach Rick Stockstill after going 4-8 last year.

That brings us to Northwestern.

The Wildcats were 1 of the nation’s most surprising teams a year ago, overcoming controversy and adversity to go 8-5. One of their losses, however, was a convincing 38-14 beatdown against the Blue Devils. And while this year’s game will be played on the road, it will be held at a temporary venue that seats less than 15,000 because of renovations to Northwestern’s permanent home, Ryan Field.

Unlike Syracuse, whose 4 winnable nonconference games are spread throughout the season, Duke’s will be played in the first 4 weeks – allowing Diaz and his team a chance to build momentum and confidence heading into ACC play.