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College football: the 5 toughest places to play heading into 2016

19 September 2015 Auburn Tigers at LSU Tigers; LSU's Tiger Stadium during a game in Baton Rouge, Louisiana
John Korduner/Icon Sportswire

When discussing the toughest college football stadiums for visiting teams, it’s time to add some fresh seasonings to the pot and liven up a familiar recipe.

Typical “stadium-toughness” pieces — tailor-made for these restless summer months before the games begin the Thursday before Labor Day — identify the hardest places to win in college football over a longer period of time.

If you wrote a “toughest stadiums” piece in the year 2000, The Swamp in Gainesville had to be on the list.

If you wrote a toughest stadiums piece in 1993, the Orange Bowl in Miami had to be No. 1 on your list, full stop. Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium had to be No. 1 if you wrote this piece in the summer of 1996.

Stadium-toughness pieces — at least in their typical architectures — honor the past 10 to 20 years of college football history.

For this piece, the fresh seasonings consist of a departure from that familiar methodology. This isn’t so much an acknowledgment that certain stadiums have been imposing lairs for visiting teams over the past 10 years; it’s a layout of the stadiums which have a really good chance to be impenetrable by visiting teams in the 2016 season. Some overlap will exist — these aren’t mutually exclusive lists — but some alterations will be produced by this shift in methodology.

What does this mean for the composition of the list?

Here’s one example: Autzen Stadium doesn’t make the cut.

Over the past 10 years, no Pac-12 (or 10) stadium has been tougher to win in, but since the Ducks are entering a period of increased uncertainty — and since Stanford comes to Eugene this year — it’s not a slam dunk that Oregon will defend its turf. The Ducks also lost at home to Washington State and got obliterated by Utah last season. If the toughest stadiums in college football are viewed solely through the lens of “Will Team A go unbeaten at home in 2016?” — which is what this piece is exploring — Autzen falls outside the top five.

On with the list, then:

5 – MEMORIAL STADIUM, CLEMSON

Clemson could be No. 1 if one emphasizes the strength of the Tigers as a team. The very best national title contenders would undoubtedly have a tough time winning in Death Valley East in 2016. (That’s my name for this stadium; LSU is “Death Valley West,” an easy way to separate these two Tiger lairs.)

Why does Clemson not rise to No. 1, then? The home schedule is not that demanding. Louisville is the toughest team Clemson will play at home in 2016.

You might ask: “If this piece tries to establish which teams will go unbeaten at home in 2016, why wouldn’t Clemson then be first?”

Good question. Here’s the explanation: Several teams have a great chance of going unbeaten at home this year. The higher rankings go to the teams (and stadiums) which can go unbeaten at home against tougher schedules. Clemson makes the list… but at the bottom.

4 – OHIO STADIUM, OHIO STATE

The Buckeyes’ home slate isn’t loaded with tough opponents this season, but there’s a fellow named Harbaugh who will mosey on into Columbus at the end of November. If Ohio State can withstand Michigan, that will be a testament to The Horseshoe’s value. Michigan trumps Louisville in a home-schedule comparison.

3 – NOTRE DAME STADIUM, Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish host Michigan State and Stanford this year. Those are not cupcake games, but Notre Dame is in good position to win them. If the Irish defend South Bend in 2016, it’s likely they’ll crack their first College Football Playoff.

2 – TIGER STADIUM, LSU

Tiger Stadium is a fascinating part of this list in that SEC West teams have been able to win in Baton Rouge in recent years. Alabama hasn’t lost in Red Stick since 2010. However, this year might bring about the right set of circumstances for LSU to defend its home turf against the Crimson Tide and Ole Miss. It’s true that having Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator endangers LSU’s fortunes, but the Tigers might be strong enough to overcome that particular limitation.

06 September 2008: Oklahoma fans cheer on their team during the University of Oklahoma Sooners 52-26 win over the University of Cincinnati Bearcats at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, OK.

06 September 2008: Oklahoma fans cheer on their team during the University of Oklahoma Sooners 52-26 win over the University of Cincinnati Bearcats at the Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium in Norman, OK.

1 – GAYLORD FAMILY MEMORIAL STADIUM (FORMERLY KNOWN AS OWEN FIELD), OKLAHOMA

The stadium you see above has been renovated and expanded, but that’s not why the Oklahoma Sooners make No. 1 on this list. OU’s placement is a product of the most loaded home schedule in the country in 2016. Ohio State, Baylor and Oklahoma State all travel to Norman. The Sooners won’t have an easy time going 3-0 against those opponents, but Bob Stoops’ troops are certainly talented enough to nail the trifecta. If they pull off the feat, no stadium will have been tougher on visitors in 2016 than the Sooners’ crib.

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