Over the past few seasons, when Athlon Sports sat down to predict our SEC East final standings there has been one factor that seems to have been the deciding factor.
We caught a lot heat in 2011 when we picked the Georgia Bulldogs to win the East over the South Carolina Gamecocks. Especially from those clad in Garnett and Black. The same could have been said about picking the Bulldogs in 2012.
The Dawgs had the easier path to the SEC East title those years and the ever-so-slight difference in scheduling played a huge role in earning Mark Richt and Georgia a trip to Atlanta in both 2011 and ’12.
In 2014, as the SEC enters the College Football Playoff Era, the schedules don’t seem nearly as imbalanced. And it makes projecting the SEC East virtually impossible. Of the four main contenders — Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina and Florida — Missouri has the easiest crossover slate, South Carolina gets the most critical home schedule but has the toughest road slate, Georgia gets only three home SEC games and Florida has by far the toughest crossover slate.
With football magazines set to hit newsstands in a matter of weeks, Athlon Sports has ranked the toughest schedules in the SEC East and how it impacted our potential 2014 predictions.
1. Tennessee Volunteers
Crossover: at Ole Miss, Alabama
Non-conference: Utah State, Arkansas State, at Oklahoma, Chattanooga
Opponents' '13 Record: 101-54 (65.2%, 3rd)
The Vols will have to battle one of the toughest slates in the nation this fall. They will play one of the Mountain West and Sun Belt frontrunners and the Big 12 frontrunner in non-conference action. Tennessee also will have to travel to Georgia, South Carolina, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt while hosting Alabama, Missouri and a Florida team it hasn’t beaten in Neyland Stadium in nearly a decade. This team could be dramatically improved overall in 2014 and could still easily lose seven games for a sixth time in seven years. The month of November is Butch Jones' only shot at a bowl berth with Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt on tap in the final three weeks.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Crossover: at LSU, Mississippi State
Non-conference: UT-Martin, Ohio, ULM, at Louisville
Opponents' '13 Record: 98-55 (6th)
Normally, if you are going to be a bottom feeder in the toughest league in the nation, non-conference slates and crossovers are supposed to help. And while UT-Martin is an easy win, none of Kentucky's other out-of-league opponents or crossovers are locks for victories. In fact, a 2-2 record out of SEC play would be a solid mark and one win against either LSU or Mississippi State from the West would be a huge victory. Toss in the usual laundry list of brutal SEC East games with all the SEC blue bloods and making a bowl seems virtually impossible. Since Kentucky doesn’t have to play itself, its schedule is one of the toughest in the nation.
3. Florida Gators
Crossover: at Alabama, LSU
Non-conference: Idaho, Eastern Michigan, Eastern Kentucky, at Florida State
Opponents' '13 Record: 91-62 (59.5%, 22nd)
The Gators do get three marquee SEC showdowns at home and three non-conference foes not named the Seminoles should result in be three lock wins. But overall, this is a nasty stretch with both Alabama and LSU in crossover play and a road trip to Florida State to cap the year. From Week 4 to 12, Florida will face Alabama, Tennessee and Vanderbilt on the road with LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home as well as Georgia in Jacksonville. Luckily, both off weekends will fall within that seven-game stretch. A three-game improvement from a year ago (4-8) would be considered a huge success.
4. South Carolina Gamecocks
Crossover: Texas A&M, at Auburn
Non-conference: East Carolina, Furman, South Alabama, at Clemson
Opponents' '13 Record: 96-59 (61.9%, 13th)
South Carolina and Georgia have eerily similar schedules and both are equally difficult. Both play Clemson out of conference and both play defending SEC champ Auburn in crossover. Carolina, however, has to play both Tigers on the road whereas the Bulldogs get both of those striped opponents at home. That said, Carolina gets three critical home SEC East games with contenders Georgia and Missouri as well as Tennessee in addition to Texas A&M. Road trips to Vanderbilt and Kentucky are manageable but a trip to Gainesville — while UGA gets Florida on a neutral field — also makes South Carolina’s schedule slightly more daunting.
5. Georgia Bulldogs
Crossover: at Arkansas, Auburn
Non-conference: Clemson, Troy, Charleston Southern, Georgia Tech
Opponents' '13 Record: 92-61 (60.1%, 19th)
Only getting three home games in SEC play hurts but two road trips to Arkansas and Kentucky shouldn’t be too difficult. Non-conference games with Clemson and Georgia Tech will be battles but both come at home to bookend the season. Home games with Tennessee and Vanderbilt are very winnable and a rematch of the Prayer at Jordan-Hare will come Between the Hedges. Two road trips to South Carolina and Missouri could decide the East championship, however, as these three teams appear to be the top SEC East contenders. The good news is the Dawgs get a bye week to prepare for their trip to Columbia, S.C.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores
Crossover: Ole Miss, at Mississippi State
Non-conference: Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern, Old Dominion
Opponents' '13 Record: 78-73 (51.6%, 69th)
Getting both Mississippi schools in crossover play normally would be a blessing but not in 2014 as the two Magnolia programs are improved and confident. The non-conference schedule, however, might be the easiest of any team in the nation. Other winnable games like Tennessee at home and Kentucky on the road makes getting to a bowl game a likely possibility. But winning games against traditional powers Georgia and Florida like it did last year seem to be a much taller order this time around. And that doesn’t include a road trip to Missouri and a home game with South Carolina. There are plenty of upset chances but this schedule appears to have few swing games.
7. Missouri Tigers
Crossover: at Texas A&M, Arkansas
Non-conference: South Dakota State, at Toledo, UCF, Indiana
Opponents' '13 Record: 84-67 (55.6%, 43rd)
As far as crossover and non-conference scheduling among the SEC East contenders, Missouri might have the easiest slate. A visit to Texas A&M in November won’t be easy but the Aggies and Razorbacks could be the worst two teams in the West. The non-conference slate has some solid competition but nothing Mizzou shouldn’t be able to handle with relative ease. The key for the Tigers will be the nasty road slate against South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and the Aggies — despite last year’s win-loss records. A huge potential division-deciding game against Georgia comes after a bye week and at home. The Tigers should be perfect at home and in the non-conference slate (8-0) so if they can knock off either South Carolina or Florida on the road, Mizzou could easily repeat as SEC East champs.