The State of Alabama is the epicenter of college football.
Alabama and Auburn have won either the SEC or BCS national championship in five consecutive seasons and have won the SEC West in five of the last six seasons. Needless to say, the Iron Bowl has become a marquee showdown of national importance with the 2013 regular-season finale going down in history as one of the most remarkable games in college football history.
Will the SEC West come down to the Tigers-Tide matchup in Tuscaloosa again in ’14? It’s certainly possible. However, Ole Miss and Mississippi State both enter the season surging with energy and expectations. LSU is loaded with talent once again and has won at least 10 games in four straight seasons. Arkansas has a coach who won three straight Big Ten titles and Kevin Sumlin has recruited at unprecedented levels in College Station.
When Athlon Sports' staff sat down to predict the SEC West, like every other division college football, we used rosters, coaching staffs, recruiting, historic trends and gut instincts to project the final standings.
But scheduling also plays a huge role. In the East Division, Tennessee has the toughest slate and Missouri got the easiest path and that impacted our decision. The same can be said about the West Division.
So who has the toughest schedule in the SEC West in 2014?
1. Arkansas Razorbacks
Crossover: Georgia (Little Rock), at Mizzou
Non-conference: Nicholls St, at Texas Tech, N. Illinois, UAB
Opponents ’13 Record: 103-54 (65.6%, 1st)
According to last year’s records, the Razorbacks will face the toughest schedule in the nation. While using last year’s win-loss totals to predict strength of schedule has numerous flaws, it does appear on paper that Arkansas will have the toughest road in the SEC West in 2014. To start, a road trip to defending SEC champ Auburn in Week 1 and a long, circuitous trip to Texas Tech in Week 3 both loom large. Once SEC plays begins, it’s hard to find any wins on the schedule. The Hogs will face Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia in a four-week span before a break against UAB in Week 9. Then a murderous November arrives with little hope for an upset: at Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss and at Mizzou. Crossover play for Arkansas could feature the best two teams in the East as well. Lastly, Arkansas is the only team in the West that doesn’t get to play… Arkansas and it makes for the toughest schedule in the SEC West.
2. Auburn Tigers
Crossover: South Carolina, at Georgia
Non-conference: San Jose St, at Kansas St, La. Tech, Samford
Opponents ’13 Record: 93-60 (60.8%, 16th)
The Tigers should ease into the ’14 slate with two winnable games to start and an open date in Week 3. But after that, there are few breathers for the defending SEC champs. A road trip to Kansas State, a visit from LSU and a trip to Starkville makes the transition from September to October very difficult. Then, Auburn will likely have the toughest set of crossover opponents in the entire SEC this fall, as the Tigers will face South Carolina at home and go to Athens to take on Georgia — both in the second half of the season. Mixed in is a road trip to Ole Miss and a home date with Texas A&M. Lastly, the Tigers will have to defend their Iron Bowl win on the road against Alabama in the regular-season finale. The only break is a home layup against Samford the week before traveling to Tuscaloosa. With so many fluky wins a year ago and another daunting schedule, it’s hard to see a repeat for Auburn.
3. Texas A&M Aggies
Crossover: at South Carolina, Missouri
Non-conference: Lamar, Rice, at SMU, ULM
Opponents ’13 Record: 100-55 (64.2%, 5th)
The Aggies play nobody of note in the non-conference schedule with the possible exception of SMU in Dallas. And it’s a good thing Texas A&M scheduled those four wins because the league slate is absolutely nasty. The Aggies get Ole Miss, Mizzou and LSU at home and could pull an upset or two — especially because both Tigers will visit College Station late in the year (Week 12 and Week 14). But the toughest away slate in the SEC leaves little room for error with road trips to Alabama, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Texas A&M should be 4-1 entering October but there are very few winnable games after that for Sumlin's depleted and inexperienced roster.
4. Ole Miss Rebels
Crossover: at Vanderbilt, Tennessee
Non-conference: Boise St, ULL, Memphis, Presbyterian
Opponents ’13 Record: 89-63 (58.6%, 26th)
Expectations are surging in Oxford and some of that energy, like their in-state brethren, comes from a manageable schedule. Boise State is a tough start to the season but Chris Petersen is in Seattle now and that makes that game dramatically less difficult. A matchup with Vanderbilt on the road and UL-Lafayette at home gives the Rebels little time to settle into the season. However, three tricky games to start means lots of breathers late in the year — i.e., Tennessee at home, Memphis, Presbyterian, at Arkansas and two bye weeks in the final 10 weeks. Mixed in will be showdowns of epic proportions as Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State all come to Oxford during that span. Road trips to Kyle Field and Tiger Stadium fall in October as well. This is a tough schedule with key swing games at home, winnable but tricky non-conference and crossover games and one really brutal road trip to the Bayou. Ole Miss will need to upset a team or two to finish in the top three in the West.
5. LSU Tigers
Crossover: at Florida, Kentucky
Non-conference: Wisconsin, Sam Houston St, ULM, New Mexico St
Opponents ’13 Record: 82-71 (53.6%, 57th)
Playing Wisconsin and Florida would normally make for an extremely difficult schedule. However, the Badgers are coming all the way down to Houston and are rebuilding on defense while Florida posted the worst season in school history a year ago. And the rest of the non-conference and crossover schedule (Kentucky) is very easy. So how does the home-road SEC West slate shape up for the Tigers? Road trips to Arkansas and Texas A&M come late in the year but those should be the worst two teams in the division while back-to-back visits to Auburn and Florida to start October loom large. The good news is LSU gets Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State at home and those three games could determine division pecking order more so than any other game minus Auburn. This schedule has some serious land mines but also sets up pretty well for Les Miles to reach 10 wins for the fifth straight time.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Crossover: at Kentucky, Vanderbilt
Non-conference:Southern Miss, UAB, at S. Alabama, UT Martin
Opponents ’13 Record:80-71 (52.9%, 62nd)
Like Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in the SEC, the Bulldogs won’t challenge themselves in non-conference play like some of the bigger programs. Which is good, considering the normally brutal SEC West round-robin Mississippi State faces each year. Home games with Texas A&M (Week 6), Auburn (Week 7), Arkansas (Week 10) and Vanderbilt (Week 13) are all winnable and could feature three, possibly four, league victories. Road tilts with LSU and Alabama will be difficult and a rivalry game in Oxford is always tough, but the saving grace for Dan Mullen (and what makes this schedule lighter than others in the league) is two very winnable crossover games and four likely wins in the non-conference. It’s not just the defensive depth chart and development of quarterback Dak Prescott that makes the Bulldogs an intriguing team to follow entering ’14, it’s also a relatively “lenient” schedule.
7. Alabama Crimson Tide
Crossover: Florida, at Tennessee
Non-conference: West Virginia, FAU, Southern Miss, W. Carolina
Opponents ’13 Record: 71-79 (47.3%, 95th)
Alabama should breeze into conference play with three very winnable non-conference games (and one more in November). Crossover play against two powerhouse programs that have fallen on hard times in the Gators (home, Week 4) and Vols (road, Week 9) also gives the Tide a fortunate break in 2014. Add in a home game in the Iron Bowl against Auburn and the Tide looks poised for a perfect record at home. A road trip to Baton Rouge — a rivalry where the road team has consistently played well — and Ole Miss are the only other tricky games on the schedule, but Alabama gets two weeks to prepare for both games. This 12-game slate has three (maybe four) marquee games on it and two of those four will come at home with the other two coming after the bye weeks. A 10-win season is almost a guarantee in Tuscaloosa once again.