The unforgiving nature of having to face eight other SEC teams every season can be daunting enough on its own. That's why most SEC teams tend to err on the side of caution when scheduling their non-conference opposition year after year. It's a strategy that draws plenty of criticism from the rest of the college football world. But if the 2018 schedule is any indication, the SEC is in no hurry to change its lackluster out-of-conference scheduling policy.
As per usual, every SEC schedule in 2018 consists of at least one FCS opponent. And no team in the conference will face more than one Power 5 opponent during the regular season. It's largely disappointing. However, there are a few marquee non-conference matchups on the slate. That includes five compelling neutral-site games that feature SEC teams versus Power 5 opponents to kick off the 2018 season.
Here are our rankings of the SEC's top non-conference schedules, from most difficult to least challenging.
1. South Carolina
Sept. 1 vs. Coastal Carolina
Sept. 15 vs. Marshall
Nov. 17 vs. Chattanooga
Nov. 24 at Clemson
A week 3 matchup at home against Marshall holds some intrigue. But it's the season finale on the road against in-state archrival Clemson that has the Gamecocks sitting atop these rankings. No one in the SEC will face a tougher non-conference road test in 2018.
2. Texas A&M
August 30 vs. Northwestern State
Sept. 8 vs. Clemson
Sept. 15 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 17 vs. UAB
If Jimbo Fisher thought he could escape perennial powerhouse Clemson by moving to the SEC, he thought wrong. Fisher will face his former ACC nemesis in just his second game as head coach of the Aggies. The silver lining is that all of Texas A&M's non-conference games will be played in College Station.
Sept. 2 vs. Miami (Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 8 vs. Southeastern Louisiana
Sept. 22 vs. Louisiana Tech
Nov. 17 vs. Rice
LSU will be tested early, kicking off its 2018 campaign with a Sunday night tilt against a potent Miami Hurricanes team in AT&T Stadium. Conference supremacy will also be on the line in this highly anticipated SEC vs. ACC matchup. The rest of the non-conference schedule provides no serious threat. However, the Tigers would be remiss to completely overlook Louisiana Tech.
Sept. 1 vs. Middle Tennessee
Sept. 8 vs. Nevada
Sept. 15 at Notre Dame
Sept. 29 vs. Tennessee State
There are only a couple of SEC teams that willingly scheduled a true non-conference road game against a potential top-25 team in 2018. Vanderbilt deserves credit for being one of those teams. That said, the Commodores may wish they had made other arrangements when it comes time to visit South Bend in mid-September.
Sept. 1 vs. Washington (Atlanta)
Sept. 8 vs. Alabama State
Sept. 29 vs. Southern Miss
Nov. 17 vs. Liberty
Believe it or not, Auburn hasn't beaten a ranked team in a season opener away from Jordan-Hare Stadium since 1957, going 0-6 since that time. That doesn't bode well for the Tigers, who open their 2018 campaign in Mercedes-Benz Stadium against a top-15 Washington team. Fortunately, Auburn's close proximity to Atlanta will provide a home-like atmosphere that should help the Tigers avoid an otherwise ominous fate.
Sept. 1 vs. Charleston Southern
Sept. 15 vs. Colorado State
Nov. 17 vs. Idaho
Nov. 24 at Florida State
The Gators' 2018 non-conference schedule is highlighted by the annual season-ending matchup against in-state foe Florida State in Tallahassee. Dan Mullen and Willie Taggart usher in a new era of this heated rivalry to add to the intrigue. The Gators also have an early-season meeting with Colorado State that could be somewhat interesting. But they lose points for having two FCS schools on the non-SEC slate.
Sept. 1 vs. UT Martin
Sept. 8 vs. Wyoming
Sept. 15 at Purdue
Oct. 20 vs. Memphis
While Mizzou's 2018 non-conference schedule doesn't feature any juggernauts, it may be the most balanced in the conference. Missouri visits West Lafayette to face Jeff Brohm's up-and-coming Boilermakers in mid-September, making the Tigers one of the select few in the SEC that will play a true away game against a Power 5 opponent. A home matchup against Memphis in October could be intriguing as well.
8. Mississippi State
Sept. 1 vs. Stephen F. Austin
Sept. 8 at Kansas State
Sept. 15 vs. Louisiana
Nov. 3 vs. Louisiana Tech
For the first time in a decade, Mississippi State's non-conference schedule features a true road game against a Power 5 opponent. The week two matchup against a potential top-25 Kansas State team also marks Joe Moorhead's first real test as head coach of the Bulldogs.
Sept. 1 vs. West Virginia (Charlotte, N.C.)
Sept. 8 vs. East Tennessee State
Sept. 15 vs. UTEP
Nov. 3 vs. Charlotte
First-year Volunteers' head coach Jeremy Pruitt will be tested right out of the gate against a projected top-25 West Virginia squad in Charlotte. Otherwise, Tennessee's non-conference schedule is almost laughable. It consists of two Conference USA opponents that combined for a record of 1-23 last season, and an FCS opponent that just started playing football again in 2015.
Sept. 1 vs. Louisville (Orlando, Fla.)
Sept. 8 vs. Arkansas State
Sept. 29 vs. Louisiana-Lafayette
Nov. 17 vs. The Citadel
The season opener against Louisville in Orlando highlights the Crimson Tide's 2018 non-conference schedule. Unfortunately, the Cardinals won't be the same without Lamar Jackson, and this isn't nearly as appealing as last year's opener against Florida State. A week 2 matchup against Arkansas State follows. Alabama will be heavily favored, but the Red Wolves aren't a complete pushover.
Sept. 1 vs. Central Michigan
Sept. 15 vs. Murray State
Nov. 17 vs. Middle Tennessee
Nov. 24 at Louisville
The end-of-season rivalry against in-state foe Louisville doesn't have quite the same appeal now that Lamar Jackson is gone. But the Wildcats get some credit for facing a Power 5 team on the road, even if it is by default. The November matchup in Lexington against MTSU could pose a challenge as well.
Sept. 1 vs. Austin Peay
Sept. 15 vs. Middle Tennessee
Nov. 17 vs. Massachusetts
Nov. 24 vs. Georgia Tech
The Bulldogs won't even have to leave the friendly confines of Sanford Stadium to face a non-conference opponent in 2018. And the regular season-finale against in-state rival Georgia Tech will be the only Power 5 matchup. It's disappointing compared to last season's non-SEC slate, which featured games at Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
13. Ole Miss
Sept. 1 vs. Texas Tech (Houston)
Sept. 8 vs. Southern Illinois
Sept. 22 vs. Kent State
Oct. 6 vs. Louisiana-Monroe
The aerial assault that is sure to ensue in the season opener in Houston against Texas Tech will be fun to watch. The Red Raiders should have a passing attack that can match the Rebels blow for blow. Ole Miss won't have much difficulty navigating its way through the remaining non-conference matchups.
Sept. 1 vs. Eastern Illinois
Sept. 8 at Colorado State
Sept. 15 vs. North Texas
Oct. 20 vs. Tulsa
Arkansas is the only SEC team that does not feature a single Power 5 opponent on its 2018 non-conference schedule. It almost ensures that the Razorbacks will match last season's win total. That's a favorable scenario for new head coach Chad Morris, but it leaves plenty to be desired for Razorback fans.
-- Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.