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 virtually impossible. Of the main contenders — Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn — Alabama has the easiest slate, South Carolina gets the most critical home schedule, Georgia gets only three home SEC games and Auburn has the toughest road schedule and crossover opponents.
With the football season fast approaching, Athlon Sports has ranked the toughest schedules in the SEC and how it impacted our 2014 SEC Football predictions.
1. Tennessee Volunteers
Crossover: at Ole Miss, Alabama
Non-conference: Utah St, Arkansas St, 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 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.
2. 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 really begins, it’s hard to find wins on the schedule. The Hogs will face Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia in a four-week span and 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.
3. 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.
4. Kentucky Wildcats
Crossover: at LSU, Mississippi St
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. But a 3-1 record out of SEC play might be a best case and one win against either LSU or Mississippi State from the West seems unlikely. Toss in the usual laundry list of brutal divisional games with all the SEC East 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.
5. Florida Gators
Crossover: at Alabama, LSU
Non-conference: Idaho, E. Michigan, E. Kentucky, at Florida St
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.
6. 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. But one of the toughest away slates 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 only a handful of winnable games after that for Sumlin's depleted and inexperienced roster.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
Crossover: at Vanderbilt, Tennessee
Non-conference: Boise St, ULL, Memphis, Presbyterian
Opponents ’13 Record: 89-63 (58.6%, 26th)
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 creates a difficult start to the year. 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. However, 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 tilts and two really brutal SEC road trips.
8. 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.
9. 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. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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, 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 SEC schedule.
12. 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 — and 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 will come at home with the other two coming after the bye weeks. A 10-win season is almost a guarantee in Tuscaloosa.
13. 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 and winnable contests for the Dores this fall.
14. 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 road slate against South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and the Aggies — despite last year’s win-loss records. A huge, potentially 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