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SEC Football: Ranking the Toughest Non-Conference Schedules in 2020

SEC Football: Ranking the Toughest Non-Conference Schedules in 2020

SEC Football: Ranking the Toughest Non-Conference Schedules in 2020

Not sure if you've heard lately but the SEC is the best football conference in the country. And try to act surprised when I say that it has been that way since the late 2000s. This year appears to be no different as high-quality programs like Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida will probably start the season inside the top 10.

And once again this year there will be a number of SEC vs. top-10 matchups in non-conference play. The only problem is the high-marquee teams won't be the ones playing those games. I mean, South Carolina gets Athlon Sports' No. 1 team, Clemson, as usual. Tennessee will be playing at No. 4 Oklahoma. And it will be rebuilding Arkansas that will play at No. 9 Notre Dame.

Unfortunately, the big-wigs in the SEC won't be giving us much for our voracious palates early in the season. Alabama will play USC, Auburn will play North Carolina and LSU will host Texas. Although those are good opponents, all three of those should be certain wins for the SEC. Elsewhere it's mostly tepid matchups, especially with Mississippi State and Texas A&M, who will be relatively unchallenged outside of SEC play.

Understanding this could change at any moment as conferences are making decisions about how they will handle the return of fall sports in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, here is how the SEC non-conference slates, as currently scheduled, rate, from toughest to easiest.

[Editor's note: This article was posted before the Pac-12 (July 10) announced it would play conference-only schedules for all fall sports, including football. A couple of the games mentioned above are no longer on the schedule and additional changes are likely.]

1. South Carolina

Sept. 5 vs. Coastal Carolina

Sept. 12 vs. East Carolina

Nov. 21 vs. Wofford

Nov. 28 at Clemson

Man, too bad this isn't the Gamecock teams we saw in 2011-13. Those 11-win outfits would've been a fun measure against their in-state rival, Clemson, who has become a perennial College Football Playoff participant and national title contender. Instead, the Tigers have won six straight in this series, averaging 42.7 points per game. Where is that Fire Ant Defense when we need it? The Gamecocks will have a decided advantage against fellow Carolinians Coastal and East, but you know how much those two programs would love to put a notch in their big brothers' loss column. These will be dangerous games for head coach Will Muschamp in a season his charges need to show massive improvement.

2. Tennessee

Sept. 5 vs. Charlotte

Sept. 12 at Oklahoma

Sept. 19 vs. Furman

Nov. 21 vs. Troy

The last time the Volunteers had double-digit wins was 2007. The last time they ended the season in the top 10 was 2001. Jeremy Pruitt is doing a good job of leading the program back and is gaining some momentum, but there is still a ways to go. The game two showdown with OU will be a great barometer to how far the boys have come, but UT will be hard-pressed to pull off an upset. The other three non-conference games should be solid Ws, but don't sleep on the Paladins, who were an FCS playoff team a year ago and return most of their skill players from a run-heavy, in-your-face offense.

3. Auburn

Sept. 5 vs. Alcorn State

Sept. 12 vs. North Carolina (in Atlanta)

Sept. 26 vs. Southern Miss

Nov. 14 vs. UMass

With only seven returning starters, the Tigers will certainly benefit from opening with a breezy win in game one to get their legs under them. But then they'll play a hyper-experienced Tar Heel squad in game two, so that should be an indicator of their contending status in the SEC. One advantage the Plainsmen will have is that the Heels will have to open the 2020 season with a trip to Orlando to play a tough UCF squad before the showdown in Atlanta. Elsewhere, Southern Miss has lost seven straight to Power 5 opponents, but has the experience to give a young-ish squad like Auburn some problems.

4. Arkansas

Sept. 5 vs. Nevada

Sept. 12 at Notre Dame

Oct. 3 vs. Charleston Southern

Nov. 21 vs. ULM

With only two wins over FBS opponents in the last two years, the Razorbacks have been mostly tusk-less in their non-conference games. New head coach Sam Pittman would love to make an immediate splash, but Nevada is expected to be one of the top contenders in the Mountain West and has one of the most experienced teams in the country returning. Don't be shocked if the Wolfpack pull a W. And Notre Dame is... well, Notre Dame. It would be far-fetched to expect the Hogs to leave the home of Touchdown Jesus with a win. The other two non-conference games should both be a gimme. Emphasis on SHOULD. A ton of work is necessary here.

5. LSU

Sept. 5 vs. UTSA

Sept. 12 vs. Texas

Sept. 19 at Rice

Oct. 3 vs. Nicholls

The Tigers are a wild card coming into 2020. Everybody knows there is talent and confidence throughout this program, but with nine underclassmen defecting to the NFL and Joe Burrow and several assistant coaches no longer around, who knows where this season will lead. With that, their toughest game here, against Texas, is also against a team that has a "Who knows?" type of feel to it, after the Longhorns largely underachieved last season. If Sam Ehlinger and Co. have turned a corner for 2020, this one could be thorny for the Tigers. But I'm still thinking this is four wins here, no prob.

6. Alabama

Sept. 5 vs. USC (in Arlington, Texas)

Sept. 12 vs. Georgia State

Sept. 26 vs. Kent State

Nov. 14 vs. UT Martin

I'm thinking old-school here, with visions of Charles White vs. Major Ogilvie dancing through the holes in the line. Okay, back to reality. With all the wholesale staff changes USC head coach Todd Helton made in the offseason and the numerous returning starters they have back, if the Trojans are embarrassed or manhandled by the Crimson Tide again (as they were in 2016), it could be catastrophic to their psyche. Yet don't expect Bama to have to sweat this one out. Will it be another 52-6 landslide? No. But the Tide will roll. Their other three non-conference games are mere window dressing for their annual SEC title run.

7. Ole Miss

Sept. 6 vs. Baylor (in Houston)

Sept. 12 vs. Southeast Missouri State

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Oct. 24 vs. Connecticut

Nov. 21 vs. Georgia Southern

The Rebels really could've used a few weeks of spring ball. With a new staff and a lot of new starters to plug in, they'll be tough to figure out early on. The matchup against Baylor could be the best mano-a-mano matchup in SEC non-conference play. The Bears have an all-new staff coming in as well as an exciting, dangerous quarterback, and most of his skill position compadres with him. But the Bears have only two starters back on defense and will have quite the task in facing game-breakers like John Rhys-Plumlee, Jerrion Ealy and Elijah Moore. Keep an eye on that matchup against Georgia Southern as well, it could well be a trap game before the Egg Bowl.

8. Missouri

Sept. 5 vs. Central Arkansas

Sept. 26 vs. Eastern Michigan

Oct. 10 at BYU

Nov. 21 vs. Louisiana

There should be a lot of renewed enthusiasm around this program, with Eliah Drinkwitz taking the reins after leading Appalachian State to a 13-1 mark last year and also the Tigers now having the goal of going to a bowl game attainable once again. Three of those four non-conference games should be nip-and-tuck. Yes, that includes Central Arkansas, a team that played in the FCS playoffs and has all their weapons back. The Cougars and the Ragin' Cajuns both went bowling last season and are on track for a promising 2021 season, providing stout challenges for the Tigers. Interestingly, BYU has only hosted an SEC team in Provo twice in its history, both against Mississippi State in 2000 and '17.

9. Georgia

Sept. 7 vs. Virginia (in Atlanta)

Sept. 12 vs. East Tennessee State

Sept. 26 vs. ULM

Nov. 28 vs. Georgia Tech

As good as the Bulldogs should be this season, particularly on defense, none of these four games should work up much of a sweat. (Yes, this is the deep south in September, I don't mean it literally). But I will say that with one wee-little caveat. That being the Cavaliers' defense, which returns nine starters and showed flashes of greatness at times last season. Wake Forest transfer QB Jamie Newman won't have much time to get his feet wet with his new Bulldog teammates, so it could be a little bit of a learning curve for the dual-threat field general and his talented weapons.

10. Florida

Sept. 5 vs. Eastern Washington

Sept. 19 vs. South Alabama

Nov. 21 vs. New Mexico State

Nov. 28 at Florida State

It's hard to say that the Gators will even be challenged here as Florida State is their toughest assignment but the Seminoles finished last season at 6-7, have brought in a new head coach (Mike Norvell), and have been in a three-year rut of mediocrity. Dan Mullen has done a good job of bringing some luster back to the Gators, winning 21 games in his first two years. Having QB Kyle Trask come out of nowhere to become a stud last season and having big targets like TE Kyle Pitts and WR Trevon Grimes is a huge boon to their 2020 hopes. So honestly, the Gators have plenty of talent back from an 11-win team and none of these four non-conference games figure to be much of a threat.

11. Kentucky

Sept. 5 vs. Eastern Michigan

Sept. 19 vs. Kent State

Oct. 10 vs. Eastern Illinois

Nov. 28 at Louisville

Embarrassingly there is not a ton of challenge to the Big Blue non-conference slate. Yeah I know, I know, the Cardinals in that end-of-November matchup of in-state rivals should be tough, but the Wildcats have won three of the last four and have scored 40-plus in those three wins. But still, c'mon, beyond that there are two middle-of-the-road MAC teams and a 1-11 FCS program. Outside of that annual game against the Cards and the question becomes not whether the Cats will win or not, it is whether or not they need to bother wearing helmets.

12. Vanderbilt

Sept. 5 vs. Mercer

Sept. 19 at Kansas State

Sept. 26 vs. Colorado State

Nov. 21 vs. Louisiana Tech

On first blush, this may not seem like much of a non-conference slate, with Kansas State being the toughest test and all. But remember, this is also Vanderbilt, a program that has had two winning seasons since 1982, and those were in 2012 and '13 under James Franklin. That seems like eons ago. This time the Commodores are coming off a three-win season in 2019 and return almost zero skill position players but also nearly the entire defense. Games against the Wildcats and at home vs. Louisiana Tech will be tough challenges because we're not sure if the Dores can score with an inexperienced offense that lacks identity. The opening game against the FCS Mercer Bears will be their best chance at a win all season. Can they get another W somewhere on their schedule? Not sure.

13. Mississippi State

Sept. 5 vs. New Mexico

Sept. 12 at NC State

Sept. 26 vs. Tulane

Nov. 21 vs. Alabama A&M

Talk about a new car smell. The Bulldogs have just about everything new about them. New head coach. New staff. New quarterback. New starters everywhere. If somebody in this conference needs a cupcake start to their season, it's the Cowbell Boys. Not that the trip to Raleigh will be a cakewalk, but the level of athleticism will show, even without the aid of a spring session to get acquainted with the new culture head coach Mike Leach is trying to install. The second month of the season brings games against Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU and Auburn. So get your wins while you can Bulldogs, October will be a monster.

14. Texas A&M

Sept. 5 vs. Abilene Christian

Sept. 12 vs. North Texas

Sept. 19 vs. Colorado

Oct. 10 vs. Fresno State

This one is really bad, people. I mean, oy vey. I know that FBS programs set their schedules years in advance and all, but GAH! To the Aggies' credit, they did just play national monster Clemson the last two seasons, so maybe we shouldn't be too harsh here. But still, a program that pulls in 100,000-plus each and every home game shouldn't resort to playing tomato cans that will bore the fan base into staying home. Not much else to say other than these Aggies will go 4-0 in the pre-SEC slate, and probably by four or five touchdowns in each. And looking at the big picture, it is quite conceivable that A&M is unbeaten and in the top five by the time they get to their Nov. 21 road date with Alabama.

— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.