Sorry Will Muschamp, but South Carolina faces another brutal slate to navigate
Playing in the country's premier college football conference means that your team will undoubtedly face a myriad of tougher opponents compared to most teams across the FBS. Every SEC fan base knows that just comes with the territory, like it or not.
And if the SEC follows in the footsteps of fellow Power 5 brethren the Big Ten, Pac-12, and ACC, then this season will focus primarily, if not solely, on beating up one another. Because of the already announced decisions by those three conferences, several games, such as Alabama's season opener in Arlington, Texas, against USC, have already been removed from the schedule and it's entirely possible that some of the rivalry games with ACC teams are in jeopardy as well.
So with the caveat that we really won't know what this season is going to look like until the SEC's decision-makers make their intentions crystal clear, here are the teams that have the toughest road, as currently laid out, in the 2020 season.
Note: This article was originally published before the SEC announced it would pursue a 10-game, conference-only schedule.
1. South Carolina
Non-Conference: Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, Wofford, at Clemson
East Home: Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia
East Road: Florida, Kentucky, Vanderbilt
Crossover: Texas A&M, at LSU
Yes yes, we've seen this before. At this same time last year, in fact. For the second year in a row, the Gamecocks are staring down the toughest overall schedule in the SEC. What put them over the edge this time is the fact that they are scheduled to face preseason No. 1 Clemson and also have crossover games against Texas A&M and LSU. Yikes, that is a scary proposition. And that's not even taking into account the roadie at what should be a very good Florida team and playing UGA at home.
The only potential break for the Gamecocks comes early, and those non-conference games may not even happen. As it stands right now, November spawns a monster. Coming off a four-win season and with plenty of holes to fill, South Carolina is currently looking at a closing stretch of Georgia, at LSU, and at Clemson. Have a box of Band-Aids at the ready.
Non-Conference: East Tennessee State, ULM, Georgia Tech
East Home: Vanderbilt, Tennessee
East Road: Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky
East Neutral: vs. Florida (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Crossover: at Alabama, Auburn
Like South Carolina above, the Bulldogs' high-ranking here is due to the fact that they have pulled a hyper-tough pair of SEC West Division crossover games, venturing into a volatile Bryant-Denny Stadium in September and also hosting the potentially dangerous Plainsmen in October. You almost can't get worse luck in the scheduling rotation.
That showdown at Alabama could be a precursor to what we'll see in Atlanta at the SEC title game, but it is also a bit early on the slate for what will be a brand new offense that is barely getting its sea legs underneath it. Advantage Tide. But after that, the schedule is more favorable with a pair of scrimmages (UL-Monroe and Vandy) to prepare the Silver Britches for Auburn and Florida in the weeks that follow. And even though it looks like a no-brainer on paper, keep that November trek to Kentucky in mind for a possible trap-door game. If the Wildcats get good quarterback play, they could be prickly.
One thing is for certain. Georgia is guaranteed to have a different season-opening opponent than was originally scheduled as the ACC officially canceled the Bulldogs' matchup with Virginia in Atlanta when the conference announced its modified schedule on Wednesday.
Non-Conference: Alcorn State, Southern Miss, UMass
West Home: Texas A&M, Arkansas, LSU
West Road: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Alabama
Crossover: Kentucky, at Georgia
The Plainsmen are one of the teams I am going to keep a keen eye on in 2020. They have the unique circumstance of having to replace a ton of starters and key contributors, also having a quarterback (Bo Nix) who was a knock-kneed freshman a year ago who was thrown to the wolves from the first snap, and, on top of that, facing a schedule that could allow them to race out to a 5-0 start when they make the trek to Athens in the second week of October.
So there is time for the Fighting Malzahns to work out the kinks with their newbies on the two-deep before they take on the SEC title-contenders. And that path got a little easier with the ACC canceling the scheduled Sept. 12 game against North Carolina in Atlanta. Auburn's final two games are gear-grinders, as the Tigers will host LSU and go to Alabama in a seven-day span. If they are still in the fight for the West Division, these two games will be titanic tilts. I like their chances better in these two finales since the games are late in the season.
Non-Conference: UTSA, Texas, vs. Rice (Houston), Nicholls State
West Home: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Alabama
West Road: Arkansas, Auburn, Texas A&M
Crossover: at Florida, South Carolina
The Tigers will still be a very high-level team in 2020, and that might play a part in why their schedule might seem a little *easier* than others on this list. I mean, leave it to the Tigers to make a matchup with Texas look like a lock-sure win. Granted, the other three non-conference games will be pretty breezy, if any of them happen. The Rice game will be a de facto home game if fans are allowed, as Tiger fans are eager to fill NRG Stadium, even if it's in the Owls' home town.
The SEC portion will be pretty rigorous, as they will have to travel to a trio of hornet's nests on the road to Auburn, Texas A&M, and the crossover addition of Florida. Most teams would wilt in the eyes of those storms, but this is Coach Orgeron and the Boys. Look for the Tigers to have some bumps this year, but it can still be expected that the Bama game could very well decide the SEC West.
Non-Conference: Charlotte, at Oklahoma, Furman, Troy
East Home: Florida, Missouri, Kentucky
East Road: South Carolina, Georgia, Vanderbilt
Crossover: Alabama, at Arkansas
Other than South Carolina above, no other team in the SEC has a more daunting task in non-conference play (that's technically still on the schedule) than the Vols and their early-season game at Oklahoma. Even without a Heisman Trophy heavyweight at quarterback, the Sooners will be the most talented team the Volunteers have played outside the SEC since going to Oregon in 2013.
Unfortunately for the Vols, the Crimson Tide are permanently affixed to their slate no matter what season it is. They can't get away from St. Nick and his Red Elephants no matter what. But the good news is that the Big Orange is ramping up their recruiting and should be more competitive against the SEC's big boys in the years ahead. For now, games like OU, Bama, at Georgia, and vs. Florida will be uphill battles, although beating last year's eight wins is possible.
Non-Conference: Nevada, at Notre Dame, Charleston Southern, ULM
West Home: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss
West Road: vs. Texas A&M (Arlington), Mississippi State, Auburn
Crossover: Tennessee, vs. Missouri (Kansas City, Mo.)
Once again, if there is any team in the SEC West that needs a lighter schedule to play, it's the Razorbacks. This is a program that is certainly hurting like never before in its history, coming off a pair of seasons that saw the Hogs beat just two of their last 24 FBS opponents. But this year, with a new coaching staff on the scene, they get no breaks. The first month will be tough, even the opener against the Wolf Pack. Remember, the Razorbacks lost to San Jose State last season.
October will open with Charleston Southern but will be nearly unwinnable from that point on. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's likely not to be the light of another oncoming train. Ole Miss, ULM, and Missouri could give the Hogs a chance at a couple of Ws. And anything positive at this point can only help this moribund program.
7. Ole Miss
Non-Conference: vs. Baylor (Houston), Southeast Missouri, Connecticut, Georgia Southern
West Home: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State
West Road: LSU, Texas A&M, Arkansas
Crossover: at Vanderbilt, Florida
Man alive, hit those mint juleps in the Grove early and often, Rebel fans, this is going to be a bumpy ride. Things get off to a pretty rough-and-tumble start for the Rebels as the opener vs. Baylor (if it remains) will be no picnic since the Bears return Charlie Brewer, one of the steadiest senior quarterbacks in the country. After a breather vs. SeMo, they'll get Auburn, LSU, and Alabama in back-to-back-to-back weeks. So ole Johnny Reb better hope his team isn't taking over the M.A.S.H. unit in Oxford.
Things will lighten up a bit from there on, so look for John Rhys Plumlee and Matt Corral to start to blossom as a change-of-pace pair of field generals. The Rebels lost five of their last six in 2019, but don't expect that to be a repeat this year. Sure, they'll have to get used to Lane Kiffin's new staff and their changing schemes, but the games like UConn, Arkansas, Georgia Southern, and Mississippi State will all be winnable games and could lead them to a post-season bid.
8. Mississippi State
Non-Conference: New Mexico, at NC State, Tulane, Alabama A&M
West Home: Arkansas, Texas A&M, Auburn
West Road: Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss
Crossover: Missouri, at Kentucky
At first blush, this doesn't look like too daunting of a slate for the Bulldogs, which is not bad since this is a program with a new coaching staff, no spring football, and only nine returning starters. September (as currently constructed) could provide a 4-0 start and build some confidence for Mike Leach and his charges. But then comes October. In other words, oh my. That's where the slate has the Dogs playing Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU, and Auburn. Again, oh my. That is quite likely an 0-for October.
But even beyond that, it is easy to say that the Bulldogs definitely have the toughest conference road slate in the SEC, having to go into buzzsaws like Bryant-Denny, Tiger Stadium, and then to their fierce rivals' home den. That is what makes their slate so tough. The good news is that once Halloween has passed and all the kids get over their stomach aches from a free candy overload, it could be a horn of plenty for November. All four games are winnable against Missouri, Kentucky, Alabama A&M, and Ole Miss.
Non-Conference: Georgia State, Kent State, UT Martin
West Home: Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Auburn
West Road: Ole Miss, Arkansas, LSU
Crossover: Georgia, at Tennessee
It might be tougher to find a team in the FBS that will be more laser-focused than the Crimson Tide will be this year. Things didn't turn out the way they wanted last season, as they missed the College Football Playoff for the first time ever. Now, they are on a Tiger hunt. Both LSU and Auburn got the best of Nick Saban and Co. last season. They'll travel to Baton Rouge in early November following a bye week. Their showdown with Auburn will come on the heels of playing a tough home game vs. A&M.
There will be no challenge in the non-conference, unless Alabama somehow fills its currently-vacant season-opening date with a tougher perceived opponent than USC. That seems unlikely given the fact that the only two conferences potentially in play are the ACC and Big 12. But that game with Georgia in mid-September could be something else, particularly with that nasty Dawg's D going up against those talented skill players of the Tide. Can't wait.
10. Texas A&M
Non-Conference: Abilene Christian, North Texas, Fresno State
West Home: Ole Miss, LSU
West Road: vs. Arkansas (Arlington, Texas), Mississippi State, Auburn, Alabama
Crossover: at South Carolina, Vanderbilt
A year ago, the Aggies' schedule ranking sat third on this list, mostly on the strength of playing at Clemson, at Georgia, and at LSU, not to mention the games with Alabama and Auburn, of course. This year, things lighten up much more, especially in the fact that their crossover games will come against the Gamecocks and Commodores.
But if you want to argue about the fact that they only have three true SEC home games and still have to go to Auburn and Alabama, I get that. Those are good points. But their non-conference opponents are nothing too daunting, especially with their lone Power 5 foe (Colorado) no longer on the docket.
Non-Conference: Mercer, at Kansas State, Colorado State, Louisiana Tech
East Home: South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee
East Road: Missouri, Georgia, Kentucky
Crossover: Ole Miss, at Texas A&M
Derek Mason really has his work cut out for him this season. The offense lost some real difference-makers like Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney, and the three quarterbacks who took every snap last season. And though he comes from a defensive background and will have 10 starters back on that side of the ball, keep in mind that defense ranked 101st in the country last year.
The good news is that the schedule includes a couple of winnable games in the early-going. The September slate of Mercer, at Missouri, at Kansas State, and Colorado State (if it remains intact) is the Commodores' best chance at getting some Ws. On the flip-side of that, November has Florida, at A&M, Louisiana Tech and Tennessee. Oof. For a team that will need a ton of growth, this could be a beatdown month for VU.
Non-Conference: Eastern Washington, South Alabama, New Mexico State, at Florida State
East Home: Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri
East Road: Tennessee, Vanderbilt
East Neutral: vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Fla.)
Crossover: LSU, at Ole Miss
The Gators are primed for big things in 2020, partially due to a very favorable schedule that lays out well for them. Kyle Trask emerged as a real force in 2019, and if a few key reinforcements emerge on defense, this could be a complete team.
Fortune has shined down on the Gators, as their road schedule is very friendly for them this season. Their only true road games in their division are at Tennessee and at punchless Vanderbilt. They also go to Oxford, which isn't too daunting, and then their only other true roadie is at Florida State, who isn't exactly your father's Seminoles, of course, finishing last season with a 6-7 mark (though they will be one of the most experience-heavy teams in the country). And it remains to be seen if this game is salvaged after both conferences make their adjustments.
In summation, anything short of a double-digit win total is going to be a shock.
Non-Conference: Central Arkansas, Eastern Michigan, at BYU, Louisiana
East Home: Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky
East Road: South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida
Crossover: at Mississippi State, vs. Arkansas (Kansas City, Mo.)
At first blush, this doesn't seem to be all that daunting, especially the non-conference which features some of those damned directional schools and ones that have a hyphen in it. Well... it USED to be Louisiana-Lafayette, but I digress. Yet, a (potential) trip to the Wasatch Range to play a competent BYU team and a home date against a sneaky-good Ragin' Cajun squad won't be anything close to a gimme. Also, roadies at Tennessee and Florida are near-certain "Ls" for the Tigers. So this could be tougher than it looks.
With new head coach Eli Drinkwitz bringing renewed enthusiasm to the program and the early part of his schedule being very winnable, look for a promising start this season. But if the Old Gold & Black faceplants at the end of the campaign like they did last year (losing five of the last six), there will be no bowling for the Tigers.
Non-Conference: Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Eastern Illinois, at Louisville
East Home: South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Georgia
East Road: Florida, Missouri, Tennessee
Crossover: at Auburn, Mississippi State
From the looks of the non-conference portion, it appears as if the Wildcats are dead set on becoming a provisional member of the Mid-American Conference. By the time the month of September is done, they will have played six MACtion opponents in the last four years.
But you've got to hand it to Mark Stoops, he has put together four straight winning campaigns in a place that is tough to win consistently unless you're coaching a team that is bouncing an orange ball around the hardwood. The Big Blue has a lot of winnable games this season, and if Terry Wilson is 100 percent back to his old quarterbacking ways (he was injured in game three last season), they are experienced enough to stalk a 10-win season. If they can pull an upset against Georgia, Florida, or Auburn, it will be a special season.
— 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.