Deciding which SEC schedule is harder than the rest is an exercise in self-torture. Imagine being pricked with 14 needles and then asked, “Which hurt the most?”
When every schedule requires eight conference games and at least one other Power Five opponent, there are no easy ones. For some SEC teams, not even the cupcakes do much to ease the burden.
Come December, every school will be hurting one way or another.
That said, we’ve tried to look at each schedule as objectively as possible and formulate a reasonable ranking based on strength. Individual games have been assigned to one of five super-scientific categories correlating to the difficulty of the opponent.
Each category is assigned a point value from 1 to 5, and half a point is added to all road or true neutral-site contests. That means a game like Georgia-North Carolina (in Atlanta) would not receive the neutral-site bonus, while the Georgia-Florida game (in Jacksonville, Fla.) would. The breakdown:
Good Luck, Mate (5 points) — An elite school expected to contend for the College Football Playoff.
Getting Tougher (4 points) — A program in the tier immediately below that.
Middle of the Pack (3 points) — A reasonably competitive opponent with a shot at reaching a bowl
Beatable (2 points) — A below-average or rebuilding Power Five school
Cupcakes (1 point) — An FCS team or bottom-of-the-barrel FBS school
Points are added. The higher the score, the tougher the schedule. Tiebreakers go to the school with the tougher road schedule.
Below is the result of this futile endeavor. You have been warned.
14. Tennessee — 34.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Alabama
- Getting Tougher: at Georgia, at Texas A&M, Florida
- Middle of the Pack: at Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech (Bristol, Tenn.)
- Beatable: at South Carolina, Kentucky, Missouri
- Cupcakes: Appalachian State, Ohio, Tennessee Tech
Analysis: As if Tennessee fans needed another reason to feel good this season. The Vols will need make it through a brutal four-game stretch against Florida, Georgia, A&M and Alabama with at least two wins, but if they do, little else would prevent them from securing 10 victories and the SEC East crown. UT’s two toughest games are at home (Alabama/Florida), Virginia Tech is rebuilding and the remaining non-conference schedule is a cakewalk. Compared to some other SEC teams, Butch Jones & Co. have a yellow-brick road to Atlanta this fall.
13. Vanderbilt — 36 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Tennessee
- Getting Tougher: at Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss
- Middle of the Pack: at Georgia Tech, at Auburn
- Beatable: at Western Kentucky, South Carolina, at Kentucky, at Missouri
- Cupcakes: Middle Tennessee, Tennessee State
Analysis: Vandy could very well be bowl-game bound with this lineup. Your six wins are: The two in-state cupcakes, a Brandon Doughty-less Western Kentucky squad, South Carolina, Kentucky and one of Mizzou/Georgia Tech. Heck, the way things are going on The Plains right now, Auburn could be No. 7. The Commodores quietly fielded the nation’s No. 22 scoring defense last season, and most of that unit is back in 2016.
12. Florida — 36 points
- Good Luck, Mate: at Tennessee, at Florida State, LSU
- Getting Tougher: Georgia (Jacksonville)
- Middle of the Pack: at Vanderbilt, at Arkansas
- Beatable: Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina
- Cupcakes: Massachusetts, North Texas, Presbyterian
Analysis: Like Tennessee, the Gators have four decidedly difficult games on tap and not much else to really fear. They get a slight bump over Vandy for having a legitimately stout Power Five non-conference foe, and a tougher cross-divisional rival in LSU. But the other matchups almost guarantee another winning season in Gainesville. Maybe Vandy and Arkansas put up a fight, but eight wins seems likely.
11. Georgia — 36.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Tennessee
- Getting Tougher: UNC (Atlanta), at Ole Miss, Florida (Jacksonville)
- Middle of the Pack: Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia Tech
- Beatable: at Missouri, at South Carolina, at Kentucky
- Cupcakes: Nicholls State, Louisiana Lafayette
Analysis: The Bulldogs have a slightly stingier non-conference docket, but neither of the Power Five games should really cause a ton of trouble. Georgia has dominated the Tech rivalry since 2001 (13-2 record), and North Carolina — despite hanging tough with Clemson and Baylor late last season — presents a favorable matchup after struggling mightily to defend the run last fall. Early tests against Ole Miss and Tennessee might prove difficult to overcome, but the rest of the schedule is nothing special.
10. South Carolina — 37.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Tennessee, at Clemson
- Getting Tougher: Georgia, at Florida, Texas A&M
- Middle of the Pack: at Vanderbilt, at Mississippi State
- Beatable: at Kentucky, Missouri
- Cupcakes: East Carolina, Massachusetts, Western Carolina
Analysis: At this point, South Carolina, Missouri and Kentucky are fall into the same grouping of “also-ran SEC East teams,” and it’s a crapshoot which ones will be better or worse. Much the same with their schedules. The Gamecocks benefit from facing three of their five toughest opponents at home, and drawing Mississippi State from the SEC West certainly won’t hurt, either. A couple games might be ugly, but there are at least five wins here, which is A-OK for teams in rebuilding mode. Rather, it would be if someone else was coach. Poor Muschamp.
9. Missouri — 37.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: at LSU, at Tennessee
- Getting Tougher: at Florida, Georgia, at West Virginia
- Middle of the Pack: Arkansas, Vanderbilt
- Beatable: Kentucky, at South Carolina
- Cupcakes: Eastern Michigan, Delaware State, Middle Tennessee
Analysis: It’ll be a rough ride on the road for Mizzou, with trips to Death Valley, Rocky Top and The Swamp all looking like “pray for rain” scenarios. First-year coach Barry Odom can take solace in a manageable home slate, which includes an Arkansas team that lost a huge chunk of its offensive talent from last season, but the Tigers desperately need to average more than 13.6 points per game this year if they even want to sniff seven wins.
8. Kentucky — 37.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: at Alabama, at Tennessee
- Getting Tougher: at Florida, at Louisville, Georgia
- Middle of the Pack: Mississippi State
- Beatable: South Carolina, Vanderbilt, at Missouri, Southern Miss
- Cupcakes: New Mexico State, Austin Peay
Analysis: UK’s schedule is very comparable to Missouri’s, but Louisville and Mississippi State seem a greater challenge than West Virginia and Arkansas. Throw in a respectable Southern Miss squad and you’ve got a schedule that would give most teams trouble. But the Wildcats have a number of problem areas on their roster — defensive line and linebacker, most notably — and might not take five wins from this opposing lineup.
7. Mississippi State — 38 points
- Good Luck, Mate: at LSU, at Alabama
- Getting Tougher: at Ole Miss, Texas A&M
- Middle of the Pack: Auburn, at BYU, Arkansas, at Kentucky
- Beatable: South Carolina
- Cupcakes: South Alabama, at Massachusetts, Samford
Analysis: We’re finally on an SEC West team, which tells you a lot about the notoriously tough division’s continued strength. (Or the East’s relative weakness.) The Bulldogs have a tough hill to climb in the post-Dak era, but a soft pair of cross-divisional opponents (Kentucky, South Carolina) and an easy non-con schedule will help make the transition a little smoother.
6. LSU — 38.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Alabama
- Getting Tougher: at Wisconsin, at Florida, Ole Miss, at Texas A&M
- Middle of the Pack: Mississippi State, at Auburn, at Arkansas
- Beatable: Missouri, Southern Miss
- Cupcakes: Jacksonville State, South Alabama
Analysis: The Tigers seem to have found the scheduling sweet spot: Tough enough for everyone to respect it, but not so demanding that they cannot manage the rough patches. LSU’s hardest games are conveniently broken up by cupcakes, a bye week and a homecoming game against Missouri, which should help prevent the Bayou Bengals from being derailed by a losing skid this season. Alabama is the make-or-break game, as always, but LSU gets home field advantage. All the other games seem manageable for a team of this caliber, too, so long as Brandon Harris gets himself right.
5. Arkansas — 39.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Alabama, LSU
- Getting Tougher: at TCU, at Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Florida
- Middle of the Pack: at Auburn, at Mississippi State
- Beatable: at Missouri
- Cupcakes: Texas State, Alcorn State, Louisiana Tech
Analysis: Arkansas always seems to draw the short straw. The Hogs do get the luxury of playing division front-runners Alabama and LSU on their home turf, and you could do worse than TCU and Missouri on the road. Still, it’s an SEC West schedule, which means difficult by default.
4. Texas A&M — 40 points
- Good Luck, Mate: UCLA, Tennessee, at Alabama, LSU
- Getting Tougher: Ole Miss
- Middle of the Pack: at Auburn, Arkansas, at Mississippi State
- Beatable: at South Carolina
- Cupcakes: Prarie View A&M, New Mexico State, UTSA
Analysis: Can Kevin Sumlin save his job? All his team needs to do is handle a schedule that includes Alabama, Tennessee, LSU, UCLA, Ole Miss and… oof. Even the Aggies’ easier games have the added challenge of being played on the road. If Sumlin can’t guide Texas A&M to at least four wins in the first six games, they’re going to be in big trouble.
3. Alabama — 40.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Southern Cal (Arlington, Texas), at Tennessee, at LSU
- Getting Tougher: at Ole Miss, Texas A&M
- Middle of the Pack: at Arkansas, Mississippi State, Auburn
- Beatable: Kentucky, Western Kentucky
- Cupcakes: Kent State, Chattanooga
Analysis: The Crimson Tide schedules are almost always ambitious, and a neutral site game against USC will certainly boost the resume this year. Road games against Tennessee and LSU — Alabama’s biggest competition for the SEC championship — and another against new nemesis Ole Miss only serves to further strengthen things. It’s a good thing Nick Saban’s team doesn’t have to play itself, or else this might be the toughest schedule in the country.
2. Auburn — 41 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Clemson, LSU, at Alabama
- Getting Tougher: Texas A&M, at Ole Miss, at Georgia
- Middle of the Pack: at Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Arkansas
- Beatable: None
- Cupcakes: Arkansas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Alabama A&M
Analysis: With a schedule like this, the Gus Bus might break down by late October. The season opener against Clemson could go very awry for Auburn, and there is precious little breathing room on the slate afterward. LSU and Texas A&M back-to-back, Arkansas and Ole Miss back-to-back and then road games at Georgia and Alabama. Don’t buy the ticket or take this ride.
1. Ole Miss — 42.5 points
- Good Luck, Mate: Florida State (Orlando), Alabama, at LSU
- Getting Tougher: Georgia, at Texas A&M
- Middle of the Pack: at Arkansas, Auburn, at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State
- Beatable: Memphis, Georgia Southern
- Cupcakes: Wofford
Analysis: Hugh Freeze must feel incredibly lucky to have Chad Kelly back for his senior season, because boy will Ole Miss need a great quarterback this season. You’ve already got the brutal SEC West. Georgia and Vandy are both quality opponents from the East. And then there’s non-conference foes Florida State, Memphis and Georgia Southern, which won a combined 28 games last season. Alabama will enter the Ole Miss game more motivated than ever after dropping back-to-back games in 2014-15. Maybe Freeze should hope any added NCAA punishment applies to this year’s team and not future ones.