SEC Country has ranked the SEC clubs’ September schedules for the fall, a listing which runs from most to least difficult.
Also, as a means of further establishing degrees of difficulty, the 14 league schedules have been subdivided into four groups (or tiers).
1. OLE MISS
Sept. 5 vs. Florida State (Orlando)
Sept. 10 vs. Wofford
Sept. 17 vs. Alabama
Sept. 24 vs. Georgia
SKINNY: No team in the country has a more difficult September slate.
Florida State and Alabama could be the top-ranked teams when the AP Top 25 debuts in August, and Georgia remains a popular pick to win the SEC East — even with a new head coach (Kirby Smart) and potentially a new starting quarterback (5-star freshman Jacob Eason).
As for Wofford … yes, on paper, the Rebels should have no problem with the Terriers. But they’ll also be playing on short rest that week, the result of Florida State and Ole Miss occupying the coveted Monday Night Football time slot on Labor Day. (The NFL season launches three days later in Denver.)
And don’t kid yourself: The Florida State game will be a de facto home tilt for the Seminoles. Top-shelf defenses and elite-level running games (Dalvin Cook could break the 2,000-yard threshold as a junior) always travel well.
Sept. 3 vs. Clemson
Sept. 10 vs. Arkansas State
Sept. 17 vs. Texas A&M
Sept. 24 vs. LSU
SKINNY: Auburn’s September schedule matches Ole Miss in multiple ways: It features three powerhouse opponents and two national-title contenders (Clemson, LSU).
The only discernible difference: The Rebels will encounter a hornet’s nest of opposition against Florida State, playing in nearby Orlando (256-mile trek for FSU fans) … whereas the Tigers host all four games during the opening month.
A 2-2 start would be acceptable — if not ambitious — for a revamped Auburn team trying to regain its footing.
3 . TEXAS A&M
Sept. 3 vs. UCLA
Sept. 10 vs. Prairie View
Sept. 17 at Auburn
Sept. 24 vs. Arkansas (Arlington, Texas)
SKINNY: Prairie View is a quintessential throwaway game, a comfortable rout for the home folks.
The rest of A&M’s September slate has its share of obstacles, beginning with a UCLA club which features a golden-armed quarterback (sophomore Josh Rosen) and a mammoth offensive line (led by 6-foot-9 left tackle Conor McDermott).
Up next, the trip to Auburn serves as a wild-card matchup for both teams:
a) The Tigers might be looking ahead to LSU’s visit the following week.
b) The Aggies could be overconfident, stemming from this quirky fact: Since joining the SEC in 2012, Texas A&M has a perfect road record against Auburn (2-0) … but a winless mark (0-2) when facing the Tigers at home.
Regarding Arkansas … the last three meetings with A&M have been entertaining shootouts; that’s all we can ask for when judging rivalries.
Sept. 3 vs. Southern California (Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 10 vs. Western Kentucky
Sept. 17 at Ole Miss
Sept. 24 vs. Kent State
SKINNY: Alabama has a firm grip on the No. 4 slot based on its three-game, 14-day adventure against Southern California (at AT&T Stadium, the Crimson Tide’s home away from home), Western Kentucky (last year’s runaway champs in Conference USA) and Ole Miss — the only school to beat the Crimson Tide twice since 2014.
As for Kent State … it’s hard to imagine Alabama head coach Nick Saban (four national titles since 2009) being too rough on his revered alma mater.
5 . SOUTH CAROLINA
Sept. 1 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 10 at Mississippi State
Sept. 17 vs. East Carolina
Sept. 24 at Kentucky
SKINNY: This isn’t the most difficult slate of name-brand opponents.
South Carolina warrants a high ranking here for one reason: The Gamecocks are the only SEC school to experience three pure road games in the first month.
Sept. 1 vs. South Carolina
Sept. 10 vs. Middle Tennessee
Sept. 17 at Georgia Tech
Sept. 24 at Western Kentucky
SKINNY: Vanderbilt has hosted its season opener for seven straight years (it’ll be eight come the fall). The school also has a four-year track record of hosting an SEC club within the first two weeks of a campaign (it’ll soon be five).
After South Carolina and Middle Tennessee at home, the Vandy athletic department opted to take things up a notch, scheduling trips to Georgia Tech (Sept. 17) and Western Kentucky (Sept. 24) immediately before SEC action begins.
And once conference play launches, we’ll be talking about a bye-free three-pack of formidable foes (vs. Florida, at Kentucky, at UGA).
But that’s a story for another day.
Sept. 3 vs. Louisiana Tech
Sept. 10 at TCU
Sept. 17 vs. Texas State
Sept. 24 vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas)
SKINNY: On paper, Louisiana Tech represents a good tune-up for Arkansas, although the Bulldogs must replace a 4,000-yard passer (former Florida QB Jeff Driskel) and 1,500-yard running back (Kenneth Dixon).
The next game also looks great at first blush, but it won’t be easy for TCU and Arkansas to replace quarterbacks Trevone Boykin and Brandon Allen. However, that’s only a small concern compared to the relative coolness of the Razorbacks scheduling three Texas-based schools in three consecutive weekends.
Which brings us to the month’s final encounter: I hold Texas A&M (dark-horse contender for the SEC West title) in high regard this season. The Aggies are loaded with premium NFL prospects (namely Myles Garrett, Christian Kirk, Daeshon Hall, Josh Reynolds) and easily stand as Arkansas’ toughest September opponent.
Sept. 3 vs. Wisconsin (Green Bay)
Sept. 10 vs. Jacksonville State
Sept. 17 vs. Mississippi State
Sept. 24 at Auburn
SKINNY: LSU deserves mad props for scheduling its first visit to Big Ten country since 1988 (at Ohio State). Wisconsin warrants kudos for allowing this game to take place at a neutral site — iconic Lambeau Field (instead of Madison’s Camp Randall Stadium).
Moving on, there’s not much to say about Jacksonville State. It’s the reason why the SEC Network offers league kickoff times at noon ET … and 9:45 p.m. (EST). The Gamecocks did reach the FCS national title game in 2015 after nearly shocking Auburn.
As for conference play, LSU opens with a respectable two-pack of Mississippi State (home) and Auburn (road), just good enough to keep the Tigers nestled in the second tier.
9. MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sept. 3 vs. South Alabama
Sept. 10 vs. South Carolina
Sept. 17 at LSU
Sept. 24 at UMass
SKINNY: Let’s start with the bad news: Mississippi State, in the post-Dak Prescott era, has little (or no) chance of beating LSU (my SEC West favorite) in Baton Rouge.
The other three outings are winnable, with South Alabama and South Carolina visiting Starkville … and the Bulldogs making the rare trek to Foxboro, Mass., at the end of the month.
Which brings us to this: According to HustleBelt.com, UMass (member of the Mid-American Conference) posted an average attendance of 11,124 last season, which might cover a tiny corner of an end zone at most SEC venues.
As such, it’s almost as if Mississippi State went out of its way to pick the least daunting road venue in America, before compiling its 2016 schedule. Good stuff.
Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina (Atlanta)
Sept. 10 vs. Nicholls State
Sept. 17 at Missouri
Sept. 24 at Ole Miss
SKINNY: Georgia and North Carolina may be neighboring states, but the Bulldogs and Tar Heels haven’t faced one another in 45 years (1971 Gator Bowl).
It’s a good matchup of top-20 programs. It might also be a showcase of new starting quarterbacks … if coach Kirby Smart taps stud freshman Jacob Eason for the opener. (UNC likely will ride Mitch Trubisky at the Georgia Dome.)
After that, Georgia has a relatively easy home opener with Nicholls State before embarking on the two-game road swing of Missouri and Ole Miss.
One final note: Only UGA and South Carolina will play true SEC road games in back-to-back weekends this September.
Sept. 3 vs. UMass
Sept. 10 vs. Kentucky
Sept. 17 vs. North Texas
Sept. 24 at Tennessee
SKINNY: In previous years, the Gators would have been locks for a 3-0 start. But Kentucky, armed with a few strong recruiting classes — including the Class of 2014 (six 4-star recruits) — might be ready to break its 29-year drought against Florida.
Here’s another sign of changing times: The Gators will likely be prohibitive underdogs with their Sept. 24 trip to Knoxville. When’s the last time that happened?
Of course, it also wouldn’t be a Florida-inspired September schedule without a tomato can or two — in the form of UMass and North Texas.
Sept. 3 vs. Southern Miss
Sept. 10 at Florida
Sept. 17 vs. New Mexico State
Sept. 24 vs. South Carolina
SKINNY: Kentucky’s home slate won’t draw too many neutral eyeballs to TV sets.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the high-profile trip to Florida (in the exclusive 3:30 p.m. window on CBS) … the Wildcats’ four-pack of games would have ranked last in this countdown.
Sept. 3 at West Virginia
Sept. 10 vs. Eastern Michigan
Sept. 17 vs. Georgia
Sept. 24 vs. Delaware State
SKINNY: It’s hard to imagine Missouri (124th in scoring nationally last season) keeping up with West Virginia’s go-for-broke offense in the season opener. It’s even harder to envision the Tigers walking out of Mountaineer Field — one of college football’s loudest venues — with an upset victory.
UGA represents a solid SEC opener for Mizzou. It may also be beneficial for the Tigers defense, if the Bulldogs are still undecided about the quarterback battle (Jacob Eason vs. Greyson Lambert).
As for Eastern Michigan and Delaware State … there’s not much to say here. It won’t be pretty to watch. It won’t be pretty on the scoreboard.
Sept. 3 vs. Appalachian State
Sept. 10 vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol, Tenn.)
Sept. 17 vs. Ohio
Sept. 24 vs. Florida
SKINNY: Someone had to finish last in this survey … which is the nice way of saying Tennessee should enter the SEC opener (against Florida) at 3-0. The Volunteers might even hold a top-five ranking when the Gators come to Knoxville.
The Tennessee-Virginia Tech clash at Bristol Motor Speedway (estimated crowd: a record-shattering 150,000-plus) will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for fans and players. But right now, the Volunteers (SEC East favorites) should be prohibitive favorites against the retooling Hokies (substantial changes with the defensive front seven).
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and Fox Sports.