The SEC West continued to be the toughest division in college football in 2015, and a 7-1 showing during bowl season, including a dominant Sugar Bowl showing from Ole Miss and a national championship for Alabama, helped to reaffirm that.
No fewer than three SEC West schools could be national title contenders in 2016. Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU could all be ranking in the top 10-15 in preseason polls, and there are several early marquee non-conference matchups for teams in the division to deliver statements of intent about the forthcoming campaign.
What about the schedules though? A tough slate of games can derail a bid for a conference or national title just as easily as injuries or a lack of talent.
Here’s how the schedules in the SEC West stack up for next season, from toughest to easiest. Hint: No one really has it easy in this division.
Five toughest games: at LSU, at Ole Miss, vs. Southern Cal (Arlington, Texas), at Tennessee, vs. Auburn
The Crimson Tide play arguably the three best teams in the SEC not named Alabama on the road in 2016. They also open with a marquee game against Southern Cal, and the fourth SEC road game (at Arkansas) is not going to be easy, either.
2. Ole Miss
Five toughest games: at LSU, vs. Alabama, vs. Florida State (Orlando, Fla.), at Texas A&M, vs. UGA
It won’t take long to figure out if the Rebels are College Football Playoff contenders next season. They open with Florida State and Alabama in the first three weeks, and face two more nine-plus win teams from 2015 (Memphis, UGA) by Oct. 1.
Five toughest games: vs. Clemson, at Alabama, vs. LSU, at Ole Miss, at UGA
Book-ending the schedule with the national-title game finalists from last season is pretty tough, especially considering the uncertainty at quarterback for Auburn and the absolute opposite of that for Clemson in Week 1 with Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson. The rest isn’t so bad, and five straight home games to start the season is nice even if two potential top-five teams (Clemson and LSU) are coming to town.
4. Mississippi State
Five toughest games: at Alabama, at LSU, at Ole Miss, at BYU, vs. Texas A&M
Only one team in the SEC West has to play at Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, and the Bulldogs drew that short straw for 2016. The trip to Provo, Utah in mid-October sandwiched between important conference games will not be easy, either.
Five toughest games: vs. Alabama, at TCU, vs. Ole Miss, vs. LSU, at Texas A&M
The Razorbacks have arguably the most manageable set of conference road games for an SEC West team with Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU all coming to Fayetteville, Ark., but they also have possibly the toughest non-conference game, a true road game against Big 12 contender TCU.
6. Texas A&M
Five toughest games: at Alabama, vs. LSU, vs. Tennessee, vs. UCLA, vs. Ole Miss
The Aggies have been way better on the road than at home under coach Kevin Sumlin, a weird quirk that could be tested in 2016 with three of the top four projected teams in the SEC coming to Kyle Field. That UCLA game could be tricky as well, considering the Bruins are very familiar with new Texas A&M offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone (though that could work in the Aggies’ favor as well).
Five toughest games: vs. Alabama, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Wisconsin (Green Bay, Wisc.), at Texas A&M, at Florida
Playing Wisconsin at Lambeau Field sounds daunting, but the Badgers have slipped from the elite group in the Big Ten and LSU stole their prized defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda. The Tigers do not have back-to-back road games, and get the other two SEC West schools projected to compete for the league title (Alabama and Ole Miss) in Death Valley.