Is this worth celebrating?
In ESPN.com’s survey of the 10 weakest non-conference schedules for 2016, citing Power 5 programs, you won’t find any SEC schools among the group.
The SEC’s absence from ESPN’s listing can be rationalized in two parts:
a) Beginning this year, SEC football schools have a mandate to play at least one Power 5 opponent during non-league action.
b) Of the 10 schools called out for unimaginative scheduling (Baylor, Boston College, Iowa, Washington, etc.), eight come from the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 — all of which now play nine conference games per year.
In other words, the powers-that-be at the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 are encouraging their high-profile programs to schedule one or two made-for-TV showcases, during September or October.
It’s just not a requirement.
And that’s a smart move, for now, since the College Football Playoff committee only accepts conference champions into its four-team playoff (two-year sample size).
In lieu of the above survey, SEC Country ranks the SEC teams’ non-conference schedules for this fall — from most difficult to least difficult:
GROUP I: STEPPING UP
Sept. 5 — vs. Florida State (Orlando, Fla.)
Sept. 10 — vs. Wofford
Oct. 1 — vs. Memphis
Nov. 5 — vs. Georgia Southern
Sept. 3 — vs. Southern California (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 10 — vs. Western Kentucky
Sept. 24 — vs. Kent State
Nov. 19 — vs. Chattanooga
Sept. 3 — vs. Clemson
Sept. 10 — vs. Arkansas State
Oct. 1 — vs. Louisiana-Monroe
Nov. 19 — vs. Alabama A&M
Sept. 3 — vs. North Carolina (Atlanta’s Georgia Dome)
Sept. 10 — vs. Nicholls State
Nov. 19 — vs. Louisiana
Nov. 26 — vs. Georgia Tech
1) Ole Miss earns top honors for the daunting opener against Florida State, knowing it will be at a major disadvantage — area- and talent-wise — against the Seminoles (in Orlando), who could open the season at No. 2 behind Alabama.
After that, the Rebels only get four-plus days of rest before taking on Wofford in the home opener.
Later down the slate, Ole Miss hosts a pair of nine-win teams from last season (Memphis, Georgia Southern); and it’s safe to say the Oct. 1 rematch with Memphis, which routed Ole Miss in 2015, has already been circled — twice — on the Rebels’ schedule.
2) Alabama merits the No. 2 ranking, based on its seven-day adventure against Southern California (at AT&T Stadium, the Crimson Tide’s home away from home) and Western Kentucky — the runaway champions from Conference USA last season.
(As an aside, Western Kentucky’s Jeff Brohm will be an SEC head coach someday. Bank on it.)
3) Auburn rates just a shade below Alabama.
Yes, the Tigers also have a difficult back-to-back run of Clemson (last season’s national runner-up, one of this year’s title favorites) and Arkansas State (routed every Sun Belt foe last season by double digits). But Auburn has both games at home, whereas Alabama takes on Southern Cal at a neutral site.
4) North Carolina, last season’s Coastal champs, and Georgia Tech might undergo some heavy personnel changes this fall, but UGA still gets credit for scheduling a pair of prominent ACC teams to open and close the regular season.
GROUP II: ROAD WARRIORS
Sept. 10 — vs. Middle Tennessee
Sept. 17 — @ Georgia Tech
Sept. 24 — @ Western Kentucky
Oct. 22 — vs. Tennessee State
Sept. 3 — vs. South Alabama
Sept. 24 — @ UMass
Oct. 14 — @ BYU
Oct. 29 — vs. Samford
Let the record show: Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are the only SEC schools to schedule multiple non-conference road games in 2016. That’s worth something.
GROUP III: TWO FOR THE SHOW
Sept. 3 — vs. Louisiana Tech
Sept. 10 — @ TCU
Sept. 17 — vs. Texas State
Oct. 1 — vs. Alcorn State
Sept. 3 — vs. Wisconsin (Green Bay’s Lambeau Field)
Sept. 10 — vs. Jacksonville State
Oct. 15 — vs. Southern Miss
Nov. 19 — vs. South Alabama
Sept. 3 — vs. Appalachian State
Sept. 10 — vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol, Tenn.)
Sept. 17 — vs. Ohio
Nov. 5 — vs. Tennessee Tech
Sept. 3 — vs. Southern Miss
Sept. 17 — vs. New Mexico
Nov. 19 — vs. Austin Peay
Nov. 26 — @ Louisville
Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and LSU warrant kudos for scheduling one prominent Power 5 school away from home — and then taking on another formidable foe from the Group of Five.
In the Wildcats’ case, they aren’t locks to beat either Southern Miss (defending Conference USA West champ) or New Mexico (up-and-comer in the West) at home prior to the season-ending trek to Louisville.
GROUP IV: ONE-HIT WONDERS
Sept. 17 — vs. East Carolina
Oct. 22 — vs. UMass
Nov. 19 — vs. Western Carolina
Nov. 26 — @ Clemson
Sept. 3 — vs. UMass
Sept. 17 — vs. North Texas
Nov. 19 — vs. Presbyterian
Nov. 26 — @ Florida State
Sept. 3 — @ West Virginia
Sept. 10 — vs. Eastern Michigan
Sept. 24 — vs. Delaware State
Oct. 22 — vs. Middle Tennessee
Sept. 3 — vs. UCLA
Sept. 10 — vs. Prairie View
Oct. 29 — vs. New Mexico State
Nov. 19 — vs. Texas-San Antonio
1) This final grouping has a simple affiliation: It pits the four teams which scheduled one stiff opponent and then nonchalantly added three winnable games to the mix — on paper.
We say on paper because no one could have envisioned Florida needing overtime to beat a two-win Florida Atlantic club last November, just a week after the Gators clinched the SEC East title and were still in the mix for the College Football Playoff.
2) The UCLA-Texas A&M clash on Sept. 3 should make for great theater. But after that, there’s little or no suspense with the Aggies’ non-conference slate.
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.