For any SEC haters looking to talk trash about some of its team’s 2016 non-conference schedules, it’ll be hard to have much to support your argument.
With an SEC schedule already placing every team in the conference among the toughest schedules in college football, the strength of schedule will only get harder this fall with the SEC moving into the first year in which each team must face a non-conference Power Five school.
But even with those parameters in place, it’s up to individual schools to not take the easy way out and schedule a tough non-conference game that could be a feather in a program’s cap.
Let’s take a look at what SEC teams went above and beyond to make sure no one can throw any shade towards their schedules in 2016.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Say what you want about Alabama’s strategy to always schedule cupcake games in the week before the Iron Bowl: The Crimson Tide have not shied away from tough neutral site games under Nick Saban. This year, Alabama opens the season against Southern Cal in Arlington, Texas. Yes, the Trojans aren’t exactly a national title contender, but it’s a big name school that has the potential to give the Crimson Tide a scare. Throw in Western Kentucky, which is no slouch either, and it’s a solid non-conference slate for Alabama.
There’s no criticizing Arkansas’ schedule this season, as the Razorbacks also have two potentially tough non-conference games on the horizon. Arkansas opens the season at home against Louisiana Tech, not a team to take lightly, and the Razorbacks get an even tougher matchup in Week 2 when they travel to face TCU. The Horned Frogs should once again be a contender in the Big 12 if they can find consistent quarterback play. With those two games out of the gate, Bret Bielema’s squad will have to avoid another early-season struggle, or things could get iffy in Fayetteville.
It’s hard to find a tougher season opener than the one Auburn faces, as defending ACC champion Clemson comes rolls into Jordan-Hare Stadium on the first weekend of September. The Tigers enter 2016 with a ton of pressure surrounding Gus Malzahn, and a rough start against Clemson could find Auburn facing an uphill battle the rest of the season. Add in games against Arkansas State and Louisiana-Monroe, and it’s certainly not an easy road to navigate for the program to navigate.
UGA always has a Power Five non-conference game built into the schedule with Georgia Tech waiting in the regular season finale, but that didn’t stop the Bulldogs from adding another Power 5 game to the schedule. In addition to its annual rivalry game against the Yellow Jackets, UGA opens the season in Atlanta against North Carolina for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The other two games for UGA in the non-conference schedule aren’t very strong, but with two Power Five games book-ending the regular season, there’s no room for criticism.
Like Alabama, LSU has never been afraid to play in big neutral site games, and that won’t change in 2016. The Tigers open up the season in the home of the Green Bay Packers, as LSU and Wisconsin will face each other at Lambeau Field. A mid-October contest against a solid Southern Mississippi team adds difficulty to the Tigers’ schedule. With LSU heading into the fall with national championship expectations, the Tigers will surely have the strength of schedule in their corner when the College Football Playoff committee reviews school resumes.
Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss also starts the season off with an extremely challenging game, as the Rebels take on Florida State, a team garnering preseason national championship buzz, in Orlando. The rest of the non-conference schedule doesn’t look difficult on paper, but Ole Miss lost to Memphis last season. Throw in games against triple-option teams Georgia Southern, who gave UGA a run for its money last year, and Wofford, and there could be some surprisingly close contests.
Texas A&M Aggies
If the highlight games in Week 1 haven’t gotten you excited enough for football yet, add Texas A&M’s home opener against UCLA to the list. The Aggies, who enter 2016 with coach Kevin Sumlin on the hot seat, will have a chance to make a big statement against a Bruins team expected to be among the Pac 12’s best this fall. The rest of the non-conference schedule should be no problem for Texas A&M, but a rough start against UCLA could spell disaster for the remainder of the Aggies’ season.