Powerhouse football leagues like the SEC might not offer a lot of cupcakes from September to November, but not all schedules -- and the strategically placed open dates -- are created equal, either. FOX Sports South ranks the SEC schedules for 2014, factoring in non-conference and conference action, from easiest to most difficult. (Photos: Jeff Blake/Matthew Emmons/Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports)
RANKING: 14 ... LAST YEAR: 9-4 (4-4 in SEC) ... SKINNY: With breezy non-conference tilts against the likes of Temple (season opener), UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion (Nov. 1), Vanderbilt essentially needs just two SEC victories to clinch a bowl berth in Derek Mason's first year with the program. After that, things obviously get a little tougher for Jerron Seymour (pictured -- 842 total yards, 14 TDs last year) and the Commodores -- although they don't play Alabama, Auburn, LSU ... or get Florida and South Carolina at home.
Don McPeak-USA TODAY SportsDon McPeak
RANKING: 13 ... LAST YEAR: 12-2 (7-1 in SEC) ... SKINNY: UCF and Texas A&M certainly would have looked more imposing on Missouri's schedule if quarterbacks Blake Bortles (No. 3 overall pick in NFL draft) and Johnny Manziel (No. 22 pick in draft) would not have left college early. Instead, QB Maty Mauk (pictured -- 1,071 yards passing, 12 total TDs as a frosh) and the Tigers can look forward to a doable slate that doesn't include Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State or Ole Miss. On the flip side, Mizzou might not be a prohibitive favorite in any of its four conference road outings -- South Carolina (Sept. 27), Florida (Oct. 18), Texas A&M (Nov. 15) and Tennessee (Nov. 22).
Denny Medley-USA TODAY SportsDenny Medley
RANKING: 12 ... LAST YEAR: 2-10 (0-8 in SEC) ... SKINNY: Kentucky will surely take its lumps once more in SEC play this fall, the result of head coach Mark Stoops leaning heavily on underclassmen (like leading sophomore receiver Javess Blue -- pictured). That said, the Wildcats have an outside chance to collect four victories before mid-October ... leading into a dicey slate of LSU (road), Missisippi State, Missouri (road), Georgia, Tennessee (road) and Louisville to close the season. It's also weird to see Louisville and Kentucky not launching the season together on Labor Day. But then again, the Wildcats probably won't mind the extra 10 weeks to prepare for the in-state Cardinals.
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY SportsJeff Blake
Mississippi State Bulldogs
RANKING: 11 ... LAST YEAR: 7-6 (3-5 in SEC) ... SKINNY: Mississippi State likely has the easiest crossover draw of the SEC West programs, getting Kentucky (Oct. 25) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 22). That meshes well with the Bulldogs' Charmin-soft non-conference slate of Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin. Bascially, QB Dak Prescott (pictured -- 2,408 total yards, 18 TDs last season) are looking at a five-game season -- featuring daunting road encounters with LSU (Sept. 20), Alabama (Nov. 15) and Ole Miss (Nov. 29) ... and back-to-back home dates against Texas A&M (Oct. 4) and Auburn (Oct. 11). Simple enough, huh?
Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY SportsJeremy Brevard
RANKING: 10 ... LAST YEAR: 8-5 (5-3 in SEC) ... SKINNY: It's often ridiculous to think about Heisman campaigns in early July, considering the last two winners were freshman quarterbacks. But on the rationale of friendly schedules, Bulldogs tailback Todd Gurley (pictured -- 1,430 total yards, 16 TDs in just 10 games last year) draws big-name opponents like Clemson (Aug. 30), Tennessee (Sept. 27), Auburn (Nov. 15) and Georgia Tech (Nov. 29) at home, with only two daunting roadies against South Carolina and Missouri. That still leaves plenty of opportunities to pile up substantial yards/touchdowns against fallible foes like Troy, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Charleston Southern. At the very least, Gurley's a healthy shoo-in for a New York invitation.
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY SportsDaniel Shirey
South Carolina Gamecocks
RANKING: 9 ... LAST YEAR: 11-2 (6-2 in SEC) ... SKINNY: The Gamecocks might have moved on from the highly successful era of QB Connor Shaw and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (No. 1 overall pick in the draft), but they're certainly not devoid of premium talent in coach Steve Spurrier's 10th season with the program. As such, Heisman contender Mike Davis (pictured -- 1,535 total yards, 11 TDs last year) and the Gamecocks could be in line for another double-digit-win season. It won't be easy, however, with South Carolina making trips to Vanderbilt, Auburn (Oct. 25), Florida (Nov. 15) and Clemson (Nov. 29). On the positive side, the Gamecocks will face their three toughest home opponents -- Texas A&M, Georgia, Missouri -- before the calendar hits October.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY SportsRandy Sartin
Alabama Crimson Tide
RANKING: 8 ... LAST YEAR: 11-2 (7-1 in SEC) ... SKINNY: In the Nick Saban era (2007-13), Alabama has decimated season-opening, neutral-site opponents like Clemson, Virginia Tech (twice) and Michigan by an average margin of 21.5 points. So, on Aug. 30, what chance could West Virginia (4-8 in 2012) possibly have against 'Bama at the Georgia Dome? (Rhetorical question.) After that, the Crimson Tide have a tough, but fair slate against Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee (in Knoxville), LSU (after a bye week), Mississippi State and Auburn. It's an interesting schedule for a championship contender. It's also a clever docket for T.J. Yeldon (pictured -- 1,418 total yards, 14 TDs last year) to contend for the SEC rushing title.
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY SportsSpruce Derden
RANKING: 7 ... LAST YEAR: 5-7 (2-6 in SEC) ... SKINNY: Tennessee hasn't enjoyed a "quality" road victory since 2009 (Kentucky); and in terms of slaying a big-name dragon away from Knoxville ... that experience dates back to 2006 (Georgia, South Carolina). Can UT find a regular starter at quarterback, rebuild an offensive line for the long haul or drum up receiver Marquez North (pictured) and cornerback Cameron Sutton's cases for All-SEC honors?. If these objectives are met, Tennessee could defeat either Oklahoma, Georgia, Ole Miss or South Carolina on the road ... or topple Alabama and Florida at home. One last thing: Here's the primary reason why the Crimson Tide rank below the Volunteers in this countdown: Alabama doesn't have to play Alabama at any time this fall.
Jim Brown-USA TODAY SportsJim Brown
Ole Miss Rebels
RANKING: 6 ... LAST YEAR: 8-5 (3-5 in SEC) ... SKINNY: Aside from the cannon-fodder matchup with Presbyterian (Nov. 8), Ole Miss has an attractive slate of non-conference foes -- emphasizing national prominence (neutral-site opener against Boise State), an up-and-coming program (Louisiana-Lafayette) and traditional regional rival (Memphis). After that, the Rebels must confront the annual onslaught of SEC West rivals, featuring trips to Texas A&M (Oct. 11) and LSU (Oct. 25). On the positive side, Ole Miss has its three season-defining games at home -- Alabama (Oct. 4), Auburn (Nov. 1) and Mississippi State (Nov. 29). If super soph Laquon Treadwell (pictured -- 72 catches, 608 yards, five TDs) and the Rebels are going to compete for an SEC West title or a major bowl berth ... it's imperative to win two of the three titanic clashes.
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY SportsSpruce Derden
RANKING: 5 ... LAST YEAR: 10-3 (5-3 in SEC) ... SKINNY: Give coach Les Miles and Co. credit for adopting the Alabama/Nick Saban model for scheduling season openers: Go toe-to-toe against a power-conference stalwart on a neutral field and see how you stack up. This year, that bravado involves Wisconsin and LSU battling in Houston. Of course, if the Tigers want to play in a Texas-based, neutral-site game later this season -- the College Football Playoff championship at AT&T Stadium -- they'll have to negotiate a brutal schedule that entails home clashes with Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama (post-bye) and trips to Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M (Nov. 27). Bonus points for LSU having the most difficult pair of back-to-back roadies of any SEC program (Auburn, Florida for Oct. 4 and 11).
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY SporCrystal LoGiudice
Texas A&M Aggies
RANKING: 4 ... LAST YEAR: 9-4 (4-4 in SEC) ... SKINNY: If SMU and Louisiana-Monroe weren't coming off mediocre campaigns, Texas A&M's schedule might have wound up as the SEC's best. The line of demarcation is truly razor-thin. After all, the Aggies are the country's only team with road trips to Alabama (Oct. 18) and Auburn (Nov. 8); and for good measure, they'll have to trek to South Carolina (season opener) and Mississippi State (underdog pick for the SEC West title). The home slate has its share of roadblocks, as well, with A&M drawing Ole Miss, Missouri and LSU to close the season. That's a lot on the respective plates of receiver Malcome Kennedy (pictured -- 60 catches, 658 yards, seven TDs last year) and the Manziel-less Aggies.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY SportsMatthew Emmons
RANKING: 3 ... LAST YEAR: 3-9 (0-8 in SEC) ... SKINNY: The workerbees inside Arkansas' athletic department will have no problem drumming up interest for ticket sales, given the Hogs' incredible home slate of Northern Illinois (Sept. 20), Alabama (Oct. 11), Georgia (Oct. 18), LSU (Nov. 15) and Ole Miss (Nov. 22) -- even if Mississippi's Bo Wallace stands as the group's only returning opening-day quarterback from last year. Throw in the red-letter, out-of-state clashes with Auburn (season opener), Texas Tech, Texas A&M (Dallas), Mississippi State and Missouri ... and we're talking about one of the nation's 10 most daunting schedules. Good luck to sophomore tailback Alex Collins (pictured) and head coach Bret Bielema in Year 2.
Beth Hall-USA TODAY SportsBeth Hall
RANKING: 2 ... LAST YEAR: 12-2 (7-1 in SEC) ... SKINNY: Auburn may be the reigning SEC champions and a popular pick for the four-team College Football Playoff, but it's hard to find an August, September or October game where the Tigers are no-brainer locks to win by 20-plus points. In fact, Samford may be the only blowout victim of the bunch. The September stretch is particularly interesting, with Auburn taking on Arkansas (should be markedly improved in Year 2 of the Bielema era), San Jose State (seven games of 30-plus points in 2013) and Kansas State on the road (perhaps the best Thursday game of the season). After that, QB Nick Marshall (pictured) and the Tigers shall incur the collective wraths of LSU, Mississippi State (road), South Carolina, Ole Miss (road), Texas A&M, Georgia (road) and Alabama (road). Bottom line: To repeat as SEC champs, Auburn will have to fight for every victory.
RVR Photos-USA TODAY SportsRVR Photos
RANKING: 1 ... LAST YEAR: 4-8 (3-5 in SEC) ... SKINNY: The enigmatic Gators need to start fast this season, notching victories over Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Kentucky on the first three Saturdays. After that, the schedule gets precipitously tougher, with UF going through a meat-grinder slate of Alabama (road), Tennessee (road), LSU (home), Missouri (home) and Georgia from Sept. 20-Nov. 1. Which brings us to this: What did Florida and LSU do to the SEC powers-that-be to merit a crossover showdown for the next 12 years? That's a cruel trick for two elite programs that typically go strong with non-conference opponents. For their finishing kick, Kelvin Taylor (pictured -- 545 total yards, four TDs as a frosh) and the Gators can look forward to a three-pack against Vanderbilt (Nov. 8), South Carolina (Nov. 15) and defending national champion Florida State (Nov. 29) -- which hammered Florida by a combined score of 90-38 last year. Ugh.