Powerhouse football leagues like the SEC might not offer a lot of cupcakes from September to November, but not all league schedules -- including the strategically placed open dates -- are created equal, either. In advance of next month's SEC Media Days, FOX Sports South ranks the SEC schedules for 2015, factoring in non-conference and conference action, from easiest to most difficult. (Photos: John Reed/Kim Klement/Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports)
RANKING: 14 ... LAST YEAR: 5-7 (2-6 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) The Wildcats' non-conference slate of Louisiana-Lafayette (2nd in the Sun Belt) and Louisville (one of the nation's best defenses in 2014) has some decent components, but Eastern Kentucky and UNC-Charlotte present zero challenges. 2) Kentucky only has one set of road games in consecutive weeks -- Georgia (Nov. 7) and Vandy (Nov. 14) -- but that's diluted by a comparatively easy trip to Nashville, taking on the bottom-feeding Commodores. 3) On the flip side, it's fair to acknowledge Kentucky's brutal stretch from mid-October to early November -- Auburn (home), Mississippi State (road), Tennessee (home) and Georgia (road). A 2-2 mark during that span would be amazing. 4) The Wildcats might have the easiest road slate of SEC action: South Carolina, Mississippi State, Georgia, Vandy.
RANKING: 13 ... LAST YEAR: 3-9 (0-8 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) Vandy's non-conference slate couldn't be more pedestrian, with regional outings against Western Kentucky, Austin Peay and Middle Tennessee (road). But the Commodores deserve props for scheduling a potentially daunting Halloween trip to Houston (American Athletic Conference) -- sandwiched between five SEC clashes (post-bye). 2) Let's be honest here: Vandy should be prohibitive underdogs in its four road SEC games -- Ole Miss (Sept. 26), South Carolina (Oct. 17), Florida (Nov. 7) and Tennessee (Nov. 28). 3) Tailback Ralph Webb (above -- 907 rushing yards/4 TDs as a freshman) and the 'Dores have a fighting chance with home tilts against Georgia, Missouri, Kentucky and Texas A&M. On the down side, Vandy only has one SEC home game in the season's first seven weeks.
RANKING: 12 ... LAST YEAR: 11-3 (7-1 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) It's weird how Missouri has been to back-to-back SEC title games; and yet, the Tigers aren't beneath making a trip to Arkansas State. 2) The addition of BYU (Nov. 14 in Kansas City) gives Mizzou's non-conference schedule some cachet. But the other three contests (Arkansas State, UConn, SE Missouri) don't compare to the SEC's heavy hitters. 3) Just like Kentucky, Missouri makes back-to-back trips to Georgia and Vanderbilt. That's doable, at least on the back half. 4) Mizzou's schedule doesn't have a ton of pizzazz -- no Auburn, Alabama, LSU or Ole Miss -- but there's enough rhythm to it leading up to the Halloween bye: Three straight non-conference games ... and then five straight battles against the SEC East (Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, Vandy).
South Carolina Gamecocks
RANKING: 11 ... LAST YEAR: 7-6 (3-5 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) The non-conference slate of Charlotte, UCF, Citadel and Clemson looks decent, on paper. It could be especially daunting if Central Florida has the goods to make a College Football Playoff major bowl ... and Clemson QB DeShaun Watson can live up to the preseason Heisman hype. 2) For its lone pair of back-to-back roadies in SEC play -- Texas A&M (Oct. 31) and Tennessee (Nov. 7) -- South Carolina gets plenty of prep time leading up to it, in the form of Vandy at home and then a bye week. 3) The rebuilding Gamecocks don't have to worry about Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State or Ole Miss ... and LSU makes the trip to Columbia on Oct. 10.
RANKING: 10 ... LAST YEAR: 8-5 (4-4 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) Technically, LSU has the easiest schedule of the seven SEC West clubs. But that's like criticizing a med-school graduate for only finishiing in the top-15 percentile of their respective class. 2) From a non-conference perspective, LSU should have little or no trouble with McNeese State, Eastern Michigan, Western Kentucky and Syracuse. But give the Tigers credit for agreeing to a home-and-home with Syracuse. They could have easily strong-armed the Orange into a Baton Rouge-only or 2-for-1 series arrangement. 3) How's this for quirky: Heading into the weekend of Nov. 7, LSU will have faced just four conference opponents. The backloaded November slate includes four heavy hitters from the West -- Alabama (road), Arkansas, Ole Miss (road) and Texas A&M.
Derick E. Hingle
Texas A&M Aggies
RANKING: 9 ... LAST YEAR: 8-5 (3-5 in SEC) ... SKINNY: The Aggies have a 'sandwich' schedule, a slate that's supported by a tough opener (Arizona State in Houston) and formidable finish (@ LSU on Thanksgiving weekend). The meat portion of A&M's prospectus can be found in a daunting six-game, seven-week stretch from Sept. 26 to Nov. 7 -- featuring localized outings with Arkansas (Dallas), Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina and one super-tough visit to Ole Miss (Oct. 24).
RANKING: 8 ... LAST YEAR: 7-6 (3-5 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) This should be the year when Tennessee returns to national prominence -- the result of having a dynamic junior QB (Joshua Dobbs) and back-to-back top-5 recruiting classes. But will the Volunteers' ambitious schedule lead to nine or 10 wins -- and a major bowl berth? 2) Tennessee has a solid non-conference slate, highlighted by Oklahoma's highly anticipated trip to Knoxville (Sept. 12). The Vols made the best of an awkward situation for the season opener, swapping out UAB (which dropped football for the 2015 season) with Bowling Green -- an annual power in the underrated MAC. 3) Tennessee's make-or-break campaign might come down to this four-game gauntlet in September/October -- at Florida, vs. Arkansas, vs. Georgia, at Alabama (bye week before the Tide).
Mississippi State Bulldogs
RANKING: 7 ... LAST YEAR: 10-3 (6-2 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) Of the schools which have SEC roadies in consecutive weeks this season, only Arkansas has a tougher two-fer than Mississippi State's road gauntlet of Auburn (Sept. 26) and Texas A&M (Oct. 3). 2) Give Mississippi State credit for supporting some of the South's less heralded programs. In the last four years, the Bulldogs have traveled to Memphis, Troy, South Alabama and Southern Miss (2015). 3) With QB Dak Prescott (above) at the helm, Mississippi State could be a top-15 team all season ... and still be Vegas underdogs for its four SEC road clashes -- Auburn, Texas A&M, Missouri, Arkansas. 4) The Bulldogs are the only SEC team to have three conference games in the first five Saturdays -- LSU (home), Auburn (road), Texas A&M (road).
RANKING: 6 ... LAST YEAR: 7-5 (4-4 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) It hardly makes sense to knock Florida's non-conference slate, when no other SEC clubs are scheduling Florida State in November. That aside, the Gators should have minimal concerns with New Mexico State, Florida Atlantic and East Carolina (Birmingham Bowl rematch!!!) at home. 2) Check out the Gators' daunting stretch from Sept. 26 to Oct. 31 -- Tennessee and Ole Miss at home, back-to-back trips to Missouri and LSU, a welcome bye and then the annual showdown with Georgia. (And that doesn't even include the triple-overtime rematch with Kentucky on Sept. 19.) If Florida holds serious thoughts of winning the SEC East, it must go 3-2 during that stretch. 3) How's this for fortuitous? Florida has neither Alabama nor Auburn on the schedule ... whereas Georgia has 'em both.
RANKING: 5 ... LAST YEAR: 8-5 (4-4 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) Here's hoping CBS likes Jordan-Hare Stadium ... because Auburn has, by far, the SEC's most attractive in-conference home slate -- Mississippi State (Sept. 26), Ole Miss (Oct. 31), Georgia (Nov. 14) and Alabama (Nov. 28). 2) Running secondarily to that spaced-out gauntlet, Auburn's non-conference home slate of Jacksonville State, San Jose State and Idaho brings new meaning to the term tune-up. Of course, the Tigers deserve some props for scheduling a season-opening clash with Louisville (in Atlanta). 3) The Tigers' road docket, on paper, seems relatively doable -- LSU (Sept. 19), Kentucky (Oct. 17), Arkansas (Oct. 24) and Texas A&M (Nov. 7). But let's remember: The trip to Aggieland sandwiches between Ole Miss and Georgia. Ouch.
Ole Miss Rebels
RANKING: 4 ... LAST YEAR: 9-4 (5-3 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) Let's start with the damning info: Ole Miss is the only SEC team that travels to Alabama and Auburn this season; and that's only half the story. For their other two conference roadies, the Rebels have daunting trips to Gainesville (Florida) and Starkville (Mississippi State). 2) For the other eight outings, Ole Miss (led by the superstar trio of Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and receiver Laquon Treadell -- above -- all potential top-10 picks in the 2016 NFL Draft) has a great chance at running the table. The biggest secondary hurdles include home clashes with Texas A&M (Oct. 24), Arkansas (Nov. 7) and LSU (Nov. 21).
RANKING: 3 ... LAST YEAR: 10-3 (6-2 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) On paper, Georgia should be the prohibitive favorite to carry the SEC East this season. It's playmaking talent and stifling defense seemingly have no peer within the division. However, these so-called advantages are nullified by two crucial scheduling acts: a) UGA is the only SEC East club to play Alabama and Auburn. b) Up-and-coming Tennessee draws Georgia at home on Oct. 10 (seven days after the Bulldogs host Alabama). 2) On the plus side, Georgia only leaves state lines four times -- with trips to Nashville (Vandy), Knoxville (Tennessee), Auburn and Jacksonville (Florida). 3) Depending on the strength of South Carolina in 2015 (possible rebuilding year), Georgia may be breeze to a 4-0 start ... before hosting Alabama on Oct. 3.
RANKING: 2 ... LAST YEAR: 7-6 (2-6 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) What did Arkansas do to get on the bad side of the schedule-maker? The Razorbacks are the ONLY SEC team to have multiple outings of back-to-back conference roadies this season -- starting with Tennessee/Alabama (Oct. 3/10) and ending with Ole Miss/LSU (Nov. 7/14). Right now, would Arkansas be favored in any of those games? 2) Just for kicks: The schedule-maker has vaunted Auburn coming to Fayetteville in-between the road clashes. Thankfully, the Razorbacks have a bye between Alabama and Auburn. 3) This technically qualifies as a break: Arkansas will be the only SEC team to have conference home games for the final two Saturdays. Of course, the pessimist would turn this around ... by saying the Hogs only have two SEC home tilts for the first 2 1/2 months. Semantics, I know.
Alabama Crimson Tide
RANKING: 1 ... LAST YEAR: 12-2 (7-1 in SEC) ... SKINNY: 1) Alabama never gets to play "Alabama" during the regular season; and yet, the Crimson Tide still ended up at No. 1. 2) There are no lulls in Alabama's schedule. It's hard to identify any back-to-back blowouts. 3) With six games against the SEC West and two encounters with Georgia and Tennessee ... it's possible Alabama has drawn the SEC's eight best teams (excluding the Tide, of course). 4) Alabama may be a powerhouse, worthy of another go-round in the College Football Playoff; but the Tide likely won't be overwhelmng favorites in any of their SEC roadies -- Georgia (Oct. 3), Texas A&M (Oct. 17), Mississippi State (Nov. 14) and Auburn (Nov. 28). 5) Tailback Melvin Gordon may be off to the pros ... but Wisconsin (season opener in Dallas) remains a scheduling coup for the Tide.