Who Has The Toughest Schedule In The SEC
By - Marcus Williams
To begin the 2016 college football season, four SEC schools find themselves ranked by the AP within the top 11 in the country. Those four are Alabama (1), LSU (5), Tennessee (9) and Ole Miss (11). Two more SEC squads round out the top 25: George at 18 and Florida at 25. Preseason, this is as balanced as the SEC has looked in terms of West division versus East division in quite some time, though the bottom half of the West still appears far superior to that of the East. So who among this perennial elite conference has the toughest schedule this season?
It is easy to rule out the members of the East right now because their division doesn't stack up in terms of depth. Everyone in the West will have to play everyone else once, with just two games coming across divisional lines. The only teams with an argument against are Florida because of its finale against Florida State or South Carolina because of its game with Clemson, but the rest of the Gators' and Gamecocks' respective schedules aren't anything to cry about.
Texas A&M faces the best four teams of the SEC this year (according to the AP rankings). Its two cross-division games come against Tennessee and South Carolina, though the latter will be a road contest. Then there's the Aggies' opening game of the season, against #16 UCLA. ESPN's FPI ranks A&M as having the 11th-hardest schedule of any team in the country. That figure is a bit low because of the three pushover games A&M scheduled against Prairie View, New Mexico State and Texas San Antonio.
Ole Miss has to start its year with an even tougher game, at a neutral site against #4 Florida State. However, its SEC slate is easier with just three ranked opponents, including no Tennessee and no Florida. The FPI seems to disagree, ranking Mississippi as having the third-toughest schedule, but it seems to overrate the impact of the two games against FSU and Alabama. The Rebels can only lose twice there no matter how good the opponents are, and neither game is on the road. The metric also doesn't penalize Ole Miss as much for its walkover opponents because they aren't quite as bad, even though they are still poor teams. It's just a matter of degree.
Mississippi State is not in the conversation of having the toughest schedule since it plays no one in the out-of-conference. LSU has an interesting game against Wisconsin at a "neutral site" that is still in the state of Wisconsin. However, its conference slate doesn't hold up.
The Auburn Tigers may be the answer. They begin the year against #2 Clemson, then face four ranked SEC foes, with three of those games coming on the road. Of course, they also play three opponents with an FPI of zero or below zero, meaning the Tigers have essentially three extra bye weeks, a la A&M.
FPI also loves (or hates) Alabama, giving it the fifth-hardest schedule thanks to games against USC and only one real cupcake game. But the Crimson Tide doesn't play Florida or Georgia this year, though it does get Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU all on the road.
Lastly is Arkansas, who has a case. The Razorbacks play at #13 TCU in week two, as well as face four ranked SEC foes. Somehow, call it the anti-Bama schedule, all four of those opponents for Arkansas will be home games.
That brings us back to the top, where it is hard to get past what Texas A&M and Auburn have on their plates. The three 'guaranteed' wins apiece bring down their numbers, but there is really no such thing as a guaranteed win. It's not like they are going to practice less those weeks because they play NMSU instead of Memphis. Yet the rest of their schedules are just brutal. The Tigers leap ahead because of playing three of their hardest games on the road versus only one for the Aggies. Alabama has a case because of how its road scheduling shook out as well, but the answer to who has the toughest schedule in the conference is Auburn. Congratulations?