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May 31, 2007

No easy road to a title in the ultra-tough SEC

More: ACC | Big Ten | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | Non-BCS I | Non-BCS II | Ultimate Road Trip

At a Glance
A quick look at how Olin Buchanan ranks the schedules in the SEC, starting with the most difficult:
1. South Carolina 7. Georgia
2. Auburn 8. LSU
3. Tennessee 9. Vanderbilt
4. Florida 10. Alabama
5. Mississippi State 11. Ole Miss
6. Kentucky 12. Arkansas
Every year the Southeastern Conference boasts that it's the strongest league in college football, and a look at the schedules explains why.

Just try to set up a soft schedule. With so many good teams in the SEC, it just cannot be done.

Take LSU, for instance. The Tigers will play a gauntlet of highly ranked teams that includes Virginia Tech, Florida, Auburn, South Carolina and Arkansas.

Yet a compelling argument could be made that only represents the league's eighth toughest schedule - largely because it is as friendly as it is fierce.

The Tigers will face the above-mentioned teams in Baton Rouge, and before and after every one of those games is an inferior opponent that's coming off a losing season or was severely beaten by the Tigers in 2006.

Of course, that doesn't guarantee a championship for the Tigers. In the SEC, almost all the teams are in similar predicaments.

1. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 La.-Lafayette
Sept. 8 at Georgia
Sept. 15 S. Carolina St.
Sept. 22 at LSU
Sept. 29 Miss. State
Oct. 4 Kentucky
Oct. 13 at North Carolina
Oct. 20 Vanderbilt
Oct. 27 at Tennessee
Nov. 3 at Arkansas
Nov. 10 Florida
Nov. 24 Clemson
Why: Any schedule that requires trips to Georgia, LSU, Tennessee and Arkansas is formidable. At least the Gamecocks get rival Clemson at home.
Toughest game: South Carolina has won once in 10 trips to Baton Rouge. That victory came in 1994 when LSU finished 4-7. The Tigers will be considerably better this season. South Carolina QB Blake Mitchell will face one of the nation's best pass rushes with LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey coming at him.
Cakewalk: Three teams coming off losing seasons play the Gamecocks, but the easiest victory should be against Division I-AA South Carolina State on Sept. 15.
Trap game: A year ago South Carolina rolled over Vanderbilt 31-13. The Gamecocks might be expecting another blowout victory - especially considering they figure to be riding a three-game winning streak when the Commodores come to town on Oct. 20. But Vandy has some offensive talent. The Commodores could make the Gamecocks pay if they're looking ahead to Tennessee a week later.
Changes from last season: Adding North Carolina, a BCS conference team, is an upgrade over three of last year's non-conference foes. The good news is the Gamecocks drop Auburn from the West Division. The bad news is they add LSU.
2. Auburn Tigers
Auburn Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Kansas State
Sept. 8 South Florida
Sept. 15 Mississippi State
Sept. 22 New Mexico St.
Sept. 29 at Florida
Oct. 6 Vanderbilt
Oct. 13 at Arkansas
Oct. 20 at LSU
Oct. 27 Ole Miss
Nov. 3 Tennessee Tech
Nov. 10 at Georgia
Nov. 24 Alabama
Why: The Tigers only play four road games, but they're against Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia. Kansas State and South Florida highlight the non-conference schedule.
Toughest game: Everyone in Baton Rouge is still seething over a non-call on a possible pass interference penalty in the waning moments of Auburn's 7-3 victory over LSU last season. That cost LSU the Western Division championship, and maybe a shot at the national title. Les Miles' crew will be looking for payback.
Cakewalk: Consecutive home games with Mississippi State and New Mexico State should ensure the Tigers will go into a Sept. 29 game against Florida with a full head of steam.
Trap game: Win or lose, Auburn's Oct. 20 game at LSU figures to be emotional and draining. The next week looks like a chance to take it easy with Mississippi visiting the Plains. However, Auburn struggled to beat Mississippi 23-17 a year ago.
Changes from last season: Kansas State and South Florida definitely improve the non-conference schedule, even though Division I-AA Tennessee Tech is also on it. Vanderbilt replaces South Carolina as an inter-division opponent from the East, so that should lighten the load a little. But the road gets tougher literally. This year's road opponents were a combined 43-11 in 2006. Last year Auburn faced only one winning team on the road.
3. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at California
Sept. 8 Southern Miss.
Sept. 15 at Florida
Sept. 22 Arkansas State
Oct. 6 Georgia
Oct. 13 at Miss. State
Oct. 20 at Alabama
Oct. 27 South Carolina
Nov. 3 La.-Lafayette
Nov. 10 Arkansas
Nov. 17 Vanderbilt
Nov. 24 at Kentucky
Why: Only three opponents endured losing seasons last year and one of those Alabama played in a bowl game. The Vols face California and Florida on the road, but Georgia, South Carolina and Arkansas come to Knoxville.
Toughest game: Florida is always a difficult opponent, especially in Gainesville. The Volunteers are 2-6 at Florida since 1991. That game on Sept. 15 will be the Gators' first real test to show they're still a championship-caliber team.
Cakewalk: Louisiana-Lafayette upset Texas A&M early in the 1996 season. Since then, the Ragin' Cajuns are 0-23 against BCS conference teams and have allowed at least 40 points in 16 of those games. Tennessee likely will make it 17 when the Cajuns come to Knoxville on Nov. 3.
Trap game: Admittedly, Tennessee shouldn't lose to Southern Miss. Ever. But Southern Miss returns RB Damion Fletcher among six offensive starters, and eight starters are back on defense from a 9-5 team in 2006. Also, the Golden Eagles are in Knoxville one week after Tennessee travels to face California and a week before the Vols go to Florida. Don't believe that makes a difference? Don't make me bring up last year's 31-30 escape against Air Force in Week Two.
Changes from last season: Losing LSU is definitely addition by subtraction. More good news Mississippi State replaces LSU as a West Division foe. Three new non-conference opponents are on the schedule, but the degree of difficulty remains about the same. This year the Vols travel to Cal, Florida and Alabama.
4. Florida Gators
Florida Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 W. Kentucky
Sept. 8 Troy
Sept. 15 Tennessee
Sept. 22 at Ole Miss
Sept. 29 Auburn
Oct. 6 at LSU
Oct. 20 at Kentucky
Oct. 27 vs. Georgia
Nov. 3 Vanderbilt
Nov. 10 at South Carolina
Nov. 17 Florida Atlantic
Nov. 24 Florida State
Why: Seven of Florida's opponents this season won bowl games in 2006, and the Gators face three of them on the road and another (Georgia) at a neutral site. The regular-season finale against Florida State always ensures the Gators have a respectable non-conference schedule.
Toughest game: Miscues on kick returns paved the way for Florida to top LSU 23-10 a year ago. The Gators will find an opponent seeking revenge and redemption when they venture into Baton Rouge on Oct. 6.
Cakewalk: The Gators don't figure to be challenged until mid-September. Division I-AA Western Kentucky is playing for a paycheck in the season-opener and then Troy follows. Sun Belt Conference teams do not win in The Swamp. Not even good ones.
Trap game: South Carolina came within a blocked kick of ending Florida's national championship aspirations last year. The Gators go to Columbia this season, and you know that South Carolina's coach would love to notch that win more than any other.
Changes from last season: Alabama replaces Ole Miss as an inter-divisional opponent. Perhaps the biggest difference is the Gators travel to Baton Rouge and South Carolina this season.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 LSU
Sept. 8 at Tulane
Sept. 15 at Auburn
Sept. 22 Gardner-Webb
Sept. 29 at South Carolina
Oct. 6 Ala.-Birmingham
Oct. 13 Tennessee
Oct. 20 at West Virginia
Oct. 27 at Kentucky
Nov. 10 Alabama
Nov. 17 at Arkansas
Nov. 24 Ole Miss
Why: Mississippi State must play two bona fide national championship contenders in LSU and West Virginia. They also face four teams that won at least 10 games in 2006. However, the competition will ease up with Division I-AA Gardner-Webb and Conference-USA opponents UAB and Tulane.
Toughest game: The Bulldogs aren't lacking for candidates with LSU, Auburn, Tennessee, West Virginia and Arkansas on the agenda, but we'll say the Oct. 20 trip to Morgantown is most intimidating. They will face Steve Slaton and Pat White, who last year led West Virginia to more than 300 rushing yards per game. The Mountaineers have national championship aspirations, and Big East teams are always looking to prove they're not inferior.
Cakewalk: When Division I-AA Gardner-Webb opens the season against Ohio University it will mark the first game in school history against a Division I-A opponent. Mississippi State will be their second. Gardner-Webb was 6-5 last season and 2-2 in the Big South Conference.
Trap game: A year ago the Bulldogs were upset by Tulane in Starkville. This time they face them in New Orleans - between games against LSU and Auburn.
Changes from last season: The non-conference schedule is virtually the same, but this year requires a trip to West Virginia. Tennessee enters as an Eastern Division opponent while Georgia exits.
6. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 E. Kentucky
Sept. 8 Kent State
Sept. 15 Louisville
Sept. 22 at Arkansas
Sept. 29 Florida Atlantic
Oct. 4 at South Carolina
Oct. 13 LSU
Oct. 20 Florida
Oct. 27 Miss. State
Nov. 10 at Vanderbilt
Nov. 17 at Georgia
Nov. 24 Tennessee
Why: Louisville heads an otherwise mediocre list of non-conference opponents. The SEC portion of the schedule is rugged, but at least the Wildcats can find solace in playing eight home games.
Toughest game: The Wildcats face LSU, Louisville, Florida and Georgia, but their toughest game has to be against Tennessee - which they haven't beaten in 26 years. They came close last season, but fell 17-12. Does that close call signal the streak is close to ending? More likely, it just reinforces that Tennessee always finds a way to beat the Wildcats.
Cakewalk: Only once has Kentucky scheduled in-state little brother Eastern Kentucky, and that 1998 matchup ended with the Wildcats rolling to a 52-7 victory. This year's season-opener figures to have similar results. Then the Wildcats get to follow that up with Kent State.
Trap game: Kentucky was a 38-26 winner over Vanderbilt in '06. This year the Wildcats go to Nashville, though. The venue will change, but the offensive production probably won't. That game falls a week before Kentucky travels to Georgia.
Changes from last season: Rather than staying home to face Ole Miss from the Western Division, the Wildcats must go to Arkansas. Tough exchange. In non-conference action, MAC champion Central Michigan is replaced by MAC also-ran Kent State.
7. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Oklahoma State
Sept. 8 South Carolina
Sept. 15 Western Carolina.
Sept. 22 at Alabama
Sept. 29 Ole Miss
Oct. 6 at Tennessee
Oct. 13 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 27 vs. Florida
Nov. 3 Troy
Nov. 10 Auburn
Nov. 17 Kentucky
Nov. 24 at Georgia Tech
Why: Props for having to face Tennessee in Knoxville and Alabama in Tuscaloosa - and Florida at a neutral site. But Georgia Tech in Atlanta is a pseudo-home game. Five teams that won bowl games last year are on the docket this year.
Toughest game: Tennessee routed the Bulldogs 51-33 in 2006, and now the venue changes to Knoxville.
Cakewalk: Western Carolina is coming off a 2-9 record in Division I-AA and is playing Georgia for only the second time in history. The Bulldogs romped 48-0 in 1991, and this year it probably won't be that close.
Trap game: The Dawgs will be looking to avenge last year's 24-22 loss to Vanderbilt, which was just Vandy's fourth victory ever in Athens. But Georgia's trip to Nashville comes after a game at Tennessee and precedes the annual showdown with Florida. Still, Vanderbilt hasn't beaten Georgia in consecutive years since 1956-58, so that upset can't happen again. Can it?
Changes from last season: An exchange of Big 12 foes Oklahoma State for Colorado adds a little more difficulty, although the Bulldogs had to rally to beat the 2-10 Buffaloes last year. Alabama replaces Mississippi State as an inter-divisional opponent.
8. LSU Tigers
LSU Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 30 at Miss. State
Sept. 8 Virginia Tech
Sept. 15 Middle Tennessee
Sept. 22 South Carolina
Sept. 29 at Tulane
Oct. 6 Florida
Oct. 13 at Kentucky
Oct. 20 Auburn
Nov. 3 at Alabama
Nov. 10 Louisiana Tech
Nov. 17 at Ole Miss
Nov. 23 Arkansas
Why: Virginia Tech is a marquee opponent, but no other non-conference foe will provide much of a challenge. The Tigers face four teams which won at least 10 games in 2006, but all of them travel to Baton Rouge.
Toughest game: There are several possibilities, especially with Florida and Auburn on the schedule. But the first test may also be the sternest because of timing. LSU will have a new starting quarterback in Matt Flynn and will be replacing two receivers who were first-round choices in the NFL Draft. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech returns eight starters from the nation's top defensive unit.
Cakewalk: Louisiana Tech has lost 16 out of 17 games against LSU. Coming off a 3-10 finish in 2006 - and with a new coach - the second win isn't coming this year.
Trap game: A 49-0 pasting of Kentucky last season may leave the Tigers feeling very confident when they go to Lexington on Oct. 13. Perhaps they could be overconfident. That game also falls between contests with Florida and Auburn.
How it compares to last year: Adding Virginia Tech is an upgrade from Arizona. That sets up one of the nation's most-anticipated nonconference matchups. The Tigers lose Tennessee from the East and gain South Carolina. Most importantly, they get Florida and Auburn in Baton Rouge this season.
9. Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Richmond
Sept. 8 Alabama
Sept. 15 Ole Miss
Sept. 29 E. Michigan
Oct. 6 at Auburn
Oct. 13 Georgia
Oct. 20 at South Carolina
Oct. 27 Miami (Ohio)
Nov. 3 at Florida
Nov. 10 Kentucky
Nov. 17 at Tennessee
Nov. 24 Wake Forest
Why: Although closing with Wake Forest, the other three non-conference opponents were a combined 9-26. One of those foes is Division I-AA Richmond. The Commodores have eight home games, but face rocky road trips to Auburn, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.
Toughest game: Vandy has lost its last 16 against Florida. Even though the last two meetings have been competitive, the average margin of defeat in that span is 21 points. Vandy goes to Gainesville late in the season, which gives the young Gators team time to mature.
Cakewalk: The Commodores figure to get off to a good start with a season-opener at home against Division I-AA Richmond, which was just 6-5 a year ago. Now, if they can find five more victories the Commodores may end their 24-year bowl drought.
Trap game: Judging by last season's 2-10 finish, Miami (Ohio) might seem like it deserves cakewalk status. But the RedHawks return 15 starters and last season took Purdue into overtime, led in the second half each of its last five conference games and endured six MAC defeats by a combined total of 32 points. Vandy plays them between trips to South Carolina and Florida.
Changes from last season: The Commodores open at home with Division I-AA Richmond rather than at Michigan. Enough said there. Auburn replaces Arkansas from the Western Division.
10. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Western Carolina
Sept. 8 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 15 Arkansas
Sept. 22 Georgia
Sept. 29 vs. Florida State
Oct. 6 Houston
Oct. 13 at Ole Miss
Oct. 20 Tennessee
Nov. 3 LSU
Nov. 10 at Miss. State
Nov. 17 La.-Monroe
Nov. 24 at Auburn
Why: A neutral site game against Florida State is a marquee matchup, and Houston can be a handful. Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and LSU are on the schedule, but at least they come to Tuscaloosa. Auburn is the only true road game Alabama won't be expected to win.
Toughest game: Georgia and LSU are no picnics at home, and even at a neutral site Florida State is difficult. However, the toughest game has to be Auburn. The Tigers have won five in a row over the Tide and will be looking to make it six at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Double teaming Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves on obvious passing downs would be a good idea.
Cakewalk: The Nick Saban era gets off to a good start when the Tide rolls over Western Carolina, a pipsqueak even in Division I-AA.
Trap game: Alabama struggled to beat Vanderbilt 13-10 last year in Tuscaloosa. This year in Nashville the Tide will be without six starters that helped hold the Commodores offense in check.
Changes from last season: Despite adding Western Carolina, the Tide non-conference schedule got tougher with the fact that two winless teams (Duke and Florida International) are off the slate. Florida State is an upgrade over Hawaii, too. The Tide also loses Florida from the Eastern Division, but can't celebrate too much. Georgia takes the Gators' place.
11. Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 at Memphis
Sept. 8 Missouri
Sept. 15 at Vanderbilt
Sept. 22 Florida
Sept. 29 at Georgia
Oct. 6 Louisiana Tech
Oct. 13 Alabama
Oct. 20 Arkansas
Oct. 27 at Auburn
Nov. 3 Northwestern State
Nov. 17 LSU
Nov. 24 at Miss. State
Why: There are some really tough games on the agenda, but that's the case for all SEC teams. The Rebels play six teams that had losing records in 2006, and face only two winning teams on the road.
Toughest game: Defending national champion Florida visits Oxford on Sept. 22, so it's tempting to list the Gators here. But the following week may be more difficult with a road a trip to Georgia. The Bulldogs closed the 2006 season with three consecutive victories over ranked teams.
Cakewalk: Any team which went 4-7 the previous season is beatable. When that team is Division I-AA Northwestern State you can almost take it for granted, especially considering the Nov. 3 game is in Oxford.
Trap game: The Rebels posted one of their four victories in 2006 against Vanderbilt. But that was only by a 17-10 score, and this year they have to go to Nashville.
Changes from last season: The only change in the non-conference lineup is Louisiana Tech instead of Wake Forest, and that greatly enhances the Rebels' bowl hopes. The only change among Eastern Division opponents is that Florida replaces Kentucky. That doesn't enhance their bowl hopes.
12. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas Schedule
Date Opponent
Sept. 1 Troy
Sept. 15 at Alabama
Sept. 22 Kentucky
Sept. 29 North Texas
Oct. 6 Chattanooga
Oct. 13 Auburn
Oct. 20 at Ole Miss
Oct. 27 Florida International
Nov. 3 South Carolina
Nov. 10 at Tennessee
Nov. 17 Miss. State
Nov. 23 at LSU
Why: The non-conference schedule is a joke with defending Sun Belt Conference champion Troy far and away the best opponent. Arkansas plays six teams coming off losing seasons including Division I-AA Tennessee-Chattanooga. The combined 2006 records of the Razorbacks' 12 opponents is 74-76. Arkansas has eight home games, but does travel to face Alabama, Tennessee and LSU.
Toughest game: The regular season finale against LSU could determine the Western Division championship, and LSU defeated the Hogs 31-26 in Little Rock last year. Arkansas hasn't often fared well in Baton Rouge, having lost their last six trips there.
Cakewalk: A two-tier layer cake awaits, with back-to-back games against Sun Belt Conference straggler North Texas and Division I-AA Tennessee-Chattanooga. The foes combined for a 6-17 record in 2006. Here's betting Darren McFadden rushes for 400 yards in those two games to bolster his Heisman Trophy campaign.
Trap game: The Razorbacks are replacing five starters on defense, including one first-round pick and one second-round selection in the NFL Draft. If they're not careful, they could get into a shootout with offensive-minded Kentucky on Sept. 22. The fact that game comes one week after the Razorbacks face Alabama in Tuscaloosa adds to the chances of a possible upset.
Changes from last season: Once again, Arkansas opens the season against the Trojans, but this time it's Troy instead of Southern California. The three Division I-A teams Arkansas plays in non-conference combined for the same number of victories that 11-2 Southern California managed in '06, so that road has gotten much smoother. Kentucky is in and Vanderbilt is out as an inter-divisional foe.

More: ACC | Big Ten | Big 12 | Big East | Pac-10 | Non-BCS I | Non-BCS II | Ultimate Road Trip

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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