Identifying the SEC's hardest schedules in 2019

By: Harry King
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2019
Georgia running back D'Andre Swift (7) fends off Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis (57) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Georgia running back D'Andre Swift (7) fends off Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis (57) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018, in Athens, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

LITTLE ROCK — Identifying the most difficult SEC football schedule in the upcoming season is a three-step process:

• Assess the strength of each team’s non-conference opponents.

• Eliminate those with the weakest quartet of foes.

• Factor in the strength of each team’s cross-division rivals.

After step two, schedules of half of the league teams are discarded without reservation.

Immediately, Arkansas gets the heave-ho with the least threatening foursome of Portland State, Colorado State, San Jose State and Western Kentucky.

Also dumped quickly are Mississippi State and Kentucky. The Bulldogs’ most noteworthy opponent is Kansas State, 5-7 in Bill Snyder’s final year in 2018, and Kentucky’s headliner is Louisville, 2-8 before Bobby Petrino was fired in November.

Stronger than those three schedules, but unworthy of the final cut are Vanderbilt with Purdue, Tennessee with BYU, Alabama with Duke, and Missouri with West Virginia minus Dana Holgorsen.

Before factoring in SEC schedules and counting down the top seven, keep in mind that Georgia and Florida will be the best in the East, and that Texas A&M may be the biggest threat to Alabama in the West, followed by LSU and Auburn.

Former Arkansas coach and athletics director Frank Broyles often said a team could only play at its emotional best a couple of times a year so it stands to reason that the deeper the schedule, the more arduous.

That said, one person’s honor roll:

No. 7, Ole Miss: Both California and Memphis were bowl teams in 2018, but then the cross-division factor kicks in and the Rebels play a middle-of-the pack Missouri. Besides, Vanderbilt is the Rebels’ permanent opponent from the East.

No. 6, LSU: Winners of 10 games in 2018, the Tigers’ non-conference schedule is stout with Texas and Utah State. Under third-year coach Mike Herman, the Longhorns are on track to return to national prominence. Quarterback Sam Ehlinger performed so well as a sophomore that veteran Shane Buechele plans to transfer to SMU after graduating in May. An 11-game winner from the Mountain West, Utah State is a strong No. 2 on LSU’s non-conference list. The drawback is that Vanderbilt rotates onto LSU’s schedule.

No 5, Texas A&M: Likely to be nationally ranked in the preseason polls, the Aggies face defending national champion Clemson in the second week of the season. With sensational quarterback Trevor Lawrence and a strong supporting cast in place, the Tigers will be No. 1 or No. 2 in the polls. But, the Aggies’ other three non-conference opponents are nondescript. The presence of East favorite Georgia is duly noted, but South Carolina as A&M’s permanent opponent from that division is a minus.

No. 4, Florida: High-profile programs make the Gators’ schedule a bit deceiving. Schedule bookends are Miami and Florida State, and Auburn, LSU and Georgia in a four-week period are difficult. However, Miami’s 7-6 might have been the biggest disappointment of 2018 and prompted head coach Mark Richt to step down after only three years. Florida State was 5-7 in Willie Taggart's first season and, for the second year in a row, the Seminoles failed to sign a quarterback and have only one eligible scholarship quarterback on their roster

No. 3, Georgia: At first glance, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Auburn and A&M make the Bulldogs’ schedule a contender for No. 1. Take a closer look. Unbeaten during the regular season, the Fighting Irish qualified for the College Football Playoff, but were exposed by Clemson and many will argue Georgia was more deserving of the No. 3 seed. Also, the Yellowjackets are starting over under Geoff Collins, who will replace Paul Johnson’s option-oriented offense with “NFL-based schemes.”

No. 2, South Carolina: Clemson is the Gamecocks’ permanent rival and Alabama is the crossover opponent from the West. Those teams will be ranked 1-2 or 2-1 in the preseason, take your pick. A&M is the only other team that plays the annual national title game contestants. Plus, Alabama begins a string of seven straight SEC opponents, including Georgia and Florida in consecutive weeks. Supposedly on the hot seat last year, Will Muschamp survived with a 7-6 record. Matching that will take some doing.

No. 1, Auburn: Under the microscope after an 8-5 season, Gus Malzahn’s group opens with Oregon and Heisman Trophy candidate Justin Hebert, and faces both SEC East favorites. In late December, Hebert passed on the NFL draft and followed up in a bowl game by extending his nation’s best streak to 28 straight games with a touchdown pass. In three years, he has thrown 63 TD passes vs. 17 interceptions and the Ducks won nine last year in Mario Cristobal’s first year as head coach. Tulane has shown steady improvement under Willie Fritz, winning 4, 5 and 7, including a bowl, last year. The fact that Auburn is the only West division team with both Georgia and Florida cements the high degree of difficulty. Auburn also has seven straight SEC games before finishing with Alabama.

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