2017 college football preview: All 14 SEC schedules ranked by difficulty

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Deciding which SEC schedule is tougher than the rest might be an exercise in self-torture. Imagine being pricked with 14 needles and then asked, “Which one hurt the most?”

When every schedule requires eight conference games and at least one other Power Five opponent, there are no easy matchups. ESPN’s FPI strength of schedule metric rates four SEC schedules among the five toughest in the country this season. Five more conference programs cracked the top 20.

Every school will be hurting one way or another come December. But which program has the toughest gauntlet to run in 2017?

SEC Country has tried to objectively rank all 14 schedules by difficulty using a (very basic) formula. Each team is assigned a number, 1-10, based on their projected talent level.

  • 10 points: College Football Playoff contender (Examples: Alabama, Florida State, Clemson)
  • 9 points: Elite team with a few question marks (Auburn, Oklahoma, USC)
  • 8 points: Tough team with a chance at double-digit wins (LSU, Wisconsin, Stanford)
  • 7 points: Above-average team with deficiencies, but one that still possesses top talent (Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Miami)
  • 6 points: Slightly above-average team that either lost experienced players or has underperformed (Tennessee, Texas A&M, UCLA)
  • 5 points: Average Power Five football program, albeit one with upside (South Carolina, Kentucky, Mississippi State, Arkansas, BYU)
  • 4 points: Power Five football program facing elevated uncertainty and/or talent deficiency, or a top Group of Five team (Missouri, Vanderbilt, Syracuse, Memphis)
  • 3 points: Above-average Group of Five team (Western Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, App State)
  • 2 points: Bottom-tier FBS team (UAB, Idaho, New Mexico State)
  • 1 point: FCS cupcake

Additionally, bonus points were awarded for specific criteria.

  • Half a point is added to all road or true neutral-site contests
  • Half a point is added for each team with back-to-back games that have a score of 7.5 or higher
  • Half a point is added for each team with three consecutive games with scores of 6 or higher

So, now that the nuts and bolts are out of the way, here’s how each SEC team fared within our little strength model.

2017 SEC schedules ranked by difficulty

14. Kentucky (58.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Southern Miss, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, Louisville
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Ole Miss
  • Projected wins: 6-8

Some see 2017 as a potential breakout year for Mark Stoops and the Wildcats. Well, that’s certainly possible with this very forgiving schedule. UK faces two of its toughest opponents — Florida and Louisville — at home, and besides the rival Cardinals, the nonconference slate should be a piece of cake. (Southern Miss did beat Kentucky last season, but the Golden Eagles ended the year on a 2-5 run.)

13. Missouri (59.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Missouri State, Purdue, UConn, Idaho
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Auburn
  • Projected wins: 5-7

The Tigers play one joke of a nonconference schedule, highlighted by a bizarre Week 9 road trip to play UConn in Randy Edsall’s first year at the helm. Missouri will take every one of those wins, because it’s hard to see this team winning more than two SEC games.

12. Georgia (64 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Appalachian State, Notre Dame, Samford, Georgia Tech
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Mississippi State
  • Projected wins: 7-9

Those who predicted the Bulldogs will capture an SEC East crown probably took a look at this schedule, which is by and large quite manageable given the talent at Kirby Smart’s disposal. Road games against Notre Dame, Tennessee and Auburn won’t be easy, but the home schedule features six very winnable matchups: Appalachian State, Samford, Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky.

11. Tennessee (64.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Georgia Tech, Indiana State, UMass, Southern Miss
  • Rotating SEC opponent: LSU
  • Projected wins: 6-7

Georgia Tech could throttle the Vols in the season opener, and Tennessee might still come away with six wins. Indiana State, UMass, Southern Miss and Vandy all travel to Knoxville, and two of Tennessee’s road games are Kentucky and Missouri. Having Georgia and LSU play in Neyland Stadium as opposed to elsewhere certainly doesn’t hurt, either.

10. Ole Miss (65 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: South Alabama, Tennessee-Martin, California, Louisiana-Lafayette
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Kentucky
  • Projected wins: 4-6

Were it not for their self-imposed bowl ban, the Rebels might have a shot at the postseason if only because of that first month. Ole Miss faces South Alabama, UT-Martin and California to begin the year, followed by a Week 4 bye. On the flip side, the next four weeks go like this: at Alabama, at Auburn, home against Vanderbilt and then home against LSU. That is a brutal stretch. Still, six wins isn’t out of the question for the Rebels.

9. Vanderbilt (65.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Middle Tennessee, Alabama A&M, Kansas State, Western Kentucky
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Alabama
  • Projected wins: 4-6

Poor Vandy. Derek Mason’s squad gets a couple of softballs out of the gate, and then has to plod through this four-game stretch: Kansas State, Alabama, at Florida and Georgia. The Commodores then travel to Ole Miss before they get what will be a much-needed bye week. Mason has a bunch of returning starters, including star tailback Ralph Webb, but there aren’t many easy games here.

8. Arkansas (66 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Florida A&M, TCU, New Mexico State, Coastal Carolina
  • Rotating SEC opponent: South Carolina
  • Projected wins: 5-7

Three-quarters of the Hogs’ nonconference schedule is laughably easy, but TCU is a consistently tough program with an excellent coach in Gary Patterson, who I’m sure hasn’t forgotten about last year’s loss. On the SEC side of things, Arkansas has its annual neutral site clash with Texas A&M along with road games against Alabama and LSU. All in all, a respectable schedule.

T-7. Alabama (66.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Florida State, Fresno State, Colorado State, Mercer
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Vanderbilt
  • Projected wins: 10-12

The reigning SEC champs could have been dealt a far worse hand. Sure, the schedule opens with a playoff team (Florida State) and ends in Jordan-Hare Stadium against Auburn. But Fresno State, Colorado State and Mercer are cupcakes, and the LSU game is at home.

T-7. South Carolina (66.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: North Carolina State, Louisiana Tech, Wofford, Clemson
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Arkansas
  • Projected wins: 6-8

N.C. State is a sneaky good team that pushed Clemson to overtime and lost to FSU by 4 points last season. Clemson might not have Deshaun Watson anymore, but it’s still Clemson. Road games at Texas A&M, Tennessee and Georgia round out the 2017 toughies. Still, Will Muschamp’s squad seems poised for another bowl appearance and could surprise a Florida or a Tennessee in the SEC East.

5. Auburn (67.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Georgia Southern, Clemson, Mercer, Louisiana-Monroe
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Missouri
  • Projected wins: 8-10

Looking at the first eight games on Auburn’s schedule, only two should present any problems, but are they doozies. Auburn travels to Clemson’s Death Valley in Week 2, and then visits the LSU’s Death Valley in Week 7. Both are among the most difficult road-game environments in the country. If that weren’t enough, three of Auburn’s last four opponents are Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. Jarrett Stidham will quickly learn that November ain’t a fun time in the SEC.

T-4. LSU (68.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: BYU, Chattanooga, Syracuse, Troy
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Tennessee
  • Projected wins: 8-10
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Ed Orgeron and the LSU Tigers won’t face an easy schedule in 2017. (Sam Spiegelman/SEC Country)

The Bayou Bengals draw two of the SEC East’s toughest teams (Florida, Tennessee) on the road in the same season, thanks to last year’s Gator game reschedule, along with road clashes against BYU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama. LSU has enough talent to beat most of those teams, but it’ll be a rigorous test for coach Ed Orgeron in his first full year.

T-4. Florida (68.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Michigan, Northern Colorado, UAB, Florida State
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Texas A&M
  • Projected wins: 8-10

The Gators open the year with Michigan and end it with Florida State. In between, they face traditional toughies Tennessee, LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, and also play potential sleepers South Carolina and Kentucky on the road. The Wolverines might have lost a ton of NFL-caliber talent this offseason, but Michigan’s Don Brown is one of the sharpest defensive coordinators in the country, and he’ll give the Florida offense fits.

2. Texas A&M (69 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: UCLA, Nicholls State, Louisiana-Lafayette, New Mexico
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Florida
  • Projected wins: 6-8 

The Aggies don’t have a killer nonconference schedule like Florida, but they will kick off against UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Couple that matchup with games at LSU, at Florida, at Jerry World (Arkansas) along with Alabama and Auburn, and Kevin Sumlin is going to have a really rough time delivering those wins his athletic director wants to see. Particularly rough: A&M has to face the Gators and Crimson Tide in back-to-back weeks.

1. Mississippi State (70.5 points)

  • Nonconference opponents: Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, BYU, UMass
  • Rotating SEC opponent: Georgia
  • Projected wins: 6-8

This schedule might not seem like the SEC’s toughest on the surface, but a closer look at the nonconference slate reveals a few under-the-radar teams. BYU went 9-4 last year, including a home overtime win over these Bulldogs. Louisiana Tech also won nine games and nearly upset Arkansas in Week 1. Even UMass showed life. Despite a 2-10 record, the Minutemen played three SEC teams to within 17 points (Florida, Mississippi State and South Carolina).

Then you have the SEC schedule, which features a horribly unforgiving three-week stretch: LSU, at Georgia and at Auburn. Those teams could win a combined 25-plus games. There’s also Alabama, Texas A&M on the road and… the Egg Bowl on Thanksgiving night.

The post 2017 college football preview: All 14 SEC schedules ranked by difficulty appeared first on SEC Country.

Alec Shirkey – SEC Country

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