Year in and year out, the SEC, as a league, takes a decent amount of criticism over its non-conference schedule. And every year fans have the same rebuttal that the conference schedule is so difficult on its own that they don’t need to schedule difficult out of conference games. It’s a fair point.
To their credit, a few teams, like Alabama, have begun to challenge themselves in non-conference play a little more over the past few years. The rise of early season, neutral site “kickoff classics” have attributed to the trend. These showcases solve a few of the traditional non-conference schedule hang-ups that ADs face such as the need for a home/away return trip and who visits who first.
You can also expect to see the non-conference schedule for SEC teams, and the rest of the Power 5, get stronger as the College Football Playoff progresses. The CFP committee will be taking this into account when it comes down to which teams deserve playoff berths.
Below are the rankings for the toughest SEC non-conference schedules heading into the 2015 season.
Toughest SEC Non-Conference Schedules For 2015
No. 1 South Carolina
Opponents: North Carolina (neutral site), UCF, Citadel, Clemson
South Carolina isn’t facing the overall toughest opponent on this list, but with only one true cupcake (Citadel), they have a very respectable schedule this year. A kickoff game against North Carolina is a daring way to start the season and traditional rival Clemson is never easy to finish against (unless you’re Steve Spurrier). Add in UCF, who has had several respectable seasons in a row, including a Fiesta Bowl win to cap off the 2013 season, and this schedule is no cakewalk.
No. 2 Florida
Opponents: New Mexico State, East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, Florida State
The Gators don’t get a lot of credit for their schedule traditionally because they have a habit of staying in-state for their non-conference games, even the road ones. But when those games are against Miami and Florida State, it’s hard to say they are skirting good competition. Just because they play Florida State every year doesn’t make the game any less difficult or important. The Seminoles should head into the season as the highest ranked non-conference opponent of any SEC team. Add in an always-dangerous East Carolina team that came within eight points of Florida last season in the Birmingham Bowl, losing 28-20, and this schedule is not the easiest.
No. 3 Texas A&M
Opponents: Arizona State (neutral site), Ball State, Nevada, Western Carolina
The Aggies will be joining the opening-game, neutral-site bandwagon this year with an extremely intriguing game against Arizona State. ASU lost a few players from last year, but is coming off an impressive season in which they beat USC, Stanford, and Notre Dame. Ball State and Nevada aren’t traditional powers, but they have been known to string together a decent season here and there so I wouldn’t count them as cupcakes either.
No. 4 Alabama
Opponents: Wisconsin (neutral site), Middle Tennessee, Louisiana-Monroe, Charleston Southern
The only real challenge Alabama will face outside of the SEC is Wisconsin, but that is one hell of a non-conference game to start off the season. Wisconsin is a Big Ten contender year-in and year-out and are going to play Bama tough, especially after just losing out to LSU in last year’s opener. If the Tide had a more balanced schedule, they would be higher on this list, but, lest you think they have it easy this year, remember they will play Georgia, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Auburn on the road this season.
No. 5 Tennessee
Opponents: Bowling Green (neutral site), Oklahoma, Western Carolina, North Texas
Tennessee gets a little bit of credit for an interesting opener against Bowling Green (neutral site), but they get a ton of props for putting Oklahoma on the schedule in week two. If Oklahoma can straighten out their offense this summer, especially the quarterback situation, we could all be in for one exciting game in what will surely be an electric atmosphere at Neyland Stadium.
No. 6 Auburn
Opponents: Louisville (neutral site), Jacksonville State, San Jose, Idaho
Auburn is the first of two SEC teams to square off against Louisville this year, Kentucky being the other. Auburn gets more credit for the matchup here though because they play them to open the season and at a neutral site, one that is actually accessible to both fan bases (Atlanta).
No. 7 Georgia
Opponents: Louisiana-Monroe, Southern, Georgia Southern, @Georgia Tech
The only respectable game on this list is the season-ending rivalry game at Georgia Tech. Georgia only gets a little credit for this being an “away” game because they are less than 100 miles from Atlanta and I’m sure their fan base will be well represented.
No. 8 Arkansas
Opponents: UTEP, Toledo (in Little Rock), Texas Tech, UT-Martin
Arkansas managed to find the perfect combination of teams most of us have heard of, but still aren’t very good. Texas Tech, while a Big 12 team, was not very good last year. UTEP and Toledo both had winning records last year but they also didn’t beat anyone of note.
No. 9 LSU
Opponents: McNeese State, @Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, Western Kentucky
If not for the Syracuse game being away, LSU would be even lower on this list. It’s hard to fault the Tigers though with a tough SEC West schedule to overcome this year.
No. 10 Kentucky
Opponents: UL Lafayette, Eastern Kentucky, Charlotte, Louisville
A rivalry game against Louisville is the only respectable part of this non-conference schedule. The fact that it’s late in the year and at home takes the edge off a little though. To be fair, though, Kentucky has a hard enough time making it through their conference schedule. No reason to bite off more than you can chew.
No. 11 Missouri
Opponents: Southeast Missouri State, @Arkansas State, UConn, BYU (neutral site)
The BYU game is the only really intriguing matchup next year for the Tigers, and even though it’s listed as a neutral site game, it’s in Kansas City, so I would expect it to function as a de facto home game. UConn is years removed from being any good.
No. 12 Vanderbilt
Opponents: Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, @Middle Tennessee, @Houston
Vanderbilt is in the same boat as Kentucky; why push the non-conference limits when you’re just keeping your head above water in-conference? A late season trip to Houston is the only remotely difficult part of this slate of games. They do get some credit for having two true away games, however.
No. 13 Mississippi State
Opponents: @Southern Miss, Northwestern State, Troy, Louisiana Tech
The Bulldogs open the season on the road against in-state (kind-of-sort-of) rival Southern Miss, who does show up to play from time to time. Troy did manage a winning record last year but, again, not against impressive opponents.
No. 14 Ole Miss
Opponents: Tennessee-Martin, Fresno State, New Mexico State, @Memphis
Outside of a trip to Memphis, which is less than 100 miles from campus, there is nothing impressive about Ole Miss’ non-conference schedule next season. The Rebels get New Mexico State at home before the trip to Memphis, which should provide the Rebels with a nice tuneup.