It ain’t Stanford.

Surely that sentence has been said by many, though probably with the context of comparing one school’s academic standards to Stanford. Most pale in comparison to the school in Palo Alto (Calif.). It’s usually not mentioned when comparing schedules for the upcoming season. Compared to anyone, Stanford might have the strongest argument for the nation’s toughest schedule.

Yes, it’s the Pac-12. But it’s 12 Power 5 opponents. The Cardinal don’t have so much as a Group of 5 breather. The 3 nonconference games are against Kansas State (in Arlington, Tex.), at Vanderbilt and vs. Notre Dame.

Perhaps the original sentence needs a little tweak.

When you look at Georgia and Alabama’s 2021 schedules, you’ll see they aren’t Stanford, but they are toughest in the SEC.

That is, if we’re able to just look at opponents without considering the matchup. If we didn’t avoid that, Vanderbilt would have the SEC’s toughest schedule every year.

Why Georgia and Alabama?

Let’s start with the most obvious advantage that Georgia has in this department. Here’s a breakdown of Power 5 opponents by SEC team in 2021:

  • Georgia: 10
  • Alabama: 9
  • Arkansas: 9
  • Auburn: 9
  • Florida: 9
  • Kentucky: 9
  • LSU: 9
  • MSU: 9
  • Mizzou: 9
  • Ole Miss: 9
  • South Carolina: 9
  • Tennessee: 9
  • Texas A&M: 9
  • Vanderbilt: 9

Georgia is the only SEC program that plays 10 Power 5 opponents. The Dawgs have 2 nonconference matchups against Power 5 opponents. That seems relevant for this discussion.

Speaking of those nonconference Power 5 matchups, you tell me which one of these games is toughest:

  • (Alabama) vs. Miami in Atlanta
  • (Arkansas) vs. Texas
  • (Auburn) at Penn State
  • (Florida) vs. Florida State
  • (Georgia) vs. Clemson in Charlotte
  • (Georgia) at Georgia Tech
  • (Kentucky) at Louisville
  • (LSU) at UCLA
  • (Mississippi State) vs. NC State
  • (Ole Miss) vs. Louisville in Atlanta
  • (South Carolina) vs. Clemson
  • (Tennessee) vs. Pitt
  • (Texas A&M) at Colorado
  • (Vanderbilt) vs. Stanford

I mean, it’s pretty obvious that a neutral-site game against Clemson trumps anything on that list. The Tigers could easily start as No. 1 in America. Hence, why that matchup gives Georgia another feather in its schedule cap.

Don’t get me wrong. Traveling to Penn State won’t be fun for Auburn, and Alabama could face a challenge against Miami, which returns the highest percentage of offensive production of anyone in America. But the Nittany Lions had a losing record in a messy 2020 and that Miami stat is only relevant if D’Eriq King makes a full recovery from the torn ACL he suffered in the bowl game, which is by no means a given.

Sure, hosting Texas is challenging, especially if Steve Sarkisian’s offensive wizardry takes flight from the jump in Austin. And obviously, a home game against Dabo Swinney’s squad isn’t ideal, either.

But those games don’t compare to playing Clemson in the same building where the Tigers have won 6 consecutive ACC titles. Georgia has to do that, and it has to do that before it gets any sort of cupcake matchup to shake out the cobwebs.

To recap, not only does Georgia face an additional Power 5 opponent, it also has what’s easily the most challenging nonconference game of any SEC team.

The irony is that Georgia’s home schedule is probably as weak as it gets in the SEC. This isn’t a year in which Georgia’s season-ticket holders figure to get a bunch of headliner matchups in Athens:

  • UAB
  • South Carolina
  • Arkansas
  • Kentucky
  • Mizzou
  • Charleston Southern

None of those Power 5 teams had a winning record last year, and while UAB won Conference USA last year and Bill Clark is an extremely good coach, a home game against the Blazers shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for this discussion. Georgia’s weak home slate is the reason Alabama has an argument to share the title of SEC’s toughest 2021 schedule (more on that in a minute).

But let’s do another breakdown. Here’s how many games each SEC team has to play away from home in 2021:

  • Alabama: 5
  • Arkansas: 5 (that’s counting War Memorial as a home game)
  • Auburn: 5
  • Florida: 6
  • Georgia: 6
  • Kentucky: 5
  • LSU: 5
  • Mizzou: 5
  • MSU: 5
  • Ole Miss: 5
  • South Carolina: 5
  • Tennessee: 4
  • Texas A&M: 5
  • Vanderbilt: 5

I know, I know. Not all of those are true road games. Georgia’s 2 toughest games are neutral-site games. But if you include the matchup at Auburn, which will get significant preseason Top 25 consideration, the Dawgs’ 3 toughest matchups are all away from home. Say what you want about Auburn being in Year 1 of the Bryan Harsin era. I’m skeptical, but it’s still a program that went 22-4 at home in the last 4 years, including 3 wins against top-5 foes.

There’s a good chance that Georgia will have 3 matchups away from home against teams who start in the preseason Top 25. That includes a matchup against the possible preseason No. 1. No matter who we’re talking about, that’s a major challenge.

Alabama is also in that spot with the matchups vs. Miami in Atlanta, at Florida, at Texas A&M and at Auburn. Throw in a pair of tough home games against LSU and Ole Miss, and yeah, the Crimson Tide don’t have a cakewalk, either. If we bump it out to Alabama’s 6 toughest games vs. Georgia’s 6 toughest matchups, and honestly, I’d pick the Crimson Tide over Georgia in a landslide.

Find me an SEC team with a tougher 6 games from 1-6 than this. (Note that these games aren’t in order. That would be just unfair.)

  • at Texas A&M
  • at Florida
  • vs. LSU
  • vs. Miami in Atlanta
  • at Auburn
  • vs. Ole Miss

Seriously. Go and find an SEC team with a more challenging 6 games. Florida has a real solid 1-3 with vs. Alabama, vs. Georgia in Jacksonville and at LSU, but then like UGA, there’s a pretty significant drop-off 4-6.

Maybe South Carolina?

  • at Georgia
  • vs. Clemson
  • at Texas A&M
  • vs. Florida
  • vs. Auburn
  • at Mizzou

You see, 1-4 is solid, but it trails off at the end.

Perhaps LSU can make a case?

  • at Alabama
  • vs. Texas A&M
  • vs. Florida
  • at Ole Miss
  • vs. Auburn
  • at UCLA

Again, it trails off at the end.

As much as the Bama fatigue crowd won’t want to admit it, half of the Crimson Tide’s schedule is one that most programs would be lucky to get through at 2-4 or 3-3. All 6 of those Alabama opponents could easily start in the Top 25. Whether King returns or not, Alabama and Georgia will both likely have 3 matchups against preseason Top 25 teams away from home. That’s something neither Ohio State nor Oklahoma can claim. And without UNC or Miami on the schedule, Clemson’s only game against a preseason Top 25 team might be Georgia.

Will the anti-SEC crowd cite that? Nope. They’ll instead bring up the fact that Alabama and Georgia programs are each facing 1 FCS team, which is why teams like Stanford will get national praise leading up to the season even though it’ll probably have 1 game away from home against a preseason Top 25 team. It’s true that playing 12 Power 5 teams compared to 10 or 9 is admirable. It really is.

This past year was a fantastic 1-year window into what the league could look like without the cupcake matchups, which take up roughly 25% of the slate for most SEC teams. From an entertainment standpoint, it was excellent. None of us neutral observers would complain if the obvious financial implications were ignored and that change was permanently made. Is that realistic? Probably not.

Maybe it’s not realistic that we can actually look at schedules and judge them based strictly on opponents and not what the point spread would be. Nobody ever says that national title contenders actually have tough schedules because “tough” is probably too relative of a term. Our cynical brains are programmed to poke holes in their schedules. That goes double for the SEC contenders.

For now, though, we should pass on making that lazy argument for Alabama and Georgia.