While healthy and entertaining, conference vs. conference college football debates often are circular.

The SEC, for example, always claims the most top-rated recruits and sends the most players to the NFL via the draft. Fans of other conferences insist that the recruiting rankings are biased, heaping extra stars on SEC targets. SEC fans counter and say “nuh-uh.” Big Ten fans counter and say “yes-huh.” And so forth.

But SEC teams, especially those in the West Division, face challenging schedules. It’s probably impossible to logically disagree with that statement.

Thanks to a rule put in place when the SEC decided to stick with an eight-game conference schedule, every member team must play at least one other power-conference team (or Notre Dame, BYU or Army).

As a result, starting in 2016, we’ll finally get a full slate of exciting non-conference games featuring SEC teams and programs like USC, Oregon and Michigan.

ESPN’s Phil Steele stuck with the facts in defining the “toughest” schedules among FBS teams in 2016, judging only by combined results from last season. By that metric, the SEC claims the four most difficult schedules in the nation.

Here are the SEC-relevant results of his research:

RANK/TEAMOPP. WIN PCT.RANKEDPOSTSEASON
1. LSU.675410
2. Arkansas.667510
3. Ole Miss.662310
4. Auburn.64149
5. USC.635511
6. Wisconsin.632610
7. BYU.630211
8. Alabama.626410
9. Northwestern.622410
10. Florida State.61149
15. Texas A&M.60348
22. South Carolina.58636
26. Tennessee.58227
30. Mississippi State.57637
38. Vanderbilt.563210
T50. Kentucky.54537
80. Missouri.50037
83. Georgia.49345
103. Florida.46935

OTHER OBSERVATIONS

  • Speaking of circular arguments, there are teams outside of the SEC that play very impressive schedules. There are five non-SEC teams in the top 10. Of those five, USC, Wisconsin, BYU and Florida State all play at least one SEC team.
  • That leaves Northwestern as the only top 10 school on this list without an SEC team on the regular-season schedule.
  • Mississippi State is the only SEC West team not in the top 15. The Bulldogs face BYU, a late addendum to the new SEC scheduling rule, in their premier non-conference game. Scheduling UMass, South Alabama and Samford as the others and drawing Kentucky as a permanent cross-division rival further diluted that schedule relative to other West teams.
  • Not all SEC schedules are strong. Florida and Georgia, as two of the three decent to good teams in the SEC East last year, obviously won’t play themselves. Add to that games against Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt — all teams with losing records in 2015 — and the Gators and Bulldogs face opponents with a combined ’15 record of sub-.500.
  • At No. 22, it may not seem like South Carolina’s 2016 schedule is particularly strong. But the Gamecocks face the toughest schedule of any SEC East team, by this metric anyway.
  • One of Steve Spurrier’s underrated legacies is his willingness to play a brutal non-conference schedule beyond just Clemson. South Carolina not only will face two power-conference opponents some years, like North Carolina in ’15, but it also faces feisty FBS programs like East Carolina with regularity.
  • Six SEC teams face at least 10 bowl programs during their 2016 schedule. Of course, that only requires a half-dozen wins, and in some cases last year just five. But that’s still brutal.
  • Wisconsin and Illinois face the most ranked teams (at the end of ’15) at six.
  • USC and BYU face the most bowl teams from last year at 11.
  • Florida and Georgia face just five ’15 bowl teams, fewest in the SEC. Perhaps Missouri or one of the other non-bowl East teams from last year will improve. But barring that, clearly it’s still an advantage to play in the East Division.