With post-spring clarity, ranking the SEC's nonconference slates
If all of the preseason talk is about the SEC, pigskin pundits would be wise to remember the other games — the four nonconference matchups that Bama, Georgia, Auburn and all the other SEC foes will play in 2018. But how do they stack up? Spring provided some clarity, so we’re breaking down which schools set themselves up for Cupcake City and which boldly will take on tough opponents this fall. Here’s how it goes:
14. Arkansas (Eastern Illinois, at Colorado State, North Texas, Tulsa)
Arkansas somehow (thanks, Michigan) drew up a nonconference schedule that didn’t include a single Power 5 foe. Their toughest opponent is probably North Texas, which lost the 2017 R&L Carriers New Orleans Bowl by 20.
13. Ole Miss (Texas Tech in Houston, Southern Illinois, Kent State, Louisiana-Monroe)
The Rebels don’t play a nonconference foe that had a winning record in 2017. They edge ahead of Arkansas just because Power 5 Texas Tech is at least something resembling a competent football team, but otherwise, this nonconference schedule is soft.
12. Alabama (Louisville in Orlando, Arkansas State, Louisiana, The Citadel)
The Tide normally are a little more adventurous, but this 2018 slate is weak. Louisville without Lamar Jackson just isn’t remotely scary. The rest of the schedule is a couple of ho-hum Sun Belt teams and an FCS opponent. Sure, the SEC is tough, but this non-conference schedule couldn’t be much less of a test.
11. Georgia (Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee, UMass, Georgia Tech)
The Bulldogs will play Tech, which is usually a challenge, what with the odd triple-option stuff. But the game is at home, and the other three matchups shouldn’t pose a challenge, although Middle Tennessee is an interesting matchup, with its pass-heavy offense.
10. Tennessee (West Virginia in Charlotte, East Tennessee State, UTEP, Charlotte)
Sure, the West Virginia matchup against Will Grier (below) is difficult. But it geographically favors UT, and the rest of this schedule is comical. ETSU didn’t even have a team in 2014. UTEP and Charlotte combined to win one game last year. UT could’ve done better, simply because it couldn’t have done much worse.
9. Kentucky (Central Michigan, Murray State, Middle Tennessee, at Louisville)
Basically, the same analysis as for Georgia at 11th. Although Lousiville doesn’t run a weird offense, they’re a road matchup for Kentucky. And Central Michigan was also a bowl team last season, so this schedule is reasonable.
8. Florida (Charleston Southern, Colorado State, Idaho, at Florida State)
The Gators lose some style points for Idaho’s move back to FCS, which means the Gators play two lower-tier opponents. But of course, the Florida State matchup is daunting, and is on the road, so that keeps Florida from sinking lower in these rankings.
7. LSU (Miami in Arlington, Southeastern Louisiana, Louisiana Tech, Rice)
The Hurricanes on a neutral-site field makes a daunting opener for LSU. Louisiana Tech won seven games, including a bowl last season, but Rice and SE Louisiana are not threats at all.
6. Mississippi State (Stephen F. Austin, at Kansas State, Louisiana, Louisiana Tech)
The true road game at Kansas State is a brave Week 2 matchup for Joe Moorhead, and Tech, as noted above, is decent. It’s not a flashy schedule, but it’s a solid one.
5. Auburn (Washington in Atlanta, Alabama State, Southern Mississippi, Liberty)
The opening date with Pac-12 favorite Washington is entertaining, but the geography lines up almost as well as if the Tigers were in Jordan-Hare. Southern Mississippi is a relatively high second-tier opponent; Auburn definitely passes the nonconference smell test better than the team from Tuscaloosa.
4. Texas A&M (Northwestern State, Clemson, Louisiana-Monroe, UAB)
The Aggies didn’t go light in Jimbo Fisher’s first campaign. They host Clemson, which is the toughest nonconference opponent any SEC team will play. (South Carolina obviously faces the Tigers, too.) UAB finished 8-5 last season. UL-Monroe struggled but is a decent program. Even though the Aggies don’t leave home, they’ve still got a tough schedule.
3. Missouri (UT-Martin, Wyoming, at Purdue, Memphis)
The Tigers have a bold schedule. Purdue was much improved last season and will be a road challenge. Memphis has been one of the most prolific non-P5 schools of recent memory. Mizzou could either set itself up for a stumble or an impressive nonconference run.
2. Vanderbilt (Middle Tennessee, Nevada, at Notre Dame, Tennessee State)
Between going to South Bend and playing their local rival MTSU in what attendance will turn into a neutral site game, Derek Mason’s team has its battle mapped out for them. The opposite of taking a boring 4-0 against weak opponents is a schedule like this, where Vandy could easily end up 2-2.
1. South Carolina (Coastal Carolina, Marshall, Chattanooga, at Clemson)
Sure, Coastal and Chattanooga should be pushovers. And while Marshall is a competent opponent, it doesn’t inspire nightmares. But “at Clemson” is a game-changer. There’s no other SEC team playing a non-league game in which they could make a bigger splash … or in which they could as easily get steamrolled.