It can make or break how we talk about a season.

Get a favorable nonconference schedule and boom, you’ve got 4 relatively easy wins. Plenty of SEC teams have that, though it’s relative. We talk about Vandy’s matchup at UNLV differently than we talk about Georgia facing Georgia Tech.

In a given SEC nonconference slate, you most often find that every SEC team faces 1 Power 5 nonconference opponent, 2 Group of 5 teams at home and 1 FCS team. But sometimes, you get an exception or 2. Last year, Arkansas had a brutal nonconference draw despite the fact that it technically didn’t face a Power 5 foe (Cincinnati and BYU are in the Big 12 now). Sometimes, you’ll see an SEC team with 2 challenging Power 5 foes in nonconference play.

Instead of focusing on the easy paths to a 4-0 nonconference slate, I’ll dig into the 5 toughest nonconference slates in the SEC this year.

(Don’t worry. I’m not about to break down side-by-sides of FCS opponents.)

Honorable mention: Mizzou and A&M

I almost included both teams in here. Mizzou is facing defending Big 12 champ Kansas State, as well as a “neutral-site game” in St. Louis against ever-frisky Memphis. That won’t be a picnic, especially for a Mizzou team that has struggled in nonconference games under Eli Drinkwitz. But Kansas State in a post-Deuce Vaughn world might be a different challenge, and Memphis had a losing record against AAC competition each of the past 2 years, so take that for what it is.

A&M has a case because of the game at Miami, but at the same time, the Canes are a 5-7 team coming off a weird offseason with 2 new coordinators. If we were talking about the Canes fresh off an 8-4 Year 1 with Mario Cristobal, that alone probably bumps A&M onto this list.

For now, though, these are the 5 toughest nonconference slates in the SEC this year:

5. Ole Miss

  • vs. Mercer
  • at Tulane
  • vs. Georgia Tech
  • vs. Louisiana-Monroe

What brutal timing to have to face Tulane. That’s a game you schedule to renew the old SEC rivalry and if you’re Ole Miss, you assume it’ll be extremely favorable for an SEC team to win, even in a true road game. Instead, you’re getting a Tulane team fresh off a New Year’s 6 bowl win that returns a ton of production alongside elite quarterback Michael Pratt (3,010 yards, 27 TDs, 5 INTs last season). That’s tough. Tougher, I’d argue, than facing a rebuilding Georgia Tech team at home. I don’t care so much that Ole Miss has 12 consecutive wins against Tulane and that the Green Wave’s last win in the matchup came during the Ronald Reagan administration. Unlike last year when Ole Miss got to ease into its 2022 slate with a favorable nonconference draw, Week 2 at Tulane will be a different story.

4. Alabama

  • vs. Middle Tennessee
  • vs. Texas
  • at USF
  • vs. Chattanooga

With all due respect to a rebuilding USF team, yeah, this is entirely about Texas. You can make all the “horns down” jokes you want while acknowledging that even an 8-win Texas team took Alabama to the wire. This year’s group could very well start off as the Big 12 favorite. Why? They rank No. 19 in FBS in percentage of returning production and have a Heisman candidate in Quinn Ewers. Given all the questions we have about Alabama entering 2023, that’s by no means some pushover matchup. It’s a Year 3 Steve Sarkisian offense that ranks No. 3 nationally in percentage of returning offensive production with one of the most talented passing games in America. The only reason Alabama isn’t higher on this list is because that game is in Tuscaloosa.

3. LSU

  • vs. Florida State (in Orlando)
  • vs. Grambling State
  • vs. Army
  • vs. Georgia State

You could argue that LSU has the toughest nonconference game of any SEC team and I won’t push back on that. Why? It’s not just that FSU won that thriller in New Orleans last year. The Seminoles are coming off a 10-win season wherein they beat both SEC teams on the slate and they rank No. 1 in America in percentage of returning production. Much like LSU was a different team in the second half of 2022, so was FSU. I’d expect a strong contingent of Noles fans in Orlando, just like we saw in the bowl game when FSU beat Oklahoma. It’s strange that it always feels like Brian Kelly kicks off the season on a Sunday night. It puts a ton of pressure on that matchup, wherein the college football masses will want to dissect a pair of preseason top-10 teams.

Oh, and a pre-Alabama matchup vs. Army’s triple-option is all sorts of weird.

2. South Carolina

  • vs. UNC (in Charlotte)
  • vs. Furman
  • vs. Jacksonville State
  • vs. Clemson

Congrats to the top 2 teams on this list for both being willing to add an additional Power 5 game instead of just settling for the annual rivalry game to close the regular season. Love that. I wish Kentucky and others would follow suit. That UNC matchup, even amidst a bit of local fatigue for seeing those teams play in Charlotte, should be one of the best games of opening weekend. Drake Maye and Spencer Rattler against a pair of unproven defenses could turn into a points fest, as could the rematch against Clemson. Sure, South Carolina got over the hump last year for the first time since the Steve Spurrier era. It’s still a matchup against a legitimate Playoff contender that won 11 games and added the Broyles Award winner (Garrett Riley) to run the offense. There’s a chance South Carolina can actually feel good about a 3-1 nonconference showing.

1. Florida

  • at Utah
  • vs. McNeese
  • vs. Charlotte
  • vs. Florida State

This is a clear No. 1 for me. Going all the way out to Utah to kick off the season is a bold, rare move for a team like Florida, which rarely leaves the Sunshine State for nonconference play, much less travels to the Mountain Time Zone. You can scoff at the degree of difficulty after Utah fell to the Gators in last year’s opener. It’ll be Florida that is now forced to adjust to the Salt Lake City climate. Plus, FSU coming to Gainesville to close out the regular season will be perhaps the toughest non-Georgia game on the schedule. Jordan Travis was brilliant last year against Florida, and with the highest percentage of returning production of any team in America, it’s hard to imagine the Seminoles taking any sort of step back after a 10-win season. If you’re wondering why Florida’s over/under is so low, look no further at the fact they’ve got a pair of possible preseason top-10 teams bookending the regular season.