Not that the Tennessee Volunteers, 9-4 in 2015, aren’t already back from their seven-year hiatus of .500itis, but this season is supposed to be the one in which the Vols win their first SEC East title in nine years.
Their recent top 10 recruiting classes and quarterback Joshua Dobbs are primary reasons as to why they are the favorites, but so is the scheduling as longtime nemesis and primary rival Florida comes to Knoxville in 2016.
The Gators’ schedule is also favorable, but one other team may have a clearer path to the SEC East crown in 2016.
This article ranks the strength of schedule in the SEC East. Last year’s records are factored but trap games, can’t lose games and tough opponents are also considered in these eye-test rankings.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
2015 opponents’ record: 74-73
SEC East opponents record: 36-39
1 FCS opponent: Nicholls State (3-8)
1 weak sister: Louisiana-Lafayette (4-8)
2 tough nuts: North Carolina (11-3) and Georgia Tech (3-9)
Record of SEC West opponents: Ole Miss & Auburn (17-6)
Tough road game: Ole Miss
Don’t let the overall record of Georgia’s opponents fool you. The Bulldogs will play only one strong opponent on the road in 2016: Ole Miss on Sept. 24. We’ve referred to Georgia Tech as a “tough nut” for Georgia to crack, but even if Georgia Tech was better than their 3-9 record of last year, they earn this status because of their traditional slot as the Bulldogs’ arch-rival. And if Georgia Tech is one of Georgia’s tough nuts on the schedule this year, well …
Trap game: Ole Miss. It’s Georgia’s second straight road game and is played a week before the Tennessee game, which could decide the division championship.
2. Tennessee Volunteers
2015 opponents’ record: 89-64
SEC East opponents: 37-38
1 FCS: Tennessee Tech (4-7)
2 weak sisters: Appalachian State (11-2) & Ohio (8-5)
1 tough nut: Virginia Tech (7-6)
SEC West opponents: Alabama & Texas A&M (22-6)
Tough road games: Georgia & Texas A&M
Ignore the overall record of opponents from last year as the Volunteers’ schedule has only two really tough road games. While the “weak sisters,” Appalachian State and Ohio, are surprisingly strong and could very well win the Sun Belt and MAC Conferences, respectively, do you really see either the Mountaineers or Bobcats having a realistic chance in Knoxville? Or a declining Virginia Tech program in Bristol? Tennessee’s major scheduling challenges will be what they always are, namely beating Florida and Alabama.
Trap game: Texas A&M. This Oct. 8 game at College Station comes a week after visiting Georgia, two weeks after hosting Florida and a week before Alabama. Letdown is written all over it.
3. Missouri Tigers
2015 opponents’ record: 75-75
SEC East opponents: 41-35
1 FCS: Delaware State (1-10)
2 weak sisters: Eastern Michigan (1-11) & Middle Tennessee State (7-6)
1 tough nut: West Virginia (8-5)
SEC West opponents: LSU & Arkansas (17-8)
Tough road games: Florida, Tennessee, West Virginia, LSU
While the MTSU Blue Raiders are a relatively strong “weak sister,” it’s also Missouri’s homecoming game. The out-of-conference schedule is relatively light.
Trap game: West Virginia. This Sept. 3 season opener in Morgantown has the feel of North Carolina’s opener against South Carolina last season. Play that game in any other week of the season when the teams have figured out who they really are, and the Tar Heels win. This one appears to be a shootout with the winner going on to have a nice season. But with the Tigers playing on the road and coming off a losing season, WVU would figure to have the advantage.
4. Florida Gators
2015 opponents’ record: 69-78
SEC East opponents: 36-38
1 FCS: Presbyterian (2-9)
2 weak sisters: Massachusetts (3-9) & North Texas (1-11)
1 tough nut: Florida State (10-3)
SEC West opponents: LSU & Arkansas (17-8)
Tough road games: Arkansas, Florida State, Tennessee, Georgia (neutral site)
Outside of Florida State, the out-of-conference opponents are a joke. Then again, since the Gators must play FSU, perhaps they have every right to schedule less-than-challenging opponents in their other three non-conference games.
Trap game: Arkansas. This Nov. 5 road game comes directly off the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville. The Razorbacks have a bye week before the contest. If things go the Gators’ way early on this season, one can imagine them thinking the toughest part of their conference schedule will be over after the Georgia game. As Lou Corso might say: “Not so fast.”
5. Vanderbilt Commodores
2015 opponents’ record: 85-65
SEC East opponents: 42-33
1 FCS: Tennessee State (4-6)
1 weak sister: Middle Tennessee State (7-6)
2 tough nuts: Georgia Tech (3-9) & Western Kentucky (12-2)
SEC West opponents: Ole Miss & Auburn (17-9)
Tough road games: Georgia, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Missouri
Though we’ve listed four tough road games for the Commodores in 2016, they really aren’t all that tough by SEC standards. Derek Mason likely needs to go to a bowl game this season to keep his job, and it won’t be easy, but the wins are there on this schedule. This schedule appears to be tough due to the traditional woes of Vanderbilt and also because Western Kentucky beat the ‘Dores last season.
Trap game: Western Kentucky. Again, this schedule isn’t unbearable. There’s a legitimate chance Vanderbilt could be 3-0 after opening at home against South Carolina and MTSU and then making a road trip to Georgia Tech. But then a trip to play the Hilltoppers on Sept. 24 looms before Florida, and one gets the feeling the Commodores could look over them with thoughts of being 4-0 when hosting Florida the next week is dancing in their heads.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks
2015 opponents’ record: 89-62
SEC East opponents: 43-32
1 FCS: Western Carolina (7-4)
2 weak sisters: Massachusetts (3-9) & East Carolina (5-7)
1 tough nut: Clemson (14-1)
SEC West opponents: Texas A&M & Mississippi State (17-9)
Tough road games: Clemson, Florida, Mississippi State
There is hope for the Gamecocks to rebound from their disastrous 2015 season. Their two SEC West opponents’ record from last season is tied for the worst that any East team will play, and nobody thinks either opponent will really contend for the West title this year. There are only three tough road games. The opener against Vanderbilt isn’t daunting and will likely determine which SEC East also-ran will rebound to go to a bowl game. Then again, the Catamounts are the only FCS opponent an SEC East team will play this year that enjoyed a winning season last year and figure to do so again this year. You don’t think after last year’s Citadel game …
Trap game: Mississippi State. The second game of the season, played on Sept. 10, is also the Gamecocks’ second straight road game. It’s the sort of game that, if Carolina does beat Vandy to start the season, figures to bring them back to earth one way or another.
THE TOUGHEST SCHEDULE IN THE SEC EAST THIS YEAR BELONGS TO
2015 opponents’ record: 84-70
SEC East opponents: 41-35
1 FCS: Austin Peay (0-11)
1 real weak sister: New Mexico State (3-9)
2 tough nuts: Southern Miss (9-5) & Louisville (8-5)
SEC West opponents: Alabama & Mississippi State (23-5)
Tough road games: Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisville
The Wildcats must play two out-of-conference foes that sported winning records in 2015 and figure to be tough again this year. They have four really tough road games, including Alabama, which ultimately is what puts the Wildcats’ slate to be the roughest among SEC East teams in 2016.
Trap game: Tennessee. It’s always a trap game for Kentucky. They’ve beaten the Vols ONCE since 1984! Throw in the fact this Nov. 12 game is on the road and comes after Kentucky will have played Georgia, and it just looks like the Bataan Death March for the ‘Cats.