While any SEC schedule can be perceived as a gauntlet after the league's six straight BCS championships, imbalance in schedule difficulty has increased as a result of the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M. Teams will now play just two inter-division games, a major benefit for the SEC East, which has surrendered conference supremacy after dominating the league for much of the '90s.
Georgia rode a schedule void of 13-1 LSU, 12-1 Alabama and 11-2 Arkansas last season to the SEC Championship Game. South Carolina, who played only one of the three giants, finished a game behind Georgia. Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, who all played at least two of the West powers, all finished with non-winning records in the regular season.
With just 12 games, schedules are more important in college football than in any other major sport. Which SEC teams have the benefit of a manageable slate in 2012? Let's look at the schedules, from easiest to toughest.
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Conference Home Games: Ole Miss, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Conference Away Games: Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina
Conference Neutral Site Game: Florida (Jacksonville)
Notable Non-Conference Game: Georgia Tech
Outlook: While the Bulldogs avoid Alabama, Arkansas and LSU for a second straight season, their most difficult SEC games are away from home. The Cocktail Party with Florida is once again in Jacksonville. The home schedule is blah, outside of the rivalry game with Georgia Tech to end the season.
Conference Home Games: Auburn, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee
Conference Away Games: Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss
Notable Non-Conference Games: at Northwestern, at Wake Forest
Outlook: SEC expansion benefited the Commodores, as the scheduled visit from Alabama was cancelled. Getting both Kentucky and Ole Miss on the road is a plus, and the home schedule is very attractive. On the downside, there aren't many breaks outside of the SEC for Vanderbilt, facing both Northwestern and Wake Forest on the road.
Conference Home Games: Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Vanderbilt
Conference Away Games: Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas A&M
Notable Non-Conference Games: Arizona State, Syracuse
Outlook: Being placed in the SEC East is a major help for Missouri, which has the horses to contend for the division title. Having to play Alabama is daunting, but the Tigers avoid Arkansas, Auburn and LSU. Having their final three conference games on the road is brutal. The non-conference schedule is light, with rebuilding Arizona State and Syracuse the toughest opponents.
Conference Home Games: Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee, Texas A&M
Conference Away Games: Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss
Notable Non-Conferene Games: None
Outlook: The Bulldogs don't like to challenge themselves outside of conference, which makes sense given the murderous SEC slate. Alabama and LSU would beat them anywhere, so those games might as well be on the road. Swing games with Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M are all in Starkville. For an SEC West team, this is about as good of a schedule as you can ask for.
Conference Home Games: Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Ole Miss
Conference Away Games: Auburn, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Texas A&M
Notable Non-Conference Game: Rutgers, Tulsa
Outlook: It would have been interesting had Arkansas played Alabama and LSU at home last season, but it'll get its chance to do so in 2012. The road schedule offers no breaks, as they play back-to-back SEC games away from home twice. With Texas A&M becoming a conference game, the non-conference schedule is extremely light. The Rutgers game could be a trap, however, with Alabama in town a week earlier.
Conference Home Games: Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
Conference Away Games: Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Tennessee
Notable Non-Conference Game: at Louisville
Outlook: There's no Alabama or LSU, but that's about the only good thing that can be said about this slate. Ole Miss rolls off of the schedule, with Arkansas coming on board. Playing Louisville on the road might not even be a winnable game right now for the offensively-challenged Wildcats. The best case appears to be getting to the finale in Knoxville with a chance to make a bowl game.
Conference Home Games: Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri
Conference Away Games: Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt
Notable Non-Conference Games: vs. N.C. State
Outlook: It's still an SEC schedule, but it's far better than the gauntlet the Vols faced in 2011. There is a huge game in Atlanta against N.C. State to start the season, which along with the SEC opener against Florida will go a long way to determining Derek Dooley's fate. Having to play Georgia and South Carolina on the road likely precludes any chance of a surprise division title run.
Conference Home Games: Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, South Carolina
Conference Away Games: Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M
Notable Non-Conference Game: Washington
Outlook: It'll be a tough road for the likely preseason No. 1 team, but eight games in Tiger Stadium, including Alabama, make it less daunting. The Arkansas game is on the road, however, and the Bayou Bengals always struggle at Arkansas. Playing a young Auburn team in September is a plus. The non-conference schedule is light, with Washington and three cupcakes.
Conference Home Games: Kentucky, LSU, Missouri, South Carolina
Conference Away Games: Tennessee, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Conference Neutral Site Game: Georgia (Jacksonville)
Notable Non-Conference Game: at Florida State
Outlook: SEC expansion did the Gators few favors, as a scheduled game with Ole Miss was lost. Playing Texas A&M in College Station is never a picnic and Kyle Field should be extra loud for the Aggies' first SEC game. The Georgia game in Jacksonville counts as an away game, so the road schedule isn't bad. The Gators don't leave the Sunshine State after an Oct. 13 trip to Vanderbilt.
Conference Home Games: Arkansas, Georgia, Missouri, Tennessee
Conference Away Games: Florida, Kentucky, LSU, Vanderbilt
Notable Non-Conference Games: East Carolina, at Clemson
Outlook: Going to both Death Valleys isn't pretty, but the Gamecocks get their biggest SEC East games in Columbia. Normally the trip to Vanderbilt is a walk in the park, but the Commodores are improving and the game will have an electric atmosphere as the Thursday night season opener. Finishing at Clemson is a bear, but South Carolina has soundly beaten its in-state rival three straight times.
Conference Home Games: Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Texas A&M
Conference Away Games: Arkansas, LSU, Missouri, Tennessee
Notable Non-Conference Game: vs. Michigan
Outlook: The defending national champions could have to face three Top 10 teams away from home, including in the opener against Michigan at Cowboys Stadium. Alabama must visit both Arkansas and LSU, and Missouri in Columbia won't be easy. Other than the Iron Bowl, the home schedule is light, with three cupcakes, the Mississippi schools and Texas A&M.
Conference Home Games: Arkansas, Florida, LSU, Missouri
Conference Away Games: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss
Notable Non-Conference Game: at Louisiana Tech, at SMU
Outlook: Welcome to the SEC, Aggies. The SEC West will again be the toughest division in college football, and the Aggies are stuck with four division road games. Both crossover games are at home, but Missouri has won in College Station in each of the past two seasons. Going to SMU in non-conference play won't be a breeze.
Conference Home Games: Arkansas, Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M
Conference Away Games: Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt
Notable Non-Conference Game: vs. Clemson
Outlook: The Tigers will face five teams likely to be in the preseason Top 10, although only one of those is a true road game. The season opener in Atlanta against Clemson could be a springboard to success or a sign of dark days ahead. The non-conference schedule provides three easy wins. Other than Alabama, there can't be any slip-ups on the road if Auburn hopes to contend in the SEC West.
Conference Home Games: Auburn, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt
Conference Away Games: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, LSU
Notable Non-Conference Game: Texas
Outlook: You can't help put pity new Rebels coach Hugh Freeze when you see what he must face this fall. Amazingly, Ole Miss will play four likely preseason Top 10 teams on the road. Its four SEC home games are all against 2011 bowl teams, and if that's not bad enough, Texas is on the schedule in non-conference play. Fortunately, Rebel fans have The Grove. They won't have much else going for them this season.