The SEC often gets lambasted for its non-conference scheduling habits. Some teams in the conference deserve that criticism, while others don’t.
Around half of the conference has challenged themselves in 2014. However, teams such as Alabama and Texas A&M find themselves near the bottom of the rankings again this season.
Beginning in 2016, SEC teams will be required to schedule a non-conference game against a team from a Power Five conference. This season, four teams don’t play one – Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Vanderbilt.
1. Tennessee Volunteers
2013 ranking: 5th
Tennessee has the toughest non-conference schedule in the SEC in 2014. Not only do the Volunteers travel to Norman to face likely preseason Top 5 Oklahoma, they also host Utah State and Arkansas State, both good teams capable of pulling off an upset. The Vols close their non-conference slate with their first meeting against Chattanooga since 1969.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks
2013 ranking: 3rd
South Carolina opens the season with East Carolina, a non-conference opponent that has notched several wins over ACC teams the last few years. Furman and South Alabama won’t provide much of a challenge. The biggest game lies at the end of the season at Clemson. However, the Gamecocks have taken four in a row from the Tigers in Death Valley.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
2013 ranking: 1st
Georgia and South Carolina were neck-and-neck for 2nd and 3rd, but the Bulldogs fall here due to playing Clemson at home to open the season while the Gamecocks play in Death Valley. UGA will handle Troy and Charleston Southern easily. In-state rival Georgia Tech awaits in the regular season finale.
4. Missouri Tigers
2013 ranking: 10th
On the surface, Missouri’s 2014 non-conference slate looks easy. But a closer look reveals that its actually in the top half of the rankings. South Dakota State is a good FCS program, while Toledo is a respectable MAC program and the game is at the Glass Bowl. Mizzou then hosts UCF, who finished 12-1 last season with a Fiesta Bowl victory. Missouri closes with a hopeful Indiana squad, although the Tigers beat the Hoosiers 45-28 in Bloomington last season.
5. LSU Tigers
2013 ranking: 4th
LSU has a big season-opener vs. Wisconsin at Reliant Stadium in Houston, but their non-conference difficulty tapers off after that. The Tigers host their other three non-league games at home. SHSU, one of the better FCS programs, will be breaking in a new head coach. ULM slipped back last season, while NMSU continues to flounder at the bottom of the FBS.
6. Arkansas Razorbacks
2013 ranking: 11th
Arkansas, which is rebuilding under Bret Bielema, has what I consider the toughest overall schedule in 2014. Their non-conference slate is anchored by a trip to Texas Tech and a visit from Northern Illinois, perhaps the top program in the MAC. The Hogs should be able to handle Nicholls State and UAB with ease.
7. Kentucky Wildcats
2013 ranking: 8th
Kentucky’s 2014 slate is pretty manageable, save for a trip to in-state rival Louisville to close the season. The Wildcats warm up with UT Martin to kick off the season, and they could be tested by Ohio and ULM.
8. Auburn Tigers
2013 ranking: 13th
Highlighting Auburn’s non-SEC slate is a rare trip to Big 12 country to take on Kansas State. That game, which has already sold out, takes place on a Thursday night. The Tigers host two other respectable teams, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech, and then take a break against Samford before the Iron Bowl.
9. Ole Miss Rebels
2013 ranking: 7th
Ole Miss makes their first appearance in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Boise State, which beat Georgia in the 2011 game. Ole Miss later hosts a good Ragin’ Cajun team that has won three straight bowl games. Memphis and Presbyterian shouldn’t pose much of a challenge.
10. Florida Gators
2013 ranking: 2nd
Florida’s first three non-conference games are just about as weak as they come. Idaho and Eastern Michigan are struggling, while Eastern Kentucky has missed the FCS Playoffs the last two seasons. The only thing that saves Florida’s strength of schedule is their annual rivalry game against Florida State, and this year it’s in Tallahassee. And the ‘Noles will likely be the preseason No. 1 when the rankings come out.
11. Alabama Crimson Tide
2013 ranking: 12th
Alabama kicks off the 2014 season against West Virginia in Atlanta, which will be the third straight year the Crimson Tide have opened with a neutral site game. Bama will cruise against FAU, Southern Miss, and Western Carolina. The Crimson Tide haven’t faced two power-five non-conference opponents in the same season since 2010 when they hosted Penn State and played at Duke.
12. Texas A&M Aggies
2013 ranking: 9th
The Aggies have yet to face a power-five team in the non-conference since joining the SEC. That’s partly due to them having to add a fourth non-league game on short notice. This year’s slate is mediocre, with Lamar leading things off. Texas A&M does travel to SMU, but the Mustangs aren’t expected to do much this year. Rice is the reigning C-USA champion, but the Aggies beat them 52-31 last season.
13. Mississippi State Bulldogs
2013 ranking: 6th
Mississippi State often sets up their non-conference schedule for bowl eligibility, and this season is no different. A trip to South Alabama will be the most difficult game on their slate, which really isn’t saying much. The Bulldogs should have no trouble with Southern Miss, UAB, and UT Martin.
14. Vanderbilt Commodores
2013 ranking: 14th
For the second consecutive season, Vanderbilt gets the distinct honor of having the worst non-conference schedule in the SEC. It was, however, a close race with Mississippi State. The Commodores host all of their non-conference games at home. One is FCS, while the other three rank in the bottom of the FBS.