When offseason talk invariably turns to strong and weak schedules, we’re almost always talking about the nonconference part of it. The conference schedule gets treated like a monolithic block that’s more or less the same for each team in the conference. The presumed strength of the conference serves as a proxy for the strength of the rest of a team’s schedule.
But with the exception of the Pac-10 and their round-robin nine-game conference schedules, the road through a single conference can look very different depending on the division and the luck of the rotation.
Take Arkansas for instance. After a gimme against Missouri State, the Razorbacks will run this gauntlet:
Sept. 19: Georgia
Sept. 26: at Alabama
Oct. 3: at Texas A&M
Oct. 10: Auburn
Oct. 17: at Florida
Oct. 24: at Ole Miss
The “easiest” game of the bunch looks to be a nonconference road game in College Station. Regardless, they’ll start the SEC slate by hosting a top 15 Georgia team and then must travel to play three preseason top 10 teams. They’ll start the season 1-0, but delivering on the hype surrounding Ryan Mallet and finishing 7-5 or better might require them to come out of that stretch at no worse than 3-4. A season-ending road trip to LSU is still out there, and the Tigers will remember last year’s meltdown.
LSU is the only other SEC West team that will face both Florida and Georgia this year. If the Tigers manage to regain the top position in the West, they’ll have more than earned it.
Ole Miss is a preseason top 10, and their SEC schedule lends itself to a promising year. Though they’ll have to face strong Alabama and LSU teams from the SEC West, they’ll host both of those games. The Rebels’ schedule doesn’t include Georgia or Florida from the East; they’ll play South Carolina, Vandy, and Tennessee instead.
Kentucky, though not a contender, might still find some success thanks to the schedule. They’ll face Alabama and Florida within the first four games of the season but will face only one more preseason top 25 team the entire rest of the season (Georgia). Though Alabama will have a tough opener against Virginia Tech, their only ranked SEC opponents will be fellow SEC West contenders Ole Miss and LSU. The Tide’s tougher SEC East games (Tennessee and South Carolina) will be in Tuscaloosa.
No one is calling Georgia’s overall schedule easy (especially the September part of it), but the Dawgs also get a bit of a break by avoiding SEC West favorites Alabama and Ole Miss. They’ll still have to play LSU, but they’ll get the Tigers in Athens. The Dawgs also get a bye week before playing Florida; last year they went into the WLOCP right off a trip to Baton Rouge. It’s still no picnic, but the SEC schedule looks slightly less difficult for Georgia than it did a year ago.
Lopsided conference scheduling isn’t just an SEC thing. Nebraska is the presumed favorite in the Big 12 North, and they’ll only face one of the top three teams from the Big 12 South (Oklahoma). Their top competition in the North, Kansas (Oklahoma and Texas) and Colorado (Texas and Oklahoma State), each have to play two of the three Big 12 South favorites.
Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, FSU, and Clemson are the preseason top four in the ACC, and only one of those four teams (Georgia Tech) will play the other three. Virginia Tech won’t face Clemson or FSU, but they’ll make up for it with a nonconference schedule that includes Alabama, Nebraska, and East Carolina.