Scheduling matters more than ever before in the College Football Playoff era. As we've seen in the short history of the CFP, it's one of the biggest factors in deciding who gets a shot to play for a national title and who does not. It's not just whether you win your conference, but who you play along the way. It's also proven that it's not just about who you have beaten, but who you lost to during the season.
Both Ohio State and Alabama made their way into the final four the last two years without winning their conference thanks in large part to the schedule they played. Because of this, I've undertaken the process of attempting to figure out which teams will be playing the toughest schedules in 2018.
Methodology: It's hard to know with any certainty seeing as how the season doesn't start for another few months, and while no process is perfect, this one provides a good overview. I took a look at how every team performed over the last five years in my ranking system. While there are always exceptions, teams tend to find their level over a longer time span, hence the five-year period. I then considered other factors like whether a game is on the road, or if a team is coming off a bye week, allowing them extra time to get healthy and prepare. I put all this information together and came out with a ranking system I believe to be fairly accurate.
So which teams will be playing the toughest schedules in 2018? The weakest? Here's a look at the 14 teams in the SEC.
|Ed Orgeron and LSU are facing what looks to be the toughest schedule in the SEC this season, though it's not because of the Tigers nonconference slate. While the season will open with a game against Miami at JerryWorld, the rest of the nonconference includes Southeast Louisiana, Louisiana Tech and Rice. What separates LSU from the rest of the SEC is its SEC schedule. While the Tigers will have to play all their SEC West counterparts, they draw both Georgia and Florida from the SEC East. The good news is that both Georgia and Alabama must come to Baton Rouge, but Auburn, Florida, Arkansas and Texas A&M will all be road games.|
|Like LSU, Bama's nonconference features one difficult ACC opponent to open the season in Louisville, and then what should be easy wins against Arkansas State, UL-Lafayette and The Citadel. The big difference, however, is that while LSU got both Georgia and Florida from the East, Bama gets Tennessee and Missouri -- a much softer landing. The road slate features games against Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Auburn, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Mizzou will all come to Tuscaloosa.|
|The Bulldogs open the season with Stephen F. Austin and follow it up with a road trip to Kansas State. Their other two nonconference games are against UL-Lafayette and Louisiana Tech. In SEC play, they'll open at Kentucky and that's followed by a tough stretch. Over the span of five weeks, the Fightin' Cowbells will play Florida, Auburn, at LSU and Texas A&M, with a bye between the Auburn and LSU games. Then comes the Louisiana Tech game followed by a road trip to Alabama. I'd bet that's the stretch of the schedule that will define the season in Starkville.|
|Arkansas' nonconference is a bit soft. The Hogs will play Eastern Illinois, Colorado State, North Texas and Tulsa, with only Colorado State as a road game. Arkansas gets Vanderbilt and Missouri from the East, which is as good a draw as you can hope for. Within the division, Arkansas will host Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU, and hit the road for Auburn and Mississippi State. The A&M game will be in Arlington, so it's technically considered a neutral site.|
|Auburn has one of the more difficult nonconference games in the SEC with a season opener against a Washington team that should compete for a Pac-12 title. It also has games against Alabama State and Liberty (Liberty joins the FBS level in 2018, but my formula grades it as an FCS program), and that drags it down quite a bit. What keeps this schedule from falling any further, though, is that Auburn will have to play both Georgia and Alabama on the road this season.|
|Kentucky has the sixth most difficult in the SEC, but the most difficult schedule in the SEC East. That's a direct reflection of the gap between the two divisions in recent years. Kentucky will play Central Michigan, Murray State, Middle Tennessee and at Louisville outside the SEC. In conference play, they draw Mississippi State and Texas A&M from the West, and since neither of those teams is Alabama, that's a nice draw! In the division, they get Georgia at home but most go on the road for Florida, Missouri and Tennessee.|
|The Aggies open the season with Northwestern State and follow it up with a game against Clemson in College Station. I'll go ahead and declare that to be the second most difficult nonconference game any SEC team will play this year (somebody else has to play Clemson on the road). Making life more difficult is that the Aggies will play both Alabama and Auburn on the road, so Jimbo Fisher's first season will not be easy.|
|This is the portion of the program where the schedules get significantly "easier" (in relation to the rest of the SEC). Florida has its annual tilt with Florida State to end the season, but the Noles took a hit in my rankings after last year, so the game doesn't carry as much weight as it normally would. The rest of Florida's nonconference includes Charleston Southern, Colorado State and Idaho. The Gators get LSU and Mississippi State out of the West, and that road trip to Starkville should be fun with Dan Mullen now in charge. Inside the division, there's the annual game in Jacksonville against Georgia, while South Carolina and Mizzou both come to Gainesville. The toughest road game on the slate should be the season finale against the Noles.|
|If you hadn't already figured it out, South Carolina is the team playing Clemson on the road this season. It's far-and-away the most difficult game on the schedule this year as the rest of the nonconference consists of home dates against Coastal Carolina, Marshall, and Chattanooga. The Gamecocks also get Georgia, Tennessee and Mizzou at home, but they will have to face Florida on the road.|
|The highlight of the nonconference slate is a road game against Notre Dame on Sept. 15. The rest of it (Middle Tennessee, Nevada and Tennessee State) is harmless. Having to face Georgia on the road won't be fun, but Florida, Tennessee and South Carolina all come to Nashville. Also, getting Arkansas and Ole Miss from the West is the best you could hope for.|
|Ole Miss has the least difficult schedule in the SEC West, so congratulations for that I suppose. The nonconference features Texas Tech, Southern Illinois, Kent State and UL-Monroe. Getting South Carolina and Vandy from the East is nice, and the Rebels will get Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State in Oxford. The toughest road game on the schedule will be LSU at the end of September.|
|If you're a Tennessee fan, you might want to find plans for every Saturday between Sept. 22 and Oct. 20. Just for your sanity. The four games the Vols will play over those five weeks are Florida, at Georgia, at Auburn and home against Alabama. That's not going to be fun. The rest of the schedule should provide more relief. The season opens with West Virginia, but the rest of the nonconference features East Tennessee State, UTEP and Charlotte.|
|The reason Georgia ranks so low has to do with factors the Dawgs have some control over, and some they don't. The nonconference slate isn't special. There's the rivalry game with Georgia Tech as well as games against Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and UMass. That's not all that different from most other SEC teams, but Georgia gets dragged down by playing in the East and not having Georgia on its schedule to boost its SOS. Still, they will have to face both LSU and Auburn out of the West, so it's important to remember that all of these rankings are relative. If Georgia is in the SEC title game again this year, it's going to have a playoff case.|
|Missouri's nonconference is probably a bit more difficult than my rankings want to give it credit for. A road game against Purdue looks better given how strong Purdue looked last season, but my rankings look at Purdue over the last five years, not just 2017. A home game against Memphis will provide a challenge, too. In the SEC, the Tigers get Alabama and Arkansas from the West, and that Alabama game is in Tuscaloosa. They'll also get Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee all on the road, but at least Georgia has to come to Columbia?|