At the end of the year, we all compare final records and make general determinations of overall team quality based largely on those records. It should be noted, though, that all schedules are not created equal, particularly in regards to non-conference schedules. Some teams have cupcake schedules in non-conference play, while others face a murderer's row. And honestly there are often times large disparities in the strength of conference schedules, but that is a subject for another day. For the time being, I want to focus solely on the disparities in the strength of non-conference schedules in 2008 for the SEC teams.
The following is a rough ranking, to the best of my guesstimating abilities, of the strength of the non-conference schedules for SEC teams in 2008. One represents the toughest schedule, while twelve represents the weakest schedule.
5. South Carolina
8(t). Ole Miss
8(t). Mississippi State
Now, let us delve a bit deeper and break down each team's schedule and get a better look at the reason behind the rankings.
(1) Georgia Bulldogs: Georgia Southern, Central Michigan, @ Arizona State, Georgia Tech
After opening with an easy game against Division 1-AA Georgia Southern, things get very tough on down the stretch for Georgia. Central Michigan may sound like a patsy, but they are far from it. Though not a powerhouse, Central Michigan nevertheless won the MAC last year, and made a bowl game, where they lost a heartbreaker in a shootout to Purdue. Georgia should win, to be sure, but it is a quality opponent that will put up a fight. The Chippewas are no cupcake.
The final two non-conference games for Georgia will be very difficult. They must travel to Tempe to play Arizona State, a team that won ten games a year ago and a share of the Pac-10 championship. Finally, the non-conference schedule ends up with a rivalry game against Georgia Tech, a fairly solid ACC squad that will probably bring some added difficulties because it will be the first time the Dawgs have seen the triple-option in years.
(2) Florida Gators: Hawai'i, Miami, Citadel, @ Florida State
Though the non-conference schedule for Florida isn't probably as daunting as it seems at first-glance, it is nevertheless still a tough road. Hawai'i will lose a good bit with the departure of June Jones and Colt Brennan -- though Brennan showed he was really nothing more than a system quarterback at the Senior Bowl -- but even so they are still likely to be one of the better non-BCS teams in the country. Miami is coming off of a terrible year, but they do have a lot of talent in Coral Gables, and will at least be a decent ACC team in Randy Shannan's second year at the helm; plus there is the rivalry factor. The Citadel will be a breeze, but a road trip to Florida State should be pretty tough. Given all that they've lost to graduation and attrition, I'm not sure how good the FSU offense will be, but the defense will be stout as usual, and the 'Noles will be fighting hard to keep the Gators from posting five consecutive wins. Finally, Tallahassee has never been kind to the Gators, and it will be a tough game, no two ways about it.
(3) Auburn Tigers: Louisiana-Monroe, Southern Miss, @ West Virginia, Tennessee-Martin
The non-conference schedule will not be getting any easier for Auburn in 2008. Louisiana-Monroe should be an easy win -- and I think you all know why that should was italicized -- but the following game against Southern Miss will be a tough one. The Golden Eagles have always fought SEC foes very tough -- USM actually beat Auburn twice in the early-1990's -- and Larry Fedora has brought a new-found energy to the program, particularly with the signing of Deandre Brown, along with a high-octane offense. The Tigers will very much have to play a good game to emerge victorious, and a victory will not come easy.
Later in the year, Auburn will make a trip to Morgantown to play West Virginia in a Thursday night game televised on ESPN. To say that constitutes an extremely tough game is a gross understatement. West Virginia won the Fiesta Bowl a year ago, and should field yet another good team in 2008, plus the atmosphere is always electric for the Thursday night contests. With little doubt, it will be one of the premiere non-conference match-ups of the season. It will all end with a whimper, though, against Tennessee-Martin in what amounts to a glorified scrimmage to prepare for games to finish the season against Georgia and Alabama.
(4) Arkansas Razorbacks: Western Illinois, Louisiana-Monroe, @ Texas, Tulsa
The first two games for the Hogs should represent no major problem. Western Illinois is a mediocre Division 1-AA team, and Louisiana-Monroe team is an, um, well I'm going to just shut up right now, but you get my point.
After two cupcakes, things get much tougher for the Hogs. Texas is a highly talented team that will be very difficult to beat. It is a fierce rivalry, and the 'Horns are looking to regain their prior status as a national powerhouse. It is a talented squad, and you can almost go ahead and pencil in a loss for the Hogs right now. Texas hasn't finished any lower than 13th in either of the final polls this decade, and that is unlikely to change this season. They may very well even make a run at the national championship, so you can't get much tougher. Tulsa, too, is going to be tough. They are one of the best non-BCS teams in the country, and you can rest assured that given the melodrama with Gus Malzahn that the Golden Hurricane will be very much ready to play. They have a prolific offense, one that will put up big points, which of course is a concern for an Arkansas offense that will largely lack an offensive punch with the departures of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis, and Marcus Monk. Moreover, it doesn't help the Hogs' case that the defense they will rely on to stop the Tulsa attack gave up over 400 passing yard to Casey Dick in the spring game.
(5) South Carolina Gamecocks: North Carolina State, Wofford, UAB, @ Clemson
Wofford and UAB are unlikely to provide any legitimate level of competition for the Gamecocks. Wofford is a pretty good Division 1-AA team, which is the definition of a cupcake for an SEC school. The Blazers, on the other hand, are one of the worst Division 1-A teams in the country, are coming off a 2-10 season, and just being brutally honest are very much in need of a football version of an abortion. Both are nothing better than cupcakes for South Carolina.
North Carolina State, however, could be a different story. Though they finished a disappointing 5-7 in Tom O'Brien's first season in Raleigh, they are nevertheless likely to be a fairly solid BCS conference team in 2008, and they will probably end up in a bowl game. There is nothing easy for South Carolina there. And finally, they will close the regular season, as per usual, with a road game against Clemson, a team that is the favorites to win the ACC in 2008. All in all, it's a pretty difficult out-of-conference slate for the Gamecocks.
(6) Alabama Crimson Tide: Clemson, Tulane, Western Kentucky, Arkansas State
The Tide starts out with a very daunting season opener against Clemson. The Tigers are going to be everyone's favorites to win the ACC in 2009, and for good reason. They look to potentially be a very good club -- especially given the return of James Davis, C.J. Spiller, and Arron Kelly, plus the influx of a great recruiting class -- and it is a very tough game on the non-conference slate for Alabama. A win here would likely portend big things for 'Bama, but the quality of the opponent is going to make that highly difficult. It's simply one of the best non-conference games of the year.
Aside from Clemson, however, the schedule is quite lean. Tulane may improve slightly under Bob Toledo in his second year, but they will still be one of the worst teams in the country, particularly with the loss of Matt Forte. Western Kentucky has been a mediocre-at-best Division 1-AA team that is, for whatever reason, trying to make the transition to Division 1-A, and they should be an easy win. By the same token, Arkansas State is an average Sun Belt team, and barring a ULM-style meltdown, the Tide should win this one without breaking a sweat.
All told, Clemson is a very tough opponent that will make for one of the best non-conference games of the year, but the remaining three games are relative patsies that should provide three easy wins. All in all, nothing overly difficult to be found here.
(7) Tennessee Volunteers: UAB, @ UCLA, Northern Illinois, Wyoming
The Tennessee non-conference schedule is very similar to what you see with Alabama. Playing on the road against UCLA will be a pretty difficult game, but the other three games should be easy wins. UAB is terrible, Northern Illinois was one of the worst teams in the country last year, and the same goes for Wyoming. Together, those three teams combined for just nine total wins in 2007, and they will all likely be very bad again in 2008.
UCLA presents the only legitimate opponent, and that may be fairly difficult. However, one probably shouldn't read too much into that game. The Bruins have been nothing above mediocre the past couple of years, and that is highly unlikely to change right after a coaching change -- especially given the injuries they suffered at quarterback this spring. It is a very similar schedule to what you see with Alabama, but Alabama gets the nod here because Clemson, the likely ACC champion, is a tougher opponent than UCLA, a likely mediocre Pac-10 team.
(8t). Ole Miss: Memphis, @ Wake Forest, Samford, ULM
Beginning at 8th, we have a three way tie with all three teams having very, very similar schedules, so similar to the point that distinguishing between the three is virtually impossible.
The Rebels have it pretty easy in Houston Nutt's first year. You could do worse than Memphis, but in all honesty they are nothing more than a mediocre non-BCS team. Yes they generally give Ole Miss trouble, but that only points to the weakness of Ole Miss, and not to the quality of Memphis, so the Rebels don't get brownie points in that regard. Samford is a bad Division 1-AA team, and I think we all know the story on ULM. If the Rebels are even a half-way decent squad, that should net three easy wins. The only quality game non-conference game on the schedule is a road trip to Wake Forest. True, the Demon Deacons are probably a mid-level ACC team at best, but at least they are a decent opponent from a BCS conference, which is far more than you can say for the rest of the slate.
(8t). Vanderbilt: @ Miami (OH), Duke, Rice, Wake Forest
Vanderbilt essentially has the exact same story as does Ole Miss. The schedule consists of three bad teams, and then a game against Wake Forest.
A road trip to Miami (Oh) will be tough for the 'Dores, but that is only because of Vandy's lack of a quality team. In reality, the Redhawks are nothing more than a mediocre MAC team. Duke is an absolutely atrocious program, and David Cutcliffe will not be able to do anything to change that in the short-term. Rice is simply a very bad Conference USA team, coming off of a 3-9 season.
All in all, it's a pretty easy road. Three relative cupcakes, and one mid-tier ACC team.
(8t). Mississippi State: @ Louisiana Tech, Southeastern Louisiana, @ Georgia Tech, Middle Tennessee State
Finishing out the three way glut in eighth is Mississippi State. Their story is just about the same as Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. They have three cupcakes, and one game against a mid-tier ACC team. Considering how interchangeable Wake Forest and Georgia Tech likely will be, the Bulldogs join the tie for eighth.
(11). Kentucky: @ Louisville, Norfolk, Middle Tennessee State, Western Kentucky
The Kentucky non-conference schedule is about as laughingstock as they come. Things open with a road game to play in-state rival Louisville, but that is not nearly as daunting as it sounds. The Cardinals struggled greatly in the wake of the Petrino departure, even with Brian Brohm playing at a very high level. They rallied late against Rutgers, but nevertheless finished only 6-6 in a very weak conference and had a couple of embarrassing losses along the way (see Syracuse). Things aren't going to get any easier in 2008 with the loss of Brohm and other key players, and at best they look to be a mediocre Big East team.
Moving on... I'll be brutally honest, I didn't even know Norfolk had a team, but after a bit of research they do, and apparently they are a mediocre-at-best D1-AA team. Middle Tennessee State is a mediocre-at-best Sun Belt team that is coming off of a losing season, and Western Kentucky is a traditional D1-AA team making the transition upwards to D1-A this season.
All told, one mediocre-at-best Big East team, a D1-AA opponent, a former D1-AA opponent currently making the transition upward, and a mediocre-at-best Sun Belt team. Notre Dame would be proud.
(12). LSU: Appy State, Troy, North Texas, Tulane
With all due respect to the Wildcats, however, the 2008 Notre Dame Memorial Commitment to Cupcakes Award goes to the LSU Tigers. Coming off of a national championship season with having to replace many key figures, the Bayou Bengals athletics administration decided to make things as easy as absolutely possible on their team by filling the schedule with several scrumptious cupcakes. The, shall we say, "daunting" foursome in this non-conference schedule makes LSU the only team in the SEC to not schedule at least one non-conference game against a BCS conference opponent, and they will be the only SEC team to have eight home games in the 2008 season.
Appalachian State will be hyped an ungodly amount, and some of the idiot class will expect an upset, but it's nothing more than an absolute cupcake. Yes they beat Michigan -- a very mediocre team in a very mediocre conference, with a head coach on his way out, mind you -- when the Wolverines' best player missed most of the game, and also with the aid of some blocked kicks. But that is an indictment of a mediocre Michigan team, their own hubris, and terrible preparation on the behalf of the Michigan coaching staff, and little more. Yes, Appy State is a great Division 1-AA team, but a great Division 1-AA team is still just a Division 1-AA team, and thus a gimme game for an SEC school. People love to talk about the upset of Michigan, but they never mention the losses to the likes of Wofford and Georgia Southern, nor they mention the squeaker wins against the likes of James Madison or Eastern Washington. All of the hype notwithstanding, it's a complete cupcake.
The other three are equally gimme games. Troy was actually a solid team last year, and would have won the Sun Belt and made a bowl game had they not choked late against Florida Atlantic, but they lose a ton of key players and are probably not going to be any better than a mediocre Sun Belt team in 2008. North Texas is a combined 7-28 the past three seasons, and coming off of a 2-10 season; they are probably the worst team in the Sun Belt Conference. Tulane may improve slightly, as noted in the earlier Alabama preview, but with the loss of Matt Forte they will likely remain one of the worst teams in the country. All in all, it's just four cupcakes and nothing more.
So why does all of this matter? Well, as stated earlier, all schedules are not created equal, and as a direct result final records can greatly skew the perception of overall team quality. Some teams can look great, but it's mainly a function of an easy schedule, while on the other hands some teams can look middling, but it's really just a function of an extremely tough schedule. Bottom line, differences in strength of schedule can vary greatly at times, and that variance can have a rather large and tangible impact on the overall outcome for a particular team.
The 2008 season should illustrate that point quite nicely. Many expect Georgia to make a run at a national title, but given the conference's toughest OOC schedule, combined with a rotational conference slate that brings them the likely top three teams from the SEC West, plus the SEC Championship Game, it will be almost impossible for the Dawgs to go unscathed. In all fairness, at this point they can probably only hope to finish with only one loss, and then hope that there are not two undefeated teams, and that the media anoints them as the best of the one-loss teams. At the other end of the spectrum, LSU has a cakewalk with four certain wins on the non-conference slate. Many expect the Bayou Bengals to fall off with the losses due to graduation, plus the dismissal of Ryan Perrilloux, but with four certain wins on the schedule, LSU will go 8-4 if they can just get to .500 in conference play, and if they can pull off a tough win or two they will be guaranteed to finish up with nine or ten regular season wins. It would take the Bayou Bengals losing just about every remotely tough game on the schedule to fall below 8-4 simply because of a very weak overall schedule.
Again, strength of schedule makes a tangible difference, and it is all something we should be paying attention to.