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Does Auburn have the toughest schedule in the SEC West?

SEC Media Days are set for next week in Hoover, which means the start of the 2017 season can’t be too far behind. [It’s officially 60 days away, but who’s counting?] With that in mind, now is the perfect time to take a look at the schedules—both in conference and out—for all 14 teams in the league.

Which team has the toughest row to hoe in 2017? Which is set up nicely for a potential playoff run? After all, not all schedules are created equally.

Some teams have natural, geographic non-conference rivals [sorry, South Carolina; we feel for you, Florida]; others don’t. Some teams draw favorable matchups in cross-divisional play [kudos, Kentucky]; others aren’t so fortunate [tough luck, Tennessee]. And, of course, in those pivotal divisional showdowns, it’s not only who you play but also where and when you play that can go a long way toward determining which two teams wind up facing off in Atlanta come December.

Let’s rank each team’s schedule from most challenging to least daunting, starting this week with the SEC West.

Auburn

Non-conference games: Georgia Southern, at Clemson, Mercer, UL Monroe

Cross-divisional games: At Missouri, vs. Georgia

Division opponents on the road: LSU, Arkansas, Texas A&M

Aside from the Week 2 trip to face the reigning national champs, the first half of Auburn’s schedule looks fairly friendly—two non-conference gimmes and league games against Missouri, Mississippi State and Ole Miss, none of whom are expected to be contenders this season.

The back half of the schedule is a beast, though, starting with a mid-October trip to Baton Rouge, where Auburn hasn’t won since 1999. Trips to Fayetteville and College Station—with a bye week in between—follow, making Auburn the only SEC team in 2017 to play three consecutive games on the road against conference opponents. The final three games of the season are at Jordan-Hare, but two of them are against likely preseason division favorites Georgia and Alabama, neither of whom Auburn has beaten since 2013.

If the Tigers can find a way to knock off a Clemson team that is reloading on offense but still outstanding on defense, then a 6-0 start looks like a strong possibility. After that, things get tough in a hurry.

LSU

Non-conference games: BYU (in Houston), Chattanooga, Syracuse, Troy

Cross-divisional games: At Florida, at Tennessee

Division opponents on the road: Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Alabama

Ed Orgeron and company open with a soft September featuring all four non-conference opponents and a trip to Starkville, where LSU hasn’t lost a game this century. October and November will be an uphill climb, however, with seven SEC games—including four on the road—in an eight-week span.

Due to last year’s weather-related scheduling snafu with the Florida game, the Tigers must play both of their cross-divisional opponents this season on the road; they’ll go to Gainesville on October 7 and then visit Rocky Top on November 18. Factor in the trip to Tuscaloosa (where LSU lost to Alabama by a combined margin of 35 points in 2013 and 2015), and the Tigers’ road schedule might be the toughest in the league.

The winner of the Auburn/LSU game on October 14 could find itself 7-0 and ranked in the top two or three nationally, but plenty of heavy lifting will remain.

Arkansas

Non-conference games: Florida A&M, TCU, New Mexico State, Coastal Carolina

Cross-divisional games: At South Carolina, vs. Missouri

Division opponents on the road: Alabama, Ole Miss, LSU

The month of October has not been particularly kind to Arkansas under Bret Bielema: A 6-8 record overall with just three conference wins in four seasons. This year’s October slate looks pretty frightening, as well, with road games at South Carolina, Alabama and Ole Miss, plus a home date with Auburn.

Factor in the tussle with TCU in Week 2 and the trip to Baton Rouge in November, and Arkansas could wind up scrambling for a bowl bid again. It doesn’t help that the neutral-site game with Texas A&M on September 23 leaves the Hogs with just three true home games in conference play, or that an extremely early bye week (September 16) means they’ll be playing ten games in ten weeks to close out the season.

Ole Miss

Non-conference games: South Alabama, UT Martin, at California, UL Lafayette

Cross-divisional games: Versus Vanderbilt, at Kentucky

Division opponents on the road: Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State

The non-conference portion of the schedule isn’t too intimidating, and the draw from the East looks about as friendly as it gets (although Ole Miss did lose to Vanderbilt by three touchdowns last season, and Kentucky could have its best team yet under Mark Stoops).

This ranking is more about the double-whammy of having to play Alabama and Auburn back-to-back, both on the road, to open SEC play. Then, right after a home date with Vandy, LSU comes calling, making a 1-3 (or perhaps even 0-4) start in the conference a real possibility for the Rebels.

A self-imposed postseason ban means the Egg Bowl will be the only bowl Ole Miss plays in this season, but Mississippi State has won five of the last six meetings in Starkville.

Mississippi State

Non-conference games: Charleston Southern, at Louisiana Tech, BYU, UMass

Cross-divisional games: At Georgia, vs. Kentucky

Division opponents on the road: Auburn, Texas A&M, Arkansas

The non-conference schedule, per usual, is one of the softest in the league. The Bulldogs open SEC play with a tough trifecta (LSU at home, at Georgia, at Auburn), but the waters get considerably calmer after that. From mid-October on, only the Alabama game on November 11 looks un-winnable.

Texas A&M

Non-conference games: At UCLA, Nicholls State, UL Lafayette, New Mexico

Cross-divisional games: Versus South Carolina, at Florida

Division opponents on the road: Ole Miss, LSU

With the Arkansas game once again in Arlington, A&M will play only one SEC game in an opponent’s home stadium—at Florida on October 14—prior to November 18. After opening at UCLA, the Aggies will only leave the state of Texas once in a ten-week span before closing the season with trips to Oxford and Baton Rouge.

All that home cooking notwithstanding, Texas A&M’s annual second-half swoon might start a little earlier this season; the month of October opens with a visit from Alabama followed by the Aggies’ first trip to The Swamp since joining the SEC.

Alabama

Non-conference games: Florida State (in Atlanta), Fresno State, Colorado State, Mercer

Cross-divisional games: At Vanderbilt, vs. Tennessee

Division opponents on the road: Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Auburn

Evaluating Alabama’s schedule can be tough, for two reasons: Number one, the Tide are better than pretty much everybody they play, so none of the games look particularly tough on paper; and, number two, Alabama is the only team in the SEC West that doesn’t have to play…Alabama.

Even taking those factors into account, however, this year’s schedule looks very manageable compared to other recent seasons. Granted, the opener with Florida State could very well be a showdown between the teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the major preseason polls. But the rest of the non-conference schedule is a cakewalk, and the draw from the East includes a friendly excursion to Nashville instead of a tough test from the likes of Georgia or Florida. Finally, rivals Tennessee and—most importantly—LSU must come to Tuscaloosa, leaving the Iron Bowl as the only legitimate road test.

After opening with FSU in Atlanta, Alabama will probably be a double-digit favorite in its next seven games. The season essentially boils down to two games—home to LSU and at Auburn—that bookend the month of November.

Next week, we’ll examine the schedules in the SEC East.

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