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Among SEC East contenders, UGA has schedule edge

Last week we took a look at the 2017 schedules for each team in the SEC West, ranking them from the most challenging (Auburn) to the least (Alabama). This week we move over to the SEC East, which hasn’t produced a conference champion since Tim Tebow was a junior at Florida (2008).

Once again, the schedules are ranked from toughest to easiest. As a side note, remember that SEC Media Days in Hoover wrap up Thursday, and the season kicks off in 52 days!

Tennessee

Non-conference games: Georgia Tech (in Atlanta), Indiana State, UMass, Southern Miss

Cross-divisional games: At Alabama, vs. LSU

Division opponents on the road: Florida, Kentucky, Missouri

The Volunteers will be challenged in their Labor Day Monday night opener against Georgia Tech, which closed last season on a four-game winning streak that included victories over SEC East teams Georgia and Kentucky. But what truly turns Tennessee’s schedule into a meat-grinder is that double-whammy from the SEC West with Alabama (October 21) and LSU (November 18). It’s without a doubt the toughest cross of any team in the league this season.

Factor in the mid-September trip to The Swamp (where the Vols haven’t won since 2003), a home date with Georgia to close out the season’s first month and a tricky trap game at much-improved Kentucky right after the Alabama game, and the odds of this being the year when UT finally breaks through under Butch Jones and gets back to the conference title game for the first time in a decade appear slim.

Florida

Non-conference games: Michigan (in Arlington), Northern Colorado, UAB, Florida State

Cross-divisional games: Versus LSU, vs. Texas A&M

Division opponents on the road: Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina

Granted, the Gators get both games against the SEC West at home this season after moving last year’s LSU game to Baton Rouge in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. But, wow, does anybody in the country have a more daunting non-conference schedule than opening with Michigan (a Top 5 team for most of last year) and closing with Florida State (sure to be a Top 5 team this year)?

The Wolverines must replace 17 starters from last year, so playing them early is not the worst thing in the world. Florida gets FSU at home, but the Seminoles have owned that rivalry pretty much everywhere in recent years, winning the last four meetings and six of the last seven.

A tough October slate starts with LSU and ends with Georgia, and the trip to South Carolina on November 11 could be tricky. Rest assured, if the Gators manage to win at least nine games again for the third time in as many seasons under Jim McElwain, they will have earned it.

Vanderbilt

Non-conference games: At Middle Tennessee, Alabama A&M, Kansas State, Western Kentucky

Cross-divisional games: Versus Alabama, at Ole Miss

Division opponents on the road: Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee

Vandy has gone bowling in back-to-back seasons just once in program history, and that isn’t likely to change in 2017. A sneaky-tough non-conference slate, an early-season visit from Alabama and road trips to Gainesville and Knoxville figure to make matching last year’s total of six wins a tall order for Derek Mason and company.

As a matter of fact, if the Commodores aren’t careful, their hopes for a bowl bid could be all but dashed by mid-season, thanks to a brutal stretch of five tough games (K-State, Alabama, at Florida, Georgia, at Ole Miss) in five weeks from September 16 through October 14. Things get easier after the bye, but a 1-6 start is not out of the question.

South Carolina

Non-conference games: N.C. State (in Charlotte), Louisiana Tech, Wofford, Clemson

Cross-divisional games: At Texas A&M, vs. Arkansas

Division opponents on the road: Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia

The Gamecocks had better make hay early, because the second half of the schedule includes road trips to Knoxville and Athens, a home date with Florida and a visit from the reigning national champions. Win the opener against N.C. State, though, and a 4-0 start is within reason.

Home games against Kentucky, Arkansas and Vanderbilt are absolute must-haves if South Carolina is to take a step forward in year number two under Will Muschamp.

Georgia

Non-conference games: Appalachian State, at Notre Dame, Samford, at Georgia Tech

Cross-divisional games: Versus Mississippi State, at Auburn

Division opponents on the road: Tennessee, Vanderbilt

Most of the Bulldogs’ off-season attention is bound to be focused on that Week 2 trip to South Bend, when they will become the first SEC team since Tennessee in 2005 to play Notre Dame in the regular season. They would be wise, however, not to look past game one against App State, which took Tennessee (last year’s pre-season SEC East favorite) to overtime in Knoxville in the 2016 season opener.

In addition to Notre Dame, Georgia also has some big rivalry games (Tennessee, Auburn, Georgia Tech) on the road this season, but overall the schedule doesn’t look quite as tough as those of other SEC East contenders. As always, the Florida game in Jacksonville on October 28 will be pivotal.

Missouri

Non-conference games: Missouri State, Purdue, Idaho, at UConn

Cross-divisional games: Versus Auburn, at Arkansas

Division opponents on the road: Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt

Last season, two of the Tigers’ four wins (and a disproportionate amount of their offensive production) came against non-conference patsies Eastern Michigan and Delaware State; dates with Missouri State and Idaho should provide similar opportunities for coordinator Josh Heupel and company in 2017. Purdue and UConn aren’t exactly world-beaters either, making Missouri’s overall non-league slate one of the softest in the SEC.

The crossover game with Auburn is a tough one, but (aside from a trip to Georgia) the conference road schedule (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Arkansas) doesn’t look too frightening.

Kentucky

Non-conference games: At Southern Miss, Eastern Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, Louisville

Cross-divisional games: At Mississippi State, vs. Ole Miss

Division opponents on the road: South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Georgia

The Wildcats, who recovered from a disastrous 0-2 start last season to go 7-4 the rest of the way, have the most favorable draw from the SEC West in 2017, dodging the likes of Alabama, Auburn and LSU and getting the two Mississippi teams instead. Speaking of teams from Mississippi, you know Kentucky would like to avenge last year’s 44-35 loss at home to Southern Miss in the season opener.

Of the first seven games, only one (on September 23 versus Florida, whom the Wildcats haven’t beaten since 1986) looks like a surefire loss. With 16 starters back from last season, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Kentucky could be sitting on seven or eight wins heading into the final two games against Georgia and Louisville.

Next week, we'll review SEC Media Days predictions for the 2017 season.

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