No. 1 Mississippi
Three non-conference games (Central Arkansas, UTEP, Tulane) give Ole Miss a break but a fourth—hosting Texas—does not. Starting on September 29, the Rebels travel to Alabama, host Texas A&M and Auburn and then take a bye. Next up is at Arkansas, at Georgia, Vanderbilt, at LSU and then hosting Mississippi State in the annual Egg Bowl. Playing Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU on the road—with three of those games in a four-week stretch—gets them a top SOS ranking.
As first year members in the SEC East, Missouri probably would have been happy to avoid Alabama, Arkansas, LSU or Texas A&M from the West—they drew Alabama and Texas A&M. Missouri opens with Southeastern Louisiana, Georgia and Arizona State and then travels to South Carolina and to Central Florida. The Tigers' last seven games are Vanderbilt, Alabama, Kentucky, at Florida, at Tennessee, Syracuse and at Texas A&M. Playing Arizona State, UCF and Syracuse outside an SEC schedule demands respect.
No. 3 Alabama
The defending BCS Champions open 2012 with Michigan in Arlington, Texas. After a home game-opener against Western Kentucky, it's back on the road to play at Arkansas. The Tide get a break hosting Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss before going back on the road to play at Missouri and at Tennessee. Their last five games look like this: Mississippi State, at LSU, Texas A&M, Western Carolina and Auburn. Their three toughest games—Michigan, Arkansas and LSU—are all on the road. Can head coach Nick Saban repeat again in 2012?
The Cyclones open with non-conference opponent Tulsa and then follow it up with a road tilt at Iowa. Their one breather—Western Illinois—is in the third week followed by a bye. Now hold your breath for this nine-week stretch: Texas Tech, at TCU, Kansas State, at Oklahoma State, Baylor, Oklahoma, at Texas, at Kansas, West Virginia.
No. 5 Michigan
If this is the year Michigan is gunning for the BCS Championship, at least they have a championship schedule to back up their campaign. The Wolverines open with Alabama at Arlington, Texas. After that, they host Air Force (a potential trap game coming off of Alabama) and UMass. Michigan then travels to South Bend to play Notre Dame. After a bye, their schedule looks like this: At Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State, at Nebraska, at Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa, at Ohio State. To summarize, Michigan plays Alabama, Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State on the road.
No. 6 Illinois
The Fighting Illini open with Western Michigan and then travel to Arizona State where the field temperatures should be hovering above 100 degrees at opening kickoff. They get two home games against Louisiana Tech and Charleston Southern before the meat of their schedule; Penn State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan, bye, Indiana, at Ohio State, at Northwestern. Playing at Arizona State, at Wisconsin, at Michigan and at Ohio State is daunting.
No. 7 Oklahoma
The Sooners added Notre Dame to their already tough schedule. Yes, they play at UTEP and host Florida A&M, but their schedule still has nine quality games: Kansas State, at Texas Tech, Texas (at Dallas), Notre Dame, at Iowa State, Baylor, at West Virginia, Oklahoma State, and at TCU. Three of their last five games are on the road.
No. 8 Texas A&M
Welcome to the SEC, Aggies. Have at it: At Louisiana Tech, Florida, at SMU, South Carolina State, Arkansas, at Mississippi, bye, LSU, at Auburn, at Mississippi State, at Alabama, Sam Houston State and Missouri. They do have two FCS teams on their schedule which gives them a break but it also means they have to win seven games—not the standard six—to become bowl eligible. There are probably five or six wins in there, but seven?
No. 9 Kansas State
I'm not sure having Miami (FL) as a non-conference opponent was such a good idea here. The Wildcats open with Missouri State and after that, it's tough. They host Miami (FL) and North Texas, play at Oklahoma and then get a bye. The rest looks like this: Kansas, at Iowa State, at West Virginia, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, at TCU, at Baylor, bye, Texas.
No. 10 TCU
After opening against Grambling State and traveling to Kansas, the Horned Frogs host a much-improved Virginia before traveling to SMU. Upset-minded Iowa State is next followed by a road trip to Baylor and a home game with Texas Tech. Their last five games are brutal, with three of the contests on the road: at Oklahoma State, at West Virginia, Kansas State, at Texas, Oklahoma. Ouch.
The Bears play SMU and then take a bye. Their next three games are Sam Houston State, at Louisiana-Monroe, at West Virginia. After another bye, it's TCU, at Texas, at Iowa State, Kansas, at Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas Tech (at Arlington) and Oklahoma State. Their three toughest games are all on the road (West Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma) but the Bears had better not look past SMU.
The Florida Gators only leave the state of Florida three times this year but it's still a tough schedule. The Gators open with Bowling Green before traveling to both Texas A&M and Tennessee. The Gators then host Kentucky and then get a bye followed by LSU, at Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia (at Jacksonville), Missouri, Louisiana-Lafayette, Jacksonville State and at Florida State. Playing Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State in November isn't impressive and neither is only leaving the state three times, but their schedule still has teeth.
The Fighting Irish don't play—and have never played—any FCS teams which is very, very impressive. Here is their schedule: Navy (in Dublin, Ireland), Purdue, at Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, Stanford, BYU, at Oklahoma, Pitt, at Boston College, Wake Forest and at USC. The schedule is impressive in the overall quality of opponents but it's not quite an SEC West or Big 12 schedule.
The Sun Devils open with Northern Arizona but after that it's a tougher non-conference slate hosting Illinois and traveling to Missouri. They drew the Oregon Ducks—as well as Cal, Oregon State and Washington State—from the North division. The Sun Devils also play USC on the road. If they had drawn either Stanford or Washington in place of Oregon State or Washington State, Arizona State's SOS would have been included in my top ten.