How SEC Teams Start And Finish

I'm thinking about Southeastern Conference football in early June. Does that make me sick? I don't think so. After all, the 2012 SEC schedule has only been discussed two or three dozen times. What made me think about it was the arrival of an actual grid, which makes it a bit easier to suggest what teams seem to have a schedule advantage.

In the not-so-good old days of Roy Kramer as SEC commissioner, there would be one easy aspect of the league schedule to pick out as advantageous or disadvantageous, and that would be that Alabama would have a disproportionate number – in fact, so disproportionate that statisticians say it could not possibly have been random – of SEC opponents with an open date before playing the Crimson Tide.

Let's just say that's not longer an issue.

We have noted many, many times over the years that a component of college football success is having schedule luck. That's partly when open dates fall, partly when and where games fall on the schedule, and -- winding through that -- which teams turn out to be more or less strong than expected. The last, of course, cannot be predicted.

One school of thought is that there is no sense attempting to predict how a team will do beyond the first month of the season. Members of that camp are interested primarily in how a team match up against the first four of so opponents.

These are also the proponents of delaying polls until October. The legitimate argument is particularly with pre-season polls. A team picked high in the pre-season is likely to stay higher than a team with lower pre-season expectations for success. Many believe, for instance, that Auburn's undefeated 2004 team was left out of national championship competition because it was not rated high in the pre-season.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban likes the Big Ten scheduling approach in which the non-conference games fall at the beginning of the season, something along the lines of the NFL's exhibition season. Of course those games count in national consideration, but not in the Big Ten race.

Alabama has three of its non-conference games in the first month, and one of the three is a lot more than an exhibition. As in 2008 when the Tide opened with top ten ranked Clemson and 2009 when Bama met top ten ranked Virginia Tech in neutral site games, this year's Alabama schedule begins with the Crimson Tide taking on pre-season top ten Michigan at the Cowboys Classic in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 1. The Tide then plays home games against Western Kentucky and Florida Atlantic around the first SEC game of the year, at Arkansas on Sept. 15.

Ole Miss has all four of its non-conference games in the first four weeks of the season. Three of them are softies, including Tulane in New Orleans, but one of the opponents for the Rebels is Texas, which plays in Oxford Sept. 15.

Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Texas A&M also have three non-conference games in September. Auburn, Georgia, Missouri, and Vanderbilt have two SEC games in September. Florida plays three SEC games (at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, and hosting Kentucky) in the first month after opening against Bowling Green.

Not all of the September non-conference games are patsies. In addition to Alabama-Michigan and Ole Miss-Texas, Auburn opens against Clemson in Atlanta, LSU hosts Washington, and Missouri plays Arizona State in Columbia.

It probably is easier to get a handle on team strengths for October and November after the September games, but that doesn't mean there isn't some looking ahead.

In fact, think about the final stretch, the last three games of the season. By rule, all SEC teams must play a game on the final weekend of regular season play (Nov. 24 is the Saturday that week) so that no team has the advantage of winning a division and then having an extra week of preparation for the SEC Championship Game. This year's SEC Championship Game at the GeorgiaDome in Atlanta is Dec. 1.

In November, only two teams have an open date – Kentucky on Nov. 10 between home games against Vanderbilt and Samford and South Carolina on Nov. 3 between home games against Tennessee and Arkansas.

Alabama and Auburn play on Nov. 24 and have a typical cupcake opponent before that game, Bama hosting Western Carolina and Auburn hosting Alabama A&M.

There are some conference games in that next-to-last week of play on Nov. 17. Arkansas goes to Mississippi State before the Razorbacks close out the season against LSU in Fayetteville and the Bulldogs finish the year at Ole Miss. Ole Miss and LSU play in that next-to-last weekend in Baton Rouge.

Tennessee has two SEC rivals at the end of the year, Vanderbilt in Nashville on the next-to-last weekend and hosting Kentucky the final week. The Commodores will finish the season with a non-conference game at Wake Forest, while Kentucky tunes up for the Vols hosting Samford.

The SEC's two newest members, Texas A&M and Missouri, meet on the final weekend in College Station. The Aggies will host Sam Houston State the next-to-last weekend, while Missouri will have Syracuse in Columbia.

Is Florida really in the SEC? One would hardly know it in November when the Gators meet new SEC member Missouri in Gainesville on Nov. 3, and then have three non-conference games to close out the season – hosting Louisiana-Lafayette and Jacksonville State before the traditional season-ending game at FSU.

Two other SEC teams have traditional season-ending games against non-SEC teams with Georgia playing Georgia Tech, this year in Athens, and South Carolina meeting Clemson at Clemson.

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