Schedule Strength

Tennessee doesn't have a tough schedule this season. Who says? Sports Illustrated. Sports Illustrated's College Football issue says the Vols are playing three top 13 teams : No. 3 Florida, No. 10 Georgia and No. 13 LSU.

No other team ranks among the nation's top 40, according to SI.

It has Alabama at No. 41, Notre Dame 44, South Carolina 45 and UAB 46. It ranks Memphis 57, Ole Miss 58, Kentucky 81 and Vanderbilt 90.

That's eight of 11 teams on Tennessee's schedule ranked lower than 40th. That would imply UT has a weak schedule. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

But how do you rank schedule difficulty?

I've come up with a formula. It is based on preseason projections, where the game is played, how the opponent fared last season, returning starters, if the team made a bowl game, if it's a rivalry game and intangibles.

Intangibles? Here is an example.

Last season, Alabama-Birmingham won more games than Notre Dame, has a better quarterback and is ranked higher in most preseason polls. But there's no way I would rank UAB as a more difficult opponent for UT than Notre Dame, in part because the Vols play UAB in Knoxville and Notre Dame in South Bend. Don't forget, Notre Dame beat two top 10 teams last season (Tennessee and Michigan).

Moreover, Georgia Tech is ranked considerably higher than Notre Dame, but it's tougher to win at Notre Dame than Georgia Tech, which is ranked, on average, about 15 spots ahead of the Irish.

Another intangible: Playing two or three straight strong opponents. It would be easier for Tennessee if the Vols played at Florida, then hosted UAB, then played at LSU. Playing back-to-back games at Florida and LSU is a tall task.

Under my ranking, I'm assigning an opponent points on a 1-to-10 scale. Playing against top 10 teams in a hostile environment rates a 10. Playing top-10 teams LSU and Tennessee anywhere rates as a 10.

Vanderbilt and Kentucky are ranked in the 80s, but I consider the Commodores a better opponent because of quarterback Jay Cutler.

It is embarrassing that the SEC is playing four schools that rank lower than 100: Louisiana-Monroe (Arkansas and Georgia), Ball State (Auburn), Utah State (Alabama) and Central Florida (South Carolina). The SEC also is playing seven Division 1-AA foes: Southwest Missouri State (Arkansas), Murray State (Mississippi State), Idaho State (Kentucky), Western Kentucky (Auburn), Richmond (Vanderbilt), Appalachian State (LSU) and The Citadel (Ole Miss).

And the SEC has four other opponents ranked lower than 70: Tulane (Mississippi State), Wake Forest (Vanderbilt), Troy (South Carolina) and Indiana (Kentucky).

Two no-name yet dangerous opponents are Troy and North Texas. Last season, Troy beat Marshall and Missouri and lost at LSU by four points. North Texas has been to four straight bowl games, having won the Sun Belt Conference, and returns two players who have led the nation in rushing.

On UT's schedule, I rate Alabama 8.5. Alabama is a seven as a team. I added 1.5 points because Alabama is a rivalry game played in Tuscaloosa. I rate Ole Miss a 4.5. The Rebels rate a 4 as a team and get a half-point because the game is sandwiched between LSU and Georgia.

Here is a ranking of the SEC's toughest schedules:

1. Tennessee (72.5 points) plays seven bowl teams and a bowl-eligible team. It plays two top 10 teams on the road, a top 25 team on the road and a top 15 team at home. It plays eight teams that won at least six games. It plays three rivals that are top 25 teams : Florida, Georgia, Alabama. It plays one of the toughest road schedules in the nation.

2. Florida (72) plays six bowl teams and a bowl-eligible team. The Gators play the East and West division favorites, plus Alabama and Georgia away from home. They also face rival Florida State - the SEC's second-toughest non-league foe.

3. South Carolina (69) gets three of the top four West teams, plus Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, with Clemson closing the season. Troy will be a challenge.

4. Alabama (67) is one of two teams, Vanderbilt is the other -- that plays the SEC's three highest-ranked clubs: UT, Florida and LSU. The Tide also battles Auburn.

5. Mississippi State (66.5) catches Georgia, LSU and Florida on consecutive weeks. Throw in Auburn and Alabama and the Bulldogs are facing another losing season.

6. Vanderbilt (66) has four of its most winnable games at home but the Commodores face four of the SEC's five top 20 teams.

7. LSU (65.5) plays top 25 Arizona State early, then catches Tennessee and Florida from the East. The Tigers play at Alabama but host Auburn.

8. Ole Miss (65) plays two solid non-league teams: Memphis and Wyoming -- and travels to Tennessee and Auburn.

9. Kentucky (64) opens with No. 12 Louisville. The Wildcats get Florida, Auburn, Tennessee in Lexington.

10. Georgia (63.5) has the easiest path among SEC contenders, avoiding Alabama and LSU from the West. Two tough non-SEC games are Boise State, Georgia Tech.

11. Arkansas (62) faces top-ranked Southern Cal but has a pair of dogs for other non-SEC games. The Hogs could win three of their last four SEC games.

12. Auburn (56.5) plays two 1-AA foes and catches LSU and Alabama at home. Plus, the Tigers dodge Tennessee and Florida from the East.

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