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SEC Cross-Division Schedule Breakdown

Who's playing who this year?

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

If you're like me, you don't have the SEC schedule memorized yet by early May. I do have seven of each team's eight games memorized thanks to the divisions and permanent rivals, but that eighth game is a mystery still.

Well, yesterday I decided to look up the cross-division games and break down who has it tough and who got it easy. Who wins the divisional crowns often rides on the luck that comes from those games against the other side. So you know, when you see me quote returning start stats, it comes from the CFB Matrix's count.

Let's run through the cross-division schedules from what looks today to be the easiest to the toughest. The fact that which actually are the easiest and toughest won't be evident until we're already in the season should be taken as a given, of course.

They Got Vanderbilt: Ole Miss and Texas A&M

I don't mean to dump on the Commodores, but they were the SEC's worst team by a mile last year and don't figure to move up the pecking order this year.

The relative scheduling ease that two West teams get with Vandy could've been mitigated by a tough second team, but that's not the case this year. The Rebels also have Florida, while the Aggies also have South Carolina. The Gators are both rebuilding and suffering a talent drain, while the Gamecocks have a lot of questions following last year's 7-6 campaign.

Who has the edge for easiest schedule depends on whether you think Florida or South Carolina will be better this fall. I'll toss in that A&M has the game at Vandy, giving the Aggies the lighter road game of the two.

No Real Division Contender: LSU

The Tigers got the teams that are tagging along with Vandy in Florida and South Carolina. As I just said, both have issues and probably won't be true division contenders. The potential division contenders are fairly well dispersed this year, so getting two teams that aren't candidates for Atlanta in any way is a plus.

The road trip is to Columbia, if you're counting those along at home.

They Got Kentucky: Auburn, Mississippi State

The Wildcats have been moving in the right direction under Mark Stoops and might just make a bowl this year. That said, they're probably pretty solidly in the No. 13 spot unless something happens like Florida collapsing again as in 2013 or Mississippi State getting hit by an injury plague.

Unlike Vandy, UK is going along with a couple of East division contenders. Mississippi State gets Missouri, while Auburn has its annual game against Georgia. Who you think is the better out of MU and UGA should sort out who has the tougher schedule between AU and MSU. The Tigers have the road trip to Kentucky while the Bulldogs must go to Mizzou, if that helps.

A Brief Digression on the West

From here, you really need to have a firm opinion on the SEC West's eventual order to suss things out. Unfortunately, I don't have a firm opinion yet. I have to do a lot more studying on the teams to figure out an order.

For now, I've sorted the teams into three tiers. The top tier contains Alabama and Auburn, who I think are the best two on that side. The middle tier consists of Arkansas, LSU, and Ole Miss, which should be good teams but who have some glaring issues—depth at Arkansas, coaching turnover and defensive front at LSU, quarterback at Ole Miss—that keep me from projecting them to the top. The bottom tier has Mississippi State, which by far has the fewest returning starts in the conference without a long history of blockbuster recruiting classes, and Texas A&M, which has real run game issues and on defense lacks both experience and true playmakers beyond Myles Garrett.

I don't feel confident about much of that, particularly having A&M in the lower tier. John Chavis will improve that defense in time, but I don't know that it'll get so much better in his first year to lift the Aggies higher. I can also imagine a world where any of the seven teams ends up at least a top 25 squad, so I'm having a hard time sorting them all out.

Anyway, that tier system is what I've used to sort out the East teams' cross-division schedules. For now.

The Muddy Middle: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina, Vanderbilt

This groups is basically three different "They Got _______" groups. Alabama and Arkansas both have Tennessee, with the Crimson Tide also having Georgia and the Razorbacks having Missouri. The four East teams each will play a lower tier West team, with Kentucky and Missouri drawing Mississippi State and South Carolina and Vanderbilt drawing Texas A&M.

The ordering in this group will depend a lot on how improved you think Tennessee will be this year. I am in the "they're a year away from division contention" camp right now, which is why I don't put the Tide's and Hogs' pairings of Tennessee and a true East division contender into a higher tier on their own.

If pressed, I'd order these from lightest to toughest as follows:

  • Missouri: at Arkansas, Mississippi State
  • South Carolina: at Texas A&M, LSU
  • Vanderbilt: at Ole Miss, Texas A&M
  • Arkansas: Missouri, at Tennessee
  • Kentucky: at Mississippi State, Auburn
  • Alabama: Tennessee, at Georgia

I have the Aggies above the Bulldogs for now, so that pushes South Carolina ahead of Mizzou. Vandy heads one up from South Carolina because it has its road game against the second tier team while the Gamecocks' road game is against the third tier team. Having to travel to Tennessee edges the Razorbacks over Vandy, but I'm really not sure where that one goes.

Kentucky is up there because, while it has a third tier West team, it also has a top tier West team. Finally, Bama ends up with the hardest. Right now I think Georgia will end up the second best team of any of the opponents listed here (behind Auburn), and Tennessee probably being better than Mississippi State pushes the Tide above the Wildcats.

But again, I don't feel overly strongly about that ordering. I didn't call it the muddy middle for nothing.

Getting Brutal: Florida, Tennessee

The Gators have two middle tier teams with Ole Miss and LSU, while the Vols have a middle tier with Arkansas and a top tier with Alabama. UF travels to Baton Rouge, while UT travels to Tuscaloosa.

I have no problem right now saying that Tennessee's draw is the worst of these two, but I grouped them anyway because they're tougher than the last batch while also definitely not the toughest. Florida's draw certainly doesn't help Jim McElwain get his tenure off the ground, while Tennessee's could easily be the reason why the Vols don't have a breakthrough in number of wins. I have a hard time putting the Vols up there as an East dark horse while at the same time penciling them in for an 0-2 season against the West.

The Worst: Georgia

The Bulldogs wound up with Alabama and Auburn, a pair of teams that will appear in far more preseason top tens than they won't. AU is getting some early buzz as a playoff contender, and Bama, whatever its present deficiencies, has hauled in several consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes.

Unless I'm massively wrong about something somewhere—which is always possible—UGA stands alone with the toughest cross-division schedule.

The Takeaways

The cross-division scheduling could end up deciding the East division. If you take it, as I currently do, as it being a two-horse race between Georgia and Missouri, Mizzou drawing Mississippi State while UGA gets Bama and Auburn is a big advantage for the Tigers. If Missouri beats MSU while Georgia goes 0-2 against the West, UGA would have to sweep its East games to be assured of a berth to Atlanta regardless of what Mizzou does. If the Tigers beat the West Bulldogs and win the tiebreaker over the East Bulldogs, it'll be incredibly tough for Georgia to win the division.

Sorting out the West is going to be a mess this fall, so how the teams do against the East could end up deciding a lot of it. Ole Miss and Texas A&M have an advantage in that they're nearly guaranteed a win over Vandy. Ditto for Auburn with its Kentucky game, and maybe that goes for Mississippi State too. My attempt to pump the brakes on Arkansas's hype momentum on Wednesday only gets some reinforcement here, while Alabama's divisional and even playoff hopes might take a real hit with the road trip to Athens.

As you see predictions for the fall come out over the coming months, don't forget how these cross-division games can affect the way they play out. A better team might end up below a lesser team in the standings for no other reason than the luck of the scheduling draw.