Note to self: Call Tennessee coach Butch Jones at the end of October and ask him who is the No. 1 team in the country.
The Vols’ new coach would never respond to such a question, but he will be qualified to address the topic after Oct. 26. Eight games deep in the season, Tennessee will have played Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama, all teams that will be in the top dozen or so in every preseason poll.
Review of the schedules of SEC teams was prompted by the notion that Arkansas has the most difficult road of the 14. True, when the scope is limited to league games. Widen the camera lens a bit and there is room for debate.
For starters, agree that the SEC champion will be one of six teams — Alabama, LSU, or A&M from the Western Division; Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina from the Eastern Division. For this exercise, all six are viewed equally.
An SEC team can play as many as five of the six and as few as two. Arkansas is the only team with the max; Alabama, Texas A&M, and South Carolina have the minimum. Tennessee, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, Missouri, and Auburn play four of the six SEC powers.
To be on par with Arkansas, a team must have five opponents capable of making a splash nationally and the non-conference schedule elevates Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi State, LSU, and Florida into the conversation. Georgia comes up just short because Georgia Tech doesn’t meet the national threshold. For the same reason, Wake Forest holds back Vanderbilt.
Separating the six contenders involves a look at talent per team. Based on what is known at this point, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky would be double-digit underdogs against each of the five major opponents on their schedule. Mississippi State appears more talented than the Razorbacks, Vols, and Wildcats and would be lesser underdogs against the four SEC contenders on its schedule and Oklahoma State. LSU and Florida are in a different class, rarely if ever outmanned by any of their opponents.
Arkansas fans will argue that the Rutgers game at the end of September puts the Razorbacks’ schedule at the top of the difficulty scale, but Arkansas has a 50-50 chance to beat a team that is no better than third best in a league that begins and ends with Louisville.
Previously mentioned was Tennessee’s game at Oregon, the favorite in the Pac-12 and one of the few teams outside the SEC with a legitimate shot to be in the BCS title game. The same weekend that Tennessee travels to the Northwest, Kentucky is home against Louisville. Given a choice of one team to finish the regular season unbeaten, the Cardinals would be the pick.
Without debating Vanderbilt vs. Ole Miss and the like, the Razorbacks, Vols, and Wildcats tie for the dubious distinction of playing the most difficult schedule.
Put Mississippi State in the No. 4 slot since OSU is one of many capable of winning the Big 12.
No. 5 is LSU. The Tigers open against TCU, another one of the contenders in the Big 12, and their cross-divisional game against Georgia and Florida are on par with Arkansas vs. South Carolina and Florida.
No. 6 is Florida. The Gators’ non-conference schedule includes two in-state foes. Miami is the favorite in the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Florida State is supposed to push Clemson in the Atlantic Division.
On the other end, A&M’s schedule is the easiest with non-conference games against three area schools and New Mexico, plus cellar dweller Kentucky and Vanderbilt from the Eastern Division. With Tennessee and Kentucky from the Eastern Division, a season opener against once-formidable Virginia Tech makes Alabama’s schedule only a smidge more difficult than the Aggies’.
(Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.)