LITTLE ROCK —Printed as hard-copy reference material for someone unwilling to read 14 college football schedules on his cell phone, the composite for the SEC begged for a comparison by division.
Previously, the composite schedule referenced before media guides were published was alphabetical — Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, etc. The one in hand groups the seven schools in the Eastern Division and the seven in the West.
Arkansas’ late August game at Auburn is the most difficult SEC opener during the first two weeks of the 2014 season, but the schedule makers cut the Razorbacks some slack when conference play is in full swing. For example, Arkansas and Mississippi State are the only teams in the division that do not play four conference games in a row. Even then, the Razorbacks have an easier road than the Bulldogs. Arkansas’ only three-game stretch vs. SEC opponents follows an open date and is at the end of the season against LSU, Ole Miss, and Missouri. Mississippi State’s only break in a six-week stretch is a non-conference game against Tennessee-Martin.
Part of a new emphasis to provide television with more conference games early in the season, Arkansas is at Auburn on Aug. 30, two days after Texas A&M journeys to South Carolina. The darling of the 2013 season, Auburn will be one of the preseason favorites in the SEC with Nick Marshall returning at quarterback, Rimington Trophy finalist Reese Dismukes snapping the ball, and Gus Malzahn calling plays.
Running back Tre Mason declared early for the NFL draft, but we might find out that his rip-roaring season was made possible by Malzahn’s system. Besides, the Tigers have two guys who topped 600 yards each in 2013 and a five-star back who is supposed to be firmly committed.
Ole Miss is at Vanderbilt on the second weekend and there are two more SEC games the following week. Only Missouri and Tennessee wait until the fifth playing date to begin conference play. Missouri pays the price for its late start in league play with only conference games and two open dates after Sept. 20. During the same period, Tennessee has one open date and one non-conference game.
Arkansas is first up on Texas A&M’s string of four straight SEC games and No. 2 on Alabama’s schedule of four in a row, but the Razorbacks do have an extra week to prepare for the Crimson Tide. For those who believe Alabama is at a disadvantage on the road, the trip to Fayetteville is one of three away games in four weeks. Even without A.J. McCarron and others, I’d take the Crimson Tide to go 4-0 vs. the Rebels, the Razorbacks, the Aggies, and the Vols.
Ole Miss is the only West team with five consecutive league games and Kentucky is in that unenviable spot in the East. In fact, the Wildcats are the only team in the league that plays seven conference games in eight weeks.
Based on 2013 records and ignoring player personnel changes, there is a case to be made that A&M has the most difficult conference schedule in the West. In addition to division opponents, the Aggies play South Carolina and Missouri, a combined 23-4 last year.
Arkansas and Auburn tie for second although the Tigers are better equipped to handle the assignment than the Razorbacks. Arkansas has Missouri and Georgia, a combined 20-7. Auburn’s Eastern Division opponents are South Carolina and Georgia, also 20-7.
A snapshot of others in the West:
Alabama — Florida and Tennessee, 9-15.
LSU — Florida and Kentucky, 6-18.
Mississippi State — Kentucky and Vanderbilt, 11-14.
Ole Miss — Vanderbilt and Tennessee, 14-11.
In the East, Florida, where Will Muschamp is on the hot seat, has Alabama and LSU, 21-5, and South Carolina has A&M and Auburn, 21-6.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau.