There are two kinds of football schedules in the SEC - tough and tougher. But the slightest difference in schedules in a conference as demanding as this one can sometimes determine a championship.
When you study this year's SEC schedule, you can see why there is so much speculation about defending national champion Florida going unbeaten. You also can understand why up-and-coming Ole Miss is being touted as a championship contender and a top-10 team.
Alabama: The schedule is set up for another West Division championship. The Tide won't have to play Florida or Georgia from the East and will have two weeks to prepare for its home game against LSU.
Its biggest challenge likely will come against Ole Miss in Oxford. The Tide can only hope that a season opener in Atlanta against nationally ranked Virginia Tech will go as well as last year's season opener at the same venue against nationally ranked Clemson.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks should be improved. But their schedule is more difficult than last year when they won five games in coach Bobby Petrino's first season.
No one else in the SEC has a tougher conference road schedule: Ole Miss, Alabama, LSU and Florida.
Auburn : The Tigers' biggest challenge will be back-to-back games against LSU and Ole Miss at the end of October. But unless their offense is drastically improved, almost every weekend could be a challenge, including the season opener against Louisiana Tech.
Florida: As if the Gators didn't already have enough going their way, check out their schedule. They don't play a road game until week four against Kentucky. Then, they have two weeks to get ready for LSU, which will play at Georgia the week before it faces Florida.
The Gators' toughest road game outside of LSU is at South Carolina. They have the added advantage of dropping Ole Miss and picking up Mississippi State from the West.
Georgia: The Bulldogs have overscheduled again. In fact, the non-conference schedule will be even more difficult than last season - with road games against Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech to open and close the season, respectively.
Kentucky: The Wildcats would be better served if their open date were between Florida and Alabama instead of between Miami of Ohio and Louisville the second week of the season.
If they can get through the first half of the season without being beaten down or beaten up, they could fare much better in the second half against a schedule that includes Louisiana-Monroe, Eastern Kentucky, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
LSU: The Tigers have one of the conference's toughest schedules. They play Georgia and Florida from the East on consecutive Saturdays, and their West Division games against nationally ranked Ole Miss and Alabama are on the road.
And don't be surprised if Louisiana Tech causes problems for the Tigers, who will play the Bulldogs the Saturday between their games against Alabama and Ole Miss.
Mississippi State: When you look at the schedule, it's hard to imagine the Bulldogs winning a conference game. Playing at home won't help them against Florida, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss. And their easiest conference games - against Kentucky and Vanderbilt - are on the road. Also, they play Florida the week before Kentucky.
Ole Miss: What could be the Rebels' best team since the 1960s will be complemented by a favorable schedule. Their two biggest games - against Alabama and LSU - are at home. Moreover, they don't have to play Florida or Georgia from the West.
But the open date - the week after the season opener - is wasted.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks' schedule is usually weighted toward the back end. But the first two weeks of this schedule look just as daunting.
They will open against a solid N.C. State team on the road. Then, they will play Georgia in Athens.
You can imagine what an 0-2 start would do for the confidence of a team that enters the season with three consecutive losses, all by wide margins.
Tennessee: No one would want the Vols' schedule if it were competing for a conference championship. But for a team trying to have a winning season, there's an advantage in playing its three highest ranked opponents - Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss - on the road.
It's highly unlikely that a home-field advantage could tilt those games in UT's favor. But the Neyland Stadium crowd could make the difference in games against Auburn, Georgia and South Carolina.
UT's open date - smackdab in the middle of the season - is well placed. After back-to-back games against Auburn and Georgia, a team whose depth of talent is questionable could use an open date before playing Alabama and South Carolina on consecutive Saturdays.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores have the misfortune of having to play LSU and Ole Miss from the West. They also might be at a disadvantage against Kentucky, the team they likely will have to beat to avoid a last-place finish in the division.
The Commodores will play South Carolina, Georgia Tech and Florida before Kentucky. The Wildcats will play Louisiana-Monroe, Mississippi State and Eastern Kentucky leading up to Vanderbilt.
And how about the Commodores' open date? It's in week 13, the week before the SEC championship game.
Just in the nick of time, huh?
Sports editor John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or firstname.lastname@example.org.