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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

Need to Know

The SEC Puts Its Best Foot Forward

There’s the perception, misguided or otherwise, that the SEC takes it easy in September: the conference is lumped in with the Big Ten, I suppose, when considering power leagues that opt not to take on significant chances outside of conference action. There are examples of this theory in 2011: merely on the first Saturday of the season, for example, Arkansas takes on Missouri State and Tennessee hosts Montana, though the Grizzlies shouldn’t be taken too lightly. At the same time, there are two non-conference games – again, on that first Saturday – that send two national power programs well outside their comfort zones, putting small holes in the thought that most SEC teams don’t do anything in September that might jeopardize those national title hopes in January.

Putting their best foot forward

Georgia, L.S.U., Mississippi, Alabama and Auburn Sept. 3, Sept. 10, Sept. 17 and Sept. 24

The Bulldogs will face Boise State in Atlanta on Sept. 3, in a game that might be played on a neutral site but will certainly have a pro-Georgia feel. L.S.U. heads to Arlington, Tex., for a date with Oregon, also on Sept. 3, with the winner gaining a huge boost in the early national title race. Those two games, both coming on the first Saturday of the season, are the defining moments of the early 2011 season – in and out of the SEC.

Those two teams aren’t the only pair deserving of our respect for scheduling tough outside of conference play. There’s Mississippi, which opens its season with a home date with B.Y.U.; both teams were disappointed by last year’s results, making the season opener key for hopes of a rapid improvement. Alabama completes its home-and-home series with Penn State on the following Saturday, Sept. 10, with this affair taking place at Beaver Stadium.

Auburn does the same with Clemson on Sept. 17: national championship hopes were nearly derailed last September, when Auburn needed a handful of special teams gaffes from those other Tigers to escape with a three-point win. Both teams have holes to fill; Auburn, which lost 35 scholarship players off last year’s team, might have more to overcome. Which brings us back to L.S.U.: not only do the Tigers have Oregon on the schedule but also West Virginia, in a rematch of last year’s victory – this time, in Morgantown.

Easiest non-conference schedule

Kentucky Western Kentucky in Nashville; Central Michigan, Louisville and Jacksonville State at home.

That neutral-site date with the Hilltoppers will be decidedly pro-Kentucky, though W.K.U. should bring a nice contingent to Music City. The Wildcats shouldn’t have any issue with Central Michigan and Jacksonville State at home, though Louisville, quickly turning a corner under Charlie Strong, will provide a serious test.

Easiest conference schedule

Georgia South Carolina, Mississippi State, Auburn and Kentucky at home; Florida in Jacksonville; Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt on the road.

There’s no such thing as an easy SEC schedule, though one might be easier – not easy, but easier – than another. Case in point: Georgia, which again plays only three true road games, thanks to the World’s Largest Cocktail Party, and has the good fortune of facing its prime SEC East competition at home. The Bulldogs host South Carolina on Sept. 10, one weekend after Boise State; yes, it’s a tough start, but one with great potential – if Georgia goes 2-0, it will be firmly among the top five teams in the country.

The road games aren’t daunting: there’s Florida in Jacksonville, for starters, and Mississippi, Tennessee and Vanderbilt in true road tests. The Bulldogs get the Gamecocks, Mississippi State, Auburn and Kentucky at home; those first three teams, one could say, are the three best on Georgia’s schedule.

Best rivalry weekend

Nov. 26 Alabama at Auburn, Tennessee at Kentucky, Mississippi at Mississippi State, Florida State at Florida, Georgia at Georgia Tech and Clemson at South Carolina.

As always, the SEC closes with a bang. We have the Iron Bowl, which might see a role reversal in 2011: Alabama looking for a spot in the SEC title game, Auburn playing the role of spoiler. There’s Kentucky looking to snap a generation-long skid against the Volunteers. There’s the Egg Bowl, with Mississippi State fully on the upswing and Mississippi hoping to return to bowl play after a one-year absence.

Then there are three non-conference rivalry games, with none standing out more than Florida and Florida State. The Gators should have fully embraced and acknowledged Will Muschamp’s coaching philosophy by this point – hopefully. The Seminoles may very well be undefeated heading into the regular season finale, which should something about the progress the program has made under Jimbo Fisher.

Best conference weekend of the year

Oct. 8 Vanderbilt at Alabama, Auburn at Arkansas, Florida at L.S.U., Georgia at Tennessee and Kentucky at South Carolina.

There are only a handful of weekends this fall with at least five conference games, so this Saturday, Oct. 8, almost wins by default. Not that it’s a poor slate by any stretch: Auburn will again try to outscore Arkansas, this time in Fayetteville; while Florida heads to L.S.U.; Georgia to Tennessee; and Kentucky to South Carolina, looking to knock off the Gamecocks for the second consecutive season.

Conference game of the year, as of today

SEC East, South Carolina at Georgia; SEC West, L.S.U. at Alabama Sept. 10 and Nov. 5

Two for the price of one. I know the first game is early, but it trumps either team’s tussle with Florida – South Carolina will be the East division favorites and Georgia vastly improved.

As for the West, one could also make the case for games between Alabama and Auburn – obviously – or Alabama and Arkansas, L.S.U. and Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi State and so on. Yet again, the SEC West is going to be deadly.

One interesting note

Mississippi State

Memphis, which hosts Mississippi State in the season opener, has plenty of time to prepare for the Bulldogs; the remaining 11 teams on M.S.U.’s schedule don’t, however. Not one of those 11 teams has a bye in the week leading up to its game against the Bulldogs, which should give Dan Mullen’s team a nice leg up. Of course, Mississippi State has only one bye of its own on the year – the weekend of Oct. 22 – which somewhat places the Bulldogs in the same boat. Still, that’s one advantage to consider.

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