With spring practice behind us for all 14 SEC teams, it’s time to start breaking down the schedules for next fall and assess who has the toughest paths and who has the easiest paths to a successful 2012 season.
We’ll start with defending national champion Alabama:
Nonconference opponents (with 2011 records)
Sept. 1: vs. Michigan (11-2), in Arlington, Texas
Sept. 8: Western Kentucky (7-5)
Sept. 22: Florida Atlantic (1-11)
Nov. 17: Western Carolina (1-10)
SEC home games
Sept. 29: Ole Miss
Oct. 27: Mississippi State
Nov. 10: Texas A&M
Nov. 24: Auburn
SEC road games
Sept. 15: at Arkansas
Oct. 13: at Missouri
Oct. 20: at Tennessee
Nov. 3: at LSU
Gut-check time: There are two obvious choices -- at Arkansas the third week of the season and at LSU the first Saturday in November. Taking down the Hogs in Fayetteville will be a chore. The Crimson Tide just barely escaped there two years ago and will once again be breaking in some new faces in the secondary against a quarterback, Tyler Wilson, who's one of the best passers in the country. As tough as that game will be, the trip to LSU will be even more daunting. The Tigers are still hurting from that beating they took in the Superdome in January and may have an even better defense in 2012. Plus, it's going to be a night game. Tiger Stadium at night is never a good combination for the visiting team.
Trap game: If Tennessee has everybody healthy, the Vols have the passing game to give the Crimson Tide trouble on Oct. 20 in Neyland Stadium. It also will be Alabama's second straight road game after traveling to Columbia, Mo., the week before to face Missouri.
Snoozer: Take your pick. The Sept. 22 tilt against Florida Atlantic qualifies as does the Nov. 17 date with FCS foe Western Carolina. Between them, Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina won two games last season.
Telltale stretch: Alabama faces three road tests in a four-week stretch beginning with Missouri on Oct. 13 in Columbia, Mo. A trip to Tennessee follows the next week and then it's back home to face Mississippi State on Oct. 27. You can bet that the Crimson Tide will get all three teams' best shots, which will make that trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU on Nov. 3 all the more difficult.
Final analysis: The opener against Michigan will be a test, and chasing down Denard Robinson is never a lot of fun for any defense. Other than the Wolverines, though, the Crimson Tide's nonconference schedule is about as cushy as it gets. Only once all season does Alabama have to go on the road in back-to-back weeks (Missouri on Oct. 13 and Tennessee on Oct. 20), and four of the Tide's last five games are at home. It also helps that Alabama avoids both Georgia and South Carolina in the Eastern Division. The bye week comes at a good time, just prior to the Missouri and Tennessee road trips, so the Tide should be rested. Granted, there are big shoes to fill on defense, and inexperience could be a problem early. But if Alabama gets past that Michigan opener and then the trip to Arkansas two weeks later unscathed, the Tide will be right there in the middle of yet another national championship chase and will likely roll into Baton Rouge on Nov. 3 unbeaten.