<
>

Toughest stretch: Georgia Bulldogs

The SEC doesn't shy away from calling itself the toughest conference in which to play in all the land. There's a lot of bravado in the SEC, but it's hard to ignore how tough of a league it is.

Calling it the best isn't a stretch by any means, and the fact that it's produced eight of the last 10 national champions is nothing to ignore.

That brings us to scheduling talk and a look at the toughest three- or four-game stretches for all 14 teams. We now look at a Georgia program that is starting fresh with new head coach Kirby Smart.

GEORGIA

Toughest stretch: Sept. 17-Oct. 1 (at Missouri, at Ole Miss, vs. Tennessee)

Why: None of these games look like much fun for Smart’s team. The good news is that the Bulldogs will have already played twice -- enabling offensive coordinator Jim Chaney to figure things out to some degree with his quarterbacks -- before hitting the road for the first time when they visit Missouri. The bad news is that if Brice Ramsey or Jacob Eason wins the starting job, Georgia’s quarterback will be making his first road start against what should be a tough Mizzou defense.

Playing quarterback effectively on the road is difficult enough. Add in that it’s a quarterback’s potential road debut and that guys like Charles Harris, Terry Beckner Jr., Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta will be coming after the Georgia quarterback and it becomes a true concern. Missouri certainly has a lot to prove on offense after a disastrous 2015 season, but its talent in the defensive front seven and Georgia’s own offensive questions make this a daunting trip.

Even more daunting is that Georgia will be on the road again the very next week, this time traveling to Ole Miss, one of two SEC programs to have appeared in New Year’s Six bowls in both years the College Football Playoff has been in existence (the other is Alabama). The Bulldogs will play a couple of tough games away from Athens this season, but this one might be the biggest challenge. Led by star quarterback Chad Kelly, the Rebels have some key weapons returning from last season’s potent offense, and they have generally been tough to beat at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (17-4 the last three years, including wins over three top-10 teams) under Hugh Freeze. It will help Georgia that, as big as the trip to Mizzou will be for the Bulldogs, Ole Miss’ game the previous Saturday will be even bigger. The Rebels will attempt to stretch their winning streak against division rival Alabama to three games when the Crimson Tide visits Sept. 17.

Georgia concludes the brutal three weeks with what could become its biggest division game of the season. Tennessee will visit Sanford Stadium on Oct. 1 with its sights set on winning its first SEC East title since 2007. Butch Jones’ team has recruited extremely well in recent years, and the Volunteers seem to be loaded across the board with a veteran starting quarterback (Josh Dobbs), two solid running backs (Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara) and a defense that includes Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton. The Vols will have played defending Eastern Division champ Florida the previous week, so they too will be battle tested by this point. According to most prognosticators, Jones’ team will enter the season as the team to beat in the East. This early stretch will help establish an early pecking order within the division for 2016.