LITTLE ROCK — Unintentionally, the architects of the Southeastern Conference’s 2013 football schedule built in some needed fan empathy for Arkansas’ new football coach.
In addition to the departure of virtually all of Arkansas’ proven playmakers on offense, John L. Smith’s successor will face one of the two most difficult schedules in the Western Division of the SEC.
The stand-alone schedule identifies South Carolina and Florida as the Razorbacks’ opponents from the Eastern Division. The Gamecocks and the Gators, plus Georgia, will be the favorites in the SEC East with quarterbacks Connor Shaw, Jeff Driskel and Aaron Murray.
LSU is the only other West team with games against two of the three favorites, Georgia and Florida.
Alabama, Ole Miss and Texas A&M do not play any of the favorites in the East, and the Crimson Tide might have the softest schedule of those three with Kentucky and Tennessee. Both the Rebels and the Aggies have Vanderbilt and Missouri.
Auburn has Georgia and Tennessee while Mississippi State has South Carolina and Kentucky.
Throw in trips to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge for SEC games and a journey to the Northeast for a non-conference game against Rutgers, and even Razorback fans wearing rose-colored glasses have to admit their first-year coach is in for a long year.
The SEC said in June that Missouri would replace South Carolina as Arkansas’ permanent rival from the Eastern Division and that the Gamecocks would serve the same role for A&M, but that didn’t happen. In fact, Mark Womack, the SEC’s executive associate commissioner, raised questions about the schedule for 2014 and beyond when he said Thursday that’s it possible those teams will be permanent opponents, "but not definite."
It is also intriguing that the SEC did not replace Arkansas-LSU on Thanksgiving weekend with A&M-LSU as had been mentioned. If Missouri does become Arkansas’ permanent opponent, the game could be at the end of the season, enabling the Aggies and Tigers to get together on the holiday weekend.
Retaining South Carolina means the Razorbacks will face Rutgers’ Gary Nova, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Driskel and Shaw on consecutive weekends before getting Alabama. Nova completed 25-of-35 for 397 yards in Fayetteville and Manziel recorded what was then an SEC record 557 yards total offense vs. the Razorbacks in College Station.
Ending a four-game run-up to the SEC opener with Rutgers is preferable to recent years when the Razorbacks played a couple of non-conference foes they were supposed to beat before jumping into the SEC vs. Alabama. Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide often had an early-season test — Michigan this year and Penn State in the two previous years.
The down side of opening with four non-conference games is that there is no soft spot in the schedule other than the Oct. 26 open date. Kentucky is the only other school that does not begin SEC play until the final playing date of September.
Responding to demand, the SEC configured the schedule in a way that provides television with an improved buffet of games, particularly in late November.
This year, as in other years, many SEC teams scheduled no-sweat non-conference games the week before season-ending games against traditional rivals. This year, Western Carolina, Alabama A&M, Jacksonville State, Georgia Southern, Samford, Wofford and Sam Houston State are ordered up for Nov. 17. Arkansas-Mississippi State is one of only three conference games on that date.
A year ago, the choices were so limited that CBS showed a good Arkansas team against a Mississippi State group that had to beat Ole Miss in the finale to get to 2-6 in the league. Next year, there are five league games on Nov. 23, including A&M at LSU.
Beginning Sept. 28, there are at least four conference games every week and six on three weekends.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.