<
>
Insider

Teams facing tough early schedules

Bo Wallace and Ole Miss will face Texas, Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M and LSU by the end of October. Fred Brooks/Icon SMI

Hugh Freeze made ripples when he took Ole Miss to, and won, a bowl game in his first season. He made a splash when the Rebels signed a top-10 recruiting class that included the nation's No. 1 prospect, Robert Nkemdiche.

But let's be honest for a second; a strong start in 2013 would be nothing short of a cannonball. Ole Miss, with a most unenviable first half of the season, leads off our teams with brutal early schedules.

The Rebels -- who return every starter on defense and nine of 11 on offense -- might very well be improved on top of last year's improvement, but the schedule could be prohibitive in making that apparent.

This five-game stretch is the meat of what makes it so difficult:

Sept. 14 at Texas

Sept. 28 at Alabama

Oct. 5 at Auburn

Oct. 12 vs. Texas A&M

Oct. 19 vs. LSU

And the opener, a Thursday night ESPN game at Vanderbilt, will not be what it was, oh, 10 or 15 years ago. The Commodores won nine games this past season, including a 27-26 victory in Oxford on Nov. 10. A 26-yard score in the final minute gave the 'Dores bowl eligibility for the second consecutive season under James Franklin, another Freeze-like upstart in the league.

The real question is how the Rebels' offense will hold up over that stretch.

Kevin Sumlin and Kliff Kingsbury's system at A&M got all the pub, and rightfully so, but Freeze was bringing up-tempo to the South as well. Sure enough, Ole Miss was second in the SEC to the Aggies in offensive plays (962, to A&M's breakneck 1,025; Georgia was third, at 924). But the Rebs' yards per play -- 5.73, seventh in the conference -- did not match the league's elite offenses, even with the hurry-up.

So how will quarterback Bo Wallace and his teammates navigate those five games? Will they appear gassed by the time they reach Mark Snyder and John Chavis' defenses at the end of it?

More importantly for Ole Miss, what condition will the team be left in for the final stretch of 50-50-type games? The Rebels will need to find a few wins against Idaho, Arkansas, Troy, Missouri and rival Mississippi State if they are to sustain any of the momentum earned in 2012 and Signing Day.

Here are a few other teams with daunting pre-November schedules:


Arizona State Sun Devils

Notable tests: Sept. 14 vs. Wisconsin, Sept. 21 at Stanford, Sept. 28 vs. USC, Oct. 5 vs. Notre Dame

There is some promise for the Sun Devils entering Todd Graham's second season. Imposing defensive tackle Will Sutton's decision to return for his fifth season was a big, and somewhat surprising, boost. Second-year starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, who completed 67 percent of his passes and was plus-20 in TDs-to-INTs, is also back.

Anyone who saw the 62-28 bowl manhandling of Navy knows ASU is certainly capable.
"We're not going to sneak up on anybody," Graham told our Pac-12 reporter, Ted Miller, last week. "People are expecting us to be a darn good football team. So how do you handle success?"

For starters, you adequately manage the first part of the schedule, beginning with last season's Rose Bowl teams -- meaning two conference champs -- in consecutive weeks. Adding a neutral-site game against last year's national runner-up is another chore.

If the Devils intend to be this year's UCLA, an upstart in the South Division, they're going to have to earn it. Winning two of those four would be solid. Three would be outstanding.


California Golden Bears

Notable tests: Aug. 31 vs. Northwestern, Sept. 14 vs. Ohio State, Sept. 28 at Oregon

Playing Northwestern or Ohio State would be ambitious for Cal, but both? In particular, this is not the season to catch the national-title-intent Buckeyes, even if the game is in Berkeley.

The good news if you're a Bears fan is that at least Sonny Dykes and his wide-open offense should produce points that could make for competitive games regardless of the opponent's skill level.

As I wrote earlier in the week, the winner of the three-way quarterback battle between freshmen Jared Goff and Zach Kline and junior Austin Hinder will put up big numbers. Dykes' quarterback last season at Louisiana Tech was seventh in the country in yards (4,147) and tied for 12th with 31 touchdowns.

Even with the previous regime, recall that Cal gave OSU all it wanted last season in the Horseshoe. The Buckeyes needed a long, late score to survive on the way to their undefeated season. An upset against any of those three teams would sound an alarm that Dykes' program is dangerous and a sleeping giant is being stirred.


Georgia Bulldogs

Notable tests: Aug. 31 at Clemson, Sept. 7 vs. South Carolina, Sept. 28 vs. LSU, Oct. 5 at Tennessee

The Bulldogs' schedule was meek enough the past two years to draw the ire of division rival Steve Spurrier, who suggested at the conference's media days that he would like to trade LSU for Ole Miss on his schedule. Georgia avoided Alabama and LSU each of the past two seasons, and it helped the program win the division both years.

Spurrier might want a mulligan on the part about the Rebels, but he can gloat in the what-goes-around-comes-around quality for Georgia's 2013 schedule relative to his. The Bulldogs draw LSU in 2012 and add the Gamecocks' chief rival, Clemson. You know Death Valley will be raucous for the schools' first meeting in a decade, despite the fact they are separated by just 80 miles.

Will one of the team's conference -- or maybe national -- title chances take a hit the opening weekend, or is it early enough to withstand a Labor Day loss?

Spurrier backed up the talk a year ago with a 35-7 rout of the Bulldogs. This time the game is back in its traditional Week 2 slot, and it's in Athens. Winner goes to the Georgia Dome?


Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notable tests: Sept. 7 at Michigan, Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State, Oct. 19 vs. USC

Stop us if you have heard this one before: It's another schedule that sets up poorly for the Irish. That did not seem to be an issue last year -- at least before the team arrived in the title game and met up with Alabama.

Was Notre Dame's success a one-hit wonder? Is it again for real? This season's slate, which picks up a neutral-site game against Arizona State in Dallas, could determine just how "back" Notre Dame actually is.

Coaches I was around last fall thought the future was bright for quarterback Everett Golson and running back George Atkinson III. They marveled at their speed and athleticism. How much they grow, and how much the offense produces, could be the measuring stick for the Irish.

Given how many close games Notre Dame was in last year, it's difficult to imagine it being any different with the above teams before November. It's also difficult to imagine it escaping all five of those listed matchups.


Tennessee Volunteers

Notable tests: Sept. 14 at Oregon, Sept. 21 at Florida, Oct. 5 vs. Georgia, Oct. 19 vs. South Carolina, Oct. 26 at Alabama

Welcome to the SEC, Butch Jones. Athletic director Dave Hart told me in February that one reason he hired Jones from Cincinnati was his track record of winning wherever he had been. He's going to have a difficult time winning in Year 1, if for no other reason than the difficulty of the middle of the schedule.

Jones told reporters just Saturday that the Volunteers will have a narrow margin of error to win games. That's something Will Muschamp said this past season. But Muschamp had a lot more to work with at Florida, particularly on defense. The Tennessee offensive line is seasoned, and the team's linebackers have some experience, but there a number of raw spots on both sides of the ball -- including quarterback.

Hart reminded me that Derek Dooley often had his teams in games against better opponents -- Georgia and South Carolina in 2012 come to mind -- but Hart said he would like to see the Vols begin to break through in those games. Will fans have to wait, though, until 2014 for that?

The five games above -- what could be five top-10 teams in 42 days -- seem like tasks that are too big this early.