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Which SEC East teams have the easiest path to Atlanta?

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An unusually balanced cross-division schedule means almost every team has a tough but fair draw this season.

Tennessee v Florida Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

This exercise is never an exact science. Last year we thought Georgia would have the most difficult path to Atlanta because they had to face Alabama and Auburn, and while the Tide held up their end of the bargain the Tigers finished last in the SEC West. Meanwhile the most difficult path may have ultimately belonged to Florida (Ole Miss, at LSU), but it didn't stop the Gators from winning the division.

This year we're making a couple of assumptions about the quality of the West. Using SB Nation's composite way-too-early Top 25 and projected S&P+, we put the West opponents into four tiers:

  • Alabama & LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • Arkansas
  • Auburn, Mississippi State, and Texas A&M

There's not much separation between the top and the bottom. And because six SEC East teams face one of Alabama, LSU, and Ole Miss but no one faces two of them? There may not be much separation in the East either.

This means the easiest path appears to belong to South Carolina, who is at Mississippi State and home against Texas A&M in cross-division games. The Gamecocks get playoff favorite Clemson as usual, so they certainly don't have to apologize about their schedule in general. But in the SEC, should the Gamecocks catch relative fire and/or the division gets cannibalistic, Will Muschamp's crew could surprise on the strength of an easier path.

Kentucky goes to Tuscaloosa while Vanderbilt has their usual date with Ole Miss; I don't think anyone is picking them to break their Atlanta drought this season but they won't get any special favors either way.

Does Georgia have a slight advantage over Florida and Tennessee? The Dawgs are at Ole Miss and home against Auburn. Of course, the Vols and Gators get top-tier annual match-ups with Alabama and LSU. If Georgia does catch a break here, I'd put the emphasis on slight.

Your mileage may vary on who has the easiest path between the Vols and Gators. If you, like me, think LSU and Alabama are on mostly even playing ground, then Florida probably has the most difficult road to Atlanta. The Gators get LSU in Gainesville, but also have to go to Fayetteville in November (also, Missouri has the same two match-ups in different locations), meaning if the Vols find themselves in need of a Gator loss again there's more hope than usual in the season's final month. Tennessee, as you know, gets Texas A&M on the road and Alabama at home back-to-back immediately following vs Florida/at Georgia in the four week stretch that will define their season.

The story with the cross-divisional games this year from the East perspective is, outside South Carolina, there's really not a story. With no one catching two of the West's top three projected teams, we can thankfully avoid most conversations about fair and unfair. Whoever comes out of the East this fall will have earned it.