The debut season for Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz got much more challenging when the Southeastern Conference adjusted its schedules this summer.
Missouri’s original cross-division opponents in its SEC schedule were Arkansas and Mississippi State, which both finished below .500 last season. But when the SEC switched to a format in which each team will play 10 conference games, Missouri discovered it also would be hosting No. 3 Alabama and visiting defending national champion LSU.
If that weren’t tough enough, the Alabama game also happen to mark the first game at Missouri for Drinkwitz, who spent last season at Appalachian State.
“It’s a great challenge for our players and our team,” Drinkwitz said. “We accept that challenge. I chose to coach at Mizzou because I wanted to coach against the best and challenge myself against the best. And our players chose to play in the SEC and play at Mizzou because they wanted that same challenge.”
As part of the schedule changes brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, SEC teams are only playing conference opponents this year and have canceled their planned nonconference games. Missouri’s nonconference slate had included a trip to BYU and home games with Central Arkansas, Eastern Michigan and Louisiana-Lafayette.
Now five of Missouri’s first seven games are against Top 25 opponents: 3 Alabama, No. 25 Tennessee, No. 6 LSU, No. 8 Florida and No. 4 Georgia.
Drinkwitz noted that playing all conference games made any potential schedule a major challenge. If Missouri hadn’t been assigned to play LSU and Alabama in the Western Division, it would have instead faced two of the following three teams: No. 11 Auburn, No. 13 Texas A&M and Mississippi.
“The other three options are pretty stinking good football teams too,” Drinkwitz said. “It ain’t like you’re going to dodge somebody.”
While the SEC switched to a 10-game schedule that includes only conference opponents, the Atlantic Coast Conference has an 11-game slate that includes 10 conference matchups and one nonconference game.
Missouri is one of several schools facing much tougher assignments under this new format. But a few teams also may have caught a break with the change in schedule formats.
Here’s a look at some teams whose schedules were clearly impacted, for better or worse.
Arkansas has gone winless in SEC competition each of the last two years and found out last month that it would now be facing Georgia and Florida - the two highest-ranked Eastern Division teams. That marks Arkansas’ schedule undeniably tougher even though its Sept. 12 trip to No. 10 Notre Dame was canceled.
The Wildcats’ schedule got much tougher last month when they added a road date with Alabama as well as a home game with Ole Miss. Kentucky won’t play Louisville due to the SEC-only schedule, but its other three nonconference games would have been against Group of Five or Football Championship Subdivision programs: Eastern Michigan, Kent State and Eastern Illinois.
This is the rare SEC team whose schedule might have gotten a tad easier by playing a conference-only slate. The SEC opponents added to LSU’s schedule last month were Missouri (6-6 last season) and Vanderbilt (3-9). LSU had to drop a scheduled home date with No. 14 Texas, though its other nonconference games would have been lackluster matchups with Rice, Nicholls and Texas-San Antonio.
The 18th-ranked Tar Heels added a home date with No. 10 Notre Dame, but their schedule on balance might be easier than before. That’s because they scrapped a trip to No. 21 Central Florida and a matchup with Auburn in Atlanta.
The Fighting Irish dropped their independent status for a year and will play only ACC teams. Notre Dame has a home game with top-ranked Clemson, but that already was on the schedule before the pandemic. The Irish lose dates with No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 17 Southern California but add a ranked foe with a trip to North Carolina. Without the Wisconsin and USC games, Notre Dame’s schedule looks a tad weaker.
The Aggies had two Top 25 opponents added to their schedule when they drew No. 8 Florida and No. 25 Tennessee as cross-divisional foes. Playing only conference opponents strengthens Texas A&M’s schedule because its planned nonconference foes weren’t imposing. The Aggies called off nonconference home games with Colorado, North Texas, Abilene Christian and Fresno State.
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