Toughest stretch: LSU Tigers

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. Next up in the series are Les Miles and his LSU Tigers.


Toughest stretch: Oct. 22-Nov. 12 (vs. Ole Miss, vs. Alabama, at Arkansas)

Why: LSU’s schedule is no cakewalk -- facing Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn in September won’t be much fun -- but the make-or-break portion of the Tigers’ slate comes at the end of the season. That’s when they will face the three teams that derailed a promising 2015 campaign and nearly cost Miles his job.

A loss to Alabama sent LSU into a tailspin, where consecutive defeats against Arkansas and Ole Miss would follow. The Tigers will not face those three opponents in that order, or in consecutive weeks, again this year, but the importance of that stretch will be just as great.

The run starts when Ole Miss visits Tiger Stadium on Oct. 22. The Tigers and Rebels have split their last eight meetings, but LSU generally wins this game when it’s in Baton Rouge. Dating back to 2002, LSU is 6-1 at home against Ole Miss. However, the Tigers’ defense must do a much better job against Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly than it did in a 38-17 loss in Oxford last year. LSU had no answer for Kelly’s dual-threat skills, with him passing for 280 yards and two touchdowns and running for 81 yards and two more scores in the Rebels’ decisive victory.

After Ole Miss’ visit, the Tigers will get a valuable week off, allowing them to recover from eight consecutive weeks of action and prepare for the biggest game on the schedule: Alabama. Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide is also taking the weekend of Oct. 29 off as it pushes toward the Nov. 5 showdown at Tiger Stadium. Alabama has won five in a row in this series, but the meetings between these teams typically are close when they play in Baton Rouge. Since Miles became LSU’s coach in 2005, he is 2-3 against Alabama at Tiger Stadium and the games have been decided by an average of just 6.8 points. The Alabama game was the biggest game on LSU’s schedule even before the two teams met in the BCS title game at the end of the 2011 season, but it has taken on new meaning since the Tigers suffered their first loss of that season on the biggest stage. It’s the hurdle Miles has not been able to clear since then and many LSU fans believe the Tigers will not truly rank among the SEC’s elite again until they get the Alabama monkey off their back.

Once they get past those two games, the Tigers will wrap up this grueling stretch with a visit to Arkansas. It’s certainly possible that the Razorbacks will take a step backward this season after losing a number of key offensive players like quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins and tight end Hunter Henry. However, the Hogs typically give the Tigers all they can handle. Eight of the last 11 games in the series have been settled by eight points or less, and Arkansas has beaten LSU in each of the last two meetings. However, the Hogs will also enter this game with some level of mental and physical fatigue. Their four games leading up to the LSU game: Alabama, Ole Miss, at Auburn and Florida, with an open date Oct. 29, a week before the Gators visit Fayetteville.

LSU will enter the season as one of the nation’s highest-ranked teams -- the Tigers are No. 2 in ESPN’s preseason Football Power Index -- but the schedule will not do Miles’ club any favors. According to the FPI, six of the 10 most difficult schedules in the FBS come from the SEC West, with LSU’s ranking eighth nationally. This late stretch will be the toughest part of the schedule. Not only are these the games that knocked LSU out of the playoff picture in 2015, they also feature some of the Tigers’ toughest opponents of 2016.