The Southeastern Conference football season starts just 20 days from now – and like you, I can’t wait! The SEC has dominated college football of late like few conferences ever have, winning the last six national titles, and LSU and Alabama promise to give the league a pair of horses in this year’s race once again.
Today, I’m going to look at five early-season games involving SEC teams that may give us an early clue as to how the season might develop – and I won’t be looking just at the teams expected to compete for conference or national titles. Also, I’m defining “early season” as the first three weeks of the schedule.
Anyway, without further adieu, here are five games that you should watch, ranked by order of importance:
1. Alabama vs. Michigan, Sept. 1
You also have to admire both schools for playing this game because so much is at stake; it’s rare in this era of college football to see two super-heavyweights square off in an out-of-conference game. That moves this game to the top of the list.
There’s so much to see in this matchup. Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson has a great case as America’s best player if he can restore his passing accuracy to its 2010 level. Year-in and year-out. Alabama’s defense is the best in the country, but the Crimson Tide lost seven starters from last season’s dominating unit. Coach Nick Saban has recruited elite talent to replace them, but will those youngsters be ready for Week 1 in Dallas? The winner of this game has a good case for the No. 1 ranking going into Week 2.
2. Alabama at Arkansas, Sept. 15
The Razorbacks weren’t much of a match for Alabama when the teams played last year, but this time they get the ‘Tide on their own turf. They’ll have a pair of tune-up games in Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe to prepare for the ‘Tide and should be well-rested. Arkansas is a preseason Top 10 team according to some, but it did lose coach Bobby Petrino, who’s an offensive genius.
‘Bama needs a win to aid its national title hopes, and while this isn’t a must-win for the Razorbacks, a victory here would be enormous for a program still dealing with the shock of losing its coach. It would also anoint the Razorbacks as a player for the SEC West title, especially since LSU has to visit Fayetteville in the season’s last game.
3. Georgia at Missouri, Sept. 8
Georgia’s defense will still be reeling from the suspension of several key defensive players, especially in the secondary. Missouri’s offense returns dynamic quarterback James Franklin and adds the nation’s best recruit in receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. However, Missouri lost a lot of its offensive line from a year ago and has had more injuries there in practice, and it will be facing a Georgia defensive front seven that is stocked with NFL talent.
Georgia has the talent to contend for a national title but needs to win this one to stay in the hunt. Missouri will be playing its first SEC game, and surely it is tired of hearing that “the Big 12 ain’t the SEC.” The game is in Columbia, making it all the more interesting.
4. Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 15
One of the league’s best rivalry game also involves what may be the two biggest mystery teams in the SEC. The Gators are always loaded with talent, but coach Will Muschamp did almost nothing with it in his first season a year ago. Was that a fluke, or have we just overrated Florida because it is… well, Florida.
Meanwhile, the Vols have tremendous talent on offense between quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Da’Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter. Bray and Hunter missed good portions of last season with injury and are back at full health, but Bray and Rogers have also been behavioral distractions. Are the Vols ready to break out, or will they self-destruct?
UT coach Derek Dooley probably needs eight wins to keep his job. Muschamp isn’t quite on the same hot seat, but eyebrows were definitely raised with last year’s seven-win season. The winner of this one gets a huge shot in the arm, while the loser probably won’t sleep as soundly that evening.
5. South Carolina at Vanderbilt, Aug. 30
Vanderbilt has upset ranked Carolina teams twice in the previous five seasons, and while the Commodores stunned the SEC with a six-win bowl season, the real shocker is that it could have easily been a couple wins better than that. VU returns 18 starters (including special teams) and if that’s enough to excite its fans, it also plays its first game in a renovated stadium. Las Vegas has anointed USC as a seven-point favorite, indicating that the ‘Dores have a fighting chance.
Carolina has won 20 games the last two years and has established itself as a team to take seriously in the East. But all eyes will be on All-American tailback Marcus Lattimore, who’s recovering from knee surgery. They’ll need him to return to form to achieve that level again. The Gamecocks would probably be happy to escape Nashville with a one-point win, especially if Lattimore looks like his old self.
Others to watch
Florida at Texas A&M, Sept. 8
Auburn at Mississippi State, Sept. 8
Tennessee vs. North Carolina State (in Atlanta), Aug. 31