Yesterday, I took a closer look at the Southeastern Conference’s out-of-conference schedule and pegged the top 10 most interesting games this fall. Today, I’ll do the same within the conference slate, ranking the games in order starting with the most appealing.
1. Alabama at Texas A&M (Sept. 14)
After A&M handed ‘Bama its only loss of the season (in Tuscaloosa, no less), this was the runaway choice for the most-anticipated regular-season game in the conference, if not the country. It’ll be A&M’s first real test after opening with Rice and Sam Houston State, and as for the Crimson Tide, perhaps they felt they needed two weeks to prepare for Johnny Manziel, since they’ve got an open date the week preceding.
And speaking of Johnny Football, the million-dollar question this season is whether teams will be more prepared for him than they were a year ago. My opinion of this question is that it’s somewhat a silly one — do people really think that defensive coordinators didn’t figure out that Manziel was a pretty good player after three or four weeks, and prepare accordingly then? — but perhaps some coach somewhere can glean a small thing or two with eight months to sit and watch tape. In any case, if Alabama can’t figure it out after an off-week on top of that, it’s going to be a really long year for each of A&M’s opponents.
As far as Alabama is concerned, the Aggies present the toughest obstacle between the ‘Tide and what should be another appearance in the SEC title game.
In summary, you’ll have the nation’s best defense vs. the nation’s best offensive player, with the winner likely capturing the SEC West crown, with the game taking place in College Station. It’s hard to beat that.
2. South Carolina at Georgia (Sept. 7)
This was an easy pick at No. 2 — or at least it’s an easy pick if you’re with me that Georgia and Carolina are the best two teams in the East. It’s a shame that this game is so early — I’d really like to see these guys go head-to-head after Georgia’s had a few weeks to break in a bunch of new starters on defense — but it’ll be a winner anyway. Besides that, Carolina will have some questions, too — for instance, can it find an answer at running back, or replace a depleted linebacker corps?
But enough about what this game isn’t — hey, we get to see Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and Aaron Murray go against Jadeveon Clowney, and that’s pretty special as-is. Georgia will also have a measure of revenge on its mind after getting throttled, 35-7, by the Gamecocks a year ago.
3. Florida at South Carolina (Nov. 16)
The pecking order gets tougher from here, but I settled on this game for a number of reasons. First of all, the Gamecocks got undressed by UF in Gainesville by a 44-11 count in a really strange game (Carolina out-gained Florida, 191-183) , so they probably haven’t forgotten that. Second, it’s Steve Spurrier vs. his alma mater. Third, it’s two teams that love to play physical, run-oriented football, so it’ll be interesting to see who’s better at it. Finally, the East is up for grabs — Georgia, Carolina and Florida should all be factors at the top, and this game should help determine who’s standing at the end.
4. Florida at LSU (Oct. 12)
Back to the Gators for a minute: I’m still not sold on the way that coach Will Muschamp wants to play football. This is the age of the pass, and it’s really difficult to win 11 games the way the Gators did while being so inept through the air. So, any remotely competitive game involving the Gators is an interesting one to me, because I’m still not sure what to make of them.
Which brings me to the other team I’m having a really hard time getting a handle on: LSU. Like the Gators, there’s a lot of talent, but as I mentioned yesterday, coach Les Miles lost an ton on the defensive side. Opinions on Miles’ fitness for the job are about as varied as you’ll find on any coach anywhere, making the Tigers (at least in my mind) a mystery team also.
So, I’m interested if for no other reason than this game might shed some light on where each team’s season is headed. But at the same time, both have recruited at high levels and there will be a lot of talent on the field, making it a good game to watch for that reason, too.
5. Texas A&M at LSU (Nov. 23)
When A&M joined the league, it meant splitting away from old rivals like Texas and forming new ones. On the other side, LSU hasn’t truly had a natural rival within the league since Tulane left the SEC about 50 years ago. Given that LSU is the closest SEC school to A&M, that the schools recruit a lot of the same area, and that they’re both in the West… well, you see where I’m going. And actually, the schools both did once have a rivalry, having played exactly 50 times before last year’s tilt (which LSU won, 24-19). Just in case Alabama stumps its toe, this game could have an impact on who wins the West.
Another reason to like the game: all those young LSU defenders will have a good bit of experience under their belt by this point, meaning it should be an optimal time for the teams to play, barring key injuries on both sides.
6. LSU at Alabama (Nov. 9)
Speaking of LSU, Alabama and rivalries, this series has sure heated up the last couple of years with all the games between these schools that had national title implications. But what I really like about this series is the craziness of it: there’s still bad blood on the LSU side since Nick Saban used to coach there, and the fact that the road team wins a disproportionate number of times (23 of the last 32 games, with one tie). This game would rank higher if I thought LSU had a better shot, but given the series history… well, who knows?
7. Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville, Nov 2)
“The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” has had some hum-dingers over the years, from “Run, Lindsay, run!” in 1980 to the “Gator Stomp” in 2007 (which resulted in Florida’s Urban Meyer calling two timeouts in the final minutes of UF’s 49-10 victory the next year) to a ton of games that had an impact on the SEC East standings. One of those came last year when the Bulldogs’ 17-9 win kept UF out of the SEC title game, and probably out of the national title contest, too. This could be another classic.
8. Ole Miss at Vanderbilt (Aug. 31)
Okay, this one probably hit you out of the blue, but there are two criteria that determine where I rank games on this list: the competitiveness of the game itself, and the impact the contest will have on the SEC standings. As to the first, this should be one of the more evenly-matched games in the league all season. As to the second, while I’m not predicting either to win its respective division, both programs have risen enough where they could play spoiler, and who knows, even take second or third within their respective divisions if everything broke right.
This game also gets a little more interesting because, as these teams have been paired with each other as an annual East-West matchup, a little rivalry has been brewing. What’s fueled it even more is the fact that the Commodores have dominated the recent series, winning five of the last six match-ups with two of the last three coming rather easily.
Ah, but the one that didn’t come easily was last year in Oxford, where the Rebels led by 17 in the second half before VU capped a comeback with less than a minute to play to win, 27-26. That game should be a harbinger of what’s to come this time around.
9. Vanderbilt at South Carolina (Sept. 14)
Speaking of mini-rivalries, the Commodores and the Gamecocks have carved out a nice little one over the past half-decade or so. It started when VU upset a top-10 USC squad in 2007 and followed that up with a victory over another ranked Carolina team the following year. Vandy hasn’t won since, but has been competitive, and came oh-so-close in a 17-13 loss last year that partially hinged on a pass interference no-call that thwarted a late VU drive.
Between the recent, competitive series history and the fact that the teams should be stout defensively again this year, this could be another one that goes down to the wire.
10. Texas A&M at Ole Miss (Oct. 12)
Coach Hugh Freeze’s debut season was outstanding, but what haunted the Rebels was those “what-if” moments. Before the Vandy heartbreak, there was the A&M game, during which the Rebels led 27-17 midway through the fourth quarter and lost. The Rebels get another shot — again, on their home field — and could be in position to finally pull the upset they couldn’t get a year ago.