These 10 non-conference SEC football games will establish the conference’s identity in 2016. The league might actually have some problems outside of conference play this year – both early and late.
10. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 24
It’ll be spoiler time for the Gamecocks – they’re not going to be good enough in Will Muschamp’s first season for this to mean something truly big, and they won’t be bad enough to need this to get to a bowl. But going to Death Valley should be a fun, nothing-to-lose moment to potentially screw up the loaded Tigers.
9. Georgia vs. North Carolina (in Atlanta), Sept. 3
The pressure is on Kirby Smart to not only win, but win big to kick off the Georgia era with a major bang. North Carolina’s defense has plenty to prove after getting run over by Baylor in the bowl loss, and the offense has a lot to show without QB Marquise Williams around. The story, though, could be the debut of Georgia freshman QB Jacob Eason – this might be his coming out party.
8. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (in Bristol), Sept. 10
It’s the second straight no-win, could-lose game for Tennessee after starting out against Appalachian State. The Vols will have to deal with the quirky setup against Virginia Tech in the Battle at Bristol, but they’re supposed to roll without a problem. The Hokies will be going all out to make a statement in Justin Fuente’s first massive game – the hot seat might turn on if Butch Jones loses this.
7. Arkansas at TCU, Sept. 10
The two former Southwest Conference foes go at it for the first time since 1991. TCU gets a week to tune-up against South Dakota State, but the Hogs will have to deal with a possible shootout against Louisiana Tech to open the season. This is the one true road game for Bret Bielema’s club until October 22nd, and one of two until November 19th. This will be one of those battles conferences tend to care about.
6. UCLA at Texas A&M, Sept. 3
Texas A&M lost to the Bruins in the 1998 Cotton Bowl, but this time around the game should be even more important. After all the drama and after all the craziness of the Aggies’ recent history, coming up with a whomping of the Bruins would do wonders to get Kevin Sumlin off to a big start. Lose, and it’s uh-oh time with at Auburn, Arkansas, at South Carolina, Tennessee, and at Alabama coming up soon after.
5. Clemson at Auburn, Sept. 3
A relatively regular matchup – starting in 1902 – Auburn needs to kick off this season with a much better performance than it did in 2012, losing to the ACC’s Tigers in the 2012 opener. The SEC’s Tigers went 3-9 that year leading to a regime change. For those looking to push Gus Malzahn aside, a loss at home could be the first brick to pave the way.
4. Ole Miss vs. Florida State (in Orlando), Sept. 3
In 1961, Ole Miss started out the season with a nice 2-0 start, and then dominated an overmatched Florida State 33-0. That was the one and only time the two programs met, and this time around it’s a tone-setter for both the ACC and SEC. The Seminoles have to prove that they’re back on a national title track with a dominant opening weekend win on the national stage, but the Rebels might need this even more with Alabama and Georgia coming up later in September.
3. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 24
By this point, Year Two of the Jim McElwain era will be winding down – this will really and truly be his team when his Gators go to Tallahassee. After coming up with a brutal dud of a performance in last year’s 27-2 loss to the Seminoles, Florida needs to show that the gap isn’t widening. Florida State will be loaded and possibly looking for a CFP shot, but the Gator defense should keep this interesting. Can the offense show up this time around?
2. LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Green Bay), Sept. 3
3-0 all-time against the Badgers – the two teams met in back-to-back years in 1971 and 1972, and to start the 2014 season – LSU will be in for its most interesting test yet in the series. The date in Lambeau Field in Green Bay will be as unique and as intense as any “neutral” site game all year, with the Cheeseheads out in full-force. The Tigers should be ranked in the preseason top five – and maybe even No. 1 by some – and they’re going to be in for a fun fight against a great Wisconsin D. Former Badger defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is facing his old team in his first game with LSU.
1. Alabama vs. USC (in Arlington), Sept. 3
Alabama has been outstanding in season openers under Nick Saban, but 1997 against Florida State was the last time USC lost the first game of a season. Will the Crimson Tide quarterback situation be solid? Will the defense really have reloaded? Will the ground game be just fine without Derrick Henry and Kenyon Drake? Alabama always reloads in a hurry, but this is a really, really good Trojan team looking to come out roaring under Clay Helton. A win in Texas for USC would carry the Pac-12 street cred all season long.