A few weeks before the new college football season, every fan base is optimistic and looking ahead to the potential defining wins — that’s why we’ve run columns on the games each program would most love to win. But what about the other side of the coin? Few are thinking about the games that could cause their teams to plummet and coaches to hit the hot seat. But we are — and here’s the game each SEC team can least afford to lose.

Alabama: Auburn

Sure, it didn’t exactly hurt them much last year, but losing back-to-back Iron Bowls, which would also make it 3-3 in the past six games in the series … it might have people thinking Nick Saban is human.

Arkansas: Ole Miss (at Little Rock)

This game matters for several reasons. First, it’ll be one of Arkansas’s best shots at picking up an SEC win. Second, with games in Little Rock under some minor fire, a bad loss might doom the future of games in the city. Third, the games in this series have been wild.

Auburn: LSU

LSU has won 3 of the past 5 in this series, and looked for an instant to have won the fourth on the out-of-time pass that sealed Les Miles’s fate. Interestingly, Auburn has lost this game each of the past two times it won the West (2013 and 2017). Ideally, Auburn can make it a little easier on itself by handling LSU.

Florida: Kentucky

Death, taxes, and Florida beating Kentucky. Sure, this Dan Mullen squad probably isn’t the one to bring UF back to national prominence. But if they want to be taken seriously, Florida can’t let Kentucky end a 31-year losing streak in the series, particularly in The Swamp.

Georgia: Florida

The East belongs to Georgia until and unless somebody else steps up. South Carolina, Kentucky and Mizzou don’t look like real threats, which leaves us with the Gators. The embarrassing 2015 loss that sealed Mark Richt’s fate was the kind of game that sunk a season and a coaching career. Of course, the same could be said of UGA’s 42-7 beatdown of Florida last year.

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Kentucky: Central Michigan

UK has a habit of playing down to nonconference opponents, particularly early in the season. Consider that UK has opened the past three seasons beating Louisiana-Lafayette by a touchdown, losing to Southern Miss, and beating Southern Miss by a touchdown. For a team with five road games, a nonconference home opener is an absolute must-win for UK.

LSU: at Florida

The Gators have lost 4 of the past 5 in this series, and their one win was a near-miraculous goal line stand. If LSU hopes to remain in the upper echelon of the West, it has to handle the East, and UF looks much more beatable than UGA.

Mississippi State: at Kansas State

Sure, this isn’t a conference game, so the Bulldogs could lose this game and still show well in the West. But given the way State’s schedule shakes up, surviving K-State could launch them to a big, big start, which probably matters more than anything else in Joe Moorhead’s first year … well, anything short of SEC titles and CFP spots, but there’s probably still a ways to go to reach there.

Missouri: Memphis

The front end of Missouri’s schedule is harsh, and if the Tigers can’t hold off Memphis, then the fact that the back end of the schedule is light might not matter. If Mizzou is 2-5 or 3-4 after this game, it doesn’t bode well for their season, and with Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama coming up before this game, it’s pivotal.

Ole Miss: Texas Tech

Sure, again, a nonconference game doesn’t make any difference in the SEC race … but it does make a difference in the public perception of the Matt Luke era. If the Rebels get blasted in Week 1, this could be a long, long season. Their SEC schedule is brutal.

South Carolina: Missouri

If Carolina wants to hold on to the second spot in the East, they have to hold their own against their nearest challengers — Florida, Kentucky and Missouri. Florida and UK are road games, but Missouri is a home game and thus pretty near a must-win, if USC wants to be more than a 6-6 type team.

Tennessee: at Vanderbilt

UT has a losing streak to every SEC opponent. The front half of its SEC schedule is challenging, and one game they can’t lose is a third consecutive to Vandy. This could be the defining game for a bowl season, and the fan base could be inconsolable with another loss in this series.

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Texas A&M: at South Carolina

First, for all his troubles, Kevin Sumlin was 4-0 against the Gamecocks at A&M. Second, it’s by far the easiest road game on A&M’s schedule, and if they want to make any waves in the West, it’s a must-win.

Vanderbilt: Middle Tennessee

Vandy can’t face the possibility of going from the best team in the state in 2013 to possibly the fourth-best team in 2018. But with UT on the rise, Memphis a solid bowl team, and MTSU having a dangerous passing game, this is just a game that Derek Mason has to win.